Click to expand Image Apostle T.F Chiwenga, 2021 Source: Jesus Revelation Ministries Media

An outspoken street preacher and prominent critic of Zimbabwe’s government, Apostle Talent Chiwenga, has fled his house following heightened surveillance of his church and home in Harare by people in unmarked vehicles.

Yesterday, Chiwenga told me by phone that he believes the Zimbabwean authorities have dispatched a team of state agents known as the “Ferret team” to kill him for his activism, following several failed attempts over the last two years. Apostle Chiwenga has regularly used street sermons in Harare and social media platforms to openly rebuke Zimbabwe’s government for its gross human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests, abductions, and torture of activists, rights defenders, and journalists.

In two audio messages widely circulated on social media in September, unnamed persons, both of whom claimed to be members of the ruling ZANU-PF party and Zimbabwe liberation war veterans, labeled Chiwenga an “enemy.” One of them urged other veterans to hunt Chiwenga down because he is “Satan who preaches politics to inspire people to revolt against ZANU-PF.” Four confidential sources in the security sector separately told me last week that the authorities are unhappy with Chiwenga and view him as a security threat that should be “neutralized.” Three security officers described the ongoing surveillance of Chiwenga’s Harare church and home by people in unmarked vehicles.

In June 2020, Zimbabwe’s home affairs minister, Kazembe Kazembe, publicly labeled Chiwenga and others as part of an “illegal and subversive bandwagon under the control of certain diplomatic missions.” On two occasions, Chiwenga was involved in car accidents days after publicly raising concerns about threats to his life by security agents, including a July 2020 accident in Norton, near Harare, and a horrific road accident in June 2019 that killed his wife and two other people.

The Zimbabwean authorities should take steps to ensure the security and protection of Apostle Chiwenga and other critics of the government. Human rights advocates like Chiwenga should not live in fear for exercising their fundamental rights to free speech.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2021, 7:11 pm
Click to expand Image Col. Assimi Goïta is sworn in as Mali’s interim president on June 7, 2021. On May 24, Goïta overthrew the previous coup government, led by Bah Ndaw. © 2021 REUTERS/Amadou Keita

(Bamako) – Malian authorities should investigate a spate of alleged summary executions, enforced disappearances, and incommunicado detentions by government security forces, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations Security Council, visiting Mali on October 23 and 24, 2021, should press the government to make progress on justice for serious crimes by state security forces and non-state armed groups.

Since September, at least 14 men last seen in the custody of the security forces have “disappeared” or are being held incommunicado, informed sources told Human Rights Watch. The bodies of three men allegedly executed after their arrest by soldiers in early October were found near the army camp in the central Malian town of Sofara, in Mopti region.

“Mali’s transitional government shouldn’t be standing back while its soldiers are linked to a wave of abuses,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Security Council should use their visit to reinforce the government’s obligations to respect human rights and investigate and appropriately prosecute abuses by all sides.”

Human Rights Watch spoke by telephone with 22 people with knowledge of the recent allegations including witnesses, family members of the “disappeared,” village leaders, local rights organizations, and foreign diplomats.

Most of the recent abuses occurred during counterterrorism operations in central Mali against Islamist armed groups that in 2021 have been responsible for increasing attacks that have killed scores of security force members and civilians, including a massacre on August 8 of about 50 villagers near Gao.

Others abuses appear to be related to rising political turmoil as a result of Mali’s two military coups in nine months. On August 18, 2020, military officers overthrew the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and appointed former Colonel Bah Ndaw as interim president; on May 24, 2021, Ndaw was overthrown by his vice-president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, who was sworn in as head of state in June 2021.  

Since the resumption of armed conflict in 2012, Malian authorities have failed to ensure justice for dozens of large-scale atrocities implicating ethnic militias and soldiers during counterterrorism operations. There has been some progress on prosecuting grave crimes by armed Islamists. 

All parties to Mali’s armed conflict are bound by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other treaty and customary laws of war, which provide for the humane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, including summary executions and torture, may be prosecuted for war crimes.

“Mali’s authorities should either bring those arrested before a judge and charge them with a credible offense, or release them,” Dufka said.  “Those held without charge should immediately be released and the families of those forcibly disappeared should be told where their relatives are.”

Arrests, Enforced Disappearances and Executions around Sofara

Village leaders and witnesses said that from October 2 to 5, security force members arrested at least 34 men in and around the town of Sofara. Two international security analysts told Human Rights Watch the arrests were apparently in response to an uptick in attacks by Islamist armed groups in the area, and specifically, an October 1 attack on Marebougou, 30 kilometers away.

In an October 13 communiqué, the Malian army acknowledged some of the arrests, noting that “22 presumed terrorists” had been transferred to the gendarmerie for investigation. Family members, witnesses, and local community leaders said that at least 11 of the arrested men remain unaccounted for and three men, believed to have been among those arrested, were found dead a few kilometers from the Sofara military camp a few days after their arrest. Community leaders provided Human Rights Watch the names of the 22 men in government custody and 11 men who are missing.

A witness to the arrest of seven men in Sofara on October 2, the majority of whom remain missing, said, “Around 11 a.m., several military vehicles surrounded a small shop near where many families displaced by the war lived. A man working with the army was pointing out who and who to arrest. First, was the shopkeeper, then one by one, others who were drinking tea, walking by, or had come to buy something. The soldiers ripped their clothing to tie their hands and blindfold them, then threw them violently into the vehicles, in which were already 2 others, making 9 arrested in total.”

A trader described the arrests in Sofara on October 5: “It was market day, around 9 a.m. Soldiers flooded the market, some surrounding the animal market, others went into the stalls. It seemed like they were stopping all the [ethnic] Peuhl men – identified by their dress. I didn’t see them asking any questions.” A shopkeeper said, “I heard the soldiers insulting and accusing the men they’d arrested of being terrorists. They took dozens of men. They tied their hands and eyes with the men’s turbans, threw them into the army trucks, then drove off toward their base.”

Two men said they participated in the burial, on October 11, of three of the arrested men whose bodies were found about two kilometers from Sofara. One said, “After hearing about the bodies, we organized a delegation to see for ourselves. After walking for 25 minutes, we found three bodies in the bush, two side by side and the other separated by a few meters. We saw tire tracks near the bodies which were starting to decompose…. We buried them right there.” A cellphone video that circulated on social media appears to show the three bodies described by the witnesses.

Another cellphone video that circulated on social media around the time of the October arrests shows the mistreatment and interrogation (in local Bambara language) of a suspect by four uniformed men. The October 13 government communiqué pledged to investigate the apparent mistreatment, noting that soldiers involved “have been formally identified” and “disciplinary sanctions are already imposed on perpetrators who have been placed at the disposal of the National Gendarmerie for legal proceedings.” 

A village elder close to the suspect in the video told Human Rights Watch that the man being mistreated in the video, Hamadoun Diallo, 37, had been arrested by soldiers on October 4 near Tandiama, a village near Sofara, and remains unaccounted for. 

Earlier in 2021, Human Rights Watch documented other serious allegations of abuse by the Malian security forces. On March 23, soldiers based in Boni severely beat dozens of bus passengers after finding suspicious material in the baggage compartment. The bodies of at least 13 of the passengers remain unaccounted for and are believed to be buried in a common grave near the Boni military camp. Soldiers from the same military camp executed at least seven other men in March and April, and in January, soldiers killed eight men and forcibly disappeared two others, including a child, near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso. 

Enforced Disappearance of Government Officials

Witnesses, human rights investigators, and two diplomats said that at least three former high-level government officials are being held incommunicado after their detention by the security services.   

Dr. Kalilou Doumbia, 35, a jurist and advisor to Mali’s top political figures, went missing while en route to a meeting on September 6 at the University of Bamako, where he lectures on legal and political studies. “When he didn’t show for a meeting at the university, we started calling people along the route he would’ve taken to work, to see if they’d seen anything,” a colleague told Human Rights Watch.

On September 10, a police commissioner based in Mali’s Kayes region, Moustapha Diakité, 38, went missing after the director general of police summoned him to Bamako. Two people close to Diakité said he was last seen entering the headquarters of the national intelligence agency, the Directorate of State Security (DSGE). “The summons came from the DG of Police, but once there, Commissioner Diakité was told to report to the DSGE. Once at the DSGE, his phone was confiscated and from that day we have no news as to his whereabouts,” a source close to the family said. 

On October 4, in Bamako’s Baco Djikoroni neighborhood, several men in military uniform detained Col. Maj. Kassoum Goïta, 46, the director of state security during President Ndaw’s administration. Said someone close to the family, “At around 2 p.m., they surrounded the house and forced him into a vehicle. Since then, he doesn’t answer his phone. We have looked everywhere.”

Informed sources said they believe the men have been held for intermittent periods within an unauthorized detention facility in Sundiata Keïta military camp, in Bamako’s Kati suburb; within a gendarme camp in Bamako; and within the DSGE. People close to their families said the authorities have refused to acknowledge the men’s presence in these detention facilities and have not allowed their lawyers access to them.

International law defines enforced disappearance as the detention of a person by state officials or their agents and a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

Under both transitional governments in Mali there have been several high-profile cases characterized by violations of due process, including prolonged detention of suspects without charge and denial of access to lawyers and family members.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2021, 5:00 pm

(New York) – The Israeli Defense Ministry on October 19, 2021, issued a military order declaring six Palestinian civil society organizations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory to be “terrorist organizations.” The groups are Addameer, al-Haq, Defense for Children Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees. The designation, made pursuant to a 2016 Israeli statute, effectively outlaws the activities of these civil society groups. It authorizes Israeli authorities to close their offices, seize their assets and arrest and jail their staff members, and it prohibits funding or even publicly expressing support for their activities.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who work closely with many of the groups, said in a joint statement:

“This appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement. For decades, Israeli authorities have systematically sought to muzzle human rights monitoring and punish those who criticize its repressive rule over Palestinians. While staff members of our organizations have faced deportation and travel bans, Palestinian human rights defenders have always borne the brunt of the repression. This decision is an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organizations. The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner.

How the international community responds will be a true test of its resolve to protect human rights defenders. We are proud to work with our Palestinian partners and have been doing so for decades. They represent the best of global civil society. We stand with them in challenging this outrageous decision.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2021, 2:20 pm

One year ago Fikile Ntshangase, an environmental activist from South Africa, was gunned down in her home in Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province, after raising concerns about a coal mine in the area. No arrests have been made.

Today, members of her community and of local environmental justice organizations took to the streets and sent a letter to South Africa’s government, calling for justice.

They have strong support. In July 2021, the UN human rights expert on freedom of assembly and association highlighted the killing of Ntshangase in his report as an example of the dangers women environmental human rights defenders are facing. In March, the UN expert on human rights defenders used Ntshangase’s story to open a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, highlighting the risks for environmental defenders worldwide.

Environmental defenders such as Ntshangase have long faced threats for voicing their concerns about the extraction of coal and other climate-harming activities in South Africa. Human Rights Watch, in a 2019 report published jointly with groundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights, and Earthjustice, documented how activists in mining-affected communities across the country have experienced threats, physical attacks, or property damage that they believe is retaliation for their activism.

The South African government should take steps to better protect environmental defenders, beginning by ensuring the police conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into the killing of Ntshangase and ‘Bazooka’ Radebe, an environmental activist murdered in March 2016. Unless those responsible are brought to justice, environmental defenders in South Africa and abroad will continue to live in a climate of fear.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2021, 12:42 pm
Click to expand Image A displaced persons camp in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh province, Afghanistan, September 16, 2021. © 2021 Kawa Basharat/Xinhua via Getty Images

(New York) – Taliban officials in several provinces across Afghanistan have forcibly displaced residents partly to distribute land to their own supporters, Human Rights Watch said today. Many of these evictions have targeted Hazara Shia communities, as well as people associated with the former government, as a form of collective punishment.

In early October 2021, the Taliban and associated militias forcibly evicted hundreds of Hazara families from the southern Helmand province and the northern Balkh province. These followed earlier evictions from Daikundi, Uruzgan, and Kandahar provinces. Since the Taliban came to power in August, the Taliban have told many Hazaras and other residents in these five provinces to leave their homes and farms, in many cases with only a few days’ notice and without any opportunity to present their legal claims to the land. A former United Nations political analyst said that he saw eviction notices telling residents that if they did not comply, they “had no right to complain about the consequences.”

“The Taliban are forcibly evicting Hazaras and others on the basis of ethnicity or political opinion to reward Taliban supporters,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These evictions, carried out with threats of force and without any legal process, are serious abuses that amount to collective punishment.”

The media have reported that Hazara residents of Mazar-e Sharif's Qubat al-Islam district in Balkh province said that armed men from the local Kushani community were working with local Taliban security forces to force families to leave, and had given them only three days to do so. Taliban officials claimed the evictions were based on a court order, but evicted residents assert that they have owned the land since the 1970s. Disputes over conflicting claims arose out of power struggles in the 1990s.

Residents of Naw Mish district in Helmand province told Human Rights Watch that the Taliban issued a letter to at least 400 families in late September ordering them to leave. Given little time, the families were unable to take their belongings or complete harvesting their crops. One resident said the Taliban detained six men who tried to challenge the order; four remain in custody.

Another resident said that in the early 1990s, local officials distributed large tracts of land among their relatives and supporters, exacerbating tensions between ethnic and tribal communities. Securing a claim to land depended on who was in power, and those who lost out in earlier decisions have now petitioned the Taliban to support their claims. An activist from Helmand said that the property is being redistributed to Taliban members holding official positions. They “are cannibalizing land and other public goods” and redistributing it to their own forces, he said.

The largest displacements have taken place in 15 villages in Daikundi and Uruzgan provinces, where the Taliban evicted at least 2,800 Hazara residents in September. The families relocated to other districts, leaving their belongings and crops behind. One former resident said that “after the Taliban takeover, we received a letter from the Taliban informing us that we should leave our houses because the lands are in dispute. A few representatives went to the district officials to ask for an investigation but around five of them have been arrested.” Human Rights Watch was unable to determine if they have been released.

The former resident added that the Taliban had established checkpoints on the roads out of the villages and “did not let anyone take even their crops with them.” Following media coverage of the evictions, Taliban officials in Kabul retracted eviction orders for some Daikundi villages, but as of October 20, no residents had returned.

In Kandahar province in mid-September, the Taliban gave residents of a government-owned residential complex three days to leave. The property had been distributed by the previous government to civil servants.

International law prohibits forced evictions, defined as the permanent or temporary removal of individuals, families, or communities against their will from their homes or land, without access to appropriate forms of legal or other protection.

The Hazaras are a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnic group that was the target of mass killings and other serious human rights violations by Taliban forces in the 1990s. They have faced discrimination and abuse by successive Afghan governments going back over 100 years.  

The forced evictions in Afghanistan are taking place at a time of record internal displacement driven by drought, economic hardship, and conflict, with 665,000 people newly displaced in 2021, even before the Taliban takeover. About four million people are displaced in the country overall.

“It’s particularly cruel to displace families during harvest and just before winter sets in,” Gossman said. “The Taliban should cease forcible evicting Hazaras and others and adjudicate land disputes according to the law and a fair process.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Screenshot of a video filmed outside Mother Francisca Bilingual Academy, in Kumba, South-West region, after the attack which killed 7 children on October 24, 2020 © Private

(Nairobi) – A military tribunal in Cameroon has sentenced four people to death, in a trial marked by procedural irregularities, for an attack on a school in Kumba, the South-West region, one year ago. The attack killed seven children and injured at least 13 others.

The 12 defendants, on trial before the Buea military court since December 2020, included the school owner, principal, and four teachers. The court found four guilty of terrorism, secession, hostility against the fatherland, murder, possession of illegal arms and ammunition, and insurrection. It sentenced four other defendants to five months in jail and a fine of 50,000 CFA (US $89) for allegedly failing to report receipt of a threat from separatist fighters. The court acquitted four others. In addition to the use of a military tribunal to try civilians, the trial was marred by serious procedural irregularities such as violating the rights of the accused to challenge the evidence against them and to present evidence in their own defense. Two teachers were acquitted.

“Victims of the Kumba massacre have a right to expect an effective investigation, and for those responsible to be brought to justice in a fair trial,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, Cameroonian authorities seem to have railroaded people into a sham trial before a military tribunal, with a predetermined outcome, capped with the imposition of the death penalty which is unlawful under international human rights law.”

On October 24, 2020, gunmen stormed Mother Francisca Bilingual Academy, a private school in Kumba’s Fiango neighborhood. No one claimed responsibility for the killings, but the government blamed armed separatists who have called for a boycott of education in the Anglophone regions since 2017. 

Defense lawyers described to Human Rights Watch the multiple procedural irregularities at the trial, including the inherent lack of independence and fairness of the process that civilians face before a military tribunal. The defense was not allowed to cross examine witnesses; the proceedings were not translated from English or French into the pidgin English spoken by most of the defendants; the accused were arbitrarily detained; and the use of the death sentence is of concern.

“The entire trial was predicated upon circumstantial evidence as opposed to real evidence, and throughout the trial, the prosecution brought no witness we could ask questions,” Atoh Walter Chemi, the leading defense counsel, told Human Rights Watch.

Defense lawyers said that the prosecution presented all its evidence in written statements without calling any witnesses to be questioned on their statements. Section 336 of Cameroon’s criminal procedural code allows written testimony if a witness cannot appear in court. Such exceptions should be rare and limited to occasions in which it is not possible to produce the witness. Such evidence should also require corroboration. To base a conviction solely or predominantly on the untested hearsay testimony of absent witnesses violates fair trial standards.

Among the defendants were four teachers of the Mother Francisca Academy, the principal of the school, and the owner of the school and her husband. On the day of the attack, Chamberlin Ntou'ou Ndong, the government’s senior divisional officer for the Meme division, an administrative area that includes Kumba, ordered the police to detain the owner of the school, her husband and two teachers at the Kumba police station to “ensure their safety,” citing potential risks of reprisals by the community. But victims’ family members and Kumba residents told Human Rights Watch that it was unlikely that anyone would want to harm them. “These teachers should have been brought into the trial as witnesses, not as accused persons,” said Ikose Daniel Etongwe, a defense lawyer.

Four days after the massacre, Cameroon’s communications minister said that security forces had killed a separatist fighter who was allegedly among those responsible. In February, local media reported that the army spokesperson had announced that elements of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (Battallion d’intervention rapide, BIR), an elite army unit, killed another separatist fighter known as “Above the law,” who was also allegedly involved in the Kumba school killings.

Defense lawyers said the prosecution didn’t inform them about these killing, nor was this evidence mentioned in the preliminary investigations. During the trial no reference was made to these military operations, no connection was established between the alleged fighters killed and the defendants, and the defense did not have an opportunity to raise any questions about those killed. Defense lawyers said that one of the four people sentenced to death admitted that he was a former separatist fighter.

Defense lawyers also said that the 12 accused were initially held without charge for more than 30 days at the police station and the gendarmerie brigade in Buea which violates both international law and the Cameroonian criminal procedure code.

On September 14, defense lawyers notified the court of their intention to appeal but were required to pay 200,000 CFA (USD 352), the amount of the fines also levied by the military court on the four defendants, before their appeal would be accepted. On October 4, the secretary of the Buea military court informed the defense lawyers about the conditions of appeal, which include an additional payment of 420,000 CFA (USD 739), a clear barrier to appeal in a death penalty procedure.

The trial, which received no media attention before the verdict was pronounced on September 7, started in December 2020. Defense lawyers said all 12 defendants had to present their cases in one day during a “marathon hearing” in July 2021.

The use of military courts to try civilians violates international law. Military court proceedings typically do not protect basic due process rights or satisfy requirements for independence and impartiality, Human Rights Watch said. Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have previously documented military trial proceedings in Cameroon marred by serious substantive and procedural defects in which the presumption of innocence, the right to an adequate defense, and the independence of proceedings are all seriously undermined.

Courts in Cameroon continue to impose the death penalty, although the country’s last reported execution was in 1997. Cameroon has not ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the abolition of the death penalty. The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has long called on African governments to abolish the death penalty and has adopted a resolution on its abolition. The UN Human Rights Committee in its general comment on the right to life, reiterated that where the death penalty has not been abolished, it can only be imposed in the most limited of circumstances for the most serious cases and when fair trial standards have been observed to the highest standards, so that the person’s criminal responsibility is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

The committee has noted that trials in which the accused has been unable to question relevant witnesses or where there is lack of an effective right of appeal, among other violations, are not fair trials and make any imposition of the death sentence arbitrary and a violation. The committee also emphasized that imposition of the death penalty by a military court on civilians violates the right to life. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime.

“The military court should never have handled this case involving civilians, and it seems to have made little effort to ensure basic respect for human rights standards,” Allegrozzi said. “If the authorities intend to deliver justice for this heinous crime against children, they need to bring a credible case before civilian courts and hold those responsible to account according to international fair trial standards.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 22, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Afghan refugee Roman Khan at a refugee camp near Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar in September 2020, displays a photograph of his brother Asadullah Haroon, who is detained at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. © 2020 ABDUL MAJEED/AFP via Getty Images

In a small step toward justice, a United States federal judge ruled this week that because Haroon Gul, an Afghan held at Guantanamo Bay, was not a member of Al-Qaeda or an associated force, the US had no legal basis for detaining him. The US government may appeal the decision.

This ruling draws attention to the hundreds of men held unlawfully at Guantanamo since the detention facility first opened in January 2002. Haroon’s case is rare in that a US federal court found detention unlawful even under the government’s dubious “war on terror” detention theory, which effectively allows detention until this so-called “war” ends. Most men held at Guantanamo, including Haroon, have not been charged with a crime.

Haroon was detained in 2007 because of his alleged association with Hezb-e-Islami (HIA), an Afghan militia group. Despite a 2016 peace deal between the US-allied Afghanistan government and the HIA, he has been kept in custody. 

A military review board has approved roughly a third of the detainees at Guantanamo, including Haroon, for transfer to other countries on the grounds that they do not pose a threat to the US. Yet, these detainees have continued to languish in custody.

Haroon will likely remain detained at Guantanamo. For him to be repatriated, the United States would have to establish a security agreement with the new Taliban-led government. The other option, an agreement with another country to resettle him, is unlikely to happen soon, if ever, due to the arduous certification process required by the US defense secretary.

Over the years, Human Rights Watch has reported that detainees at Guantanamo Bay have suffered from torture, lack of appropriate medical care, and violations of due process. Continuing to detain Haroon following the court order that his detention is unlawful would violate international law.

The Biden administration should follow through with its stated intent to end detention at Guantanamo Bay. Those cleared for transfer should immediately be released, and the US should expeditiously resolve any pending criminal proceedings and put mechanisms in place that would end prolonged indefinite detention and military tribunals that don’t meet international fair trial standards. Though for Asadullah Haroon Gul, these changes will come far too late.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 10:12 pm
Click to expand Image Chinese security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in China's Xinjiang region, November 4, 2017. © 2017 Ng Han Guan/AP Images

A broad group of 43 countries at the United Nations has strongly condemned the Chinese government’s widespread human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The declaration also calls on the UN high commissioner for human rights to present an assessment of the situation in Xinjiang as soon as possible.

The unprecedented cross-regional coalition endorsing the statement is further proof that countries are ignoring Beijing’s threats of retaliation against those that publicly raise concerns about Chinese government violations. Crucially, this declaration is the first with signatories from all five regional groups at the UN. It includes Liberia, Eswatini, and Turkey, which all joined for the first time since mostly Western countries began issuing periodic joint statements several years ago.

Following negotiations led by the French delegation, French Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière delivered the joint statement at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. The statement cites credible allegations of “widespread and systematic human rights violations, including reports documenting torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children.”

As usual, the Chinese delegation enlisted another country to read out its own joint statement voicing support for Beijing. This time the pro-China statement was read out by Cuba and parroted Beijing’s claim that issues related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet are “China’s internal affairs that brook no interference.” China didn’t say who endorsed its statement but it’s typically a rogue’s gallery of mostly rights-abusing governments.

Human Rights Watch has determined that the mass detention, torture, forced labor, and other abuses committed against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang amount to crimes against humanity. UN member countries should not only demand Beijing end those abuses but also support international efforts to hold those responsible to account.

In September, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, announced that years of discussions with China on access to Xinjiang had yet to produce an agreement, and she would move ahead without Beijing’s blessing. When she delivers her assessment of alleged rights violations in Xinjiang, UN member states should move quickly to establish a commission of inquiry at the Human Rights Council or General Assembly to determine the scope of abuses and outline possible paths to accountability.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 8:17 pm
Click to expand Image A soldier stands in the road in Manzini on October 20, 2021 where at least 80 people were injured in Eswatini. © 2021 AFP/Getty Images

Eswatini police fired live ammunition and teargas into a bus full of people traveling to the capital, Mbabane, on October 20 to protest the incarceration of two pro-democracy Members of Parliament. Some of the bus passengers were injured and had to be hospitalized, the rest were turned back and prevented from going into the city center. The two MPs, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who called for democracy in the kingdom, have been in custody since July 25 and are facing trumped-up terrorism charges under section 5(1) of the Suppression of Terrorism Act of 2008, and additional charges for the alleged murder of a man named Thando Shongwe. Their trial was scheduled to commence on October 20, but according to a lawyer who was in court, it was postponed to November 16.

One activist told me by phone from Mbabane that protesters have vowed to press on with their protests until the two MPs are released. Protests have rocked Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, since May this year, when students and teachers marched to vent their anger at the alleged police killing of Thabani Nkomonye, a law student at the University of Swaziland. The authorities initiated an investigation into the killing, but protests escalated in late June when about 500 youths took to the streets in Manzini district, 30 kilometers from Mbabane, demanding democratic reforms. The authorities responded by banning demonstrations and deployed soldiers and the police to disperse protesters.

Instead of resorting to lethal force, and teargassing people in confined spaces, Eswatini authorities should ensure that security forces deployed in the wake of protests respect citizens’ rights, avoid arbitrary use of force, and observe international standards of law enforcement. They should also put in place a range of measures to safeguard citizens against police violence and prosecute all unlawful use of force.

In an attempt to resolve the ongoing political and security crisis in Eswatini South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ on Politics, Defence, and Security Cooperation, appointed special envoys to engage Eswatini authorities. Unless these envoys succeed in pressing Eswatini authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest, as enshrined in the country’s own constitution, and ensure the protection of lives, more ordinary Eswatini citizens stand to suffer under the present crackdown.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 5:14 pm
Click to expand Image Released detainees wave from a bus after Myanmar announced a prisoner release, Tuesday, October 19, 2021. © AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar junta’s recent prisoner releases are limited in scope and do not reflect a broader change in the military’s respect for human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 18, 2021, the State Administrative Council junta announced that it was pardoning 1,316 people and dropping charges against 4,320 who “participated in protests.” The junta provided no details about the terms of the releases or how they were being carried out.  

Concerned governments should increase pressure on the junta to release all political prisoners, end abuses against protesters and others, and commit to promptly restore democratic rule.

“The partial release of wrongfully held detainees should not distract from the junta’s egregiously abusive rule, which hasn’t changed,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. “Some of those released have already been rearrested. The junta should release all those unjustly held since the coup, including high-profile political figures, and end all arbitrary arrests.”  

The junta did not provide a list of those being released or their locations. As of October 19, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a local nongovernmental organization that has documented arrests, prosecutions, and releases since the February 1 coup, had only been able to confirm the release of 189 prisoners, including 14 journalists. Several of those released have reported torture and other ill-treatment in detention.

The junta’s announcement suggests that the authorities are dropping charges of “incitement” under Section 505A of Myanmar’s Penal Code, a vague new law promulgated by the junta to punish comments critical of the coup or the military government. However, many of those charged with incitement are facing other charges as well and may continue to be detained on those charges.

Eleven of the 38 people released in the city of Meiktila, including a National League for Democracy member of parliament, were rearrested immediately after their release and are now facing possible charges under Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law. The authorities are also requiring all those released to promise not to participate in further anti-coup activities, in violation of their basic rights. A military spokesman warned that anyone rearrested would serve the remainder of their original sentence in addition to any new sentence.

The AAPP reported that while the junta claimed to have released over 2,000 prisoners in June, they were only able to verify the release of 372.

“The authorities’ lack of transparency and immediate rearrest of some released prisoners reinforce the need to keep the pressure on to release all political prisoners,” Lakhdhir said. “As with the prisoner release in June, the actual numbers released may prove to be far lower than claimed.” 

In the eight months since the coup, the junta has arrested more than 9,000 people, with more than 7,100 still in detention as of October 19, the AAPP said. Nearly 2,000 more are known to be evading junta arrest warrants. Those still detained include the senior leadership of the National League for Democracy, including its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the deposed president Win Myint, elected members of parliament, and dozens of journalists. Security forces made at least 24 new arrests on the same day the junta announced the prisoner releases.

Since the coup, the junta has committed widespread and systematic abuses against the civilian population that amount to crimes against humanity, including murder, enforced disappearance, torture, rape and other sexual violence, severe deprivation of liberty, and other inhumane acts causing great suffering. Many of those detained have said that security personnel tortured and otherwise ill-treated them and others in custody. Methods of torture reported include beatings, mock executions with guns, burning with cigarettes, and rape and threatened rape. Security forces have killed at least 1,181 people, including some who appear to have been tortured to death in detention.

Concerned governments should impose tougher economic measures against the military, its leadership, and its vast business activities to cut off the military’s sources of foreign revenue, most of which are kept outside of Myanmar in foreign banks. The United Nations Security Council should impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar.

“Governments should not mistake these releases as a sign that the junta is taking a new approach,” Lakhdhir said. “Instead, the releases appear to be a cynical gesture to blunt growing international pressure to sanction the junta and its generals.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Activists stage demonstration in protest against vandalism of temples and mandaps during Durga Puja festival in several districts and arson attack on shops and houses belonging to the Hindu community in Dhaka, Bangladesh, October 19, 2021. ©2021 Rehman Asad/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – The Bangladesh authorities should exercise caution and restraint in containing the deadliest spate of sectarian violence in Bangladesh in years, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should take immediate steps to protect Hindu religious minorities and prosecute those responsible, including members of law enforcement agencies, for unlawful violence.

An angry mob attacked a Hindu temple in Comilla on October 15, 2021, after a photo showing the Quran placed on the knee of a Hindu deity went viral on social media during the Hindu holy festival of Durga Puja. Since the first attacks, mobs have torched dozens of Hindu homes and vandalized temples and statues throughout the country.

“Bangladesh authorities are dealing with an extremely stressful situation that could easily escalate into even more bloodshed, unless law enforcement acts with caution and restraint,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to be deescalating violence, not shooting live ammunition into a crowd.”

Bangladesh shut down mobile internet and deployed paramilitary forces to more than 35 districts to try to stem the violence. Four people died when police reportedly opened fire to contain a mob and at least three more people have died amid the clashes; more than 100 are reported injured.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states that security forces must “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.”

On October 18, hundreds gathered peacefully to call for an end to the violence. The authorities have reportedly filed at least 71 cases in connection with the violence and arrested 450 people. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has promised strong action, declaring “Nobody will be spared. It doesn’t matter which religion they belong to.”

UN Resident Coordinator Mia Seppo called for peace, stating that “recent attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh, fueled by hate speech on social media, are against the values of the Constitution and need to stop.”

Prime Minister Hasina called on Narendra Modi’s government to quell communal violence in India, where the ruling party has fueled violence targeting the minority Muslim community. “They (India) have to be aware that such incidents should not take place there, which would have an impact on Bangladesh, and the Hindus in our country face attacks,” she said.

Hindus, who make up about 10 percent of Bangladesh’s Muslim-majority population, have repeatedly come under attack. A Bangladeshi human rights group, Ain o Salish Kendra, has reported at least 3,679 attacks on the Hindu community since January 2013, including vandalism, arson, and targeted violence. The authorities repeatedly fail to investigate and prosecute such violence.

“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed is facing a critical moment to show in words and action that she is serious about her party’s commitments to democracy and human rights,” Adams said. “Her calls for an end to the violence should lead to transparent investigations and real legal protections for the Hindu community in Bangladesh.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Several migrants are apprehended and searched by US Border Patrol agents in the early morning hours of May 12, 2021 in Rio Bravo, Texas, US. © 2021 John Lamparski/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Newly obtained United States government documents detail over 160 internal reports of misconduct and abuse of asylum seekers at the hands of US officials, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The documents report abuse by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, Border Patrol agents, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, primarily between 2016 and 2021.  

The 26-page report, “‘They Treat You Like You Are Worthless’: Internal DHS Reports of Abuses by US Border Officials,” details internal reports made by asylum officers within US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) about the conduct of personnel in the immigration enforcement arms of their same parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Though heavily redacted, the reports, which Human Rights Watch obtained after litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), include allegations of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, due process violations, harsh detention conditions, denial of medical care, and discriminatory treatment at or near the border.

October 21, 2021 “They Treat You Like You Are Worthless”

“The conduct of border and immigration officers reported in these records is jaw-dropping,” said Clara Long, associate US director at Human Rights Watch. “These internal government documents make clear that reports of grievous abuses – assaults, sexual abuse, and discriminatory treatment by US agents – are an open secret within DHS.”

In September 2021, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, announced a swift disciplinary investigation into the “extremely troubling” footage of Border Patrol agents on horseback wielding long reins and chasing Black migrants from Haiti as well as an internal oversight of the agents’ conduct at the Del Rio migrant camp. DHS has not released any outcome of an investigation, which Mayorkas had promised would “be completed in days – not weeks.”

The documents Human Rights Watch obtained raise questions whether serious allegations, including of criminal conduct, reported internally are being effectively investigated.

In one example, the records show that a supervisor in the San Francisco Asylum Office communicated the following internally at DHS: “AO [asylum officer] [redacted] brought a serious matter to our attention just now: one of the applicants she interviewed today has a young child who was sexually molested by someone we believe to be a CBP or Border Patrol Officer. They were apprehended by Border Patrol, sent to the Ice Box [a border holding cell], then this occurred: the young girl was forced to undress and touched inappropriately by a guard in the Ice Box wearing green, with the nametag [redacted].” The documents, which were produced in response to a request for records held by USCIS, do not record how DHS responded to these allegations.

On September 28, Human Rights Watch provided DHS with summaries of 11 cases of abuse detailed in the FOIA documents, with a request for information about any investigations or disciplinary actions arising from the allegations. On October 12, Human Rights Watch provided DHS with additional details of concerns raised in the internal reports over violations of due process and dehumanizing treatment with a request for information about any training, investigations, or disciplinary actions arising from the allegations. DHS has not responded to either request.

“These records, which long predate the viral atrocities we witnessed against Black migrants in Del Rio, confirm what the UndocuBlack Network has long known to be true: that one-off solutions will not repair the systemic abuses DHS perpetrates against many migrants seeking protection,” said Breanne Palmer, interim policy and advocacy director of the UndocuBlack Network, with whom Human Rights Watch shared summaries of the records obtained.

Under the expedited removal process, when a person apprehended at the border or near a point of entry expresses a fear of returning to their country of origin, US law requires CBP to refer them to asylum officers for a “credible fear interview.” The interview determines whether the person might qualify for asylum or other protection. Most of the records appear to be based on information reported to asylum officers by asylum applicants in these interviews.

The records released to Human Rights Watch include what appears to be an internal US Citizenship and Immigration Services tally of 27 possible Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement due process violations, many of which describe border officials preventing would-be applicants from lodging asylum claims or compelling them to sign papers they did not understand. One, for example, says the “applicant testified that she told the immigration officers that she was afraid to return. They wrote down that she said she was not. The applicant stated that the immigration officers did not tell her what she was signing when they typed in her signature.”

In many of the records, the agency redacted sections of the documents containing crucial details such as dates, locations, and the nationality of the person who suffered abuse and did not provide appended documents. Human Rights Watch obtained the documents after litigation in federal court over a request it initially filed in 2015 and is considering a further appeal to press the government for greater transparency, including limiting redactions to those permitted under the Freedom of Information Act statute. 

“The Department of Homeland Security appears to have normalized shocking abuses by its border agencies,” Long said. “The Biden administration should not be making excuses for failures by DHS and its components, but rather – together with Congress – taking urgent steps to ensure that people victimized by US border and immigration agents, including on the basis of race, have access to justice and that this persistent pattern of abuse and misconduct ends.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 11:00 am
Click to expand Image A demonstrator on a march in Oldenburg, Germany, on Christopher Street Day 2021, holds a sign with the inscription “I am ‘Trans’ and that's good!” September 21, 2021.  © 2021 Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Germany’s political parties negotiating coalition agreements to create a new government should make a commitment to change the law on legal gender recognition, so that it is based on self-determination, not so-called expert reports, Human Rights Watch said today. While the parties try to reach agreements on key issues such as climate, foreign policy, migration, and the economy, they should also address the current pathologizing and onerous procedure for transgender people to modify their registered name and gender.  

“Germany’s current procedure for gender recognition is out of tune with developments in international law and medical science,” said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All political parties should agree to a change to the status quo in the next legislative session and make the procedure straightforward, nonjudicial, accessible, and based on self-determination for all trans people.”

Germany’s Transsexuals Law (Transsexuellengesetz) specifies that to have the name and gender with which they identify legally recognized, trans people need to provide a local court (Amtsgericht) with two expert reports. The reports must attest to “a high degree of probability” that the applicant will not want to revert to their previous legal gender. The law does not have a minimum age at which a trans person can seek legal gender recognition, an aspect of the law that should be retained.

According to a 2017 report from the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, applicants consider the assessment process humiliating. Some applicants said that to secure the necessary reports, they had to disclose immaterial details from their childhood and their sexual past, and even undergo physical examinations. The report found that the legal procedure can take up 20 months and costs an average of €1,868 (approx. US$2,160).

The political parties most likely to form a coalition government following Germany’s September elections are the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Union parties’ (CDU/CSU), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens. These parties have made previous unsuccessful legislative attempts to reform Germany’s legal gender recognition procedure under the current government.

The SPD, the junior partner in the current ruling coalition, announced in January 2021 that negotiations broke down as the Union parties opposed a process based solely on self-determination. The Greens and the FDP, both in the opposition in the last legislative period, each presented bills to reform the Transsexuals Law, which the parliament rejected.

A growing number of countries around the world have removed burdensome requirements to legal gender recognition, including medical or psychological evaluation. Countries including Argentina, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Portugal, and Uruguay center individual autonomy over gender identity, providing for simple administrative processes based on self-declaration. Costa Rica and the Netherlands have taken steps toward removing gender markers on identity documents altogether.

The move toward straightforward administrative procedures based on self-declaration reflect science-based and human rights standards. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, an interdisciplinary professional association with over 700 members worldwide, has found that medical and other barriers to gender recognition for transgender people, including diagnostic requirements, “may harm physical and mental health.” The most recent International Classification of Diseases, which will come into effect in January 2022, formally depathologizes trans identities.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Germany is a party, provides for equal civil and political rights for all, everyone’s right to recognition before the law, and the right to privacy. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, in charge of interpreting the ICCPR, has called on governments to guarantee the rights of transgender people, including the right to legal recognition of their gender, and for countries to repeal abusive and disproportionate requirements for legal recognition of gender identity.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in Goodwin v. United Kingdom (2002) that the “conflict between social reality and law” that arises when the government does not recognize a person’s gender identity constitutes “serious interference with private life.” The European Union’s LGBTIQ Equality Strategy (2020-2025) also upholds “accessible legal gender recognition based on self-determination and without age restriction” as the human rights standard in the member bloc.

Principle three of the Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity affirms that each person’s self-defined gender identity “is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity, and freedom.”

As a member of the Equal Rights Coalition, the Global Equality Fund, and the UN LGBTI Core Group, Germany plays an important role in advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights beyond its borders. In March 2021, the federal government pledged to do more through a LGBTI Inclusion Strategy, which, among its many goals, aims to further Germany’s role in promoting LGBTI people’s rights at international and regional human rights institutions.

“While Germany remains at the forefront of advancing the rights of LGBTI people overseas, its outdated approach to legal gender recognition for trans people taints its domestic human rights record,” González said. “In current coalition negotiations, Germany’s lawmakers should seize the opportunity to ensure that Germany’s transgender residents have their rights fully respected in law and make Germany a leader when it comes to gender diversity at home and abroad.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Healthcare workers protest outside the Ministry of Health headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya to honor one of their colleagues, Dr. Stephen Mogusu, a 28-year-old health worker who succumbed to Covid-19. © (Photo by Dennis Sigwe / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

(Nairobi) – The Kenyan government has failed to fulfill its pledge to support health workers fighting Covid-19, exposing them to avoidable risks of trauma, infection, and even death, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s haphazard, uncoordinated response has affected the welfare of thousands of health workers, and hindered Kenya’s ability to provide timely and quality health care during the pandemic. 

Despite significant resources being dedicated to the Covid-19 response in Kenya, the government failed to provide health workers with adequate protective equipment, testing, or other safety measures to ensure that they could safely and effectively respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered an investigation in August 2020 into the misuse of funds meant for the Covid-19 response. The investigation found that Kenya had lost KSH7.8 billion (US$70.4 million) meant for Covid-19 response through corrupt tendering, but over one year later, no meaningful changes have resulted from the investigation.

“Kenya’s negligence regarding the safety and needs of health workers in the middle of a pandemic is completely unacceptable,” said Otsieno Namwaya, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Kenyan authorities should take urgent steps to ensure health workers on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19 are able to work in an environment that would not put them at unnecessarily heightened risk.” 

Kenya has 58,000 registered nurses, 12,000 registered doctors, and 14,000 clinical officers. Around 18,000 nurses are under government employment and thus went on strike during the Covid-19 crisis period, while 7,200 doctors are working in government facilities nationwide.

Between March and July 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 government health workers and officials, including 14 nurses, 7 doctors, 3 clinical officers, 3 laboratory technicians, and a Health Ministry administrator. Six of the 14 nurses were union officials and four were officials of two different professional associations of nurses: National Nurses Association of Kenya (NNAK) and Kenya Progressive Nurses Association. Two of the seven doctors were union officials, and one was an official of the Kenya Medical Association (KMA), the country’s professional association of doctors. All union officials are active health workers. We also reviewed government documents, reports, records, and newspaper articles.

Health workers said that at first, they did not have any personal protective equipment (PPE) – masks, gloves, or overalls/gowns. When they finally received equipment, there was either not enough or it was of poor quality. They said they did not receive training before being assigned to wards treating Covid-19 patients, greatly undermining their ability to respond in the early days of the pandemic. Fearing for their lives, some health workers said that they would sometimes panic and run away when they encountered people in the hospital with Covid-19-related symptoms.

The lack of support led health workers nationwide to go on strike, with the nurses in at least five of the 47 counties starting the strike in June 2020 followed by doctors and clinical officers in August 2020. The strike spread across Kenya quickly as health workers accused government of failing to address their grievances. Government addressed only some of the concerns, including provision of PPE to all health workers deployed to Covid-19 wards. Doctors responded by calling off the strike in December 2020, followed by nurses and clinical officers at the end of February 2021.

Human Rights Watch research indicates that Kenyan authorities did not deliver on its promise to provide risk allowances; ensure that health workers hospitalized with Covid-19 had access to quality and affordable care; and that funeral expenses for the health workers who die from the disease would be covered.

The doctors and nurses interviewed expressed disappointment that the authorities did not recruit enough staff, despite an available pool of trained but unemployed health workers to manage the expanded testing facilities. Nor, they said, did the authorities buy enough kits and reagents to ensure regular testing of everyone, including patients, staff at hospitals, and other members of the public. 

One doctor said that the limited availability of PPE made it difficult to observe basic safety protocols, such as regular replacement of PPE or having enough for all times on duty.

All health workers interviewed said they felt overworked, stressed, and unsupported by the authorities, particularly because the authorities only recruited fewer than 1,000 nurses nationwide on one-year contracts, and underpaid them, and no new doctors to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. “We were being paid 10,000 Kenyan shillings [$100] per month, which we did not get for six months,” said one such newly contracted nurse. “The authorities gave us no risk allowances, no insurance, no health cover, no PPEs, and then we were placed at the emergency area where we were the most exposed.”

An entry-level nurse at government hospitals earns about KSH51,600 ($516) per month and other allowances that could amount to almost the same amount. Three union officials said that several health workers attempted suicide due to the stressful work environment, but they did not provide details and Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm this.

On July 19, Human Rights Watch wrote to Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe with a list of questions based on the findings and the issues raised by the health workers interviewed. The ministry’s legal officer said, via phone, that the ministry could not comment because the issue of health supplies is still under investigation, referring to the investigation the president ordered.    

The Kenyan government should take urgent steps to ensure that those implicated in corrupt enrichment from Covid-19 funds are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also identify and address the systemic weaknesses that have facilitated corruption in the health sector and undermined the delivery of health services during the pandemic and beyond.

Kenyan authorities have a responsibility to address these concerns both in the short, medium, and long terms, by urgently supplying materials health workers require to adequately respond to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. They should strengthen the health infrastructure and ensure accountability for malpractice, including corruption, that has negatively affected both supplies and access to adequate health care. The authorities should consider allocating additional resources to the health sector to improve the overall quality of services.

Under international and African law, Kenya has an obligation to minimize the risk of occupational diseases, including by ensuring that workers have health information, adequate PPE, and appropriate training in infection control. The Kenyan government should, as a matter of urgency, allocate the necessary funds and resources to ensure that healthcare facilities have adequate equipment, supplies, and staff to ensure the highest possible quality care.

“The government of Kenya owes doctors, nurses, and other health professionals, but also its global partners, corrective actions regarding its poor treatment of health workers,” Namwaya said. “The pandemic is still here, and the grave concerns of doctors and nurses should not be ignored.”

For detailed findings and accounts by healthcare workers, please see below.    

Failure to Protect Health Workers

Although Kenya pledged to assist health workers during the pandemic, the authorities did not carry out measures designed to create a safe work environment.

Despite significant support from various donors, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, Kenyan authorities did not allocate enough funds to provide for adequate PPE, testing kits, and other safety measures to protect health workers against Covid-19 infections, causing them additional risk, mental trauma, and suffering. Medical supplies for public hospitals are procured centrally by the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency (KEMSA) and distributed to the hospitals. This severely reduced the availability of quality health care for Kenyans.

On December 11, 2020, the Secretary General of the Kenya National Union of Nurses, Seth Panyako, indicated that its 23,000 members would only resume work after their demands were met, including providing PPE and the paying wages and allowances several months in arrears. Their strike ended at the end of February 2021. When the health workers went back to work, it was out of necessity, although the authorities failed to address their grievances. The health workers interviewed said that the government’s failure to ensure a safe, healthy work environment had potentially caused the deaths of more than 60 nurses and 35 doctors from Covid-19 by the end of 2020.

President Kenyatta’s investigation into the misuse of funds meant for the country’s Covid-19 response unearthed that officials at the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency (KEMSA) had misappropriated at least 7.8 billion Kenyan shillings ($70.4 million) allocated for the Covid-19 response. Although the investigation recommended the prosecution of 15 government officials and businesspeople, causing KEMSA to reportedly suspend some of its board members and staff, the authorities have yet to charge anyone for the crimes.

Inadequate PPE

Human Rights Watch found that Kenyan authorities did not provide PPE to all health workers in time to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infections among them. Doctors, nurses, and laboratory experts said that by the time the government finally made supplies available, around June in many parts of the country, and July in others, only nurses and doctors in isolation wards received the equipment, mainly gowns, gloves and masks, which was of extremely poor quality. “Healthcare workers were given one overall and one mask to use for the whole day,” said one doctor, referring to the time the strike began in June 2020. “Whereas one gown should be used per incident, while masks are supposed to be changed regularly.”

One doctor said that the PPE was of such low-grade materials, with large holes or openings, that it increased the probability of being infected. “It is more dangerous to use poor quality PPEs than not using them at all,” he said, “as the poor quality gear gives health workers the false sense of protection, which they don’t have.”   

The authorities also failed to ensure that all on-duty health workers had any form of PPE. An official of the professional body of nurses, National Nurses Association of Kenya (NNAK), expressed concern that the authorities were restricting the PPE to isolation wards:

Everyone working at the hospital during the Covid-19 period should have PPE. It is difficult to know who in the general wards is safe and who is not. We are now at a higher risk of infection. We have colleagues who have been infected for unknowingly handling a Covid-19 patient.

Health workers said that, while the authorities told health workers exposed to Covid-19 to self-isolate after working an extended period in the Covid-19 wards and before being in contact with their families, they failed to provide, monitor, or enforce the self-isolation protocol. Consequently, the families of health workers were exposed to a higher risk of infection. The authorities created a network of health workers and community volunteers to visit those in self-isolation to ensure they adhered to the protocol, but these home visits never happened, those interviewed said.

Health Workers Overworked, Untrained

The health workers interviewed described being understaffed, under-equipped, and poorly trained.

One senior nurse said that the government arbitrarily moved nurses to isolation wards without any orientation:

With Corona, each of the 47 counties in Kenya now has ICU [intensive care unit] beds. But they are just moving nurses from the general wards to the ICU wards without any specialized training on the kind of care that is needed at the ICU/HDU [high-dependency unit] wards.

On March 25, 2020, as the Kenyan authorities rolled out Covid-19 measures, President Kenyatta announced that the government had allocated one billion Kenya shillings ($100 million) toward hiring more skilled health workers. The next month, the media reported that the government aimed to recruit 6,000 more doctors, nurses, and clinical officers. On May 23, 2020, the president said that the government was going to hire “another 5,000 healthcare workers with diploma and certificate qualifications” making a total of 11,000 newly recruited doctors, nurses, and clinical officers to enhance the government’s “Covid-19 response capability.”

Instead of hiring the promised additional 11,000 health workers, the authorities, without explanation, only contracted less than 1,000 nurses and only for one year. These new recruits were deployed across the nation, so each county only received about 10 additional nurses. Human Rights Watch found that the terms under which the new staff were hired, as well as the delay in the payment of their salaries for up to six months, seriously injured their morale. At the time, Kenya was reporting more than 700 positive cases daily.

All doctors and nurses interviewed said that public health facilities remained overstretched and health workers overworked. A senior official of the Kenya National Union of Nurses said that some health workers even left the country:

There is a lot of brain drain of health workers, with the majority heading to Canada and the UK. The resultant shortage exerts a huge strain on the few workers left behind. The World Health Organization (WHO) patient to nurse ratio is 1 to 6, but in Kenya, the ratio is about 1 to 30. The strain became even worse in the face of the pandemic.

Lack of Health Insurance, Benevolent Fund

Human Rights Watch learned that the authorities have not provided affordable health care for health workers who are constantly exposed to the risk of contracting Covid-19. The health workers interviewed said that authorities ignored their appeals to create – in the absence of universal health coverage – a benevolent fund to offset the bills of nurses and doctors infected with Covid-19 while on duty and to take care of the needs of the families of frontline health workers who die from Covid-19. Kenya has a responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to affordable and reliable health care, not just a few who can afford the current high cost of insurance premiums.

The authorities have not honored their pledge to ensure that all health workers have life insurance either, despite the pandemic’s high death rates. By October 3, more than 5,131 people had died of Covid-19 in Kenya. All the interviewed health workers felt concerned that the government, the biggest employer of health workers, failed to provide all its health workers with health and life insurance. A doctor who works as an administrator at the Health Ministry said that the government’s failure to provide health workers with life insurance allowed most private hospitals to do the same.

A nurse in Mombasa described the situation:

If, as a government employee, I were to get Covid-19 today, I will be taken to a government facility, the same place where I work, and asked to pay from my pocket. I cannot afford it because our salaries are very low.

One doctor said of health workers who caught Covid-19 in the course of their work: “We have situations where colleagues were detained in hospitals over Covid-19-related bills and the bodies of our departed colleagues were detained because families could not afford the bills.”  

The government finally released an undisclosed sum of money to cover Covid-19-related hospitalization and deaths in November 2020; it was a one-off occurrence covering only cases of up to that period, said a senior government doctor and two union officials.

Inadequate Remuneration

At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Kenyan authorities promised to introduce Covid-19 risk allowances for all frontline health care workers in the fight against Covid-19, which would be greater than the normal risk allowances introduced in 2016 for health workers, also in response to a strike. Previously, doctors received Ksh5,000 ($50) as a monthly risk allowance while nurses received Ksh3,500 ($35). The intended Covid-19 risk allowances would have increased the monthly risk allowance for doctors to Ksh20,000 ($200) and for nurses to Ksh15,000 ($150).

Doctors, nurses, and clinical officers interviewed said that the authorities first delayed the payment of these allowances for three months, until July 2020, when they only made one-off payments of Ksh20,000 to doctors, Ksh15,000 to nurses, and Ksh10,000 to other health workers working in government hospitals during the pandemic. Since then, the authorities have without explanation failed to pay further Covid-19 risk allowances. The health workers hired to boost the Covid-19 response were excluded from these payments.

All health workers interviewed said that the authorities did not compensate them for prolonged periods at work, including extended work hours and days. They said that during the first four months of the pandemic, nurses were locked in the isolation wards with patients for two weeks, then went into quarantine for another two weeks before they could rejoin their families. They said that since July 2020, nurses have remained in the wards for just one week, and then they can return home without quarantining.

“It is very unfair to all health workers, but mostly to nurses,” a nurse in Nairobi said about the lack of extra compensation. “Since the outbreak of Covid-19, it is the nurses who have been kept away from their families for long periods without compensation or allowances.”

Lack of Psychosocial Support

While health workers experienced increasing mental strain, especially as infection numbers continued to rise, they have had no psychosocial support system. The officials of health associations and unions said that they raised this concern with the relevant authorities numerous times without result.

The health workers attributed the mental strain to a combination of factors, most of which they believed were preventable had the government responded better. The people interviewed said that these causes included overwork, understaffing, inadequate compensation, and the lack of government assistance for those infected with Covid-19 or for the families of health workers who died from Covid-19.

An official of the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Union (KMPDU) noted that many people, including health workers and government officials, suffered from the psychological effects of Covid-19. The lack of protective facilities caused panic among staff, while the transfer of staff from other wards without any training or counseling as well as the stigmatization of those working in isolation wards exacerbated the mental strain. He said that he was quite shocked to see his colleagues avoiding health workers in the Covid-19 wards for fear of infection.

Furthermore, since the government did not provide safe transportation services for health workers, interviewees said they risked being infected on public transportation to get to work when Covid-19 infection rates were peaking. An official of the Kenya Progressive Nurses Association (KPNA) said: “The authorities argued that there was no plan for transport for health workers from the start and could not be factored into the budget that quickly. But there was money specifically allocated for Covid-19, and we expected that this should have been used on transport.”

The secretary of the KPNA said that many health workers’ mental health worsened when prices of goods and services, including transportation, increased during the pandemic, and the transportation allowance was no longer enough. In addition, public vehicles were unavailable, following government directive for public vehicles to operate at half capacity, causing most people to report late to work, for which management would admonish them, adding to their stress.

One doctor and four nurses said they even experienced mental breakdowns, with nurses saying at least one of their colleagues had attempted suicide. “At some point, we had to try and counsel colleagues, yet we don’t have any experience in counseling,” said a Nairobi-based nurse. “The government wasn’t just willing to provide psychosocial support no matter how much we tried.” 

Inadequate Countrywide Testing, Information Management 

Human Rights Watch found that, while they established numerous testing centers across the country, the authorities did not ensure an adequate supply of testing reagents and kits to control the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19.

A Nairobi-based laboratory expert working in one of the government’s testing centers and two other doctors said that they lacked guidelines on who should be tested, adding that it was impossible to test everyone because of limited testing kits and reagents. A doctor in Nairobi said:

The government started saying we should test only those who show symptoms to cope with limited test kits. The numbers we are testing are far lower than we should be doing. We are only testing those who show symptoms or those who want to travel. People are now vaccinating without testing to know their status. Yet if you are positive with Covid and get vaccinated, the situation gets aggravated. We have lost people this way, including healthcare workers.

Because of undertesting, the laboratory expert questioned the accuracy of the numbers of Covid-19 cases that the Health Ministry reported daily. “Most of the time, reagents have been in short supply,” he said. “Testing patterns [or the size of samples] have been an issue, in some instances giving the notion it’s linked to funding.”

The doctors interviewed said that at the beginning of the pandemic, the government set up three laboratories at the National Influenza Center, Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in Nairobi the capital; Kilifi, on the east coast; and Kisumu in the southwest. After July 2020, the authorities created more labs in Bungoma, in western Kenya; at the Walter Reed Institute in Kericho, in the Rift Valley region; and at the Coast Provincial Hospital in Mombasa, on the east coast. Later, KEMRI started another lab in Alupe, in the west.

Unfortunately, the doctors said that this expansion did not come with measures to ensure the necessary quality of services, including the authorities’ failure to employ enough staff to run the laboratories or to provide supplies to keep them operational. When reagents became unavailable, interviewees said, testing decreased and its quality became compromised.

Doctors and managers working at testing facilities said that between March and April 2020, they tested an average of 400 samples per day. In May, June, and early July, the number of tests skyrocketed to 10,000 samples per day. However, by mid-July, the facilities began running out of testing kits and reagents, causing testing to slow down. Between October to December, the centers used up all the reagents, so the government had to cease testing. In January and February 2021, despite the fact that the government had fresh supplies of testing kits by then, the testing remained low because of the doctors’ and nurses’ strike. Testing resumed in March 2021 after the strike had ended.

The laboratory expert said that between July and December 2020, when government facilities gradually stopped testing, the authorities reported only the testing results from private hospitals. The low number of results reported during this period was due to reduced testing and not any decrease in the number of infections.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Afghans from northern provinces who fled their homes due to the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces take refuge in a public parc in Kabul, August 13, 2021.  ©2021 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

(New York) – Afghans at risk who have fled or are seeking to flee Afghanistan need greater international support, Human Rights Watch said today in a new policy briefing paper. The United Nations system and concerned governments should improve their assistance to Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, including those in countries neighboring Afghanistan, transit countries, and countries of resettlement.

The briefing paper, “Policy Responses to Support Afghans Fleeing Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan,” urged UN agencies and governments hosting Afghan refugees and asylum seekers to focus on increasing refugee resettlement and building better pathways to safe and durable solutions for Afghans needing protection. These include those eligible for family reunification visas or special visas available because of their past work in Afghanistan.

“Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, many Afghans at grave risk are depending on governments to respect the right to seek asylum,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Responding effectively to this humanitarian crisis demands refugee and migration policies that are generous, rights-respecting, and culturally sensitive.”

Since the Taliban took over Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, on August 15, 2021, Human Rights Watch has interviewed Afghan refugees who report having been harassed, beaten, and extorted by Taliban officials as they attempted to leave the country. Human Rights Watch also documented abuses against people in many provinces associated with the former government, including former security forces personnel and members of the judiciary. Those at greatest risk include human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, high-profile women, journalists and other media workers, judges, and others who held official administrative and security positions.

Concerned governments should use whatever influence they have with the new Taliban authorities to allow Afghans to exercise their basic human right to leave the country, Human Rights Watch said. Afghans seeking to flee now have fewer options to depart the country as Pakistan canceled flights by its national carrier between Kabul and Islamabad. A private Afghan carrier, Kam Airways, and Qatar Airways continue to operate limited flights out of the country. This should include establishing an orderly departure program for Afghans seeking protection abroad. Any such program would need to be strictly understood as supplemental to other pathways to protection and not a substitute for the right to leave one’s country to seek asylum elsewhere.

Neighboring countries should open their borders to Afghan asylum seekers, and all governments should suspend deportations or returns of Afghans indefinitely, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has documented Turkish authorities summarily pushing Afghan asylum seekers trying to cross into Turkey from Iran back to Iran, in violation of international law. Because of the dramatically changed situation in the country, governments should reopen and review asylum cases of Afghan asylum seekers whose cases have previously been rejected. They should also provide a pathway to permanent residency to Afghans who have lived on their territory for many years and established ties to their countries.

Countries outside the region should make significantly more resettlement places available for Afghan refugees, while helping financially to support Afghan refugees in countries of first arrival in the region. Governments should also expand complementary pathways to facilitate safe and orderly migration for Afghans. These pathways may include special programs developed for Afghans, private and community sponsorship, family reunification, visiting scholar, student, artist, and humanitarian and other professional work visas.

While the scale of the problem requires robust government funding and engagement, governments should also encourage, expand, and support private sponsorship programs by individuals, groups, faith-based or diaspora groups, municipalities and cities, and universities to welcome Afghans.

Many Afghans are leaving their homes traumatized and vulnerable. Programming should include mental health support for new arrivals, taking into account the trauma of forced flight and the specific hardships Afghans may have faced in Afghanistan and after leaving the country.

The education of newly displaced Afghan children has already been interrupted by the conflict, the Covid-19 pandemic, and now by flight. Neighboring countries, third-country processing sites, and any other country hosting Afghan refugee children should ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality and inclusive education without discrimination within three months of arrival.

“Afghans have many reasons to flee and fear,” Frelick said. “It’s now in the hands of governments around the world to give them reason to hope.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 21, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Payam Derafshan. © 2017 Private

(Beirut) – Horrific reported details of Iranian authorities’ mistreatment in detention of Payam Derafshan, a respected human rights lawyer, show the Iranian intelligence agencies’ central role in repressing human rights activism, Human Rights Watch said today. Iranian authorities should immediately and transparently investigate this serious abuse and hold those responsible accountable.

On October 17, 2021, an Iranian lawyer, Saeed Dehghan, tweeted a detailed account of abuses his colleague Payam Derafshan experienced in detention at the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Organization, which Human Rights Watch independently confirmed. The group arrested Derafshan on June 7, 2020 and, Dehghan said, detained Derafshan in 2-Alef ward of Evin prison in Tehran, which is under the Revolutionary Guard’s supervision. While Derafshan was in detention, Dehghan said, the authorities injected Derafshan with a substance that resulted in physical and psychological damage.

“The authorities’ revolting abuse and medical negligence of a prominent human rights lawyer should make us extremely concerned about the situation of dozens of lesser-known political prisoners in Iran,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should promptly investigate abuses against Payam Derafshan, prosecute anyone responsible, provide him with adequate redress, and urgently investigate the prevalence of torture and abuse in prisons across the country.”

Derafshan has represented high-profile rights cases in Iran, including the prominent lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and the family of Kavous Seyed Eammi, an Iranian Canadian environmental activist who died in prison in suspicious circumstances in February 2018. The authorities granted Derafshan conditional release in September 2020.

Dehghan said that soon after his arrest, Derafshan protested his solitary confinement, in which the lights in his cell were always kept on. Three officers then took him out of his cell and injected him with an unknown substance against his will. Derafshan was returned to his cell, where he experienced a serious convulsion that caused him to lose consciousness and to bite off part of his tongue.

The next day the authorities took him to Baghiatollah Hospital in Tehran, where he underwent surgery on his tongue and was admitted to the neurology ward due to impaired perception of his surroundings. Before Derafshan completed his treatment, however, the authorities took him before Judge Mohammad Moghiseh at branch 28 of Tehran’s revolutionary court to extend his detention order, which the judge did. The authorities then transferred him to ward 4 in the general population section of Evin prison.

Dehghan said that Derafshan experienced further side effects, including convulsions, and that the authorities transferred him to a psychiatric hospital, where he received shock therapy that has reportedly resulted in damage to his brain.

During this period, Derafshan’s family was not informed about his whereabouts. They found out about his condition from other prisoners in ward 4, who had helped care for Derafshan.

On July 20, 2020, Dehghan had reported that the court acquitted Derafshan of the charge of “assembly and collusion against national security” but sentenced him on charges that included “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “carrying an unauthorized taser” to two-and-a-half years in prison, which an appeals court upheld. The authorities granted Derafshan a medical leave in September 2020 and ultimately granted him a conditional release after the completion of one third of his sentence.

Over the past three years, several cases of potential negligence and lack of access to medical access for prisoners have resulted in serious harm. The authorities have also failed to investigate allegations of torture and abuse in custody and even prosecuted people who reported torture. According to Amnesty International, since 2010, at least 72 people have died in custody in Iranian prisons, while the authorities have failed to provide accountability despite credible reports of torture and ill-treatment.

On August 24, in response to apparently hacked videos of Evin prison that showed mistreatment and abuse against prisoners, Mohammad Mehdi Haj Hosseini, the head of the Prisons Office, apologized and promised to investigate abuses and prevent further violations. On August 30, Etemad Online reported that the Prosecutor’s Office had reported without additional details that six officials are under prosecution for wrongdoing.

Since 2018, the authorities have increased their repression of human rights lawyers and have sought to increasingly prevent them from representing activists. Since August 14, the authorities have arbitrarily detained three prominent human rights defenders who intended to file a complaint against Iranian authorities for mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis.

Under article 32 of United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules, “the relationship between the physician or other health-care professionals and the prisoners shall be governed by the same ethical and professional standards as those applicable to patients in the community, in particular: (a) The duty of protecting prisoners’ physical and mental health and the prevention and treatment of disease on the basis of clinical grounds only; (b) Adherence to prisoners’ autonomy with regard to their own health and informed consent in the doctor-patient relationship.”

“Iran’s intelligence apparatus, in close collaboration with the revolutionary court, have turned the justice system into a cornerstone of repression, where victims experience horrific mistreatment and are left with no means to seek redress and accountability,” Sepehri Far said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 20, 2021, 10:00 pm
Click to expand Image   A man helps his mother as she casts her ballot during the parliamentary elections in Basra, Iraq on October 10, 2021. © 2021 Nabil al-Jurani/AP Images

In the weeks leading up to the October 10 parliamentary elections, Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) promised to take steps to ensure people with disabilities could vote.

But on election day, videos circulated suggested IHEC’s promises to make polling places accessible, with ballot boxes on the ground floor, went unfulfilled. A week later, we spoke to Haidar Jassim, 40, who has a physical disability. Here is what he said:

I was so optimistic when I heard IHEC would make polling places accessible to people with disabilities.

At 11:30 a.m. on election day, I went to the polling place in my Baghdad neighborhood, in my wheelchair, full of hope that I would be able to vote. I showed my voter ID to two IHEC staff. One looked at me and said, you have to make it to the second floor. I asked if I could vote without going to the second floor. The head of the polling place said they could not move the ballot boxes downstairs, but that I could come back later in the day and he would try to think of a solution. I told them about the IHEC announcement. He said he had no information about it.

Another staff person said, “Let me give you some advice, just go back home. Your vote won’t make a difference anyway.” I was shocked. I explained that I want to exercise and enjoy my rights like anyone else. I can only conclude that he and his colleagues do not consider us to be human beings with the same rights. He then told an older man in a wheelchair to also go home without voting, and left.

I went home and changed my electric wheelchair to a lighter, manual one, and went back to the polling place with my cousin. With help from another IHEC employee, they carried me to the second floor, and I was finally able to vote.

Sadly, I know many people with disabilities who couldn’t vote in Baghdad because the polling places were not accessible. 

The IHEC should explain to Haidar, and everyone it let down on election day, why did it not implement its limited promises around accessibility, and what it is planning to do before the next elections to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 20, 2021, 11:45 am

(Berlin – October 20, 2021) – The three German parties entering negotiations on the formation of the next government should put human rights at the heart of their agenda, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has written to the parties – the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) – with recommendations on core human rights concerns relevant to Germany’s foreign and domestic policy.

Letter to the parties Letter to the Parties.pdf

"Whether the parties are discussing China, Russia, climate change, or the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, human rights should always be on the table during the negotiations," said Wenzel Michalski, Germany Director at Human Rights Watch. "This is the only way to ensure that any coalition agreement is anchored in Germany’s human rights obligations and that those obligations will guide future government action."

The SPD, the Greens, and the FDP have announced that they will start talks about a government coalition in the upcoming days.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 20, 2021, 11:20 am

(Beirut) – Syrian refugees who returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021 from Lebanon and Jordan faced grave human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Returnees also struggled to survive and meet their basic needs in a country decimated by conflict.

The 72-page report “‘Our Lives Are Like Death’: Syrian Refugee Returns from Lebanon and Jordan,” found that Syria is not safe for return. Among 65 returnees or family members interviewed, Human Rights Watch documented 21 cases of arrest and arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture, 3 kidnappings, 5 extrajudicial killings, 17 enforced disappearances, and 1 case of alleged sexual violence.

Click to expand Image A man rides a motorcycle through a destroyed neighborhood in al-Khaldieh area in Homs, Syria, on September 18, 2018. © 2018 Reuters/Marko Djurica

“The harrowing accounts of torture, enforced disappearance, and abuse that refugees who went back to Syria endured should make it patently clear that Syria is not safe for returns,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher. “Widespread property rights violations and other economic hardships also make a sustainable return impossible for many.”

In addition to the 65 returnees and family members, Human Rights Watch interviewed three lawyers from Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon and four researchers and experts on Syria, as well as nongovernmental organizations, and UN and humanitarian agencies in Jordan and Lebanon. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports related to Syrian refugee returns, and analyzed relevant national and international laws, decrees, regulations, and memorandums of understanding.

While parts of Syria have not had active conflict hostilities since 2018, the Human Rights Watch finding that Syria is not safe is consistent with findings by other human rights organizations, journalists, and the Syria UN Commission of Inquiry. All have documented arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and ill-treatment, involuntary or enforced disappearances, and summary executions.

UNHCR, the UN agency mandated to provide international protection and humanitarian assistance to refugees, maintains that Syria is unsafe and that it will not facilitate mass returns in the absence of key protection conditions, though it will facilitate individual voluntary returns. All countries should protect Syrians from being returned to face violence, torture, and halt any forced returns to Syria, Human Rights Watch said.

“No one will be safe in Syria until they stop the security agencies from terrorizing people,” said a 38-year-old refugee in Lebanon who went back to his hometown of Qunaitra in Syria.

Despite the findings, countries in the region and beyond continue to promote returns. Denmark has set a dangerous precedent from within the European Union by removing the “temporary protection” status of people from Damascus and Damascus Countryside.

Lebanon authorities have pursued an aggressive returns agenda, with decrees and regulations designed to make Syrian refugees’ lives difficult, and to pressure them to leave. They have forced Syrian refugees to dismantle their concrete shelters, imposed curfews and evicted refugees from some municipalities, obstructed the renewal of residency permits, and summarily deported thousands of Syrian refugees. Lebanon’s economic collapse has left 90 percent of Syrians in extremely poverty and relying on credit and mounting debt to survive.

Jordan has not publicly pushed for large-scale organized repatriations and has granted some legal work opportunities to Syrian refugees. But closing important categories of employment to non-citizens limits the jobs Syrians can work. Only 2 percent of refugee households can meet their essential food needs.

While Jordan does not impose a formal re-entry ban on Syrian refugees, refugees nearly uniformly told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian border guards said they could not re-enter Jordan for three to five years. This denies returnees them right to claim asylum if, having returned to Syria, they again face persecution.

Despite increasing levels of vulnerability in Lebanon and Jordan, the number of spontaneous refugee returns to Syria has not significantly increased. Those who do return are often under extreme pressure, with limited information on conditions inside the country.

At the outset of the Syrian conflict, Lebanon and Jordan at first welcomed refugees. As the numbers of refugees in Lebanon increased, Lebanon adopted coercive and abusive measures, including discriminatory curfews, evictions, arrests, and other restrictions on legal residency and access to employment and education.

With no reliable information networks on which Syrian refugees can make fully informed decisions about return and with international humanitarian agencies lacking adequate access to monitor returns, countries hosting Syrian refugees should adhere to the position that Syria is unsafe for returns and immediately halt any forced returns, Human Rights Watch said.

International donor governments should use their leverage against such practices as summary deportations and forced returns, which amount to a breach of nonrefoulement obligations – not returning people to a place where they could face threats to life and freedom and other serious harm. They should also make clear to the Syrian government, its allies, and host countries, that so long as these abuses continue with impunity, they will not finance humanitarian programming that preemptively focuses on returns preparedness.

International donor governments should help sustain this position and fully fund humanitarian assistance programs, particularly inside Lebanon and Jordan and other neighboring countries.

Lebanon and Jordan should lift all restrictions on Syrian refugees re-entering their countries if they were not able to re-establish themselves inside Syria, or to get Syrian government protection. Lebanon should revoke the May 2019 Higher Defense Council decision for the summary deportation of all Syrian refugees who re-enter irregularly after April 2019. Jordan should stop imposing arbitrary or de facto re-entry bans on Syrian refugees and clarify that Syrians can return to Jordan, and the process for doing so.

Denmark should repeal its decision to remove temporary protection for Syrian refugees from Damascus and Damascus Countryside and European Member States should not introduce any similar legislation.

While active hostilities may have decreased in recent years, the Syrian government has continued to pursue the same abuses against citizens that led them to flee in the first place, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and torture.

“No country should be forcing refugees to return to Syria, so long as the Syrian government commits widespread human rights abuses,” Hardman said. “A decade on, returning refugees are still at risk of persecution from the same government they fled.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 20, 2021, 4:01 am
Click to expand Image Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire leaves Nyarugenge prison, on the outskirts of Kigali, after being released on September 15, 2018. © 2018 Cyril Ndegeya/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Rwandan authorities have arrested nine people linked to an opposition party and a journalist in the last week, as they intensify their crackdown on opponents and critics, Human Rights Watch said. The crackdown appears connected to an event, “Ingabire Day,” organized by the unregistered opposition party Dalfa-Umurinzi, that had been scheduled for October 14, 2021, to discuss among other things political repression in Rwanda.

Théoneste Nsengimana, a journalist who had intended to cover the event and host a discussion on his YouTube channel with Victoire Ingabire, the party’s leader, was arrested on October 13.

Several party members and regional representatives – Sylvain Sibomana, Alexis Rucubanganya, Hamad Hagengimana, and Jean-Claude Ndayishimiye – were also arrested at their homes on October 13, as was Joyeuse Uwatuje, Ingabire’s close friend and personal assistant.

According to sources within the Dalfa-Umurinzi party, Alphonse Mutabazi was arrested on the morning of October 14, and Marcel Nahimana, the party’s secretary-general, and Emmanuel Masengesho were arrested the evening of October 14. Régine Kadoyimana, an administrative assistant in the party, was arrested on October 16 at her home in the capital, Kigali.

“The Rwandan government’s latest crackdown underscores that it is unwilling to tolerate debate and criticism,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These blatantly arbitrary and politically motivated arrests are intended to further discourage people from speaking out against government policy or abuse.”

The Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) announced in a tweet late on October 13 that Nsengimana and five other unnamed people had been placed under arrest for “publication of rumours intended to cause uprising or unrest among the population.” It also tweeted a warning against those who use social media to “undermine national security” and “incite divisions.” The agency has not made any public announcements about the four other arrests.

According to sources within the Dalfa-Umurinzi party, the ten were arrested in different parts of the country, but all except Kadoyimana, the last one arrested, are now being held at Remera police station in Kigali. Kadoyimana is reportedly detained at Kicukiro police station, but Human Rights Watch was not able to independently confirm this. The RIB spokesperson did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s requests for information. All have been given access to a lawyer. On October 18, a RIB agent called Ingabire to summon her to the investigation bureau’s headquarters in Kigali, but at time of publication she had not yet been.

Rwandan law includes overly broad and vague provisions that enable arbitrary limitations on free speech and that violate the right to freedom of expression and media freedom protections under international law. One of the laws being used to curb free speech is the Law on the Prevention of Cybercrimes, which prohibits the publication of “rumours,” punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Rwandan Francs (US$3,000).

However, whether information is factual does not in itself constitute legitimate grounds to criminalize speech under international law. These charges are wholly inappropriate and underline how the justice system is being used as a tool to stifle dissent and intimidate the public, Human Rights Watch said. All ten people arrested should be immediately and unconditionally released.

Ingabire, the former president of the unregistered opposition party FDU-Inkingi before creating Dalfa-Umurinzi in November 2019, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy to undermine the established government and denying the genocide after she tried to contest the 2010 presidential elections. She was eventually pardoned and released in September 2018.

Sibomana, the FDU-Inkingi’s then-secretary-general, was first arrested alongside another member of the party, Anselme Mutuyimana, in 2012 and accused of holding an illegal meeting in a bar. Mutuyimana was released in 2018 but found dead in mysterious circumstances in March 2019. Sibomana was released in 2021.

Nsengimana was previously arrested in April 2020, alongside three other bloggers and a driver, all working with Rwandan YouTube channels that reported on the impact of the Covid-19 guidelines on vulnerable populations. Charges were brought against Nsengimana, Dieudonné Niyonsenga, known as “Cyuma Hassan,” the owner of Ishema TV, and his driver, Fidèle Komezusenge.

Nsengimana was held in pretrial detention on accusations of fraud but released in May 2020 for lack of evidence. Niyonsenga and Komezusenge were accused of forgery, impersonating journalists, and hindering public works but both were acquitted on March 12, 2021. The prosecution appealed the acquittal, and the hearing is expected in November.

On October 14, the Rwanda Media Commission issued a statement claiming that Niyonsenga is not a journalist. Rwanda’s narrow definition of journalists as “a person who possesses basic journalism skills and who exercises journalism as his/her first profession” runs counter to international standards and has allowed the government to prosecute bloggers doing important public interest reporting, Human Rights Watch said.

In March, Human Rights Watch documented the growing crackdown on people using YouTube to report on human rights abuses and current affairs and to hold political discussions. Between March 2020 and March 2021, at least eight people reporting or commenting on current affairs were threatened, arrested, prosecuted, or “disappeared” in mysterious circumstances.

Online commentators, such as Yvonne Idamange and Aimable Karasira, have also used their videos to discuss the 1994 genocide, the crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in its aftermath, and the government’s commemorations of the killings.

Idamange, a Tutsi genocide survivor who accused the government of monetizing the genocide and called for a protest, was found guilty, in a trial held behind closed doors, of inciting violence and public uprising, denigrating genocide artifacts, spreading rumors, and violent assault, among other charges on September 30. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On May 31, Karasira was arrested on charges including denying and justifying the genocide and instigating divisions, and has not yet been tried.

In recent years, several members of the FDU-Inkingi – now Dalfa-Umurinzi – have reported being detained incommunicado, beaten, and questioned about their membership to the party. In January 2020, six members were convicted of charges including forming or collaborating with irregular armed forces and offenses against the state. Those convicted included Boniface Twagirimana, the party’s deputy leader, who “disappeared” from his prison cell in Mpanga, southern Rwanda, in October 2018, and is still missing.

Three others – Théophile Ntirutwa, Venant Abayisenga, and Léonille Gasengayire – were acquitted of all charges and released. After their release, they gave video interviews to local YouTube channels detailing their pretrial detention and describing ill-treatment and torture, including in Kwa Gacinya, an unofficial detention facility in the Gikondo neighborhood of Kigali, and in Mageragere and Nyanza prisons.

Abayisenga was reported missing in June 2020 after he went out to buy phone credit, and is feared forcibly disappeared or dead. Ntirutwa was rearrested following an attack at his shop in Rwamagana District on May 11. On May 18, Ntirutwa and three others at his shop at the time of the attack were charged with offenses including murder, theft, and “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan State.” Their trial has yet to begin.

In 2019, three members of the FDU-Inkingi were reported missing or found dead in mysterious circumstances. In addition to Mutuyimana, in September, Syldio Dusabumuremyi, the party’s national coordinator, was stabbed to death. And Eugène Ndereyimana, a party member, was reported missing on July 15, after he failed to arrive for a meeting in Nyagatare, Eastern Province. In March 2016, Illuminée Iragena, a political activist and FDU-Inkingi member, was reported missing, most likely forcibly disappeared in unacknowledged government detention.

“Rwanda’s brutal methods to quash dissent give reason to be greatly concerned for the safety and well-being of anyone arrested,” Mudge said. “Rwanda’s international partners should publicly condemn the crackdown and Rwanda’s abysmal human rights record, and press for the group’s immediate and unconditional release.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2021, 2:30 pm