Click to expand Image A police officer walks outside the offices of the National Institute for Transparency and Access to Information and Data Protection (INAI) in Mexico City, Mexico. © 2016 Archivo Agencia EL UNIVERSAL/RCC (GDA via AP Images)

(Washington, DC) – President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposal to eliminate the National Institute for Transparency and Access to Information and Data Protection (INAI) would be a major setback for human rights in Mexico, Human Rights Watch said today.

On January 7, 2021, President López Obrador announced a proposal to eliminate several autonomous government agencies, including the INAI, the independent body charged with guaranteeing data protection and access to public information in Mexico. The INAI has played an important role in ensuring that average Mexicans can protect their right to privacy and that journalists and human rights defenders can obtain the necessary information to document and expose human rights violations and corruption scandals. 

“The INAI has played a crucial role in protecting privacy and ensuring the public can access information about government corruption and human rights violations,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Shuttering this independent body and transferring its functions to entities that report to the executive or Congress is the perfect recipe for secrecy and abuse.”

The INAI has the power to require public bodies, including the government, political parties, and public-sector labor unions, to comply with freedom of information requests. It also has the power to require any entity – public or private – that holds personal data to allow people to view, change, or eliminate data about themselves. It enforces its rulings by fining those who fail to comply.

Prior to the 2002 creation of the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI, which later became the INAI) and the 2013 reform that granted it autonomy and made its resolutions legally binding, official secrecy was the norm in Mexico, posing a major obstacle to the defense of human rights and preventing average citizens from knowing or having any say over what information the government held about them. Journalists, activists, and citizens had no recourse when the government denied them access to basic public information needed to reveal abusive practices or to personal information about themselves being held in government records.

For example, a 2015 INAI ruling forced Mexico’s Attorney General to release the records of its investigation into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero, revealing major inconsistencies, including that key suspects had been tortured. Hundreds of freedom of information requests made through the INAI enabled activists to determine the location of more than 2,000 mass graves across Mexico. They have also played a key role by enabling reporters to uncover corruption schemes that diverted hundreds of millions of dollars away from public services like health care and education. And they have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to view and transfer their medical records and to access and correct public records about themselves, which can affect their eligibility for public services. Prior to a 2003 IFAI ruling, medical records held at public hospitals were considered property of the government.

Under Mexico’s transparency system, when the government refuses to respond to a request or provides incomplete information the requester can appeal to the INAI. In 2019, López Obrador’s first year in office, more than 500 information requests made to the Office of the Presidency resulted in appeals – the highest number since 2003. And as of its 2019 annual report, the INAI reported that the López Obrador administration was pursuing dozens of lawsuits against it, challenging orders to release public information.

President López Obrador has suggested that the role of the INAI could be filled by government auditing agencies like the Ministry of Public Administration (Secretaría de la Función Pública), which is responsible for auditing the finances and performance of the executive branch of the federal government and reports directly to the president, or the Supreme Audit Office of the Federation (Auditoría Superior de la Federación), which is charged with auditing the use of the federal budget and reports to Congress.

These institutions report to the same politicians and leaders they would be expected to hold to account, which means they would not serve as an independent check on government secrecy, Human Rights Watch said.

The Mexican government has an international legal obligation to ensure that anyone can access official information in a timely manner with few restrictions, and to ensure that every person can ascertain what personal data is being processed and stored about them and why, and that they can request to view, correct, and in some cases erase that information, whether it is held by the government or private companies. It is also obligated to ensure that there is an independent agency with the power to take legal action against the government or anyone else who violates personal data protection laws. And it should guarantee that anyone who is refused access to public information by the government has the opportunity to appeal to an independent body with the power to investigate and resolve complaints, such as the INAI.

“It is vital that Mexicans can appeal to an independent watchdog when the government, political parties, unions, or private companies deny them access to their personal data or the right to decide how it is used,” said Vivanco. “Eliminating the INAI would be a colossal step backwards for people’s right to privacy in Mexico.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 28, 2021, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image Kuspan Kosshygulov (center) is one of the workers at an oil construction company who went on a hunger strike demanding that Kazakhstan not liquidate the independent confederation of trade unions. Aktau, 8 January 2017. © 2017 Saniya Toiken (RFE/RL)

(Berlin) – The Kazakhstan authorities’ attempt to have an independent trade union’s operations suspended is a violation of workers’ fundamental rights to organize and associate, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 1, 2021, a Shymkent court is scheduled to resume consideration of the Shymkent City Administration’s lawsuit against the Industrial Trade Union of Fuel and Energy Workers (ITUFEW) claiming violations of Kazakhstan’s trade union law.

“This brazen attempt to have the activities of an independent trade union suspended is unjustified and should be stopped in its tracks,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Less than a year ago Kazakhstan took necessary steps to amend its highly restrictive 2014 trade union law, but now the authorities are cracking down on yet another independent trade union.”

The lawsuit filed against an independent industrial trade union representing workers in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector claims that the union violated registration provisions in the trade union law. The lawsuit contends that the union did not “introduce all the necessary changes to its founding documents,” nor “complied with the requirements in Article 13 parts 2 and 3 of the Trade Union Law.”

These claims are unsubstantiated or based on legal provisions that either no longer exist or do not apply to ITUFEW, Human Rights Watch said.

ITUFEW was registered by Kazakhstan’s Justice Ministry in November 2015, after the Trade Union Law was adopted in 2014. The law required existing trade unions to change their charters under “Transitional Provisions” in art. 33. But this provision does not apply to trade unions that, like ITUFEW, were registered after the law entered into force. The Shymkent City Administration’s claim that ITUFEW did not introduce changes to their founding documents thus has no basis, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, the lawsuit refers to trade union law provisions that pertain to the registration of territorial and national-tier, or “republican” trade unions, which have no bearing on an industrial trade union’s legal standing.

While the 2014 trade union law previously included a provision mandating industrial trade unions to affiliate with a national-tier trade union (arts. 13, part 3), amendments to the 2014 trade union law adopted in May 2020 made affiliation with a national-tier union optional.

As such, there can be no violation of art. 13, part 3 since higher-tier affiliation is no longer mandatory in law, Human Rights Watch said.

The lawsuit also claims that the union violated art. 13, part 2, but provides no further information to substantiate its claim. Art. 13, part 2 requires that industrial trade unions “have structural subdivisions and (or) affiliated organizations in … more than half of the number of regions, cities of republican significance, and the capital.”

ITUFEW’s chair, Kuspan Kosshygulov, told Human Rights Watch that the trade union’s registered affiliates in seven regions of Kazakhstan and in the country’s capital, Nur-Sultan, appear in Kazakhstan’s state registry, fulfilling the requirements of art. 13, part 2.

In recent years, the Kazakh authorities have targeted independent trade unions and trade union activists with its repressive 2014 trade union law and pursued politically motivated prosecutions. This has all but decimated the independent trade union movement in Kazakhstan.

After the government repeatedly denied registration to the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KNPRK), a court ordered it closed in January 2017. In the years since, the authorities have pursued politically motivated criminal prosecutions against KNPRK-affiliated trade union leaders, including Erlan Baltabay, the former ITUFEW chair, in 2019.

In May 2020, Kazakhstan finally introduced amendments to its restrictive trade union law that make the registration process more straightforward and lift the mandatory affiliation requirement.

While the amendments did much to address longstanding criticism from the International Labour Organisation, the European Union, and the International Trade Union Confederation regarding the restrictive space for trade union organizing in Kazakhstan, this case against ITUFEW makes clear that Kazakh authorities still have much more to do to ensure that trade unions in Kazakhstan can work freely and without fear of harassment or forced suspension.

The Kazakh authorities should drop the case against ITUFEW and allow independent trade unions to register and operate in line with international labor standards ratified by Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said.

“The improvements to the trade union law are nothing but lip service if Kazakh authorities are still trying to paralyze independent trade unions in practice,” Rittmann said. “The Shymkent City Administration should immediately withdraw its claim against ITUFEW, and the authorities should create an environment in which trade unions can work without fear.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 28, 2021, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, without a mask, attends a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Brasilia, along with ministers and other authorities, most of whom are wearing mask, on September 7, 2020.  © Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is using a repressive law enacted during the country’s dictatorship (1964-1985) to seek prison sentences against people who have criticized its disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since June 2020, federal police have opened criminal investigations against at least four government critics under the 1983 National Security Law at the administration’s request.

The government has also called for criminal investigation of a Supreme Court justice based on the National Security Law, and of two journalists based on a different law. Federal police and prosecutors have not said whether they have opened investigations in those three cases.

“The National Security Law grants special protections to the reputations of high-level officials, including the president, and the armed forces that no other Brazilian citizen or institution receives,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “In a democratic country that protects freedom of expression, the public should be able to scrutinize and criticize officials, and freely debate matters in the public interest, without fear of retaliation or punishment.”

On June 15, Justice Minister André Mendonça said on Twitter that he had asked the Federal Police and the Attorney General’s Office to investigate Renato Aroeira for publishing a cartoon and Ricardo Noblat, a journalist, for sharing it online.

The cartoon depicted President Bolsonaro with a brush after painting the ends of a red cross to transform it into a swastika. On the cartoon, Bolsonaro says: “Let’s invade another,” in reference to a video in which he urged supporters to invade hospitals to check whether they were actually full of Covid-19 patients, which he questioned.

Mendonça said the cartoon–and Noblat’s sharing it online–violated Article 26 of the National Security Law, which criminalizes slander or defamation of the president or the heads of Congress and the Supreme Court, punishing the offense with prison sentences of up to four years.

On July 7, Mendonça tweeted that he would ask the Federal Police to investigate Helio Schwartsman, an opinion writer, also under Article 26, for a column in which he accused Bolsonaro of sabotaging efforts to contain Covid-19 and said he hoped the president, who had been diagnosed with the virus at the time, would die; suggesting that his death would save lives.

Federal Police opened investigations into the three cases. The Superior Court of Justice temporarily suspended the investigation against Schwartsman.

On July 14, the Defense Ministry asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes for criticizing the lack of action by the Health Ministry, led by an active-duty general, to curb the spread of Covid-19 and for saying that “the army is associating itself with a genocide.” The Defense Ministry said that statement violated Article 23 of the National Security Law, which punishes with up to four years in prison anyone who “incites animosity among the armed forces or between them and social classes or civilian institutions,” as well as additional provisions in the penal and military codes.

The Attorney General has not said whether it has opened an investigation.

On July 20, Mendonça sent a written request to the director of the Federal Police to investigate Marcelo Feller, a criminal defense lawyer, for violating Article 26 of the National Security Law. During a television debate about the army comment made by justice Mendes, Feller said a study showed President Bolsonaro’s statements led people not to take adequate measures against Covid-19 and that, as a result, he was responsible for at least 10 percent of Covid-19 deaths in the country.

Eight days later, the Federal Police opened an investigation, led by its department of counterintelligence. Feller only learned of the investigation on January 13, 2021, when Federal Police called him to make a statement, Feller told Human Rights Watch. “It’s an attempt to silence me,” Feller said.

On January 21, 2021 a federal prosecutor closed the police investigation against Feller, stating that the National Security Law cannot be used “to persecute anyone who opposes the government in a lawful way, expressing criticisms or opinions that are unfavorable to the government, however harsh they may be.” Two days later, the Superior Court of Justice also suspended Feller’s statement before police, finding he had not committed any crime.

On January 10, Mendonça said on Twitter he would ask the police to investigate two journalists “for instigating two presidents to commit suicide.” He was referring to Ruy Castro, a writer, who said in an opinion piece that if then-United States President Donald Trump wanted to become a martyr, he could commit suicide, and President Bolsonaro could imitate him. The minister was also referring to Noblat, the journalist, who shared the column online.

Mendonça accused both of violating Article 122 of the Penal Code, which punishes “inducing or instigating” a suicide with up to four years in prison. That article is intended to punish conduct that is likely to lead to a suicide, which is not the case here, where it is being used to curb protected speech, Human Rights Watch said.

Criminal defamation laws are incompatible with the obligation under international human rights law to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion stated in 2000 that imprisonment should never be applied as a punishment for defamation, and recommended that countries repeal their criminal defamation laws.

Article 11 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2000, states that “public officials are subject to greater scrutiny by society. Laws that penalize offensive expressions directed at public officials, generally known [in Latin America] as “desacato laws,” restrict freedom of expression and the right to information.”

The Inter-American Commission’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression has said that “the use of criminal mechanisms to punish expression in matters of public interest or about public officials can constitute a form of indirect censorship, due to its intimidating and inhibiting effect on public debate.”

“President Bolsonaro, an overt defender of Brazil’s past military government, is using a repressive dictatorship-era law to try to intimidate and silence people who disagree with him,” Vivanco said. “Brazil’s Congress should bring the country’s laws into compliance with international human rights standards and revoke articles 23, 26, and other provisions in the National Security Law that violate freedom of expression.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 28, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Red Cross volunteers waiting with a coronavirus patient for a place in the intensive care unit of Rafic Hariri University Hospital, Beirut, January 11, 2021. © 2021 Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Beirut) – The Lebanese government should uphold its commitment to ensure that everyone living on its territory has equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and is included in the national vaccine program, regardless of their nationality or residency status, Human Rights Watch said today. It should also swiftly address gaps in its strategy to inoculate the population just weeks before the vaccine drive is slated to begin.

The caretaker health minister, Hamad Hassan, announced that the first batch of Covid-19 vaccines will arrive in Lebanon by mid-February 2021. The government needs to make public which body will oversee and coordinate the campaign, how the plan will be carried out and communicated to hospitals and to the public, and how the vaccine will be distributed to vulnerable groups. These should include front-line health workers and other essential workers, older people, and those with underlying health conditions, as well as migrant and undocumented workers, refugees and asylum seekers, and detainees who fall into those priority categories.

“The government’s stated commitment to an inclusive vaccination strategy is positive, but the real test will be translating the plan into action,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is critical for leaders to clearly communicate the government’s vaccination strategy, ensure that vaccine access is not determined by political connections or socio-economic status, and apply transparent, evidence-based distribution criteria equally to everyone in Lebanon.”

The Health Ministry should increase transparency about its national vaccination strategy. It should ensure that its plans are accessible to the population and communicated effectively to raise awareness about the benefits of vaccination, respond to vaccine hesitancy, and dispel misinformation, said Human Rights Watch.

On January 27, Hassan announced the outlines of the government’s strategy, saying that everyone in Lebanon, regardless of nationality, will be eligible for the vaccine.. Lebanon has an estimated 1.7 million refugees and asylum seekers, and 400,000 migrant workers.

Hassan said the plan aims to vaccinate 80% of the population by the end of 2021. However, the government has so far only stated its intention to purchase 6.3 million doses, enough for just under half the country’s population.

In the first stage, the strategy prioritizes healthcare workers and those over age 75, followed by those over 65, and then those over 54 who suffer from certain underlying health conditions. Residents will be able to register on a Health Ministry platform, he said. On January 25, the Health Ministry released a list of 42 designated vaccination centers.

However, hospital officials told Human Rights Watch that they had not yet received any instructions from the government on how to operationalize the strategy. Dr. Georges Ghanem, the chief medical officer of the LAU Medical Center-Rizk Hospital, one of Lebanon’s largest private hospitals and one of the 42 vaccination centers, said that “we don’t have a clear operational roadmap for the vaccination campaign. We have this broad plan which is a plan of principles, but not an operational, on-the-ground plan.”

Ghanem said that they still do not know what software vaccination centers will use to register and schedule appointments and when staff members will be trained to use it. Nor do they know how the private sector, which the government said will be allowed to import vaccines, will fit into the national program.

“We have so far not received an implementation plan,” said Dr. Hassan Wazni, director-general of the Nabatieh Governmental Hospital in south Lebanon and one of the vaccination centers. He said the Health Ministry had not yet provided lists of people prioritized for vaccination, the number of vaccines the hospital will receive and the number of expected recipients, which vaccine it will receive first, and whether the vaccine will be stored in Beirut or at the hospital.

The director of a public hospital in north Lebanon, who did not want to be named, described a similar situation. “We are currently filling forms and questionnaires with information about our capacities,” he said, but added that they have not received any information beyond the fact that they are a vaccination center.

Hospital officials also raised concerns about the lack of nation-wide awareness campaigns. “Whether people will accept the vaccine is a major concern,” said Dr. Firass Abiad, the head of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, Lebanon’s biggest public hospital and one of the vaccination centers. “If people refuse, you are still looking at a group of people where the virus can still spread and run the risk of mutation. So my question is, with the vaccine arriving within three weeks, where are the awareness campaigns?”

Finally, hospital officials said they still do not know which body will oversee the vaccination campaign and receive queries and complaints, such as reports of adverse reactions, vaccine shortages, discrimination or corruption within the program, or misinformation from third parties. “This was lacking during the pandemic and for this reason we failed dramatically to have clear leadership and clear accountability,” Ghanem said. “I’m scared. I’m scared that when there is no leadership, no planning and anticipation, and no transparency, there will be a vacuum filled by predators.”

Although the government announced that the vaccination campaign will cover everyone in Lebanon, regardless of nationality, other health officials have previously publicly stated that refugees and asylum seekers would be excluded and that United Nations agencies would be responsible for ensuring that refugees in Lebanon are vaccinated. Members of some political parties, including the president’s party, have publicly argued that vaccines should be given to the Lebanese “exclusively,” which is likely to inflame xenophobic and nationalist sentiments. Such pronouncements resulted in a trending Twitter hashtag that translates to “the vaccine for the Lebanese first.”

Discrimination on the basis of national origin or residency status is contrary to international law, and in particular would violate Lebanon’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Any differential treatment based on national origin or immigration status can only be justified as nondiscriminatory if it pursues a legitimate aim and is proportionate to its achievement.

Given the overwhelming public interest and public health goal of ending the pandemic, excluding or limiting certain groups’ access to the vaccine on the basis of national origin or residency status, which would undermine those aims, would not be justifiable or proportionate.

In its general guidelines, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, maintains that “national authorities are responsible for public health responses and COVID-19 vaccination drives” and that “the delivery and administration of the vaccines to refugees…will be coordinated by national health authorities.”

Lebanon reported over 114,000 active Covid-19 cases and 2,477 Covid-19 related deaths as of January 27 The health sector, already in crisis before the pandemic began, is on the brink of collapse as hospitals fill up and scramble to redirect resources to fight Covid-19. Lebanon is under a strict lockdown and 24/7 curfew until February 8.

“The economic crisis and the pandemic have pushed Lebanon’s health sector to the breaking point,” Majzoub said. “Lebanon needs to urgently slow the transmission of the virus, and this can only be done by ensuring that everyone in the country – including refugees, asylum-seekers, migrant workers, and detainees – is included, and treated equally, in the vaccine rollout.”

 

Vaccines Expected

On January 17, the Health Ministry said that it finalized a bilateral deal with Pfizer-BioNTech to secure 2.1 million doses of their vaccine.  The health ministry’s strategy stated that Lebanon will receive 250,000 doses in the first quarter of 2021, 350,000 doses in the second quarter, 800,000 in the third quarter, and 700,000 in the fourth quarter.

The president also announced on January 15 that Lebanon had reserved 2.73 million vaccine doses through the COVAX Facility, a global pooled procurement system that aims to provide lower-income governments with enough doses for 20 percent of their populations by the end of 2021. Hassan said on January 27 that Lebanon was also in negotiations with Oxford-AstraZeneca for another 1.5 million doses. The government has not yet announced when Lebanon is expected to receive its share of these vaccines. The government will distribute all three vaccines to the public for free as part of Lebanon’s national vaccine strategy.

The World Bank announced on January 21 that it approved the reallocation of $34 million from an ongoing health project to support Lebanon’s vaccination plan, the first World Bank-financed operation to fund the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines. Lebanon has already paid a $4 million deposit to Pfizer-BioNtech. It has also paid two deposits to the COVAX Facility: $4.3 million and 26.4 billion Lebanese pounds ($17.53 million at the official exchange rate or $2.9 million at current market rates) on January 17.

 

Recommendations for Equitable Vaccine Distribution

Lebanese Authorities

Lebanese authorities have an obligation to fully respect the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and people without legal documentation within their borders, including their right to health, Human Rights Watch said. The government should include migrant workers, including undocumented migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, in its vaccination plan in keeping with WHO recommendations.

The WHO recommends that countries “ensure that vaccine prioritization within countries takes into account the vulnerabilities, risks, and needs of groups who, because of underlying societal, geographic or biomedical factors, are at risk of experiencing greater burdens from the Covid-19 pandemic…[this includes] Low-income migrant workers, refugees, internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, populations in conflict setting or those affected by humanitarian emergencies, vulnerable migrants in irregular situations, nomadic populations.”

The Lebanese authorities should take immediate steps to build public confidence in vaccines by ensuring that the public has access to full and accurate information about the vaccines available and the government’s vaccination strategy, Human Rights Watch said. The government’s public awareness campaign should include information about clinical trial data and possible side effects, counter misinformation, and underscore the public health importance of including everyone within its borders in its vaccination plan to counter the heated nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric calling for Lebanese nationals to be prioritized.

Decisions about access should be transparent and made on the basis of medical and public health criteria, taking into account human rights obligations related to the rights to health, life, and an adequate standard of living, rather than political preference. The authorities should ensure that the registration process is accessible to all segments of the population, including older people and those without internet access or digital literacy skills.

The government should provide regular public reporting about the number of people vaccinated, with age, sex, occupation, nationality, district of residence, and other criteria such as an underlying health condition.

The authorities should create an independent mechanism, such as a dedicated body within the Health Ministry, to monitor the vaccine rollout and allow residents and medical professionals to submit queries about the process and lodge complaints, including about discrimination or corruption in vaccine distribution. This body should submit periodic reports to the World Health Organization.

Public health experts have noted the difficulties in developing an evidence-based and efficient vaccination response amid a dearth of demographic data in Lebanon. The country has not had a census since 1932, so estimates of the number of people in the country vary significantly, with considerable ramifications for any public health strategy. The Central Administration of Statistics estimates that Lebanon has 4.8 million people, whereas the World Bank puts that number at 6.9 million. Lebanese authorities should allow everyone living in Lebanon to register and provide relevant health and demographic data, enlisting the help of local authorities and international organizations.

International Organizations

The COVAX Facility has established a humanitarian buffer that aims to cover potential populations who may not be well served through the national allocation mechanisms for vaccines, including people living or working outside government-controlled areas or as refugees, internally displaced peoples, and asylum seekers. The volume of this buffer would be 5 percent of the vaccines supplied by COVAX, or 100 million doses by end of 2021. COVAX will use the “Global Humanitarian Needs Overview” and relevant inter-agency guidelines and data to identify target populations in humanitarian contexts.

Lebanon, UN agencies, and civil society organizations can request vaccine doses under COVAX’s humanitarian buffer, but the humanitarian buffer does not displace Lebanon’s obligation to provide vulnerable groups in Lebanon, such as refugees, internally displaced people, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants with equitable vaccine access.

Humanitarian organizations and UN agencies in Lebanon should help facilitate the deployment of vaccines to vulnerable populations. They should ensure that these groups have up-to-date and accessible information about the pandemic and the vaccine, that they can register for vaccination through the national platform, that they can safely travel to the vaccination centers, and that they can submit complaints about any discrimination or ill-treatment or side-effects they may experience.

The World Bank should ensure that its loan money is spent in compliance with fundamental human rights obligations, including the principle of nondiscrimination. In response to the World Bank Group’s announcement of a US$12 billion financing plan to help low- and middle-income countries buy Covid-19 vaccine doses, Human Rights Watch urged the bank’s board of directors to take urgent steps to address barriers to equitable vaccine access before approving the financing plan.

Relevant International Standards

Lebanon is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which requires it to take steps to achieve “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” It also requires countries to take steps necessary for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases.” The control of epidemics requires, among other steps, “the implementation or enhancement of immunization programmes and other strategies of infectious disease control.”

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has said that parties to the treaty should “respect the right to health by…refraining from denying or limiting equal access for all persons, including…asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.”

Governments also have an obligation to protect the right to seek, receive, and impart information necessary to promote and protect rights, including the right to health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regards as a “core obligation” providing “education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.” It is required to ensure the protection of these rights to everyone in its territory, without discrimination.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health has stated that asylum seekers and even irregular migrants have the right to health: “States are under the obligation to respect the right to health by, inter alia, refraining from denying or limiting equal access for all persons, including prisoners or detainees, minorities, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, to preventive, curative, and palliative health services.”

Lebanon is also a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and as the CERD Committee has set out in its 2004 General Recommendation No. 30, laws that treat citizens and non-citizens differently will constitute discrimination if they do not serve a legitimate state objective or are not proportional to the achievement of that objective. This applies to any difference in treatment with respect to the rights guaranteed under the ICESCR, including the right to health.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 28, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Police arrest protesters in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, during demonstrations opposing the newly appointed president of the electoral commission, July 8, 2020. © 2020 Guerchom Ndebo

(Kinshasa) – President Felix Tshisekedi’s administration in the Democratic Republic of Congo has increasingly cracked down on the media and activist groups during its two years in office. Despite some initial steps to advance a human rights agenda, the government has threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and prosecuted several dozen journalists, activists, and others deemed critical of the government.

“People in Congo shouldn’t have to fear harassment or arrest for criticizing or peacefully protesting government policy,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Two years on, Tshisekedi’s commitments to respecting rights are starting to sound like broken promises.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 83 people by phone between January 2020 and January 2021, including victims of abuse, lawyers, activists, and journalists. The researchers found at least 109 cases of arbitrary arrests and harassment over the past year. Many victims were journalists, who faced intimidation, threats, and sometimes beatings. Intelligence agents from the National Intelligence Agency (Agence nationale de renseignements or ANR) were involved in at least 16 cases.

In the most recent case, eight young pro-democracy activists from the citizen movement Lucha were detained for one month in the northeastern town of Beni after participating in a December 19 march calling for peace in the area and denouncing the lack of civilian protection. They faced 10 years in prison on trumped-up charges of “sabotage and violence against state security guards.”

Click to expand Image Eight young pro-democracy activists from the citizen movement Lucha stand trial in the northeastern town of Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo, after participating in a December 19, 2020 march calling for peace in the area, January 15, 2021. © 2021 Private

“They took us to a room [at the police station] and sat us on the floor,” one of the activists told Human Rights Watch. “Police who were outside but close to the window fired teargas into the room. We had no choice but to try to escape. I don’t know how but some of us managed to open the door. I fainted once outside.”

Following a public outcry, a military court acquitted them on January 20.

On August 20, in Lodja, in the central province of Sankuru, soldiers and the police stormed the office of the privately owned Radio Losanganya and arrested Hubert Djoko, a journalist, and Albert Lokongo, a radio technician, accusing them of supporting the governor’s longstanding political rival. They took them to the stadium where the governor was speaking.

“They whipped us and had us repeat what we said on air,” said Djoko. “The governor then gave the order to take us to the police station. In the morning, the governor sent two motorcycles to parade us across town to show we had been arrested while his supporters shouted: ‘We must kill them!’” Djoko and Lokongo said they were both beaten in custody. They were accused of incitement to tribal hatred and civil disobedience, and released on August 22. On September 16, their editor, François Lendo, was also arrested and detained for 11 days on charges of “contempt for the governor.”

In Kinshasa, on November 16, the intelligence services arrested a popular singer, Elisabeth Tshala Muana, a longtime member of former president Joseph Kabila’s political party, and detained her for 24 hours following the release of her single “Ingratitude.” She was accused of targeting Tshisekedi, though no names were featured in the song. The authorities banned her song from the airwaves.

The crackdown over the past year is in stark contrast with Tshisekedi’s first year in office, which was marked by a significant decline in political repression compared with Joseph Kabila’s administration, Human Rights Watch said. In 2019, Tshisekedi released most political prisoners, and Congolese living in exile were allowed to return to the country. However, security forces did arbitrarily detain and beat peaceful protesters in some instances during that year.

Few security and intelligence officials implicated in human rights abuses under former President Joseph Kabila were held to account, and many continue to hold positions of authority. Impunity for past repression only fuels the continuation of the same abusive tactics, Human Rights Watch said.

Congo’s human rights minister, André Lite, told Human Rights Watch by phone that he “once again, condemn[ed] these rights violations.... Whereas freedom should be the principle and detention the exception, we tend to make arrest before investigating in Congo and, unfortunately, detention has become the rule. When a state official, whatever their rank, is responsible for an assault on freedom, they must be questioned and prosecuted.”

The Congolese government is obligated under international human rights law to respect and uphold the right of everyone in the country to peacefully protest and freely receive and disseminate all types of information. Regional and international partners should press Congo to protect the rights to peaceful expression and assembly.

The authorities should end the harassment of journalists and media outlets and drop all charges against those held for exercising their basic rights. Congo ranked among the world’s 30 worst countries violating press freedom in 2020, according to the World Press Freedom Index, despite Tshisekedi’s pledge to advance the media into “a real fourth estate.” The government should also repeal criminal defamation laws and take concrete measures to protect journalists in line with regional and international human rights standards.

Tshisekedi should be outspoken in defense of human rights and take action against provincial governors who seek to punish those critical of their policies. Intelligence agents and other security personnel should fully comply with international human rights standards relating to arrest, detention, and due process. Military courts should not try civilians. When serious violations occur, the authorities should promptly and impartially investigate and take appropriate disciplinary or legal action against those responsible, regardless of position or rank.

“Two years into the new administration, the crackdown on free speech and peaceful protest is intensifying,” Fessy said. “Congo’s international partners should publicly and privately raise concerns about escalating repression in the country with the president and his advisers.”

Cases of Abuse, Repression

Between January and July 2020, Human Rights Watch documented 39 cases of threats, harassment, and arbitrary arrest and detention related to media freedom, dissent, and peaceful protest.

Since July, Human Rights Watch has documented an additional 65 cases. This list is not exhaustive.

Kinshasa Province

On July 9, a court sentenced Henry Maggie, the vice president of the youth league for former president Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), to 18 months in prison for contempt of the president, for suggesting in a media interview that Tshisekedi had not won the 2018 elections. An appeals court later added an extra six months to this sentence. Maggie said he was only informed of the new sentence in October. He has been in prison ever since his arrest in May.

On October 1, prosecutors summoned Pascal Mulegwa, a journalist with Radio France Internationale (RFI), in Kinshasa in a criminal defamation case brought against him by a senator and former minister, José Makila, over a story in which Mulegwa quoted a nongovernmental organization report accusing the plaintiff of embezzlement. Mulegwa’s trial, which started on December 22, has been suspended pending an appeal.

Pius Romain Rolland Ngoie, a journalist for Radio Télévision Groupe Avenir (RTGA), was arrested on December 22, and charged with criminally defaming Fabrice Puela, a member of parliament. He is in Kinshasa’s central prison in pretrial detention

On November 28, national intelligence agency officers arrested Barnabé Wimana Isombia Milinganyo, head of the Rally of Congolese Leaders (Rassemblement des leaders Congolais) party, after a television broadcast and immediately took him to court. He was tried and sentenced on the same day to three years in prison and fined US$10,000 for “insulting the head of state and threats of attack.” Although his criticism of the president on the television program raised possible incitement issues, his due process rights were violated. His appeal is ongoing.

Matadi, Kongo Central Province

In July, a group of seven lawyers, activists, and journalists fled to Kinshasa from their hometown of Matadi, in the western province of Kongo Central, where they faced threats, beatings, and abduction attempts. Roukiya Mpaka, Rachidi Malundama, Samantha Mushiya, Guylain Kiangabeni, Tristan Mavungu, Erick Ngoma, and André Misumbu took part in protests prompted by a sex scandal involving the provincial vice-governor and called for the governor’s resignation. The provincial prosecutor subsequently issued arrest warrants against some of them, on charges of contempt toward officials and contempt of President Tshisekedi. They have so far stayed away from Matadi for fear of arrest.

Tshikapa, Kasai Province

On October 10, national intelligence officers arrested Farly Kalombo, a journalist for Réveil du Congo, a community radio station, following his reporting on alleged human rights violations, including by the National Intelligence Agency, in and around the town of Ilebo. He said that the officers stole his belongings and forced him to board a barge to Kinshasa, where he is living in precarious conditions, unable to return home.

Kisangani, Tshopo Province

On July 28, police arrested Elly Munganga, Patrick Twaeni, Ilengi Ndembe, Ruphin Wema, and Henri Belafekaka, human rights defenders, as they demonstrated against mismanagement by the provincial authorities, calling for the governor to resign. They were held at the prosecutor’s office and released without charges on July 30.

Goma, North Kivu Province

On December 18, the police arrested Josué Wallay Akuzwe, Djemba Uchu, Placide Itula, Emma Mwinuka, and Daniel Kikuni, all activists with Lucha RDC-Afrique, after they demonstrated for security and peace in the province. They were held for four days in a cell at the prosecutor’s office before being transferred to Goma’s central prison for 10 days. They were not informed of the charges or motives that prompted their arrest. They were released on January 1.

Bukavu, South Kivu Province

On December 1, police allegedly beat several journalists – Jérémie Matabaro, Prince Cikala, Bertin Bulonza, Emmanuel Deward Chuma, and Claude Musengero – as they covered a student protest. The police confiscated Matabaro’s equipment, and he and Cikala were injured.

Patrice Lwabaguma, Patrick Nyamatomwa, and Gédéon Fikiri Kanigi, all activists, were arrested on July 20 and accused of threatening state security, after flags of a so-called “Kivu Republic” were raised in Bukavu earlier that month. They remain in detention at Bukavu’s central prison while awaiting a verdict from the court. Lwabaguma had initiated a petition calling for the release of Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff, Vital Kamerhe, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for corruption.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 28, 2021, 5:01 am
Click to expand Image Police perform a stop during the Covid-19 lockdown in Nice, France, April 8, 2020 © 2020 Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Yesterday in Paris, a bailiff delivered a 145-page letter putting French government ministers on notice about their responsibility to address systemic police discrimination. It’s the first step in a ground-breaking class action procedure brought by six French and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to press for the structural reforms needed to end the long-standing scourge of ethnic profiling by police in France.

Human Rights Watch has worked on this issue since 2011, when we first spoke with dozens of French Black and Arab men and boys about their experience of repetitive, baseless, and abusive police stops. These “identity checks” often involve invasive body pat-downs and searches of personal belongings in the middle of the street, becoming, as one man put it, “the root of humiliation.” More recently we spoke with children as young as 12 whose first interaction with the police was also their first experience of discrimination and exclusion.

June 18, 2020 “They Talk to Us Like We’re Dogs”

Ethnic profiling by law enforcement in France is a widespread and well-documented problem. National and international organizations, French human rights institutions, and the United Nations have all called on France to take steps to prevent and punish ethnic or racial discrimination by police officers. In 2016, the highest civil and criminal court ruled that ethnic profiling constitutes a “gross misconduct that engages the responsibility of the state.”

And yet, despite cosmetic changes and rhetoric by successive governments, discriminatory policing has continued with virtual impunity. Acknowledging the problem of ethnic profiling, President Emmanuel Macron recently announced measures, such as standardizing the use of police body cams, which alone, fall far short of what’s needed.

To tackle the problem, the government should change the law to make sure police can only stop and search someone when they have a reasonable, individualized suspicion. There should be a written record of all stops, and specific guidelines for stops involving children. 

Discrimination based on race or ethnicity by police is deeply damaging to individuals and to social cohesion. Cleavages between communities and law enforcement make neighborhoods less safe for everyone and undermine the ability of the police to do their job effectively.

We hope this collective action can lead to a fundamental shift in law and practice, so that people, no matter the color of their skin or their last name, can trust and respect the police rather than fear them.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 28, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Migrants seeking asylum wait in line with their case paperwork to meet with an attorney on Oct. 5, 2019, during a weekly trip by volunteers, lawyers, paralegals and interpreters to the migrant campsite outside El Puente Nuevo in Matamoros, Mexico. © 2019 Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP

(Washington) – Two years after the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, newly released government records reveal US immigration agencies’ efforts in 2019 to rapidly deport thousands of people from the United States through the little-known Electronic Nationality Verification (ENV) program, the American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, and Human Rights Watch said today.

The records reveal previously undisclosed details about how the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its component agencies, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), touted the ENV program as a way to expedite the repatriation of many Central Americans without obtaining travel documents from their home country, a process which traditionally involved contact with foreign consulates. US and international law give foreign nationals a right to contact their consulate when arrested. The records provide no information about how DHS involves consulates when processing a foreign national through ENV.

The American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Human Rights Watch, and the law firm Winston & Strawn LLP obtained the documents through a lawsuit to compel the release of records about the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). The released documents include a 2019 DHS memo describing how the governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras agreed to pilot ENV with their nationals.

Fast-track procedures at the border, such as ENV, rush the complex process of evaluating the claims of individuals expressing their fear of persecution if returned to their home countries and increase the likelihood of wrongly deporting someone who could be harmed or killed upon return. The rapid process of deportations also makes it more difficult for attorneys or advocates to access a person prior to their removal, which could increase the possibility of erroneous removals.

The US government has provided little information about the ENV program – only fleeting references by officials about the program’s existence – or the number of people removed through the program.

Former Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan testified in February 2019 that 17,000 people had been removed through the ENV program. Separately, ICE’s fiscal year 2021 budget justification to Congress released in February 2020 reported an even higher number, stating that the agency repatriated 35,859 people through ENV on 360 chartered flights since the expansion of ENV on July 25, 2019.

As of January 2021, no further data on ENV removals has been made public. In a recent annual overview of enforcement operations, ICE publicly credited ENV for the increased deportation of families in 2020, but failed to provide specific or updated numbers.

Other documents uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit include MPP Standard Operating Procedures for ICE personnel in San Antonio and El Paso. This document is a handbook guiding the rapid return of nearly 65,000 people – many of them seeking asylum – from the United States to Mexico to wait for their US immigration court hearings. Asylum seekers, many of them families with children, have been forced to wait for months in extremely dangerous cities in Mexico.

These records provide important new insight into some of the border policies of the Trump administration that could help inform President Joe Biden’s new vision on immigration and border enforcement. They are also relevant to lawmakers considering the nomination for a new Secretary for DHS and debating government funding levels for immigration enforcement in 2022.

“Our border policies over the last four years have been defined by a relentless drive to undermine due process with the singular goal of detaining and deporting people as quickly as possible. ENV is the latest example of these polices. The Biden administration will need to reconsider all of these programs in developing a new approach to border enforcement that is committed to providing people with a fair day in court,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council.

“The lack of transparency around rapid-removal programs like MPP and ENV must stop with the Biden administration. Though this administration is rightly reversing course with respect to the MPP program, it should also reject programs like ENV where removal comes at the expense of due process and the opportunity to present a full case for asylum,” said Emily Creighton, legal director of transparency at the American Immigration Council.

“For two years the government has been short-circuiting due process to deport tens of thousands of people using methods that are almost completely shrouded from the public eye. Government transparency and accountability should not depend on lawsuits being filed to force sunlight onto these practices. Collectively our organizations urge President Biden to halt ENV immediately as well as the many other programs that violate the fundamental American values of fairness and justice,” said Gregory Chen, senior director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“The Biden administration should stop the abuse of asylum seekers at US borders by ending summary and fast-track removals without adequate due process checks,” said Clara Long, Associate Director in the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of blocking asylum seekers and flouting principles of due process, the Biden administration should focus on setting up a fair and efficient asylum system that ensures humane and dignified treatment for those seeking safety at US borders.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 27, 2021, 11:09 pm
Click to expand Image Street vendors and supporters march across Brooklyn Bridge during a rally in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, November 12, 2020. © 2020 Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New York City’s roughly 20,000 street vendors have suffered enormously this past year, as the Covid-19 pandemic compounded perennial challenges such as the lack of a social safety net in the United States for immigrant workers and informal businesses and police action against those operating without proper permits.

But there is hope for change. The New York City Council is expected to vote tomorrow on a law to reform the overly restrictive street vending system.

The bill up for a vote, Intro. 1116-2018, would gradually increase the number of permits available to street vendors over the next decade. It would create 4,000 new sidewalk and street food-selling permits by 2032, doubling the current number. Lifting the cap would help support the work of many low-income earners and make thousands eligible for small business assistance in critical times such as the current crisis.

New York City capped the number of mobile food vendor permits in 1983, creating an underground market where street vendors were forced to rent a permit from existing permit-holders for up to $25,000, often forcing them to take on debt. Those who can’t afford to rent a permit operate without one, risking hefty fines and property confiscation. For years, street vendors have been asking the City for more permits so they can fully enjoy their right to work.

Street vending provides a critical economic lifeline for people who lost work or face difficulty entering the job market. NYC’s street vendors are primarily women of color, military veterans, and low-income immigrant workers who live in communities disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. But due to their immigration status or the informal nature of their businesses, they have been excluded from federal, state, and most local Covid-19 relief, pushing them deeper into economic hardship.

The Covid-19 crisis has amplified socio-economic inequalities in cities the world over, in part because of inequitable responses by governments that have often prioritized big business and left the poorest populations behind. Concrete actions need to be taken to reduce disparities rather than exacerbate them. The bill will not entitle immigrant vendors to Covid-19 relief, but it will remove one barrier—informality—to accessing small business loans and grants, and it will allow many more vendors to operate without fear of punishment. This may seem like a small step toward greater economic justice and a rights-centered recovery, but it could be life-changing for many of the city’s vendors.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 27, 2021, 7:00 pm
Click to expand Image Police perform a stop during the Covid-19 lockdown in Nice, France, April 8, 2020 © 2020 Eric Gaillard/Reuters

(Paris) – Police in France engage in longstanding and widespread ethnic profiling that constitutes systemic discrimination, a group of six French and international human rights organizations said today, as they initiated the first class action against the French state over the practice. The organizations sent a letter of formal notice on January 27, 2021, to the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior, and the Minister of Justice to press for structural reforms and concrete measures to put an end to discriminatory police practices.

Despite incontrovertible evidence that French police have for many years engaged in systematic discrimination in carrying out identity checks, and commitments by successive governments to address the problem, nothing has changed, the organizations said. The NGOS have initiated this groundbreaking class action suit to end this stigmatizing, humiliating, and degrading practice.

Antoine Lyon-Caen, a lawyer before France’s Council of State and Court of Cassation, prepared and filed the formal notice on behalf of a group of local, national, and international organizations united in their expertise and commitment to combating discrimination. They are the Maison Communautaire pour un Dévelopement Solidaire (MCDS), Pazapas, Réseau Egalité, Antidiscrimination, Justice Interdisciplinaire (Reaji), Amnesty International France, Human Rights Watch, and Open Society Justice Initiative.

The formal notice includes testimony from numerous people who have experienced discriminatory identity checks in cities across the country, including Paris, Rennes, Beauvais, Lorient, Châtellerault, Eybens, Lyon, Toulouse, and Lille, as well as from police officers that confirm bias in law enforcement. 

One of the people cited in the formal notice said he has repeatedly experienced ethnic profiling by the police since he was 16, “sometimes three times a day.” During a recent stop, he said, the police “violently pinned me up against the wall. One of the officers touched my private parts. Then, he hit me in the stomach and called me a ‘dirty Arab.’”

Ethnic profiling is a longstanding, pervasive, widespread, and well-documented problem in France. The police use overly broad powers to conduct discriminatory and abusive identity checks based on physical characteristics perceived to be associated with being Black or Arab. Studies have demonstrated that men and boys perceived to be Black or Arab are disproportionately targeted for stop-and-frisk actions, while qualitative reports have documented the devastating impact of discriminatory policing, including on children as young as 12.

Taken together, the evidence demonstrates a pattern of discrimination that cannot be dismissed as isolated or sporadic incidents.

The Defender of Rights, France’s public official mandated to uphold human rights, has repeatedly criticized discriminatory identity checks and called for reform. In 2016, the Court of Cassation ruled that police stops of three young men constituted discrimination and “gross misconduct that engages the responsibility of the state.”

A 2016 law allows class action suits to tackle discrimination and empowers the court to provide a range of remedies, including ordering the executive branch to adopt systemic reforms.

The January 27 letter of formal notice is the beginning of a four-month period for negotiations among the parties, after which the organizations can take the case to the courts if they are not satisfied with the steps the government pledges to take.

Deep structural reforms are needed to address this systemic discrimination, the organizations said. Piecemeal measures such as the use of body cameras by the police are insufficient. Based on years working on police discrimination in France and elsewhere, the organizations said that the government needs to carry out comprehensive reforms, including:
 

Amending the Code of Criminal Procedure to explicitly prohibit discrimination in identity checks, abolish preventive identity checks, and circumscribe police authority to ensure that stops are based on an objective and individualized suspicion; Adopting specific regulations and instructions for stops targeting children; Creating a system to record and evaluate data on identity checks, and to provide those stopped with a record of the stop; Creating an effective, independent complaints mechanism; Ratifying Protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights on Non-Discrimination; and Changing the institutional objectives, guidelines, and training of the police, including with respect to interactions with the public. 


French law as well as regional and international human rights treaties prohibits discrimination against anyone, adult or child, on the basis of ethnic origin or religion. European and United Nations human rights authorities have made clear on multiple occasions that racial or ethnic profiling by law enforcement bodies constitutes a violation of states’ human rights obligations and has a pernicious impact on individuals, communities, and community-police relations.

Recognizing the importance of the issue, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued a general recommendation on “preventing and combating racial profiling by law enforcement officials” in November. CERD emphasizes that not only is racial or ethnic profiling unlawful, it “may be ineffective and counterproductive as a general law enforcement tool.”

The organizations’ initiative comes at a time of profound crisis in police-community relations in France. Following the savage beating of Black music producer, Michel Zecler, in late November 2020 by four police officers, the latest in a series of incidents of racialized police abuse, President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the problem of ethnic profiling by the police.

He announced that use of body cameras by police agents would become standard and that the government would create a new reporting platform for police abuse with the participation of the office of the Defender of Rights and nongovernmental organizations. Macron also announced that a consultative process would start at the end of January involving law enforcement, elected officials, and citizens.

The organizations are concerned that the president’s announcements and the consultation will lead once again to superficial and insufficient measures.  The procedure the groups initiated should spur the government to tackle the specific problem of discriminatory identity checks and its deep causes, in a serious way to end these abuses, in line with France’s obligations under national and international law. The government should stop making empty promises and following genuine consultation, undertake the necessary structural reforms, the organizations said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 27, 2021, 8:30 am
Click to expand Image Dominic Ongwen, a Ugandan commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, waits for the judge to arrive as he made his first appearance at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. © (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, Pool)

(The Hague) – The International Criminal Court’s trial of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Dominic Ongwen, in which a verdict is due on February 4, 2021, has been a significant step toward justice for atrocities committed by the group in northern Uganda, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch issued a Question-and-Answer document and a feature article on the trial on January 27.

The Question-and-Answer document provides details on Ongwen’s background, as well as key issues that emerged during the trial, which ran from December 2016 to March 2020. It also addresses the trial’s implications for Uganda, the LRA, and the ICC. The feature article explores the challenges of sentencing Ongwen in the event of conviction. Ongwen was kidnapped by the LRA as a child and forced to become a soldier, and was therefore a victim as well as an alleged rights abuser.

“The fact the ICC will soon issue the verdict in its first trial of an LRA leader is important progress toward holding accountable a rebel group that has caused mayhem in Uganda and several nearby countries for years,” said Elise Keppler, associate International Justice director at Human Rights Watch. “It also highlights the challenges to delivering accountability when a child victim grows up to become a leader of such a group.”

Ongwen, who was a senior LRA commander, is the first LRA leader to be tried before the ICC. He is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and torture. Ongwen is the only LRA leader charged by the ICC in custody. The leader of the group, Joseph Kony, is an outstanding fugitive and three other people charged are declared to be or presumed dead.

The LRA originated in 1987 in northern Uganda among communities in the Acholi region of the country, who suffered serious abuses at the hands of successive Ugandan governments. The campaign against the government of Uganda initially had some popular backing, but support waned in the early 1990s as the LRA became increasingly violent against civilians.

Tens of thousands of Ugandan civilians were either killed by the LRA or during the LRA’s fighting with Uganda’s armed forces, and more than 1.9 million people were displaced from their homes. The group abducted some 25,000 Ugandan children, primarily for use as child soldiers, or to be forced into child marriages with LRA commanders.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 27, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image A child plays next to an earth digger moving soil on Mavrovouni hill on January 25, 2021.  © 2021 DunyaCollective

Update January 28, 2021: On January 27, 2021 the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum’s press office shared by email with media outlets and with Human Rights Watch a 79-page document detailing the results from the soil sample testing conducted in late November 2020.

EAGME_Lesvos_Jan2021 EAGME_Lesvos_Jan2021

The Greek government should release test results and other vital information about lead contamination in a migrant camp on Lesbos island to protect the health of residents and workers, Human Rights Watch said today.

After testing soil samples in November, the government confirmed publicly on January 23, 2021 the presence of dangerous levels of lead in the soil in the administrative area of the Lesbos camp. It says that samples from residential areas showed lead levels below relevant standards but did not release the locations where samples were collected or the actual test results. The government has yet to indicate that it will take the necessary steps to adequately assess and mitigate the risk, including comprehensive testing and measures to remove people from areas that could be contaminated.

Click to expand Image The area on the hill from where authorities are removing soil, seen on January 25, 2021. Dozens of tents can be seen still present on the former firing range. © 2021 DunyaCollective

“The Greek government knowingly built a migrant camp on a firing range and then turned a blind eye to the potential health risks for residents and workers there,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “After weeks of prodding, it took soil samples to test for lead contamination while denying that a risk of lead exposure existed. It did not make the results public for over seven weeks, and has yet to allow independent experts to analyze them or vow to take the necessary steps to protect residents and workers and inform them about the potential health risks.”

Human Rights Watch published a report in December documenting that thousands of asylum seekers, aid workers, and United Nations, Greek, and European Union employees may be at risk of lead poisoning in the Lesbos camp. Greek authorities built the new camp, Mavrovouni (also known as new Kara Tepe), on a repurposed military firing range. It now houses 6,500 people. According to a government announcement on January 23, one out of 12 soil samples taken in November came back on December 8 with lead levels that “exceeded the acceptable limit.” The announcement also mentions some steps to mitigate the risk.

December 8, 2020 Greece: Lead Poisoning Concerns in New Migrant Camp

Test Soil, Clear Firing Range


Human Rights Watch has requested the Greek government and the European Commission, which financially supports the camp and with which the government shared the results, to release the testing plan and the test results, which should include such information as the levels of lead for each sample, the sample depths and exact locations, a complete history of the site with location specifity, the expertise of those conducting the testing, the sampling methodology, and information on chain of custody. To date, neither the Greek government nor the European Commission has made this information available.

This lack of transparency means that it is impossible to assess the adequacy of the testing, evaluate what the results represent, or recommend specific strategies to address the identified risks. As a result, it is impossible to determine whether the measures laid out in the January 23 statement, such as adding new soil, gravel, and a cement base in some areas, are adequate to protect people who live and work in the camp.

In early September, large fires broke out inside the Moria camp, the Reception and Identification Center on Lesbos, which was housing 12,767 migrants, mostly women and children. Within days, the authorities constructed Mavrovouni and said they would construct a new permanent camp. Young children and women of reproductive age are most at risk for negative effects from lead exposure.

In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on January 20, Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi said that he hoped that the residents of Mavrovouni would not spend another winter there, but did not specify when the new camp would be ready. Construction has yet to begin.

Mavrovouni functioned as a military firing range from 1926 to mid-2020. Firing ranges are well recognized as sites with lead contamination because of bullets, shot, and casings that contain lead and end up in the ground. Lead in the soil from bullet residue can readily become airborne, especially under dry and windy conditions, which are often present on Lesbos. Lead is highly toxic when ingested or inhaled, particularly to children and anyone who is pregnant or lactating. The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that there is no known safe level of blood lead concentration. Lead degrades very slowly, so sites can remain dangerous for decades.

After multiple representations by Human Rights Watch to various Greek authorities, the European Commission, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the WHO, the Greek government and the EU Commission commissioned the Hellenic Authority of Geology and Mineral Exploration to take 12 soil samples on November 24. According to the government, 11 soil samples showed lead levels “below the acceptable limits for lead in soil,” based on Dutch standards.

Click to expand Image Four camp residents stand on Mavrovouni hill, near the IOM Helios tent, with no fencing blocking access to the area, on January 25, 2021. A sample from the hill area tested positive for lead.  © 2021 DunyaCollective

The 12th sample, taken from what authorities described as an “administrative area” on the Mavrovouni hill, “at the end of the firing range,” showed elevated levels of lead above acceptable limits, but authorities did not reveal the concentration of lead in the soil. Mitarachi told Human Rights Watch that the area that showed lead levels above acceptable limits was fenced off, but residents and two aid workers said there were no fences inside the camp in that area or signs warning of a contaminated area. At least five aid organizations have offices in that area. An aid worker said residents, sometimes as many as 200 and including children, line up there for support and information. Younger children risk ingesting lead as they play or sit on contaminated ground.

Human Rights Watch was unable to determine whether the government shared any information with humanitarian agencies about the testing results, but calls with agencies including UNHCR and the WHO indicated that they were not aware of them prior to the January 23 release. A staff member from one aid organization there said that at least one aid worker in the camp is currently pregnant, and 118 camp residents are pregnant, based on November government data.

An environmental expert whom Human Rights Watch consulted said that, given the potential size of the affected area and the likelihood that elevated levels are the result of historic activity, the fact that one out of 12 samples in an area came back positive should trigger further testing.

International law obligates countries to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to the highest attainable standard of health. The UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment’s Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, which interpret the right to a healthy environment, emphasize the need for “public access to environmental information by collecting and disseminating information and by providing affordable, effective and timely access to information to any person upon request.” The Aarhus Convention, to which Greece is a party, provides a right to receive environmental information held by public authorities.

Click to expand Image Authorities removing soil on January 25, 2021.  © 2021 DunyaCollective


Greek authorities should immediately release the results and testing plan to the public, and take measures to mitigate the risk to the health of camp residents and workers, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should ensure that residents and workers are informed about the results and measures to protect their health in languages they can understand. The authorities should also urgently undertake further testing and allow independent experts to comment on investigative work plans, audit the soil testing process, and collect split samples (a sample that is separated into at least two parts so that testing can be carried out at two or more seperate laboraties in order to confirm results) or carry out independent testing.

The European Commission, which financially supports Greece to manage the camp and has staff stationed there, EU agencies, Frontex, and the European Asylum Support office, as well as United Nations agencies, UNHCR, UNICEF, the IOM and the WHO, should urge Greek authorities to make the detailed results and testing plan public, and push authorities to find alternative and safe housing solutions for those affected, including the option of moving them to the mainland. The European Commission, which was given the results and testing plan by the Greek government, should also make public the detailed information it received on the results and the methodology of the testing, to allow independent experts to comment on the risk to residents and workers in the camps.

“Greece and its EU partners have a duty to make sure that people who live and work in the Mavrovouni camp are safe,” Wille said. “That requires transparency about the risks as well as urgent steps to mitigate them.”

Additional Information

In its January 23 statement and in its meeting with Human Rights Watch on January 20, the Greek government made several inaccurate claims regarding remediation and protection of residents. In its statement, the government claimed that after soil samples were taken on November 24, “while awaiting the results” it removed the tents directly on the firing range strip. But satellite imagery and residents’ and workers’ statements indicate that no tents were removed until between December 11 and 16, after the test results were received.

Satellite imagery and aid organization mapping of the camp shows that by January 10, 79 tents remained on the firing range, with 58 more at the base of the hill. The residents in those tents may be at increased risk of coming into contact with contaminated soil, particularly when it rains. In addition, after some tents were removed, three migrants and two aid workers told Human Rights Watch that residents have been using the area for football and other recreation. Authorities have not fenced off the area or notified residents of the health risks.

Click to expand Image The cluster of aid tents seen here on January 25, 2021 are apparently located at the foot of the hill, near where a soil sample with elevated lead levels was taken. © 2021 DunyaCollective


Since the site was tested, major construction work and heavy rains in the area mean that potentially contaminated soil from the hill and firing range area may have moved to other parts of the camp, which warrants further testing.

Human Rights Watch received information from multiple sources that on January 18, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which runs two assistance programs in the camp, suspended its operations at its tent on the hill. In response to a Human Rights Watch query, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Greece confirmed that, “Following the announcements regarding lead detection outside the accommodation areas and while waiting for more information from the authorities, IOM staff has been advised to remain inside the residential area.”

In an aid briefing on January 19, the sources said it was revealed that the decision was made because of elevated levels of lead found in the “blue zone” of the camp, an area that includes the firing range and the base of the hill where the IOM Helios tent is located, as well as other aid tents including that of Médecins du Monde (MdM), and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). IOM staff have yet to return to the camp, but aid workers still in the camp said there is still no fencing or signage around that area. According to the camp residents and two aid workers, and 24 photos and videos taken from inside Mavrovouni by the DunyaCollective, a media collective, since December, authorities have been moving large quantities of soil, including removing some from the hill behind the IOM Helios tent.

On January 23, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders or MSF) issued a statement raising its concerns at the lack of appropriate government and EU action in the face of the testing results. On January 26, a group of 20 nongovernmental groups issued a joint statement calling on the Greek authorities to immediately evacuate camp residents and transfer them to appropriate structures on the mainland and elsewhere, such as hotel units.

Aerial footage from January 14 shows tents still present in the part of the camp built on the former firing range at that date starting at around 02:00.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 27, 2021, 5:01 am
Click to expand Image In this Aug. 25, 2016 file photo, human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor speaks to Associated Press journalists in Ajman, United Arab Emirates. © 2016 AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

(Beirut) – New details regarding United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities’ persecution of the high-profile human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor reveal grave violations of his rights and demonstrate the State Security Agency’s unchecked powers to commit abuses, Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) said in a report released today.

The 30-page report, “The Persecution of Ahmed Mansoor: How the United Arab Emirates Silenced its Most Famous Human Rights Activist,” provides previously unrevealed details of his closed trial on speech-related charges and his appeal hearing, showing grave violations of due process and fair trial guarantees. The organizations also documented the UAE State Security Agency’s culpability for Mansoor’s abhorrent detention conditions since his arrest in March 2017, including indefinite solitary confinement and denial of his basic rights as a prisoner.

“Damning new details reveal just how cruelly the UAE has been treating Ahmed Mansoor, its most celebrated human rights activist, a man who courageously stood up to his abusive government, demanding it respect human rights when very few would dare,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The UAE authorities’ railroading of Ahmed Mansoor shows their utter contempt for the rule of law and their determination to intimidate its critics into silence by any means necessary.”

January 27, 2021 The Persecution of Ahmed Mansoor

The report is based on statements obtained from a source with direct knowledge of Ahmed Mansoor’s court proceedings as well as interviews with two former prisoners who, at different times during Mansoor’s detention in al-Sadr prison, were detained alongside him in the designated isolation ward.

UAE security forces arrested Mansoor in a late-night house raid on March 20, 2017. In May 2018, the Abu Dhabi Court of Appeals’ State Security Chamber sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison on charges entirely related to his human rights activities. On December 31, 2018, the court of last resort, the Federal Supreme Court, upheld his unjust sentence, quashing his final chance at early release. Both trials were completely closed, and the government has refused requests to make public the charge sheet and court rulings.

“Ahmed Mansoor knew he risked prison when he devoted himself to protesting human rights violations in his country and the wider region, yet he still did so with courage and dedication,” said Khalid Ibrahim, Executive Director of GCHR. “That is why UAE authorities have punished him so harshly for his peaceful and legitimate human rights activities.”

In convicting Mansoor, the court based its verdict on the UAE penal code and 2012 cybercrimes law, both of which criminalize the peaceful criticism of senior officials, the judiciary, and public policies, and provide a legal basis to prosecute and imprison anyone who argues for political reform.

Mansoor’s tweets about injustices, participation in international human rights conferences online, and his email exchanges and WhatsApp conversations with international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, were all included as evidence of criminal activity to support his spurious charges.

Since his arrest, UAE authorities have held Mansoor in a tiny cell in solitary confinement, deprived of reading materials, a bed, a mattress, and other basic necessities. He is also deprived of any meaningful contact with other prisoners or the outside world, including regular visits or calls with his wife and four sons, in clear violation of prisoners’ rights under international standards, which the UAE falsely claims to uphold.

Mansoor is not the only victim of the UAE authorities’ complete intolerance of dissent. Since 2011, when the UAE began a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch and GCHR have repeatedly documented serious allegations of abuse at the hands of state security forces against dissidents and activists who have spoken up about human rights issues.

The most egregious abuses are arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture. The UAE has arrested and prosecuted hundreds of lawyers, judges, teachers, and activists and shut down key civil society associations and the offices of foreign organizations promoting democratic rights, effectively crushing any space for dissent.

The leaders of the UAE’s main international allies, including the United States and European countries, continue to cultivate their profitable arms sales and trade relationships unencumbered by the UAE’s serious and pervasive human rights violations. They should end their conspicuous silence about the country’s cruel treatment of Mansoor and others imprisoned in the UAE solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 27, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image The transgender pride flag.  © Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma lawmakers have introduced a new bill that would make it a felony to provide gender-affirming medical treatment, other than counseling, to anyone under the age of 21. Such treatment can alleviate gender dysphoria and postpone puberty to give children time to explore their gender identity. The bill would also punish doctors, parents, and even children themselves with penalties of up to life imprisonment.

Oklahoma’s bill is extreme, taking autonomy away from young adults and imposing draconian punishments, and is part of a worrying larger trend. Across the US, state lawmakers are once again introducing a slew of bills that seek to block transgender children from accessing healthcare, sports, and support in schools.

This seemingly coordinated assault on transgender kids flies in the face of what medical professionals, parents, and transgender kids say they need. Studies show that transgender kids can reap huge benefits from being able to socially transition – that is, to have others treat them in a manner consistent with their gender identity. Bills that shut transgender kids out of sports or bar teachers from respecting their gender identity fly in the face of transgender children’s rights and well-being.

It’s equally misguided to restrict medical interventions for transgender or gender non-conforming kids, which are fairly rare. The most common treatment is puberty blockers, which delay the onset of puberty and can alleviate the anxiety and distress that young transgender people might otherwise experience as their body develops. Professional organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, support this treatment for some children, allowing them to further explore their gender identity while suspending physiological changes that can be difficult or impossible to reverse later in life.

Unfortunately, lawmakers have used sensationalistic arguments about irreversible genital surgeries as an excuse to ban any kind of transition-related care. This ignores that the World Professional Association for Transgender Health does not recommend genital surgeries for minors, and they virtually never occur.

Whether puberty blockers or steps toward medical transition are appropriate for a given child is a deeply personal determination. For kids who need them, foreclosing these options is a violation of their bodily autonomy and their right to health.

Lawmakers in Oklahoma and elsewhere should roundly reject this bill, and others like it, and instead turn their attention to the real crises affecting trans kids, such as discrimination, bullying, and suicide.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 26, 2021, 7:58 pm
Click to expand Image New York City police detain a legal observer during a peaceful protest in Mott Haven on June 4, 2020. © 2020 C.S. Muncy

The Bronx Defenders, a public legal defense organization representing 24 people alleging the New York Police Department (NYPD) committed abuses against them during protests last summer, are taking a different approach to achieving justice.

Instead of suing the NYPD, as many other organizations and the New York State Attorney General have done, the Bronx Defenders asked the New York City Comptroller on Tuesday to approve a reparations fund to compensate people for injuries and other harms from NYPD abuse, as well as to fund public services as determined by the Mott Haven community. They see this as an alternative to putting their clients through years of protracted litigation at significant cost as in past cases.

September 30, 2020 “Kettling” Protesters in the Bronx

Those the Bronx Defenders represent were injured by the NYPD when the police assaulted a group of protesters demonstrating peacefully against police brutality and racial injustice in the Mott Haven area of the Bronx on June 4. Human Rights Watch issued a report and, with Situ Research, a forensic video on the crackdown and police abuses. We concluded that the NYPD, unprovoked and without warning, trapped protesters using a tactic known as “kettling,” minutes before a city-wide curfew, and then attacked them. At least 61 protesters were injured, some seriously; more than 250 people were arbitrarily arrested.

The request on the part of the Bronx Defenders stems from years of frustration over the failure of prior lawsuits to significantly curb NYPD abuses and achieve accountability for unlawful and excessive use of force. For example, the city already paid out more than $35 million to settle claims associated with the NYPD’s response to protests during the Republican National Convention in 2004, including for using tactics similar to those deployed against protesters last summer.

Reparations for police abuse in the US is not new but it is not common either. In 2015 the city of Chicago approved a $5.5 million reparations package to address wrongs perpetrated from the 1970s to early 1990s. With an epidemic of dramatic failures in police accountability systems across the country, it is not surprising that communities are increasingly turning to approaches such as these to seek appropriate redress for institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned violence. “Adequate, effective and prompt reparation” is well-established in international human rights law. Governments have paid reparations for wrongdoing in various contexts. New York should consider this innovative, more holistic approach.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 26, 2021, 5:07 pm
Click to expand Image LGBT Rainbow Flag  © 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

(Tokyo) – Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan should commit to introducing a law to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, J-ALL, Athlete Ally, All Out and Human Rights Watch said today. 116 human rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations sent a letter supporting such legislation to the prime minister on January 25, 2021, six months ahead of the day when the torch is scheduled to be lit at the Tokyo Olympics.

Tokyo was slated to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government postponed the games for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games are advertised as celebrating “unity in diversity” and “passing on a legacy for the future.” To do this, Japan needs to enact a national anti-discrimination law to protect LGBT people and athletes in a way that meets international standards. The groups are running an #EqualityActJapan campaign in Japanese and English in support of a law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Take Action: #EqualityActJapan

We call on Japan’s government to introduce and enact legislation to protect LGBT people from discrimination before the Olympics. It’s time for an Equality Act – and the countdown starts now. 

TAKE ACTION

“LGBT people in Japan, including athletes, are entitled to equal protection under the law, but currently we have only one known openly out active athlete and many remain in the closet from fear and stigma,” said Yuri Igarashi, director of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation (J-ALL), an umbrella organization of 80 LGBT organizations in Japan. “The Olympic Games give Japan a wonderful opportunity to introduce and pass protections so that everyone in society can live openly and safely.”

The Olympic Charter expressly bans “discrimination of any kind,” including on the grounds of sexual orientation as a “Fundamental Principle of Olympism.” Japan has also ratified core international human rights treaties that obligate the government to protect against discrimination, including the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“We have seen through history the power of the Olympics to mobilize athletes and fans to speak out for what they believe in, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting racism in 1968 to the Principle 6 campaign fighting for LGBT athlete rights in 2014,” said Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally. “Sport teaches us that we are stronger when we stand together, and now is the time for the global sport community to stand in solidarity with the LGBT community in Japan.”

Japanese LGBT groups have pressed for six years to pass legislation to protect their rights, and their progress is seen in sharply changing attitudes in Japanese society, with public support for LGBT equality surging in recent years. In November, a nationwide public opinion survey found that 88 percent of those polled “agree or somewhat agree” with the “introduction of laws or ordinances that ban bullying and discrimination (in relation to sexual minorities).”

Japan’s national government has not enacted anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. But in October 2018 the Tokyo metropolitan government adopted an ordinance that protects LGBT people from discrimination in line with the Olympic Charter. This municipal “Olympics” law was a direct result of a human rights consultation tied to the Olympics, and has proven popular. But it has also shown gaps in protection across the country and the need for a national approach, the groups said.

“This year, all eyes will be on Japan,” said Matt Beard, executive director at All Out. “In these trying times, the Olympic Games will be a welcome and much-needed celebration of humanity in all its beautiful diversity. By granting LGBT people protection from discrimination, Japan can prove that it truly supports the Olympic spirit of promoting tolerance and respect.”

Japan has increasingly taken a leadership role at the United Nations by voting for both the 2011 and 2014 Human Rights Council resolutions calling for an end to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But LGBT people in Japan continue to face intense social pressure and fewer legal protections than other Japanese.

“By passing landmark legislation to protect LGBT people including athletes, Japan not only can be a global LGBT rights leader, but it would also become part of Japan’s permanent Olympic legacy,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 26, 2021, 2:30 pm
Click to expand Image Tenants’ rights advocates demonstrate in front of the Edward W. Brook Courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, January 13, 2021. © 2021 Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

(Washington) – Federal and state governments in the United States should move promptly to strengthen housing protections for renters during the Covid-19 pandemic, including with additional financial relief, Human Rights Watch said in a question-and-answer guide released today.  

Currently, there is a nationwide eviction moratorium enacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which President Joe Biden has extended through March, 2021, as well as a patchwork of state and local protections. In addition, Congress has recently approved $25 billion in rental assistance to help tenants pay rent and cover rent arrears.

The question-and-answer document describes various eviction moratoriums in the United States, including the CDC’s, and how the pandemic has affected tenants’ right to housing. It discusses flaws in various measures that have allowed landlords to remove tenants from their homes for their inability to pay rent and outlines how both stronger protections and financial relief are needed to better protect tenants’ right to housing.

“It is great that President Biden extended the CDC’s moratorium on his first day in office,” said Jackson Gandour, New York University School of Law Fellow in the Business and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “But unless the flaws in state and federal moratoriums are corrected and more financial relief is provided, millions of tenants will remain at risk of eviction both during and after the pandemic.”

Governments have an obligation to guarantee everyone’s right to affordable, stable, and habitable housing, regardless of a person’s income, and should take urgent measures to ensure that no one loses their home in the middle of the pandemic because they were unable to pay rent. Eviction procedures need to take the rights and economic realities of tenants into account. Evictions can result in violations of international human rights law if they lead to homelessness or increased risks to other rights, including the right to health.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 26, 2021, 11:00 am
Click to expand Image Supporters of Habre's victims, Dakar, 2015. © 2015 Reed Brody/HRW

(Addis Ababa) – The African Union has yet to set up a Trust Fund to compensate victims of the former Chadian president Hissène Habré, four years after his historic conviction in Senegal, a coalition of international and regional human rights organizations said today.

On May 30, 2016, Habré was convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, including sexual violence and rape, by an African Union-backed Senegalese court and sentenced to life in prison. When an appellate court confirmed Habré’s conviction in April 2017, and awarded 82 billion CFA francs (approximately US$150 million) to 7,396 named victims, it mandated an African Union Trust Fund to raise the money by searching for Habré’s assets and soliciting contributions. Although the African Union adopted the Trust Fund’s statute in 2017 and has allocated $5 million to the Fund, it has yet to become operational.

“Habré’s victims fought relentlessly for 25 years to bring him and his henchmen to justice, and were awarded millions of dollars, but they haven’t seen one cent in reparations,” said Jacqueline Moudeina, lead counsel for Habré’s victims. “Many of the victims who scored these historic victories are in dire straits and in desperate need.”

In February 2020, AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat promised “in the near future, to convene a Resource Mobilisation Conference to maintain this Fund.” There has been no progress since then, however, said the advocates.

The Habré trial is exceptional in the sense that the courts of one country tried the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes. It was widely considered a milestone for justice in Africa.

In a separate trial in Chad, a court on March 25, 2015, convicted 20 Habré-era security agents on murder and torture charges and awarded 75 billion CFA francs (approximately $139 million) in reparations to 7,000 victims, ordering the government to pay half and the convicted agents the other half. The government of Chad has also failed to make those reparations, the advocates said. Habré, who is accused by a Chadian truth commission of looting tens of millions of dollars from the Chadian treasury, has paid no damages himself.

“The African Union and the Chadian government need to implement these court decisions so that the victims, at long last, can receive reparations for what we suffered,” said Clément Abaifouta, president of the Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissène Habré (AVCRHH), who as a prisoner under Habré was forced to dig graves for many of his fellow inmates. “We fought for decades for those decisions and now the African Union and our government have made us fight again to get the decisions enforced.”

Habré’s one-party rule, from 1982-1990, was marked by widespread atrocities, including targeting certain ethnic groups. Political police files recovered by Human Rights Watch in 2001 reveal the names of 1,208 people who were killed or died in detention, and 12,321 victims of human rights violations. The current president, Idriss Déby Itno, deposed Habré, who fled to Senegal.

Habré is serving his life sentence in a Senegalese prison.

The groups making the call to the African Union also include the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO), the Afrikajom Center, Amnesty International, the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Redress, and the Senegalese League for Human Rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 26, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Transgender people face discrimination and abuse from state officials and agents, including from public sector health workers, teachers, and local government administrators. © 2014 Javad Tizmaghz for Human Rights Watch

(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government should renounce a cabinet minister’s proposal to increase criminal penalties against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, Human Rights Watch said today. The attempt to strengthen criminal penalties against LGBT Malaysians is the latest in a series of moves to cement the anti-LGBT, anti-human rights stance of Prime Minister Muhyididin Yassin’s Perikitan Nasional government.

The proposed amendment to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act (Act 355), submitted by Ahmad Marzuk Shaary, deputy minister for religious affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department, would allow state Sharia (Syariah) courts to establish harsher sentences for same-sex conduct than the current maximum Sharia sentence permitted under federal law. Marzuk also proposed codifying as Sharia criminal offenses changing one’s gender and producing or sharing social media content deemed obscene and indecent, including images of non-normative gender expression.

“Malaysia’s state and federal statutes that criminalize LGBT people are already out of bounds with regard to international law, and the government seems to be sinking even deeper in its disregard for human rights,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than enhancing penalties for actions that harm no one, the government should repeal such penalties.”

Malaysia’s state Sharia laws, which punish consensual same-sex relations as well as gender nonconformity, are among the many laws and policies in Malaysia that discriminate against LGBT people. Malaysia’s federal penal code covers most criminal acts in the entire country. State Sharia laws, enforced by state Islamic Religious Departments and tried in Sharia courts, are only applicable to Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of Malaysia’s population.

All 13 states and the federal territory criminalize same-sex relations and gender nonconformity. In addition, section 377 of the federal penal code punishes any form of anal or oral sex with up to 20 years in prison and mandatory caning.

Act 355, adopted in 1965 to safeguard Malaysia’s essential secular character, limits the sentences that can be imposed by Sharia courts. Sharia courts could impose maximum sentences of one year in prison and a fine of up to RM 1,000 (US$250). The act was amended in 1984 to increase the maximum sentence that Sharia courts can impose to three years in prison, fines of up to RM 5,000 (US$1,240), and caning of up to six strokes.

Before 2018, according to Malaysian human rights activists, Malaysian courts had never actually imposed caning sentences, which are a form of torture under international law, for same-sex conduct. But in September 2018, Terengganu state carried out a caning sentence against two women accused of attempted same-sex relations. And in November 2019, the Selangor Sharia court sentenced five men to fines, imprisonment, and caning, while others who pled not guilty are awaiting trial.

The Selangor case spurred a constitutional challenge, pending before the Federal Court, in which the petitioner – one of the men awaiting trial – argues that the duplicative state and federal prohibitions on same-sex relations violate federal law. A second legal challenge, filed before Selangor’s High Court but stayed by the court while the federal case is pending, contends that the criminalization of consensual same-sex relations violates constitutional rights, including the right to equality before the law.

State religious departments in Malaysia have a history of subjecting trans women to arbitrary arrest, assault, extortion, and violations of their privacy rights, Human Rights Watch said. An appeals court ruled in 2014 that laws against “cross-dressing” in Negeri Sembilan state were unconstitutional, but in 2015 that ruling was reversed on a technicality.

In July 2020, the religious affairs minister, Zulkifli Mohamad, published a Facebook post giving “full license” to Federal Territory Islamic Department (JAWI) officers to arrest transgender people and “counsel” or “educate” them so that they “return to the right path.” Recent abuses against trans women include an October 2020 raid on a birthday party in Kedah, during which state religious officials arrested 30 trans women, and the January 2021 arrest of Nur Sajat, a cosmetics entrepreneur and social media personality, on charges of “insulting Islam” by dressing in clothing typically associated with women at a religious event.

“In Malaysia transgender people live in fear of being targeted and prosecuted just because of who we are,” said transgender activist Nisha Ayub, a transgender activist. “Aren’t we part of the society? Aren’t we supposed to be protected by the laws just as others?”

Human Rights Watch has documented that successive governments in Malaysia have employed anti-LGBT rhetoric as a political tool, calling on LGBT people to “change” their gender identity or sexual orientation to “return to the right path” or risk retribution. Officials have attempted to silence alternative narratives that advance LGBT people’s rights and acknowledge their humanity. For instance, in December, the Home Ministry banned a book entitled “Gay is OK! A Christian Perspective,” and denounced homosexuality as “clearly forbidden and contrary to all religious teachings.”

LGBT people in Malaysia told Human Rights Watch and the Malaysian trans rights group Justice for Sisters that hostile government rhetoric contributes to violence against LGBT people by members of the public.

Malaysia’s national human rights institution, SUHAKAM, which has also documented violence and discrimination against trans people in Malaysia, condemned the proposal to amend Act 355. It said that the government should “adopt a more compassionate approach by respecting human rights for all.”

On January 21, Prime Minister Muhyiddin, who in a previous role as deputy prime minister said that Malaysia “does not recognize LGBT rights,” surprised Malaysian human rights activists by expressing support for laws that prohibit hate speech, including on grounds of sexual orientation, in prepared remarks at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum. Activists highlighted the disconnect given that Muhyiddin’s own government advocates persecution of LGBT people.

“It is the height of hypocrisy that on the one hand, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin urges ASEAN countries to enact laws against hate speech based on sexual orientation, and on the other hand his cabinet member calls for amending laws to further criminalize LGBT persons in Malaysia,” said Chong Yee Shan of Diversity Malaysia. “The prime minister should walk the talk and take meaningful steps to address hate speech while ending criminalization of LGBT persons in Malaysia.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 25, 2021, 9:57 pm
Click to expand Image Protesters led by the Woman Help Woman group, the Free Feminist and other women's rights groups march to Parliament to protest Thailand's abortion law, Bangkok, December 23, 2020    © 2020 Peerapon Boonyakiat / SOPA Images/ Sipa USA via AP.

Thailand's parliament is set to pass a law to permit abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The law represents some progress in a country that currently threatens to imprison people who have abortions at any stage of their pregnancy but falls short of ensuring reproductive rights protected by international human rights law.

In February 2020, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the existing criminal code provision, which imprisons for up to three years people who have an abortion and five years for those who perform them, is unconstitutional. It gave the government 360 days to change the law, and with the unconstitutional provisions identified by the court set to be automatically repealed by February 12, 2021, time is running short.    

The government’s bill, sponsored by the cabinet and approved by the House of Representatives, is scheduled to be voted on in the Senate today. The House of Representatives rejected a stronger draft that would have permitted legal abortion up until 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The proposed law, if enacted, will continue to deny many pregnant people the right to make their own choices about whether to continue a pregnancy. And it would continue to impose punishments—up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to 10,000 baht (US$333) —on those who seek an abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy if they cannot meet criteria set by the Medical Council of Thailand.

When governments restrict abortion, women still have abortions – they just have more dangerous ones.  United Nations figures from 2011 suggested that the unsafe abortion rate was more than four times greater in countries with restrictive abortion policies than in countries with liberal ones.

The Constitutional Court ruling in Thailand was important, and part of a global move toward greater respect for reproductive rights. South Korea’s Constitutional Court issued a similar ruling in April 2019, while Irish voters decided in a 2018 referendum to repeal the country’s abortion ban. In December 2020, Argentina legalized abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy.

Thailand’s parliament still has time to revise the draft law. Instead of putting women on trial for exercising their reproductive rights, the Thai government should fully decriminalize abortion.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 25, 2021, 12:05 pm
Click to expand Image Police officers clash with people during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. © AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

(Moscow) – On January 23, 2021, police detained more than 3,700 people across Russia at nationwide protests against the arrest of political opposition figure Alexey Navalny and against state corruption, Human Rights Watch said today. It was the largest number of people detained on a single day in the country according to OVD-Info, a Russian human rights group that monitors public assemblies.

There were numerous reports of excessive use of force by police, including beatings, with much photographed or filmed by media outlets or private citizens and posted to social media. Although there were some incidents of protester violence, the vast majority of the protests were peaceful.

An independent assemblies’ monitoring expert estimated that the January 23 protest in Moscow was the largest in seven years. Several media outlets estimated that over 100,000 people took to the streets in over 100 cities across Russia.

Click to expand Image People gather in Pushkin Square during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, January 23, 2021.  ©2021 AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

“Time and time again, Russian authorities have suppressed free speech and peaceful protest through police brutality, violence, and mass arrests and January 23 was no exception,” said Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities understand their obligations to respect fundamental human rights and choose not just to ignore them but to trample all over them.”

Authorities had earlier refused to sanction the peaceful protests called for by Navalny and his team, often referencing restrictions imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of Navalny’s team and well-known activists, at least 60 people, were detained ahead of or on the day of the protest in different parts of Russia.

A lawyer, Mikhail Benyash, was detained in Krasnodar on January 22 for his social media post urging colleagues to organize legal aid for potential detainees. On January 23, police detained Yuliya Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, in Moscow after the protest. Her lawyer was not allowed to accompany her to a police station. She was released few hours later. Riot police detained Liubov Sobol, a political activist and lawyer with the Foundation Against Corruption (FBK), founded by Navalny, while she spoke to journalists at a protest.

The protests began in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East (seven hours ahead of Moscow). In Novosibirsk, Tyumen, Yekaterinburg and other cities in Siberia, several thousands gathered despite temperatures ranging between -20 and -30C. Yakutsk was the site of the coldest protest, where around three hundred protesters gathered despite the -50C temperature and ice fog. Initially police did not interfere with gatherings and rallies, which proceeded peacefully.

A Human Rights Watch researcher analyzed hours of footage, live video feed, and photos from cities across the country depicting demonstrations, rallies, police violence, and detentions. The researcher also reviewed media coverage, including journalists’ interviews with eyewitnesses.

Across the country protesters gathered in central squares, some holding placards and chanting slogans such as “Freedom,” “Shame on you,” “Putin is a thief”, “We won’t forget, we won’t forgive,” “Freedom to political prisoners,” and “Russia without Putin.”

In some cities, protesters were met with an overwhelming police presence. Police remained in vehicles parked near central squares and locations, then advanced on the crowds to break up the protests and arrest participants. In Yekaterinburg, journalists caught on camera police units equipped with assault rifles and regular riot police in full gear.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the large numbers of protesters filled up the protest venues and surrounding streets. Police had cordoned off Moscow’s Pushkin Square, the planned location of the demonstration. Ahead of the scheduled protest time, authorities used loudspeakers and repeatedly warned people to avoid mass gathering, maintain social distancing, and wear masks and gloves in accordance with Covid-19 related public health rules. Later they announced the gathering was illegal and demanded that protesters leave. Occasional detentions on the square started over an hour before the scheduled protest time.

Human Rights Watch viewed video footage and photos showing police beating people with batons, pushing people to the ground, and kicking them. Human Rights Watch also gathered online accounts of people seeking medical attention for injuries due to police violence.

The authorities in some cities have launched criminal cases against individuals accused of calling for mass riots, violence against police, and violating Covid-19 related public health rules.

Data is not yet available on the numbers of protesters in detention or how many are facing administrative charges for violating public assembly rules or disobeying police orders.

In previous years, Russian authorities retaliated against participants in mass protests with showcase witch-hunt trials, which resulted in long prison terms, Human Rights Watch said.

“The unprecedented detentions and extreme police brutality across Russia are evidence of how low human rights standards have plummeted in the country”, said Aitkhozhina. “Ultimately this repression of basic human rights only galvanizes people and deepens their grievances.”

Police Violence against Protesters and Journalists

According to numerous accounts, gatherings remained peaceful, and in some places people were already starting to leave the scene, when police started to disperse the crowds, in some locations using excessive force including vicious beatings of protesters.

Click to expand Image Riot police detain a demonstrator with a bloody face during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Pushkin Square, Moscow, Russia, Saturday, January 23, 2021.  ©2021 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

In Moscow as the crowd grew in the already restricted space at Pushkin Square, some protesters lifted a few of the metal bars that police had placed to divide the square into smaller areas. In Yekaterinburg, a few young men started altercations and threw snow at police in an attempt to free detained protesters whom police were escorting to police vehicles. These incidents apparently triggered more intense police action to disperse the gatherings.

Groups of riot police in Khabarovsk ran into the crowd, apprehending protesters apparently at random and dragging them to police vehicles. Similar tactics were used in Moscow and other cities. There were many reports of police brutality during detentions of protesters in several regions. Police beat protesters, forcing detained people to lay face down on the ground – in some places, like Yekaterinburg, in the snow at freezing temperatures – stomped on them and dragged them towards police vehicles.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg police were caught on camera repeatedly hitting protesters on the head and hands with batons. In the same footage police can be seen repeatedly beating a man who is lying on the ground and being dragged around; another older woman can be seen with marks on her face. In one instance caught on camera, police in Moscow repeatedly hit a detained young man with truncheons on his back, while police repeat through loudspeakers: “We're doing everything to ensure your safety.”

In St. Petersburg a police officer kicked a woman in the stomach, knocking her to the ground, when she approached him to ask why police were detaining a young man. She sustained a concussion and hematoma; the following day she had to be transferred to intensive care.

Click to expand Image Police officers detain a protester during a rally in support of Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 23, 2021.  ©2021 Valya Egorshin/NurPhoto via AP

Journalists in Orenburg reported that for the first time in the city’s recent history, police beat peaceful protesters. Videos show police repeatedly hitting protesters – who are lying on the ground and trying to cover their heads – with truncheons and kicking them, while a large crowd of protesters stands some distance around them chanting “Shame [on you]” and shouting “Why are you beating them?”

In Moscow, a journalist interviewed a man with a bloodied nose, who said that he was attacked by police when he tried to help a girl who fell down after police had grabbed her. He is reported to have said: “I couldn’t not interfere, seeing police pulling her by her hair.”

A young man with a visibly injured head explained to a journalist on video that he was at the front of a group of protesters when police blocked them from moving forward, and that he sustained lacerations to his head as a result of a police beating.

Another journalist reporting on police brutality in Moscow witnessed police dragging a woman by the hair. The same journalist reported how police beat her and other journalists on their heads and hands and stomped on them despite their clearly visible press jackets and badges.

An independent trade union of journalists and media workers stated they documented over 50 incidents of police assaulting journalists and detaining them in at least 17 cities. Almost all of them had press cards, and the majority wore yellow jackets or armbands with press clearly written on them.

In Moscow, protest crowds started to divide and diminish in the evening. One group of protesters went to the Matrosskaya Tishina detention center, where Navalny remains in custody, while another relocated to Lubianka Square, the headquarters of the Russian Security Service (FSB), which has been accused of being behind Navalny’s poisoning. Police detained several dozen protesters outside Matrosskaya Tishina, and were captured on video using excessive force. 

Detentions continued in the evening along the boulevards in central Moscow, apparently at random, as people were walking on boulevards and heading towards subway stations.

Media reported that at least one detainee in Vladivostok arrived at the police station unconscious. In Moscow, some detainees remained locked inside cramped police vehicles, without the possibility of social distancing, for over two hours. Marina Litvinovich, a member of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission (ONK), an independent expert body authorized to monitor detention sites, posted on Facebook that one detainee in Moscow had his shoulder dislocated during arrest and received treatment at the emergency room before being returned to police station in pain with his arm bandaged. The following day, she reported that several police stations in Moscow refused to grant access to the commission to allow them to document conditions of detention.

Children

Russia’s children’s ombudswoman, Anna Kuznetsova confirmed that police detained at least 300 children, including 70 in Moscow and 30 in St. Petersburg.

Litvinovich reported that in one of the Moscow police stations she saw four children emerge from detention with their parents after having spent six hours in police custody without water or food. Police confiscated their phones and other belongings. All of them were questioned by police, although none them took part in protest.

Protester Violence

In Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Ufa, Krasnodar, and possibly other places protesters threw snow at police and police vehicles, protesting the detentions.

There have been several reports of isolated, violent altercations and apparently deliberate attacks on police during the protests.

In Moscow, media reported that some protesters tried to fight back against police detentions: a few tried to kick policemen, and some people threw objects at police, including George Orwell’s novel 1984, a flare, firecrackers and an empty glass bottle. But the other protesters demanded that protesters avoid altercations and violence against police. Also in Moscow, a man threw some kind of powder at police, another punched and kicked riot police officer. Others were kicking around an empty police helmet.

In Vladivostok, protesters reportedly threw traffic cones at police. In several cities, protesters attempted to prevent fellow protesters from being detained, dragging them from the hands of the police and trying to hit police in the process, in some instances as self-defence against police batons.

A man was seen attacking a riot policeman in Vladivostok, and in St Peterburg an assailant punched a traffic policeman in the face. Later the same day, authorities announced that they opened a criminal case against the unknown suspect.

At time of writing there was no information about any legal actions or investigations into the excessive use of force by police.

Russia’s main news agencies reported that two activists with feminist punk collective Pussy Riot activists were detained when they hit a policeman with a car. But later another member of the protest band Pussy Riot released a video filmed by one of the two alleged perpetrators – Mariya Aliokhina of Pussy Riot – clearly showing that she was detained several blocks away from the location where the alleged incident took place; the timing of the video was verified by journalists.

Other incidents of protester violence were not directed at police. In Moscow, a crowd along the Boulevard Ring surrounded a car with a blue flashing light and siren, commonly used in Russia to ferry the political elite, pelting it with snowballs and then kicking the vehicle, potentially injuring those inside. A state news agency said the car belonged to the security services. In another incident in Moscow, protesters pelted with snowballs a man who had climbed a street lamp holding an anti-Navalny poster. The crowd dragged him down and beat him.

Criminal Cases

On January 22, a number of Russia’s state bodies threatened protesters with prosecution.

The Russian Interior Ministry announced that they initiated an inquiry against the regional heads of Navalny’s team for “organizing provocations and violent actions.” They alleged that these teams were instructed by Ivan Zhdanov, director of FBK and Leonid Volkov, the head of Navalny’s regional teams to recruit minors to take part in unauthorized protests by disseminating false information.

The Investigative Committee, Russia’s criminal investigation service, initiated a criminal case for involving children in the planned protests, claiming they were endangering their health and lives due to the pandemic. This is punishable with up to three years imprisonment.

The General Prosecutor’s Office stated that in the event of “attempts at violent actions” they can invoke mass riot charges, punishable by up to 12 years for organizers and 8 years for participants.

At least 10 criminal cases were opened in five cities on charges of using violence against police officers and mass riots. The same charges were used following high profile mass protests in Bolotnaya case in 2012 and Moscow case in 2019. These resulted in dozens of detentions, lengthy prosecutions and numerous imprisonments, despite often dubious evidence or even evidence exonerating the accused.

Criminal charges for interfering with police arrests and assaulting police officers are legitimate, but in previous cases that Human Rights Watch has documented, charges were pressed and guilty verdicts handed down in cases where the photo-video evidence showed only limited or no contact with police or negligible harm. In some instances, accounts by police were shown to be exaggerated or possibly untruthful. The circumstances of those cases strongly suggest these charges are often brought to discourage the legitimate exercise of the right to peaceful protest.

At the same time, Russian authorities continue to refuse to conduct effective investigations or to prosecute police for excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.

According to a lawyer for the Foundation Against Corruption, on January 24 Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a new criminal case for violation of sanitary and epidemiological regulations, punishable by up to 2 years’ imprisonment.

In another example of how far authorities are prepared to go to pursue criminal sanctions against protestors, irrespective of the tenuous connection of the charges to the events of January 23, Moscow police announced on January 24, that they have opened a case into alleged damage to vehicles or roads caused by protesters temporarily blocking traffic during the protests. The offence is punishable by up to a year in prison.

Applicable International Law

The efforts to prevent people from participating in peaceful public protests violate rights to freedom of expression and assembly and the prohibition on arbitrary detention, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and in Russia’s own constitution.

International law requires any limitations on peaceful assemblies and free speech to be both necessary and proportionate. As the European Court of Human Rights has made clear, the freedom to take part in a peaceful assembly is of such importance that a person cannot be subject to a sanction, even a minor one, for participation in a demonstration that has been prohibited, so long as this person does not commit an act of violence or similar crime.

The European Court of Human Rights has found Russia violated its obligations relating to freedom of assembly (often together with freedom of expression, the right to liberty and security, the prohibition on torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, and the right to a fair trial) in dozens of cases. Several of those cases have involved the unlawful arrest of Alexey Navalny while exercising his right to assembly, and ultimately the court found that it was established beyond reasonable doubt his arrests while protesting pursued “an ulterior purpose… namely to suppress that political pluralism which forms part of “effective political democracy” governed by “the rule of law.” In a case concerning events at Bolotnaya Square in 2012, the court found that police brutality against peaceful protesters could have a chilling effect and discourage others from taking part in similar public gatherings. The court went on to state that “a large‑scale confrontation between protesters and law-enforcement officers involving violence on both sides called for particularly thorough scrutiny of the actions of not only those protesters who had acted violently, but also those of the law-enforcement authorities” and reiterated to Russia that it has an obligation to investigate – by their own motion and without needing individual complaints - the actions of law-enforcement whenever there is a confrontation between police and protesters.

While Russian authorities have the discretion to limit public gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, these must be strictly necessary, proportionate, and not applied in an arbitrary nor discriminatory manner. Russia has not announced a state of emergency in relation to the pandemic and has not sought to justify its extreme limitations on peaceful assemblies as an act of derogation (or exemption) from its obligations under human rights treaties. The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated that “[s]tates’ responses to Covid-19 threat should not halt freedoms of assembly and association” and that while “[r]estrictions based on public health concerns are justified, . . .[i]t is imperative the crisis not be used as a pretext to suppress rights in general or the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly… in particular.”

The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner earlier called on the Russian authorities to overhaul its legislation and practice governing freedom of assembly and of expression, including in the context of the pandemic, to align them with European human rights standards. The commissioner reiterated that that the health restrictions introduced to fight the Covid-19 pandemic must not be used to unduly limit human rights and freedoms. The Commissioner’s call follows a 2018 ruling in which the European Court ordered Russia to take “appropriate legislative and/or other general measures to secure in its domestic legal order a mechanism requiring the competent authorities to have due regard to the fundamental character of the freedom of peaceful assembly and show appropriate tolerance towards unauthorized but peaceful gatherings causing only a certain disruption to ordinary life not going beyond a level of minor disturbance; to give due consideration when restricting this freedom to whether the restriction is justified by legitimate interests…and to strike a fair balance between such interests, on the one hand, and those of the individual in exercising his or her right to freedom of peaceful assembly, on the other… Furthermore, any imposition of sanctions ought to require particular justifications.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 25, 2021, 12:00 pm