Click to expand Image Relatives of 12 Hong Kong activists apprehended at sea by Chinese authorities call for their family members to be returned to the territory, saying their legal rights were being violated, at a press conference in Hong Kong, September 12, 2020. ©2020 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

(New York) –The Chinese authorities should allow 12 detained Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, including one child, access to family members and their own lawyers and physicians, Human Rights Watch said today. The group has been held incommunicado in Shenzhen’s Yantian Detention Center since August 23, 2020.

Detention center authorities said the 12 detainees are suspected of “unlawfully crossing the border,” which carries a sentence of up to one year in prison. But a Chinese government spokesperson said the 12 are “separatists,” a crime that can carry the death penalty in “egregious cases.”

“The Chinese authorities should respect their own laws and allow the 12 Hong Kong detainees access to their relatives and lawyers,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government seems determined to treat Hong Kong protesters in custody as badly as it has long treated mainland activists.”

On August 23, the Chinese coast guard intercepted a boat sailing from Hong Kong to Taiwan and detained all 12 people aboard. The group, ages 17 to 33, includes Andy Li, an activist who had been arrested in Hong Kong on August 10 for “colluding with foreign elements” under Hong Kong’s new draconian National Security Law. The others were protesters accused of arson, rioting, assaulting the police, and other crimes under Hong Kong law, and were either wanted by the Hong Kong police or had been barred from leaving the city under bail conditions. None have been formally charged. Human Rights Watch does not have information regarding the merits of the underlying criminal cases.

Chinese authorities have threatened mainland lawyers hired by the protesters’ families to represent the 12 with “serious consequences for their career,” stating that the case is “very sensitive” as it involves the National Security Law. Five of the lawyers have dropped the case as a result of the threats, and those who went to the detention center have been denied access to their clients. The detention authorities – and Hong Kong Secretary of Security John Lee – claimed that the 12 had already accepted government-appointed lawyers. Their families, however, said they rejected those lawyers.

Under China’s Criminal Procedure Law, suspects have the right to appoint lawyers of their choice as soon as they are under any of compulsory police measures, and to meet with those lawyers. Legal representation is compulsory for those accused of crimes that might lead to life in prison or the death penalty, or for suspects under age 18. In practice, especially in politically sensitive cases, detention center authorities and police often deny suspects access to lawyers, and subject them to months of enforced disappearance during which they may face torture and other ill-treatment.

Under Chinese law, police can detain citizens for up to 37 days before the procuratorate approves their arrest or release. Since police formally detained the group on August 25, the authorities will have to announce by October 1 whether each of the 12 will be formally arrested or released. The police can also subject people to up to six months of secret detention known as “residential surveillance in a designated location.”

Hong Kong authorities, while vowing to “actively follow up” on the case, also said that it would be “difficult” to seek their extradition to Hong Kong, and that the mainland authorities have jurisdiction over the 12 detainees. Hong Kong officials also said that mainland authorities had conveyed to them that the 12 “are in good health,” but have made no effort to seek access to the detainees. Among the group, three require medication to manage chronic conditions including asthma and depression; the families said they fear the detained have no access to medical care.

One detainee, Kok Tsz-Lun, 18, a Hong Kong University student, is a dual Hong Kong-Portugal national. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations permits Portuguese consular officers to visit Kok in detention and arrange legal representation for him. The Portuguese consulate should immediately seek to meet with Kok if it has not done so already, Human Rights Watch said.

Among the group, Wong Lam-Fok, is 17. Under international human rights law, the arrest, detention, or imprisonment of a child under the age of 18 may be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. Every detained child has the right to maintain contact with his or her family through visits and correspondence. Moreover, any detained child has the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the detention before a court or other independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.

The Hong Kong government should seek access to the 12 detainees and provide robust assistance to ensure that their rights are respected by mainland authorities.

“People in Hong Kong and abroad are watching how the Chinese government deals with these Hong Kong cases,” Wang said. “The Chinese government needs to show the world it can uphold its own laws and international obligations.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 28, 2020, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Friends and families of people killed in the conflict gathered in a cemetery to call for a ceasefire from the parties to the intra-Afghan peace talks taking place in Doha, Qatar, September 14, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

The painstaking pace of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban means that it could be a long time before the participants address the most contentious issues, including the call for a ceasefire that President Ashraf Ghani made at the United Nations General Assembly this week.

Afghans should not have to wait for a ceasefire for both sides to end attacks that inflict large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries.  

The Taliban’s increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is behind much of the rising civilian toll. Magnetic explosive devices that often detonate in populated areas and pressure plate IEDs that act like antipersonnel mines have already killed over 700 Afghan civilians and injured hundreds in 2020, a 50 percent increase over 2019. Explosive devices that are victim-activated are banned under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, to which Afghanistan is party. They are prohibited regardless of whether they were assembled in a factory or improvised from locally available materials.

The weight of a child is enough to set one off, and children make up over one-third of the civilian casualties from pressure late IEDs. Last May, three boys under 12 were killed when they triggered an IED on a road in Badghis.

Civilian vehicles frequently detonate IEDs on public roads. Four family members, including a small child, were killed in June when their vehicle struck an IED in Ghazni. In June in Kabul, a magnetic IED claimed the lives of Fatima “Natasha” Khalil and Javid Folad of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

The Taliban – who have committed to not using anti-personnel mines – should cease deploying these weapons and remove those that have been planted.

At the same time, civilian casualties from Afghan government airstrikes have tripled in 2020, compared to 2019. Women and children comprised 65 percent of deaths and injuries. On September 19, government airstrikes against the Taliban in Kunduz killed at least 10 civilians, among them people retrieving the injured and dead from bombed houses. Airstrikes that cause indiscriminate or disproportionate civilian harm are unlawful, but the Afghan government has a poor track record of investigating such incidents. The United States, which arms and trains the Afghan air force, has also failed to adequately investigate civilian airstrike casualties.

The Taliban and Afghan government blame each other for ramping up attacks, but they don’t need to wait for a ceasefire before they do more to protect civilians. Countries backing the negotiations should press them to stop engaging in unlawful means and methods of warfare. Until that happens, ordinary Afghans will pay the price.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 27, 2020, 2:00 am
Click to expand Image Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong displays a bail paper outside Central Police Station in Hong Kong, Thursday, September 24, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Vincent Yu

(New York) – Hong Kong authorities should cease politically motivated prosecutions of pro-democracy activists, Human Rights Watch said today. They should immediately drop charges and quash convictions in cases involving Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which places excessive restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

The police arrested Joshua Wong, 23, a prominent leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, on September 24, 2020 and charged him with participation in an “unauthorized assembly” and for violating Hong Kong’s ban on face masks in 2019. Koo Sze Yiu, a veteran activist, and two other unnamed protesters were also arrested. Wong has been jailed twice for a total of eight months between 2017 and 2019 on charges of unlawful assembly and contempt of court.

“The Hong Kong authorities keep dredging up dubious cases against Joshua Wong in a heavy-handed attempt to silence him,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Hong Kong and Chinese authorities should realize that people in Hong Kong have responded to attacks on pro-democracy voices with ever greater resolve in calling for human rights.”

The two latest charges against Wong stem from his participation in an unauthorized protest on October 5, 2019, against the Hong Kong chief executive’s invocation of emergency powers to enact a broad ban on protesters wearing face masks. The “unlawful assembly” charge is based on alleged violations of Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which requires organizers to notify police of demonstrations involving more than 30 people at least seven days in advance, and requires organizers to get a “notice of no objection” from the government before proceeding. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has criticized the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. Human Rights Watch has urged the Hong Kong government to amend the law because it is incompatible with international standards on freedom of assembly.

The charge of “unlawful assembly” carries up to five years in prison, while violating the mask ban can result in up to one year in prison and a maximum HK$25,000 (US$3,200) fine.

Wong also faces four other charges for his participation in two protests. He is accused of “inciting others to participate in unauthorized assembly,” “organizing unauthorized assembly,” and “participating in unauthorized assembly” in relation to a protest on June 21, 2019, during which protesters surrounded and threw eggs at the Hong Kong Police Headquarters in Wanchai. Wong is also charged with “participating in unauthorized assembly” for participating in the annual vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which the police banned for the first time this year purportedly due to Covid-19 restrictions.

In violation of international human rights law, the Hong Kong government also barred Wong from running for office in both the Legislative Council and the lower level District Council solely due to his peaceful political advocacy for democracy. Beginning in June 2020, Wong has also been repeatedly followed and photographed by unknown individuals whom he suspects to be mainland security agents

Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, there has been a surge of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions in Hong Kong. These arrests accelerated following the 2019 protests. In February 2020, the authorities arrested the pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and former lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum relating to their participation in the 2019 protests. In mid-April, Hong Kong police arrested 24 prominent pro-democracy leaders, including the 81-year-old barrister Martin Lee, for “organizing and participating in unlawful assemblies” during the 2019 protests.

In late June, mainland authorities imposed a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong that introduces national security police units in Hong Kong and vague restrictions on a vast swathe of rights protected under international human rights law. In August, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked Covid-19 concerns to postpone Legislative Council elections, slated for September, for a full year.

“Pro-democracy activists and the rights they rely on are on the ropes in Hong Kong,” Richardson said. “It’s up to the courts to recognize – and reject – these politicized prosecutions.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 25, 2020, 10:14 pm

(Nairobi) – Guinea’s security forces failed to protect people from election-related and intercommunal violence and committed human rights abuses in Nzérékoré, southeastern Guinea, during legislative elections and a constitutional referendum in March 2020, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 43-page report, “‘They Let People Kill Each Other’: Violence in Nzérékoré During Guinea’s Constitutional Referendum and Legislative Elections,” documents the violence which killed at least 32 people and injured more than 90 as clashes between pro-government and opposition supporters ignited longstanding political and ethnic tensions. Security forces deployed to provide security for the polls did not do enough to prevent the killings or widespread destruction of property, and allegedly killed two people and beat and arbitrarily arrested dozens of men, Human Rights Watch found.

“Guinea’s security forces were either unable or unwilling to halt the devastating violence that accompanied the March legislative elections and constitutional poll in Nzérékoré,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ahead of preparations for presidential elections in October, the government should take urgent steps to ensure that security forces respect and protect people’s rights to political protest and participation while acting with restraint and respect for human rights.”

September 25, 2020 “They Let People Kill Each Other”

Between March and September, Human Rights Watch interviewed 48 victims of and witnesses to the violence in Nzérékoré, as well as 31 relatives of victims, medical staff, journalists, lawyers, opposition party members, civil society representatives, and other key informants. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports published by Guinean human rights right groups and national and international media, and examined photographs, video footage, and medical records.

The March 22 constitutional referendum was the culmination of a controversial months-long effort by President Alpha Condé and his supporters to replace the 2010 constitution to pave the way for Condé to run for another term.

The day of the referendum and legislative elections was marred by violence across the country, including in the national capital, Conakry, as opponents of the proposed new constitution clashed with pro-government supporters and the security forces.

The violence reached its peak in Nzérékoré, Guinea’s second-largest city. Victims and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the violence often ran along ethnic lines with groups of armed Guerzé, a group seen as sympathetic to the opposition, facing off with equally well-armed ethnic Konianké and Malinké, largely considered ruling party supporters. Some of the victims were apparently targeted based on their ethnic identity. Many were shot, hacked, or beaten to death, and at least one was burned alive. Human Rights Watch also documented one case of a 17-year-old girl raped by a group of armed men.

Despite the presence of the security forces, including police, gendarmes, and soldiers deployed to provide election security, witnesses said that the security forces and the political authorities did not intervene or respond to desperate calls to stop mobs from attacking people or destroying property.

Documenting Violence in Guinea During a Pandemic

Birgit Schwarz talks to senior Africa researcher Ilaria Allegrozzi about the challenges of documenting the violence in N’Zérékoré during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how to minimize the risk of further human rights violations in the run-up to presidential elections.

READ THE INTERVIEW

“When I started hearing gunshots, I called a senior state government official who said that I should defend my home by throwing stones back at the violent mob,” a 66-year-old resident said. “I was shocked. I am not the type of person who responds to violence with violence. The senior state official took no action whatsoever to make sure the situation did not degenerate.”

Guinea’s government initially said that 4 people died, but later admitted a heavier human toll of 30 deaths. Human Rights Watch documented at least 32 killings and found credible evidence to support an allegation by Guinean human rights groups that the bodies of over two dozen people killed during the violence were removed from Nzérékoré’s regional hospital and secretly buried in a mass grave in the city. Relatives told Human Rights Watch that the hospital had refused to hand over their family members’ remains and that they did not know where the bodies had been buried.

The Guinean government, in response to questions from Human Rights Watch, shared a July 2020 report from a Guinean judge who, after a visit to the site, confirmed the existence of the mass grave. A report signed by the director-general of Nzérékore Hospital and a health ministry representative said that the number of people killed had exceeded the capacity of the hospital’s morgue and that for public health reasons authorities had decided to perform a “burial by necessity.”

Although the majority of the killings in Nzérékoré were by armed citizens, witnesses said security forces also killed at least two people, including a pregnant woman, arrested scores, raided homes, and looted and damaged properties. Most of those arrested were illegally detained at the Beyanzin Military Camp in Nzérékoré between March 22 and 25, where they were beaten and kept in inhuman conditions, in a dirty cell without adequate ventilation, and were deprived of food and water.

“I was beaten up by soldiers with truncheons several times before being brought into a cell with up to 100 people,” said a 29-year-old man who was arrested by soldiers on March 23 at his home in Nzérékoré and held at the military camp. “We were not given food and water for three days. It was horrible.”

Human Rights Watch sent preliminary findings and a list of questions to Albert Damantang Camara, the security and civilian protection minister, on September 8. On September 21, Minister Camara shared with Human Rights Watch an April 30 Guinean police report on the March violence in Nzérékoré. The report stated that a government prosecutor in Nzérékoré had set up a commission of inquiry to identify and prosecute those responsible for crimes committed in the city between March 22 and 24. The report did not, however, address the role of the security forces in responding to violence in Nzérékoré, other than stating that the Bellevue neighborhood, where the election day violence began, had been “inaccessible” to the Guinean police due to the fighting there and that “the army had been requisitioned to work with the security forces to pacify the area.” On September 21, Human Rights Watch requested additional information from Camara concerning the role of the security forces in preventing violence, and allegations they committed human rights abuses, but did not receive it.

As Guinea prepares for the October elections, the authorities should ensure that security forces deployed to polling places, political rallies, or other election-related events effectively protect people while respecting their right to demonstrate peacefully. The government and criminal justice authorities should also take urgent steps to identify all those responsible for the crimes in Nzérékoré, including by the security forces, and prosecute them in fair trials.

Guinea’s international partners, including the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, should urge the government to end impunity for election-related violence. They should make clear to Guinean officials or security forces implicated in human rights abuses that they could face targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes.

“The violence in Nzérékoré is first and foremost a tragedy for those who lost family members or suffered life-changing injuries, who deserve to see the attackers brought to justice,” Allegrozzi said. “The events also serve as a warning that Guinea’s dangerous mix of political crisis, longstanding ethnic and intercommunal tensions, abusive security forces, and impunity risks further human rights violations ahead of and during the October elections.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 25, 2020, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Police Public Order Response Teams respond to a small group of protesters who appeared at a shopping center and quickly dispersed before any arrests could be made during pop-up protests on September 20, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.  © 2020 Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via AP Images.

(Sydney) – Victoria’s police have used harsh measures during the Australian state’s Covid-19 lockdown that threaten basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Victoria’s parliament should reject a new attempt to broaden police powers.

Victorian police have engaged in abusive practices during the pandemic that raise concerns about their commitment to upholding human rights. Premier Daniel Andrews said on September 12, 2020, that imposing curfews was about giving law enforcement “the easiest set of rules to enforce.” He asserted that the curfew would remain in place “because it was not about human rights, but rather a matter of human life.” A bill passed by Victoria’s lower house would expand the authority to detain people during the pandemic crisis.

“Rights should be upheld and reinforced during a pandemic, not abandoned,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Several recent incidents raise serious concerns that Victoria’s police are taking excessive or disproportionate action against suspected lockdown violators.”

Metropolitan Melbourne has been living under a strict second lockdown since the first week of August, with a daily curfew, currently from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and residents only allowed to leave their homes within a five kilometer radius for a limited time to buy food, provide care, exercise, or attend approved work that requires permits. Victoria faced a severe Covid-19 outbreak after a mismanaged hotel quarantine effort in May. The total number of Covid-19 cases in Victoria as of September 22 was 20,076, with 766 deaths. The majority of these cases resulted from the second outbreak, most of them residents of aged care homes, which led to the second lockdown.

On September 2, in Ballarat, police were recorded on video as they arrested a pregnant woman on incitement charges for organizing an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook. Gatherings have been banned under regional Victoria’s Stage 3 stay-at-home orders, yet arresting, handcuffing, and taking someone to the police station solely for planning a protest is a seemingly disproportionate response. Police handcuffed the woman in front of her children and ignored her offer to delete the post. They have since asserted that their actions were proportionate. The case will return to the courts in January 2021.

An Indigenous man riding his bike to work at about 5:30 a.m. on September 3 alleged that Victoria police tackled, assaulted, and racially abused him. Police say the man failed to stop when asked for a permit check. The police did not have their required body cameras turned on so there is no independent record. The man’s workplace union plans to lodge a complaint with Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) for an independent review. The police said that after an internal debrief they were satisfied with the level of force used.

The media have also reported incidents in which the police allegedly used harassing tactics. These include a law professor with cerebral palsy who alleges that the police told her to “move on,” preventing her from sitting down and resting while out with her 70-year-old mother; a heavily pregnant woman whom police reportedly ordered not to sit down at a park bench for a break; and a young tradesman whom the police fined for allegedly having the wrong column mistakenly filled out on his work permit. 

Data reported by the ABC as of September 3, showed the Victorian police had issued 1,762 fines for breaking curfew, totaling A$2.9 million (US$2 million). The Age newspaper reported that over 10 percent of fines have reportedly been imposed in three of Victoria’s most disadvantaged communities, while Victoria’s three most affluent communities have incurred only 2 percent of the fines. In July, after a rise in coronavirus cases among residents, Victorian authorities suddenly locked down several public housing complexes completely for 14 days, enforced by police, resulting in severe restrictions not imposed elsewhere in the state.

International human rights law, such as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), recognizes that in the context of a serious public health threat, restrictions on some rights can be justified. But such restrictions must have a legal basis, be strictly necessary, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate to achieve the objective.

On September 18, the Victorian government’s lower house passed the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020. The bill, if passed by the upper house, would extend powers currently granted only to health officials, to any authorized officer to preemptively detain people who test positive for the virus that causes Covid-19 and who are “likely to refuse or fail to comply with the direction.” Police officers and Protective Services Officers could be among those granted these powers, but it is unclear who would be an “authorized” officer.

Preventive detention authority should only be used in the most serious circumstances, subject to strict limitations and independent review, Human Rights Watch said. If police receive expanded powers under this law, the limitations and rights of appeal would be unclear, as would be whether there is sufficient oversight to prevent misuse or the discriminatory application of the law. 

On September 22, a group of retired judges and leading lawyers wrote a letter to the Victorian premier expressing their alarm over the proposed laws, calling it “unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse.”

“Giving ‘authorized officers’ in Victoria the power to preemptively detain people amid repeated complaints of heavy-handed policing could do more harm than good,” Pearson said. “With Covid-19 numbers in the state falling, now is not the time for new emergency powers.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 24, 2020, 9:26 pm
Click to expand Image Journalist Camila Acosta wears a facemask saying “no to Decree 370,” a 2019 law curtailing free speech in Cuba, on August 1, 2020. © Camila Acosta

The Cuban government’s brutal restrictions on free speech fall particularly hard on journalists. Camila Acosta has learned this from experience. In just the one year since August 2019, when she began working as an independent journalist for the news website CubaNet, Acosta has endured multiple instances of targeted abuse.

Earlier this summer, Acosta was waiting for friends in a park in Havana when two officers asked for her ID, arrested her, and took her to a police station. Inside her bag, they found several facemasks reading, “No to Decree 370,” an abusive 2019 law forbidding the dissemination of information “contrary to the social interest.” The officers forced Acosta to strip her clothes and searched her further, she told Human Rights Watch. The police fined her and threatened further prosecution for protesting the decree.

But this was only the most recent in a string of multiple incidents of harassment against Acosta.

In November 2019, an immigration official stopped Acosta as she was trying to board a plane for a human rights event in Argentina. He said she was forbidden to leave the country, Acosta told Human Rights Watch.

Since February, Acosta has been forced to move houses in Havana at least six times. Each time she rented a new house, the owners soon told her she had to leave. Some said police had chastised them for hosting a “dissident.”

In March, police arbitrarily detained Acosta as she was covering a demonstration in Havana. During a two-hour interrogation, one officer threatened to prosecute her for allegedly “usurping public functions” by reporting the news.

The police eventually let her go. But two weeks later, she was summoned back to a police station, where an officer showed her three of her recent Facebook posts, including a meme of Fidel Castro. The officer invoked Decree 370 and imposed a fine of 3,000 Cuban pesos (roughly US$120), several times the average salary in Cuba.

This repeated weaponizing of Cuba’s free speech restrictions against Acosta leads to the question: Why are authorities so afraid to let a journalist do her job?

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 24, 2020, 5:29 pm
Click to expand Image Workers in Katara cultural heritage village in Doha, Qatar.  © 2018 Ramil Sitdikov / Sputnik via AP

(Beirut) – The success of the significant labor reform measures that Qatar introduced on September 8, 2020, will depend on how well the government enforces and monitors them, Human Rights Watch said today. The reforms will allow migrant workers to change jobs without employer permission and set a higher minimum wage for all workers, regardless of nationality.

Qatar is the first country in the Arab Gulf region to allow all migrant workers to change jobs before the end of their contracts without first obtaining their employer’s consent, one of the key aspects of the kafala (sponsorship) system that can give rise to forced labor. Qatar is the second country in the Gulf region to set a minimum wage for migrant workers, after Kuwait. The changes also apply to migrant workers who are excluded from labor law protections, such as domestic workers. However, other legal provisions that facilitate abuse and exploitation of migrant workers remain.

“Qatar’s new labor reforms are some of the most significant to date and could, if carried out effectively, considerably improve migrant workers’ living and work conditions,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While these changes bring Qatar a concrete step closer to meeting its reform promises, the test will be in how effectively the government carries them out and consistently applies them.” 

Over the past 10 years, Human Rights Watch, other human rights and migrant rights organizations, United Nations experts, trade unions, and media organizations have documented how the kafala system across the region underpins migrant workers’ vulnerability to a wide range of abuses, from passport confiscation to delayed wages and forced labor. These groups have revealed how key elements of the system allow migrant workers to remain trapped in employment situations where their rights to fair wages, overtime pay, adequate housing, freedom of movement, and access to justice are at risk. One such element is employer control over a migrant worker’s ability to change or leave their jobs.

Amendments to Qatar’s 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates, which applies to all migrant workers, regardless of their inclusion in the labor law, removed language that had previously required them to first obtain permission, in the form of a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC), from their employer in order to change jobs. This means that migrant workers can now change jobs without employer permission at any time during their employment, including during the probation period, as long as they notify their employers in accordance with Labor Ministry procedures within a prescribed notice period.

The amendments require that if the employee changes jobs within the probation period, which cannot exceed six months, the new employer is required to reimburse the previous employer’s recruitment costs, but only up to two months of the workers’ basic wage.

Qatar also amended certain provisions of the labor law to allow migrant workers to terminate their employment contracts at will, both during the probation period and after, as long as they notify their employers in writing within a prescribed notice period. If either the employer or worker terminates the contract without abiding by the notice period, they would be required to pay compensation to the other party equivalent to the worker’s basic wage for the notice period or the remaining part of the notice period.

Some migrant workers, including domestic workers, are not governed by the labor law, but new Labor Ministry instructions make clear that new rules for terminating employment contracts and changing jobs are consistent for all workers.

Qatar introduced some earlier changes as well. In January, it extended the right to leave the country without employer permission to migrant workers not covered by the labor law. The government had previously provided this right to most migrant workers in 2018, but not to those in government, oil and gas, agriculture, or domestic workers. However, employers can still apply for exceptions for a few workers, and domestic workers are required to inform employers that they wish to leave at least 72 hours in advance.  

“Qatar has removed another key element of employer control, this time over workers’ ability to leave or change jobs, but authorities should now look to remove all remaining elements that tie migrant workers’ legal status to their employer,” Page said.

Migrant workers – and their dependents – still must rely on their employers to facilitate entry, residence, and employment in the country, meaning employers are responsible for applying for, renewing, and canceling their residency and work permits. Workers can find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own when employers fail to carry out such processes, and it is they, not their employers, who suffer the consequences.

Qatar continues to impose harsh penalties for “absconding” – when a migrant worker leaves their employer without permission or remains in the country beyond the grace period allowed after their residence permit expires or is revoked. The penalties include fines, detention, deportation, and a ban on re-entry.

Moreover, these remaining provisions can continue to drive abuse, exploitation, and forced labor practices, particularly as workers, especially laborers and domestic workers, often depend on the employer not just for their jobs but for housing and food. In addition, passport confiscations, high recruitment fees, and deceptive recruitment practices are ongoing and largely go unpunished, and workers are banned from joining trade unions or striking.

In 2017, Qatar entered a three-year technical cooperation program with the International Labour Organization (ILO), aimed at extensively reforming migrant workers’ conditions, including by reforming the kafala system. Qatar committed to implementing a contractual system to replace the kafala system, including to undertake the renewal of residence permits directly with migrant workers instead of through employers.

Qatar should allow migrant workers to renew their residence permits directly with the government, decriminalize the act of “absconding,” and amend the labor law to guarantee migrant workers’ right to strike and to form trade unions. In the meantime, and to ensure effective implementation of the introduced reforms, Qatar should introduce an amnesty that enables undocumented workers to regularize their status and relaxes their financial and legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

Qatar also passed legislation establishing a basic minimum wage of 1,000 QAR (US$274) that would apply to all workers, regardless of nationality or sector, replacing the temporary basic minimum wage of 750 QAR ($205). Under the new legislation, if the employer does not provide food and accommodation, they are required to provide allowances of 300 QAR ($82) for the former and 500 QAR ($137) for the latter, totaling a minimum of 1,800 QAR ($494).

The wage law, which will enter into force six months after its publication in the official gazette on September 8, also establishes a national minimum wage commission appointed by the Labor Ministry to review the amount at least once a year, taking into account economic factors, including economic growth, competitiveness, and productivity, as well as the needs of the workers and their families. The ministry is not obligated to appoint worker representatives to the commission, however.

Migrant-Rights.org has remarked that the accommodation and food allowances are too low. Qatar should ensure that its periodic review of the minimum wage involves genuine worker representation to ensure that it is a “living wage” in which workers and their families can enjoy the right to a decent standard of living, Human Rights Watch said.

Qatar also introduced amendments to the labor law that set stricter penalties for employers who fail to pay their workers’ wages and increase the number of labor dispute resolution committees, designed to give workers an easier and quicker way to pursue grievances against their employers. While these steps are important, they do not go far enough to tackle wage abuse. A recent Human Rights Watch report on wage abuse found that employers across Qatar frequently violate workers’ right to wages and that efforts to improve the situation have largely failed.

“Setting a nondiscriminatory basic minimum wage will mean little for migrant workers as long as employers can withhold, delay, and deduct from their wages without consequence,” Page said. “The only way to successfully tackle wage abuse is by creating effective wage protection systems and consistently penalizing those who fail to comply.”

The New Provisions

On August 30, Qatar amended some provisions of its 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates to allow all migrant workers to change jobs in accordance with Labor Ministry procedures, removing language that had previously required migrant workers to first obtain permission in the form of a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) from their employer. Qatar also amended certain provisions of the labor law, setting out how migrant workers governed by the labor law can leave their jobs or change employers. These reforms came into effect immediately after the laws were published in the official gazette on September 8.

The amendments also removed the need for Labor and Interior Ministry approval for job change applications, which lacked a transparent process based on clear criteria. The Labor Ministry instructions on changing jobs state that workers can now independently process their job transfer and not incur any related fees. According to the instructions, the worker is required to notify their employer of their desire to change jobs and submit required documents through the Labor Ministry’s electronic notification system. Yet changing jobs is still a government-regulated process.

The amendments provide that the new employer is required to reimburse the previous employer’s recruitment costs, up to two months of the worker’s basic wage, only when the worker changes jobs during their probation period. Houtan Homayanpour, head of the ILO Project Office for Qatar, told Migrant-Rights.org that reimbursement for job change during the probation period is a matter of concern between the two employers, not the worker. He noted that the worker is not required to provide proof of such payment, and that disputes arising from that process will not interfere with the employee’s ability to change jobs.

A ministerial decree issued on September 21 further amended the 2015 law on the entry, exit, and residence of expatriates to allow migrant workers 90 days from the time of expiry of their residence permits to change jobs without employer permission “unless the permit has expired for reasons beyond the control of the expatriate”.

The labor law amendments provide that migrant workers covered by the law can now terminate their employment contracts at will, both during the probation period and after, as long as they notify their employers in writing within a prescribed notice period. The changes stipulate that a migrant worker must submit a one-month written notice if changing jobs within two years or a two-month notice if they have worked for their employer longer.

If either the employer or worker terminates the contract without abiding by the notice period, they would be required to pay compensation to the other party equivalent to the worker’s basic wage for the notice period or the remaining part of the notice period.

If the migrant worker leaves the country without giving notice or paying the compensation required in case they failed to provide notice, Qatari authorities can ban the worker from acquiring a work permit for one year from the date of their departure.

Qatar’s Labor Ministry instructions on changing jobs have attempted to include a safeguard – they state that if the employer fails to fulfill their legal obligations toward the worker, the worker is not obliged to observe the notice period to change jobs. This reflects part of a legal provision in the labor law that remains in cases in which a worker on a full-time job can quit if their employer breaks their obligations under the employment contract, endangers the worker’s health, assaults the worker, or misrepresents contract terms. Previously, this was the only way in which workers on fixed-term contracts could quit their jobs. The new amendments now allow workers to leave their employer or change jobs without needing to show a breach of obligations.

This provision is still helpful for workers who face abuse, as it entitles them to terminate without notice and presumably, the worker would not need to pay compensation to their employer.

Likewise, under the 2017 domestic workers law, domestic workers could previously terminate their contracts only if they could prove that their employer broke contractual obligations, physically harmed them, endangered their health, or misrepresented the contract terms, but under the new Labor Ministry instructions, domestic workers can also terminate their contract with or without notice, and in cases in which they face a breach of contract, they can still terminate contracts at any time, without notice, and maintain their right to end-of-service benefits. The instructions also state that an updated standard employment contract for domestic workers reflecting these rules is forthcoming.

Remaining Factors that Facilitate Labor Abuses

Human Rights Watch research has shown that abuses against migrant worker rights in Qatar are serious and systemic and that the violations often stem from its labor governance system, the criminalization of “absconding” – the routine confiscation of worker passports by employers, and the payment of recruitment fees by workers, which can keep them indebted for years. In conjunction with the prohibition on worker strikes, and the ineffective implementation and enforcement of laws designed to protect migrant workers’ rights, these factors have contributed to abuse, exploitation, and even forced labor.

Human Rights Watch spoke to over 80 migrant workers between January 2019 and February 2020 regarding their experiences working in Qatar. They were employed by diverse employers in various fields and include workers in professional occupations, as well as workers in low-paid jobs such as construction and domestic work.

An overwhelming majority said they experienced one or more of a wide range of labor abuses. Migrant workers cited several barriers to seeking redress or better working conditions, including the now-lifted need for employer approval to change jobs. They also cited the excessive control individual employers have over migrant workers’ legal status in the country, which allows employers to threaten and extort migrant workers to keep them working in abusive conditions and which deters workers from standing up to abusive employers for fear of retaliation.

“He bought my ticket home, but he didn’t pay my salary from January 2019 to October 2019,” a worker said of an abusive employer. “I couldn’t go to labor court because my ID was expired and I was scared I would be put in jail. My employer told me the moment I step outside I will be jailed.”

Migrant Workers’ Lack of Control Over Their Legal Status

Most workers interviewed expressed a fear of falling into irregular migration status, which could lead to arrest, detention, and deportation.

Employers are responsible for obtaining, renewing, and canceling work and residency permits for migrant workers, leaving workers dependent on them for their legal residency.

Employers are required to secure or renew residence permits for their workers within 90 days of a migrant worker’s arrival or of the expiration of the permit. An employer’s failure to secure or renew the permit within the prescribed time leaves the worker under threat of arrest, detention, and deportation, restricting their freedom of movement and discouraging them from seeking legal assistance. An employer can also cancel a worker’s residency permit at any time, which also limits the worker’s ability to remain in the country legally up to 90 days.

A worker who does not leave the country within the prescribed 90 days can be sentenced to a maximum of 3 years in prison or a maximum fine of 50,000 QAR, or both. They can be fined a further 200 QAR for each day they overstay their visa.

“I still don’t have a Qatar ID or a health card,” said a Ghanaian migrant worker who arrived in Qatar in September 2018 and who told Human Rights Watch in April 2019 that his company pays him late and sometimes doesn’t pay him at all. “If the police arrest me, they will deport me. And the sponsor will abandon me, and I won’t be given the money I am owed.”

One Kenyan migrant worker said that when he arrived in Qatar in October 2018, his company confiscated his passport and housed him in dismal accommodations with 10 to 12 people in 1 room. He said he works 12-hour days, rarely gets paid on time and some months not at all, and gets no days off, all of which violate Qatari law. For six months, he said, he waited for the company to issue him a residency permit, confining himself to his labor camp for fear of being arrested. “All you could do was go to work and back, no moving around, not even to the supermarket,” he said.

Migrant workers cited not having valid Qatari residence permits as a barrier to seeking justice. One migrant domestic worker from Kenya who arrived in Qatar in April 2019 said her employer had only paid her half her salary as of December:

She also took my passport and she never got me a QID [Qatari identity card], she hasn’t even taken me yet to get my fingerprints for the QID, so I can’t leave the house to complain about her to the labor court. How can I complain when I don’t even have a residency permit?

One migrant worker said that his employer had intentionally refused to renew his residency permit as retaliation for seeking redress for unpaid wages:

Twice I have been picked up by the police for having an expired QID – it’s not my fault, the company refused to renew my ID card after we [my colleagues and I] launched a case [at the labor dispute settlements committee] against them.  

Workers’ dependence on employers for their legal status in the country could undermine the recent reforms and hinder a migrant worker’s ability to transfer to another job.

Absconding

While an employer can cancel their migrant worker’s residence permit at any time by initiating repatriation procedures without providing justification, a worker who leaves their employer without permission can be punished with imprisonment, fines, deportation, and bans for “absconding.” Employers can also be punished for not reporting to the authorities when their workers have “absconded.”

Human Rights Watch documented three cases over the past year in which employers filed false “runaway” cases, also known as “absconding” charges, against migrant workers in their employ after the workers submitted abuse complaints against them to the Labor Ministry, intentionally placing them at risk of arrest and deportation in retaliation.

“After all these years that I’ve lived and worked in this country, I know now, if I try to stand up to my employers, I will lose,” said one Indian migrant worker who lived and worked in Qatar for 13 years without incident but whose most recent employer had him deported as a runaway because he complained to the Labor Ministry about his wages being delayed for months at a time.

“My boss went to the police and told them I was a runaway, even though I was at home,” said a Filipino general cleaner who said she had stopped working and submitted a complaint at the Labor Ministry after her wages were not paid or delayed and that she experienced other abuses for over a year with her previous employer. “She is doing all this because I launched a case against her.” While the worker has since been able to clear the charges against her, her employer evicted her and other workers who complained from their accommodations, leaving them to fend for themselves without a job while they awaited the outcome of the labor case.

Threats, Extortion, and the Fear of Retaliation

Several migrant workers said they had continued to work for their employers despite abusive working conditions, either because of their employer’s threats or extortion or because they feared their employers would retaliate against them, including by refusing to regularize their status in the country or by filing a “runaway” case against them. While Qatar has introduced measures aimed at improving workers’ access to justice, the right to pursue compensation is often ineffective for migrant workers whose immigration status is controlled by an employer often responsible for the abuse.

“I’m afraid of my sponsor, and what will happen to me if I go to complain,” said a laborer from Bangladesh. He said his employer had demanded that he pay him 4,000 riyals ($1,098) to issue him a residency permit and threatened to submit a runaway case against him if he did not.

“We don’t want to criticize them because what we do helps our families [back home] and we don’t want to lose these jobs,” said a cleaner from the Philippines who said her employer made unfair deductions from her wages.

“When we complain [about our working conditions], they threaten to cancel our permits and send us home,” said a security guard from Kenya who said he had experienced passport confiscation, unpaid and delayed wages, and dismal housing conditions. “I cannot fight a big company like this.”

One Indian migrant worker who had worked as a personal driver since he arrived in Qatar in 2016 said in October 2019 that his employer exploited the control he had over his legal status in the country by subjecting him to both threats and extortion:

Since the start of 2019, my employer stopped paying me properly. Sometimes it was delayed, sometimes only half salary. He kept saying he will pay soon. It was very bad because my family in India is very poor, they needed money. But I kept driving for him because I thought one day he will pay. In October 2019, I asked my employer to renew my QID, since it was expiring, he said I have to pay him QAR 5,000 if I want it renewed. He was blackmailing me. And I am so scared of driving without a QID – I don’t want to end up in jail.

I told him to just cancel my visa so I can go home, and he threatened to blacklist me from working in Qatar again. Eventually he told me I can go home, but on the condition that I agree that all my salary with him is settled. He bought my ticket home, but he didn’t pay my salary from Jan 2019 to Oct 2019. I couldn’t go to labor court because my ID was expired, and I was scared I would be put in jail. My employer told me the moment I step outside I will be jailed.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 24, 2020, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and President Win Myint, wearing face masks to protect against the new coronavirus, leave after a Central Executive Committee meeting at their National League for Democracy (NLD) party headquarters in Naypyitaw, Myanmar Tuesday, July 21, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar authorities should cease responding to criticism of the government and military with arrests and prosecutions of students protesting human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. They should immediately drop charges against the students and unconditionally release those in custody.

At least 20 students around the country have been charged or are facing arrest under various laws after joining protests or sticker campaigns critical of the government or military, including criticizing the mobile internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States, according to the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU).  

“The Myanmar government deserves a failing grade for intimidating and harassing students peacefully expressing their views,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser. “Neither criticizing the government nor peacefully protesting should be a crime, and the authorities should stop treating them as such.”

On September 10, 2020, members of the student federation conducted a “sticker” campaign in solidarity with Rakhine students who had been arrested the previous day for protesting internet restrictions. The ABFSU members distributed fliers and stickers demanding that 3G and 4G data services be turned back on across eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States. The slogans included: “No bloody government. No murder army” and “Oppose murder and fascism and stand together with the Rakhine people.”

On September 12, the Special Branch unit of the police conducted a nighttime raid on the home of Paing Min Khant, a student in North Okkala, Yangon. “When the police knocked on our door, they told us that they were coming into our home to take temperature checks as part of neighborhood health checks for Covid-19,” Paing Min Khant told Human Rights Watch. “But then they came in and told us they had filed complaints against us under section 19 of the Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Law in Mayangone and Kyauktada townships [in Yangon].”

Police took him and another student, Wai Yan Phyo Moe, to the Mayangone township police station, where they were told they would face charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for failing to notify police when distributing anti-war fliers and stickers in downtown Yangon.

Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law requires organizers to give notice to the authorities 48 hours before holding a protest or assembly. The law carries a maximum penalty of three months in jail and a fine. Treating the distribution of stickers and flyers as an “assembly” requiring notice is a new and overly broad reading of that law, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities also threatened Paing Yin Khant and Wai Yan Phyo Moe with possible additional charges under section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which carries a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine.

The pair said police later took them to the Kyauktada township police station and questioned them about the whereabouts of other students before finally releasing the two around midnight. The students said the police did not immediately file charges against them but said they were conducting the investigations as part of an “open” case.

On September 18, at least 20 police officers conducted a pre-dawn raid of Nyi Lin Htin’s home in Monywa, Sagaing State. The student federation told Human Rights Watch that Nyi Lin Htin was not home and that family members said they were not shown a search warrant.

The police have arrested three other participants in the sticker campaign and charged them with violating section 505(b) of the Penal Code. Police in Meiktila arrested Than Toe Aung and Sann Linn on September 16. They are being held in Meiktila prison in Mandalay Region while they await trial. Another student, Lin Thurako, is detained in Monywa prison, in Sagaing State, where he awaits trial on the same charge.

Section 505(b) of the Penal Code is an overly broad law that prohibits speech that may cause “fear or alarm in the public” and lead others to “upset public tranquility.” The law has long been used against speech critical of the government. It should be amended to cover only speech intended to incite violence or serious public disorder, with those terms clearly defined to ensure that they conform to international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 9, the police arrested three ethnic Rakhine student protesters – Toe Toe Aung, Kyang Naing Htay, and Oo Than Naing – in Sittwe, Rakhine State, for staging a protest and holding signs critical of the government and military. On September 10, they were charged under the Natural Disaster Management Law for holding a protest while Covid-19 regulations were in place. Those charges were dropped on September 22 and authorities said the trio would instead face charges under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.

“The police’s use of late-night raids against peaceful student activists is abusive and unnecessary, and serves no purpose other than intimidation,” Lakhdhir said. “The Myanmar government should eliminate criminal penalties for organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly and end the harassment of peaceful critics like these students.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2020, 10:57 pm
Click to expand Image A screenshot of the video showing soldiers taking a woman and a child to the place where they would be later killed in Zelevet, Far North region, Cameroon, 2015. © 2018 BBC Africa Eye 

(Nairobi) – On September 21, a military court in Cameroon sentenced 4 soldiers to 10 years in prison and 1 other to 2 years for the brutal killing of 2 women and 2 children in 2015. While the sentence breaks the norm of impunity for military abuses, the potential impact of the trial in setting accountability standards was compromised because the trial and sentencing took place behind closed doors and lacked transparency.

“Denying the public access to the trial is a breach of due process for the defendants, but also deprives the public of vital knowledge about and understanding of the trial,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s not just a breach of international standards, but of a duty to the public to enable them have confidence in the rule of law by seeing justice done.”

The 2015 executions, carried out by the soldiers in the village of Zelevet in Cameroon’s Far North region, were captured in a video that went viral in early July 2018. Seven soldiers who had been part of one of the many security operations against the Islamist armed group Boko Haram were ultimately put on trial. Five were found guilty on August 17, 2020 by a Yaoundé military court. The court ruled that two soldiers who had appeared in the video were not guilty, as “they watched the scene as others did the killings.” The lawyer of one of those convicted announced that he intends to appeal.

The seven soldiers were charged with joint participation in murder, breach of regulations, and conspiracy. Their trial started in August 2019, but holding it behind closed doors and not allowing national or international scrutiny of the proceedings casts doubts about the trial’s fairness. The court’s reasoning is unclear, as judicial authorities did not make any information about the trial public. A lawyer who had access to the case file told Human Rights Watch: “We have no idea as to what guided the judges on this verdict. We do not know what elements the court did or did not take into account.”

A civil suit on behalf of the victims’ families, allowed in military courts in Cameroon, was not filed.

The video showing the killing was initially dismissed as “fake news” by Cameroon’s communications minister. But a forensic analysis established that it was authentic and that the military was responsible for the killings. Cameroonian authorities later announced that the seven soldiers depicted in the video had been arrested and would be prosecuted.

Cameroon’s armed forces have been repeatedly implicated in other serious crimes since the 2015 killings, and the government’s reaction has been to deny responsibility. In February 2020, Cameroonian soldiers killed 21 civilians in the village of Ngarbuh, in the North West region, in a reprisal attack aimed at punishing the population, whom the security forces accused of sheltering armed separatists. The government initially denied that the soldiers committed any crimes. However, officials later admitted that soldiers bore some responsibility for the killings and ordered the arrest of three members of the security forces.

Cameroonian security forces have committed widespread human rights violations and crimes in their counterinsurgency operations against Boko Haram in the Far North region, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, systematic torture, deaths in custody, forced return of refugees, and forced labor.

“Courts should explain and defend how they reached their verdict and justify the rationale for the sentences they hand down,” Mudge said. “If Cameroonian authorities are to make meaningful efforts to ensure accountability for abuses against civilians and end impunity, proceedings have to be transparent and should be before civilian courts.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2020, 5:30 pm
Click to expand Image A woman sells herbs in Ashgabat. © 2018 TIHR

(New York) – Government inaction in response to the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically exacerbated Turkmenistan’s pre-existing food crisis, Human Rights Watch and the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said today. Shortages of subsidized food, accelerating since 2016, have worsened, with people waiting hours in line to try to buy more affordable food products, often being turned away empty-handed.

Turkmenistan’s government denies the existence of poverty in the country and has failed to provide relief to economically vulnerable groups, even as unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic. In the absence of any strategy to provide economic or social assistance, constraints on people’s access to affordable food mean that the government is failing to meet its international obligations to ensure an adequate standard of living and the right to food.

“Turkmenistan’s government has prioritized the country’s image over people’s well-being,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “With no effort to identify and assist the people most in need at this critical moment, Turkmenistan is callously neglecting the most basic norms of human rights, which include the right to food.”

The Turkmen government should take immediate measures to make sure that people can get adequate food, Human Rights Watch and TIHR said. The government should also commission an independent, nationwide household survey to assess poverty and food security, make the data public, and use the information to ensure effective, affordable access to adequate, nutritious food for all members of society.

The country’s only universal assistance program provides government-subsidized food in so-called state shops. Anyone in Turkmenistan can buy food at state shops, an affordable alternative to privately owned shops selling food at market prices. But supplies began to falter in 2015-2016, after the global decline in hydrocarbon prices started to hit Turkmenistan’s state budget.

The Turkmen government, one of the world’s most repressive and secretive, strictly controls citizens’ movements and communications, censors the media, and severely punishes critics. Although media inside the country do not report on the shortages, TIHR and other émigré-based sources, including the Amsterdam-based Turkmen News and the United States government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Turkmen service (Azatlyk Radiosi) have covered them widely.

Human Rights Watch spoke with Turkmen citizens living abroad who had recently visited the country, and TIHR has spoken with numerous people inside the country about the situation. Their accounts were consistent with numerous reports in émigré outlets.

“Compared to a year ago, our family eats less,” a Turkmen father of eight told TIHR in July 2020. “That’s because we have less money, and [food] prices have gone up. We’ve had problems getting food due to the lines and the shortages.”

In November 2019, a student told Human Rights Watch that his family was spending 70 to 80 percent of their income on food, and a pensioner said her family was spending almost all their income on food. People interviewed said they spend several hours a day waiting in lines for subsidized food, and that the lines and unpredictability of food supply caused great stress.

Turkmenistan’s domestic food production only meets around 40 percent of national demand, the rest is imported. About 80 percent of imports come from Iran. Declining hydrocarbon income since 2014 and several poor harvests have constrained Turkmenistan’s food supplies. In early 2020, the supply of subsidized food began to falter to an even greater degree, in part due to the border closure with Iran.

At the same time, the global economic downturn threw many Turkmen out of work and slashed the foreign remittance incomes upon which many Turkmen families survived, and Covid-19 travel restrictions prevented people from traveling abroad for work. Meanwhile, prices in free market shops and bazaars skyrocketed. As a result, people in Turkmenistan faced even more uncertain, demeaning, and sometimes insurmountable obstacles to obtaining adequate food, Human Rights Watch and TIHR found.

The authorities strive to paint a rosy picture of living standards, claiming that the country is living in an “era of greatness and happiness” and frequently showing fully stocked, orderly shops in state media. Police break up lines outside shops and force shoppers to wait by back doors, away from the street, where they would be visible. At the same time, the government indirectly recognized the food crisis, creating a commission in late March to support local producers and keep prices stable though price controls. But prices continued to rise through the summer.

The government has made no effort to provide direct assistance to, or even identify, low-income or otherwise disadvantaged segments of the population suffering the most from dwindling access to subsidized food and rising prices. On August 19, Human Rights Watch and TIHR sent a letter to the Turkmen government requesting information about its poverty estimates and policies for poverty alleviation and food security. They have not yet received a reply.

State food price subsidies, ostensibly provided to all citizens equally, have failed to increase the availability of food for economically vulnerable groups. Anecdotal reports suggest that access is at times influenced by personal connections, including buying in bulk for later resale. Some state stores, without warning, limit the hours during which ration book holders may make purchases, or insist that customers buy more expensive items as a condition for buying subsidized food. This further hinders access to basic foodstuffs for poorer Turkmen. Single pensioners and others without family support, unable to wait in long lines, may be particularly affected.

Click to expand Image A food truck arrives at a state shop in Ashgabat. © 2019 TIHR


The government should consider other ways to protect people from food insecurity, TIHR and Human Rights Watch said. These include food voucher programs that allow people to purchase goods at private shops or the bazaar, or cash transfer programs to people with incomes below the minimum subsistence level for an adequate standard of living The government should also reassess the contribution which currency controls – limiting the ability to buy or sell foreign currency – have on the rising prices of imported foods and Turkmens’ capacity to purchase food, and make appropriate changes to help ensure availability of and access to affordable food.

“Rather than create policies to protect its citizens in this time of crisis, the government’s actions have further imperiled people’s ability to access food,” said Farid Tubatullin, director of TIHR. “Turkmenistan should immediately take stock of low-income individuals and their needs, and urgently expand food assistance.”

For further details about the Human Rights Watch findings, please see below.

Click to expand Image People crowd a state store in Ashgabat. © 2018 TIHR


Methodology

The Turkmen government tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression, and religion. The country is completely closed to all independent scrutiny, and the government does not tolerate independent civic activism. The few people who do human rights work do so under the radar and at great personal risk.

TIHR gathered information about food security through anonymous interviews its activists conducted inside the country. It drew on these interviews for its public reporting on this issue in the news website, Chronicles of Turkmenistan. Human Rights Watch interviewed five Turkmen who were outside the country, reviewed data published by the Turkmen government, various United Nations agencies, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank, and reviewed émigré publications that do regular, reliable reporting on developments in Turkmenistan. Full names of those interviewed were withheld for their security.

State-Subsidized Food

People in Turkmenistan, if they can afford it, purchase food at free market prices from private shops and bazaars where food supplies had been mostly stable before the pandemic. Those who cannot afford it turn to a network of Trade Ministry-run stores which offer certain basic, low-quality commodity foods, generally flour, bread, cottonseed and sunflower seed cooking oil, sugar, eggs, and frozen chicken, at highly subsidized prices. For example, a one-liter bottle of vegetable oil costs twice as much at the bazaar as at the state-subsidized price, and a kilogram of flour costs nearly seven times as much. Access to government stores is based on place of residence, and anyone with a residence permit for that area may shop there.

Faced with sudden supply constraints due to strict external border closures in response to the pandemic, privately owned shops dramatically hiked their market prices in March. In the past 12 months, the market price of flour rose by 50 percent and cooking oil by 130 percent. The border closures also resulted in some imported products, such as potatoes from neighboring Iran, disappearing entirely. Turkmenistan has denied having any cases of Covid-19, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Business disruptions and job losses suddenly cut incomes for many, boosting the number of people needing subsidized food. The price of subsidized food in state shops remained relatively stable, but the supply dropped. State shops have struggled for years with decreasing food supplies, which have dwindled even further during the pandemic. Lines have grown longer, with fights and, in some cases, protests, sometimes breaking out. In an unprecedented public show of unrest in April, TIHR reported, dozens of women protested the lack of food in the southern province of Mary.

Waiting in Line

Aya, 60, a migrant worker outside of Turkmenistan, told Human Rights Watch in November 2019: “I should be retired already, taking care of my grandchildren. But I’m still here. Because there is no money [in Turkmenistan]! Almost all of our money goes to food. I send home US$100 per month, but it’s not enough. Two or three years ago, it was enough.” She and her husband’s pensions just cover the household utility bills.

Standing in line is often onerous. “Our mother is the one who waits in lines at the state stores,” said Sapar, a father of 8. “She gets up every day between 4 and 6 a.m. and goes to stand in line … someone else may come to relieve her closer to the time the store opens. Lines may be 3 to 4 hours long until it’s your turn.”

“The most important are the lines for bread. Bread is very expensive at the bazaar: 4-5 manat [approximately $1.14], and it’s 2 manat in the state store,” Aya said. “My husband is 62. He waits in the lines for bread, waits 1 or 2 hours.”

A Turkmen student studying abroad said: “Most people are waiting [in lines] starting at 3 a.m.; the stores open at 7.… Most are living in poor conditions and so they have no alternatives.”

This student’s combined family income allowed them, at the end of 2019, to buy food at bazaars and private shops; he estimated that his family spent 70 to 80 percent of the household budget on food. Data that the government provided in a report to the UN stated that average monthly individual wage in 2018 was 1,570 manat. But a retired diplomat who served in Turkmenistan and closely followed the country’s food situation said that he estimated that before 2019, 85 percent of the population survived on $2,000 annually per person, 7,000 manat at the official rate, or about 600 manat a month.

The student’s neighbors are among those with much more limited means, with funds sufficient only for subsidized food in state stores:

Do shops run out? It happens very often [that] three to four hours after opening there is nothing left. The stores sell out quickly. My neighbor is in that situation [remaining empty-handed] when the stores run out of food.

Sapar said:

Nearly every other time we go to the store it happens that our turn comes and we can’t buy what we had intended because it’s run out. This is because there are only small quantities sold in the state stores and they are finished after an hour or two. There’s not enough, even for people who lined up early in the morning. If [the items] haven’t run out, then you can buy something, but if [they’ve run out], then you go home empty-handed. If you have money, then you can get them at the market price. The bazaar and the private shops always have the same items, but they are two to three times more expensive.

TIHR, together with media outlets Turkmen News and Azadlyk Radiosi, have monitored food availability in Turkmenistan’s regions in recent years. They report that staple foods periodically have not been available in state stores in various regions since 2016. Eggs and frozen chicken are frequently not available. In mid-2020, sources reported that chicken is available only at private shops. Other goods such as cooking oil, bread, and flour have also been unavailable for periods in various regions.

Food Rationing Not a Guarantee of Food Security

In June, four of the country’s five provinces imposed limits on how much each person could buy, enforced by ration books issued by local officials based on residency permits. Though the capital, Ashgabat, and the surrounding Ahal Province have not yet introduced formal rationing, other measures limit amounts per customer. On March 28, state stores temporarily placed a monetary ceiling on purchases, ranging from 40 to 80 manat ($11.40 to $22.80 at the official exchange rate) and required all transactions to be with state bank cards. Both requirements were lifted in Ashgabat by late summer.

Even with rationing, people reported being unable to obtain allotted amounts of staple foods. Under previous rationing schemes, rationed quantities, even when accessible, are often not enough to feed a family and far from nutritionally adequate. In some areas, the flour ration was cut from five to three kilos per month, and there are reports in some areas that it was one kilogram per month – when it was available at all.

A woman Human Rights Watch interviewed last November said that the only subsidized food items available in her family’s rural town were bread, cottonseed oil, and salt. Sources in the capital have noted increasing numbers of people begging for money or food in the streets, as well as greater numbers of individuals and families with children combing through dumpsters for scraps and recyclables.

Click to expand Image People waiting inside a shop in Ashgabat. © 2019 TIHR


Even when subsidized food is available, state stores sometimes arbitrarily restrict purchases. In one province, people have reported that shop workers randomly and without warning limit store hours. In some cases, if residents do not manage to purchase their monthly allotment before the end of the month, they were no longer eligible for that month’s allotment. In Ashgabat, observers have recently reported shoppers being forced to buy unwanted goods that they may not be able to afford, such as expensive rice or bottled water, at elevated prices to be allowed purchase staples such as cooking oil at the subsidized price. Local authorities have imposed various burdensome paperwork requirements to obtain subsidized goods, including additional certificates from local housing committees on the number of persons living in a household. An investigation in Balkanabad province found that shop employees routinely cheat customers by dispensing smaller volumes of dry staple goods than set out in regulations. Turkmen News said that the authorities have reacted to complaints by dismissing some store workers and increasing rations.

Government Denial, Inadequate Data, and Failure to Address Poverty and Food Needs

The corruption watchdog Global Witness, Radio Liberty, and Turkmen News have all reported on the secrecy surrounding Turkmenistan’s economy, on large-scale corruption, and on billions in unaccountable funds allegedly stashed abroad. The government has spent lavishly on vanity construction projects and international sporting competitions in recent years.

Turkmenistan covers up the existence of poverty within its borders. It is unclear whether the government has established a national subsistence level. The government declines to release figures on either the number of people living below a national subsistence level, if it exists, or the international standard of $1.90 per day. In 2018, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimated that 21.8 percent of Turkmenistan’s population live below the national poverty line, although the report did not provide the poverty line figure or its source.

A 2017-2019 World Bank project provided technical assistance to Turkmenistan on measuring social welfare. The government refused to share any of the data generated by the pilot study with the bank. The bank concluded that it could not assess whether the project furthered the goal of reducing poverty, and that without greater openness and transparency, Turkmenistan would not be able to develop data-driven responses to poverty.

Although the Turkmen government has no discernable anti-poverty program, according to its 2019 submission to the UN in connection with the Sustainable Development Goals, the state provides “social transfers and assistance to incapacitated persons, elderly persons living alone, people with disabilities, families with children and other persons through provision of monetary payments” and various services. Human Rights Watch and TIHR are not in a position to assess the adequacy of these services or the degree to which they impact food security.

International financial institutions have, since 2012, classified Turkmenistan as an upper-middle income country, based on data provided by the government. A diplomat and a staff member with a multilateral agency told Human Rights Watch that government economic data was notoriously unreliable, a view shared by an economist who specializes in the Central Eurasia region. The United Kingdom Department for International Trade has also stated that “no reliable economic data are published in Turkmenistan” and that figures it releases to international financial institutions “do not always square with observations on the ground.”

According to the 2019 UN Development Programme Human Development Report, calculated on the basis of government-supplied statistics, only 0.4 percent of Turkmenistan’s population lives in multidimensional poverty, which incorporates 10 indicators in the categories of health, education, and standard of living. Turkmenistan’s 2019 voluntary review of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does not provide chapters on the goals of eliminating poverty and hunger. The chapter on reducing inequality states that state social transfers accounted for 12.7 percent of the income of the country’s “most disadvantaged households,” including people with disabilities, older people living alone, etc.

Nonetheless, some statistical evidence of malnourishment exists. The Asian Development Bank, using UN statistics, reports that 11.5 percent of Turkmenistan’s children under age 5 suffered from stunting as of 2015.

Turkmenistan also failed to report the number of food-insecure citizens to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for a 2019 report. The number suffering undernourishment in 2016-2018 is listed in the report as 300,000, or 5.4 percent of the population. However, the FAO report does note that in 2015-2017, the last years that data were gathered for the report, Turkmenistan was among the commodity-dependent countries facing economic factors that can indicate the prevalence of undernourishment is increasing: high food prices, growing unemployment, and loss of income.

According to World Bank data, unemployment has been officially pegged for a decade at four percent or just under, although independent media have cited estimates as high as 60 percent in 2020. Reflecting official Turkmenistan government statistics, the UN World Food Programme’s 2018 Hunger Map puts Turkmenistan in the “Moderately Low” category for presence of hunger, from 5 to 14.9 percent, equal to its neighbors Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Population movement, however, strongly belies the official government picture. Radio Azatlyk, citing unnamed government sources, reported that emigration has led to a decline in Turkmenistan’s population by almost 1.9 million people, or about 30 percent, between 2008 and 2018, whereas official figures still insist that the population is 5.8 million. In addition to permanent emigration, thousands of Turkmen citizens, from 11 to 16 percent of the current working-age population by some estimates, have migrated for temporary jobs abroad, most of them to Turkey. The Turkish migration service has registered 25,000, but many times that are said to be living and working undocumented.

External Pressures, State Policies Increase Vulnerability

Natural gas provides the main source of revenue in Turkmenistan’s economy. In 2014, before the dramatic drop in the price of natural gas, according to one study, Turkmenistan depended on “revenue from the gas sector for 35 percent of GDP, 90 percent of total exports, and 80 percent of fiscal revenues.” According to Luca Anceschi, Senior Lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, “in the last four to five years, the non-gas sector of the economy shrank faster than Turkmenistan’s natural gas, with devastating impacts on the economy at large.”

Turkmenistan’s food crisis began to accelerate in 2015-2016, set off by the 2014 drop in natural gas prices, Russia’s sudden suspension of gas purchases, and a price dispute with Iran, another major purchaser. With its earnings cut, the government responded by limiting food imports. It also restricted open conversions of the manat, forcing traders to buy hard currency on the black market at a rate five times the official rate.

After a series of poor domestic harvests, the government purchased grain from neighboring Kazakhstan, but consumer prices for flour still rose unsustainably for many. According to Agriculture and Water Ministry data that TIHR was able to unofficially obtain, the 2018 grain harvest totaled less than one-third the officially claimed figure of 1.6 million tons, with 30 percent unfit for consumption. To supplement export revenues, the government also began to cut acreage planted under wheat in favor of sowing more cotton, further curtailing the potential domestic food supply.

The government claimed to be pursuing a policy of strict import substitution to curb expenditures and achieve food self-sufficiency, but has not yet seen hoped-for results in increased domestic production. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported a 37 percent overall drop in imports in 2018, and a similar drop the following year. With imports intentionally cut and domestic production lagging, supplies of food in state subsidized shops grew spotty. RFE/RL reported severe shortages of bread and flour beginning December 2017 in rural areas, recurring in 2018-2019, and eventually extending to the capital. These steady shortfalls have gradually worsened before reaching a crisis point in spring 2020 with the imposition of formal rationing.

As supplies of subsidized food shrank and market prices rose, other measures further exacerbated people’s economic desperation, and, potentially, their ability to buy enough food to feed their families. In 2019, the government ended subsidies for utility payments, except for people with serious disabilities, adding fees for electricity, gas, and water to already straining household budgets. The World Bank acknowledged that this step would, without mitigation measures, hurt the “household welfare … of the poor or bottom 40 percent of the population.”

New currency controls further weakened purchasing power. Many Turkmen depend on remittance payments from relatives abroad. But to preserve hard currency, in 2018, the government mandated that cash transfer companies not pay out those remittances in dollars or euros, but in the state currency, manats, calculated at the official exchange rate of 3.5 per USD. With hard currency in hand, citizens could purchase manat at a far higher black market rate, which hovered, in 2019, around 18.5, and in mid-July 2020, at 24. Thus, the value of support from abroad was drastically cut. The International Organization for Migration estimated in 2014 that Turkmen migrant laborers sent $30 million to the country, but by 2016, the International Monetary Fund estimated a decline to about $16 million, and to $1 million in 2019.

The remittance payments themselves are evaporating due to the Covid-19 economic downturn across the globe. The World Bank projected that Central Asia would be particularly hard hit by a decline in remittances, projected to reach 27.5 percent in the region. The Asian Development Bank concluded that “remittance-dependent households in developing countries will likely be hit hard and their capacity to secure affordable food and basic nutrition compromised.”

Currency limitations extend to manat as well, as Ashgabat residents currently report finding it increasingly difficult to withdraw cash from their own accounts at bank machines, with lines forming early in the morning. Without cash, even those with means cannot make purchases at private shops and markets that do not accept bank card payments. Starting on September 8, in at least one region, one bank introduced vouchers for obtaining cash from cash machines.

In an August 19 letter, Human Rights Watch and TIHR asked the government for information on whether the authorities considered the impact import substitution, currency controls, and the like would have on food security for people living on lower incomes, and whether the authorities made any efforts to mitigate the impact of these measures. The government has not yet responded.

The Right to Food and Turkmenistan’s International Obligations

The right to food is recognized in international human rights law, on its own, and as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living. Art. 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Turkmenistan has been a party since 1997, explicitly requires the government to ensure that everyone is “free from hunger.” However, the minimum core obligation to ensure an adequate standard of living also requires governments to ensure access to nutritionally adequate and safe food.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has described the realization of the right to food as a state in which “every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical or economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement.” This means that the government should facilitate people’s ability to get food with dignity and provide food through assistance programs or a safety net, if people are unable to get food without such support. In times of crisis, the government needs to take all available measures to maintain access to sufficient food and take into account the situation of impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged groups.

Turkmenistan also has obligations to respect the right to food, as a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child since September 1993, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, since May 1997, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, since September 2008. Turkmenistan’s constitution in art. 25 ostensibly protects citizens’ and residents’ rights “in accordance with the universally recognized norms of international law.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2020, 1:00 pm
Click to expand Image Members of the Lebanese General Security Directorate oversee Syrian refugees boarding a bus to take them home to Syria, in the northern Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

The Syrian government insists that each Syrian national entering Syria must exchange US$100 for Syrian pounds at the official rate.

The policy was put in place in July, ostensibly to help the government replete its foreign currency reserves amid an unprecedented economic crisis. But in reality, it has only added another obstacle to prevent Syrians who wish to go home from returning.

One man, who has been living in Lebanon with his family, tried to return to Syria after losing his job, but having to pay $100 for each of his relatives was too much. As a day laborer in Lebanon, he barely made $150 a month before the devaluation of the Lebanese currency. He said he could have sold all his furniture and still would not have enough for them all to return. Another man said he had enough money to send his family to Syria, while he remained in Lebanon, moving into a house with other people to save on rent and collect the amount they needed to cross.

Another we spoke to said he was able to pay the fee by borrowing from relatives. Syrians with residency in Lebanon, who used to cross the border regularly, are now faced with a financial barrier that is impossible to overcome. In the period following the implementation of the decision, several Syrians were stranded between the Lebanese and Syrian borders, unable to pay the fee to go home.

This is just that latest policy by the Syrian government to make it difficult for Syrians to return home, along with arbitrary restrictions on access, home demolitions, and laws that allow the government to confiscate lands and homes without due process or adequate compensation.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to return to their country. There’s no price tag attached to that right.

Instead of punishing Syrians who left, the government should address the root causes of the economic crisis and allow Syrians who wish to return back in.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2020, 8:00 am
Click to expand Image British troops conduct a dawn foot patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, May 10, 2013. © 2013 Ben Birchall/Press Association via AP Images

The rule of law means that those responsible for the worst crimes should be promptly and fairly prosecuted. Yet the UK government is seeking parliament’s approval of a law – the Overseas Operations Bill – that would make it nearly impossible to prosecute British soldiers for torture and other war crimes committed overseas. With this bill the government shows contempt for the rule of law, violates the UK’s international commitments to prosecute the worst crimes, and risks creating impunity for grave abuse.  

Britain has a long and shameful history of failing to prosecute its nationals responsible for major crimes overseas – such as Reginald Dyer, the general who ordered the Amritsar massacre that killed hundreds of Indians. In 1950s Kenya, the British colonial state was responsible for widespread torture – the UK acknowledged this, 50 years later, but none of the alleged torturers ever faced trial.

More recently, the evidence is overwhelming that some British forces in Iraq committed serious abuses, often amounting to war crimes. Public inquiries and court rulings have found that British forces abused detainees, sometimes causing their deaths. Commanders and government ministers should have known about and prevented such abuse. Such failure to prevent war crimes is itself a criminal offense.

Despite this evidence, virtually no British soldier has been prosecuted, let alone convicted for war crimes. A public inquiry found that Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist, was beaten to death in British custody in 2003, but only one British soldier, a corporal, was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. British governments have directly interfered to prevent UK nationals being prosecuted, shutting down investigations into alleged crimes committed by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan before they had completed their work.

The Overseas Operations Bill would make it nearly impossible to prosecute genuine cases. It would create a “presumption against prosecution” after five years for torture and other war crimes allegedly committed by members of UK forces overseas. The law would increase the power of the attorney general, a member of the government, to protect soldiers from prosecution.

This new law would send a clear message that the government’s aim is to prevent justice for the most serious crimes committed by British nationals against foreigners. Parliament should reject it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2020, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image A beach where a heavy winds and strong waves washed ashore piles of garbage in Keserwan, north of Beirut, Lebanon, on 23 January 2018.  © 2018 Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Beirut’s port explosion, which killed 212 people and obliterated large parts of the city on August 4, has put additional strains on Lebanon’s already compromised ability to manage its waste.

The rubble and demolition debris alone vastly increased the daily volume of generated waste. Additionally, the blast severely damaged two key sorting, recycling, and composting facilities in Karantina and Bourj Hammoud, as well as waste collection vehicles. A World Bank Group assessment estimates the blast’s damage to the environment sector, including the waste management infrastructure in Beirut, at between US$20 and $25 million.

Meanwhile, and at the worst possible time, the Bourj Hammoud/Jdeideh Landfill – one of two principal landfills servicing Beirut – is scheduled to shut down this month after reaching its maximum capacity.

The problem is not new for Lebanon. Five years ago, garbage piled up and flooded streets across Beirut after the government closed the Naameh Landfill without identifying an alternate site. The government responded by creating temporary landfills in Bourj Hammoud/Jdeideh and in Costa Brava. Since then, the government has continued to rely – with limited success – on similar stopgap measures. Last year, garbage piled up on streets in northern Lebanon after an unregulated dumpsite was closed without an environmentally sound alternative. Earlier this summer, garbage again filled the streets of Beirut and surrounding areas. 

Lebanese President Michel Aoun held a meeting on September 21 with caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Environment Minister Damianos Kattar to address the crisis. According to LBCI, a local television channel, one of the proposed measures is to again expand the Bourj Hammoud/Jdeideh landfill and temporarily extend its life expectancy.

The costs of inaction in addressing Lebanon’s trash crisis are huge. Lebanon spends almost 10 times more on its waste sector than Jordan and Tunisia, but still fails to manage its garbage, thereby interfering with people’s right to health and a healthy environment.

Lebanon’s next government, whenever it is formed, will have a lot on its plate. To avoid another trash crisis, it should urgently adopt an integrated approach to solid waste management that decreases reliance on landfills and prioritizes the health of residents. It is time that authorities solve this crisis once and for all.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2020, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image The Supreme court building is seen in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 17, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

On September 21, the Pakistan Supreme Court directed a medical board to examine two death row prisoners with psychosocial disabilities, or mental health conditions, seeking expert opinion on mental health as a mitigating factor in capital punishment cases.

Ghulam Abbas and Kanizan Fatima Bibi, who had been convicted of murder, had filed for review of a 2015 Supreme Court decision that upheld their death sentences on the basis that there was insufficient evidence of their disability. The claimants and the Punjab provincial government argued that the court ignored the prisoners’ mental health condition at the time of the judgment.

Kanizan Fatima is one of the few women on death row in Pakistan. According to her lawyers, she has not spoken for 14 years and is unable to eat, drink, or take care of herself without assistance. She has been in prison for 31 years.

Ghulam Abbas has spent more than 14 years on death row. Human rights organizations have urged that his mental health condition should be comprehensively assessed. Abbas’ lawyers say that medical records show that he had received mental health medication in prison.

The Supreme Court’s decision to review its earlier ruling is an important development and presents a valuable opportunity for reform. The death penalty is inherently cruel, inhumane, and irreversible. Executing an individual with psychosocial disabilities would also violate Pakistan’s international legal obligations. The United Nations Human Rights Committee and UN special experts have determined that the execution of a person with a psychosocial disability violates the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.

The unfairness and high risk of error present in capital prosecutions in Pakistan has been documented extensively. Executing people with psychosocial disabilities is an affront to human decency and serves no criminal justice purpose. Pakistan should strengthen its judicial institutions to prevent unjust sentencing and move towards a complete moratorium on the death penalty.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 23, 2020, 1:00 am
Click to expand Image Ren Zhiqiang, former Chairman of Huayuan Property Co. Ltd., attends an event in Chengdu city, Sichuan province, China on April 25, 2018.  © 2018 Imaginechina via AP Images

(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately quash the 18-year sentence against a property tycoon and outspoken critic of President Xi Jinping, Human Rights Watch said today.  

On September 22, 2020, a Beijing court announced on its website that Ren Zhiqiang had been convicted of taking bribes and embezzling public funds. He was also fined 4.2 million yuan (US$620,000).

“The corruption charges against Ren Zhiqiang are a thin cover for President Xi Jinping’s intolerance of dissent,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “The 18-year sentence handed down to a Communist Party member and member of the economic elite shows the grim environment for speech in China.”

Ren, 69, is the former chairman of Huayuan, a state-owned real estate group. He was born into a political family – his father was a deputy commerce minister. He rose to public prominence after garnering 38 million followers on the Chinese social media site Weibo. Known as “The Cannon,” Ren often used the platform to express views critical of authorities, and to urge the Communist Party to improve its governance of the country.

In March, the Beijing police detained Ren after he criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. In an online essay, Ren wrote that “People’s lives are harmed by both the virus and the serious ills of the system.” While he did not mention Xi by name, he suggested Xi was a “clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor.”

In July, the Beijing Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Chinese Communist Party’s abusive internal investigation agency, announced that Ren had been expelled from the Party and would be prosecuted on corruption charges. The commission did not make public where Ren was being held, and it is unclear what, if any, access he had to family members or lawyers of his choice.

The case highlights serious due process concerns and the absence of credible, publicly available information to substantiate the charges against Ren. The trial, held on September 9 at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court, was secret. Neither the court nor Chinese state media released any information regarding the proceedings. Ren’s friends said that he was represented by a government-appointed lawyer, but it is unclear whether he had requested his own lawyer. The court said Ren had confessed to all charges and would not appeal.

The authorities’ treatment of Ren in detention is unknown, but as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2016 report, abuses against detainees in corruption cases are common. They include prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods, deprivation of water and food, and severe beatings. Detainees are also subject to solitary and incommunicado detention in unofficial detention facilities. After “confessing” to corruption, suspects are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted, and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

In February 2016, Ren was banished from social media in China after he criticized Xi for calling on the Chinese media to “serve the Party” in a speech. The authorities publicly censured Ren and put him on a one-year probation from the Party.

“Ren’s sham trial may put him in prison for the rest of his life,” Wang said. “A failure to immediately release Ren would show the world that China’s legal system is a tool for settling political scores, not delivering justice.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2020, 6:46 pm
Click to expand Image Crimean Solidarity activists in the defendant’s box during sentencing, September 16, 2020. © Private

Last week, a Russian military court sentenced seven Crimean Tatars to prison terms ranging from 13 to 19 years. It is part of a pattern of politically motivated prosecutions that has been happening in Russia-occupied Crimea for the past six years.

The seven men were convicted of organizing or participating in a “terrorist organization.” One man was acquitted.

In a system based on rule of law and justice, none would even have been prosecuted.

The men are activists with Crimean Solidarity which was established in 2016 to support Crimean Tatars arrested or jailed on politically motivated grounds. It helped organize legal support for detainees, financial and social support for their families, and live-streamed court proceedings and police searches. Since 2017, authorities have jailed the group’s members and raided their homes.

The activists were accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist movement that seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate based on Sharia, but publicly denounces violence as a means to achieve its goal. In 2003, Russia banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, but it is not banned in Ukraine or most of Europe. In recent years, Russian authorities have prosecuted dozens of peaceful activists in Crimea for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

None of the charges against the eight were related to planning, carrying out, or being an accessory to any act of violence.

From the beginning, authorities showed disregard for due process. They conducted warrantless searches at the homes of six of the men during their arrest in 2017. Two lawyers representing some of the men told me the security services and police refused to let them enter the homes during the searches. The lawyers were also denied timely access to procedural documents. As is usual in such cases in Crimea, the prosecution relied mostly on recordings of discussions about religion and politics obtained through wire-tapping, and testimony from “secret witnesses.”

Crimean Tatars have been the main voice of peaceful dissent to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. As a result they have also been victims of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and ill-treatment in custody. Last week’s verdict, once again, shows just how determined Russian authorities are to make Crimean Tatar activists – and their families – pay the price and how they will subvert the law and courts to do so.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2020, 5:34 pm

(Washington, DC, September 22, 2020) – Responses by election officials in the United States to the Covid-19 pandemic seriously impaired some people’s ability to vote in primary elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Election officials need to ensure that every method of voting allowed in their state is easy to access and use for all voters, so that there can be a credible US general election on November 3, 2020. 

The 83-page report, “What Democracy Looks Like: Protecting Voting Rights in the US during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” examines changes that election officials made in response to the Covid-19 pandemic prior to the 2020 primaries in Arizona, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin and their impact on the right to vote. Human Rights Watch recommended steps US election officials should take for the November election and beyond to prevent violations of voting rights, which during the primaries had discriminatory impacts on Black and Latinx people.

“During the 2020 US primaries, many voters faced closed polling places or long lines, or had to choose between their right to vote and their health,” said Alison Parker, US program managing director at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author. “State and local officials will need to make sure these restrictions on voter rights are not repeated in November and that voting options and their availability – including the numbers of polling stations – are greater, not fewer.”

In Wisconsin’s spring primaries, many citizens, particularly Black and Latinx people, could not vote in Milwaukee because they could not spare hours or were physically unable to stand in line, lacked transport, or feared exposure to the Covid-19 virus at the few and crowded polling places that remained open as officials adjusted to a shortage of poll workers. Closing polling places contradicts scientific recommendations on reducing crowds and lines during the pandemic.

Given the preference, according to studies, of many Black people for visual confirmation that their vote was cast by voting in person, poll closures and consolidation in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania and in Richland County, South Carolina, may have had a disproportionate effect on their right to vote because they could not find polling locations, lacked transport, or were unable to wait in line.

“I was so upset,” said a 67-year-old woman living in Columbia, South Carolina whose normal polling place was closed, was turned away from the poll she was sent to, and was told, too late, that she needed to travel to yet a third polling place. “For the first time since I was 18 years old, I could not vote. It was horrible that night. I felt like they did not care if I voted or not.”

In the 2020 primaries, state and local officials also failed to take steps to overcome bureaucratic, linguistic, and other barriers to absentee voting or voting by mail. This prevented many citizens, including Black, Latinx, and Native American people, from voting at all.

A woman interviewed in Columbia, South Carolina, tried, but failed to vote absentee because she had health conditions that put her at high risk of Covid-19. She updated her address months in advance, called multiple times to reconcile the address, but did not receive her absentee ballot with the correct address in time to vote. “I worked hard to get my vote in [for the primary], but I failed to do so,” she said.

Since the primaries, Arizona and Wisconsin have taken steps to improve voter access. A bill is pending in the Pennsylvania legislature that would facilitate poll worker recruitment and the processing of ballots received by mail. A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision extends the time for processing ballots by mail and increases the use of ballot drop boxes in the state. Nevertheless, authorities at all levels throughout the country should do more to ensure that all citizens are able to vote freely and without discrimination, Human Rights Watch said.

“Human Rights Watch’s findings make clear that US election officials made some bad decisions that had a discriminatory impact especially on Black and Latinx people,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, an organization with a long record of fighting against racial discrimination in the US. “Looking forward, officials should be on notice that whatever their intentions, actions that have a discriminatory impact violate international human rights law.”

In recent months, countries such as South Korea and Indonesia have increased the number of polling locations to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic. Election officials in the US should also increase the number of polling locations and use of secure drop boxes to accommodate voters who may want “in person” confirmation that their vote has been cast, Human Rights Watch said.

Election officials should also adopt measures to assist people likely to face problems in voting, Human Rights Watch said. Voters with disabilities and older voters, including those living in residential facilities, may need special accommodation like assistance with completing absentee ballots. Officials should ensure that people who have had contact with the criminal legal system and who also have the right to vote can do so. Given failures during recent primaries, officials should ensure that voters have an opportunity to fix a missing or mismatched signature on their ballot or other minor error in time to be counted.

Given United States census data indicating that people living in poverty are less likely to exercise their right to vote, officials need to take additional steps to give low-income people easy access to the ballot box. The announced moratorium on evictions may provide some needed protection, but election officials still need to do all they can to assist voters who may move or lack a stable address, Human Rights Watch said.

United States election officials also need to overcome the confusion experienced during the primaries and prompted by debates over funding for the US Postal Service, crucial for mail-in voting. This confusion makes it important for election officials to do all they can to ensure that voters are informed about how to navigate their local election system. Overcoming language obstacles is critical for Latinx and Native American voters, Human Rights Watch said.

Adjusting to current conditions and avoiding the mistakes of the 2020 primary season also mean that election officials may need more staff, resources, and time beyond election night to process a predicted increase in absentee and vote-by-mail ballots.

“The duty of election officials is to make voting easy for every eligible voter,” Parker said. “Election officials will need to overcome many challenges before election day and beyond to protect the right to vote and ensure credible US elections.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2020, 3:00 pm
Click to expand Image The Greek Coast Guard has been accused of using rescue equipment - namely inflatable, motorless life rafts - to leave asylum seekers and migrants adrift in open water close to the Turkish sea border. May 25, 2020 © 2020 Turkish Coast Guard

What will it take for the European Commission, as the guardian of European Union law, to use its enforcement powers against Greece over its treatment of migrants and asylum seekers?

That’s the question at the heart of Oxfam and WeMove Europe’s complaint filed today to the EU’s executive. The complaint shows that Greece’s laws and policies have systematically violated EU law, and the EU Commission has failed to take decisive action to address the situation.

It’s about time. For years, Human Rights Watch has documented the systematic breach of EU law by Greece’s pushbacks at sea and its land borders with Turkey, inhuman and degrading detention and reception conditions for those reaching its territory, including in EU-mandated “hotspots” on the Aegean Islands, and problematic asylum laws and practices when it comes to seeking protection in Greece.

In July, we documented dangerous pushbacks at sea and often-violent collective expulsions of people picked up by Greek police hundreds of kilometers away from the Turkish border, and outside any due process. We documented similar situations in 2008, 2015, 2018, and March 2020. Officials in Brussels have remained largely silent in response to this mounting evidence of illegal practices, including from numerous other nongovernmental groups and international bodies.

Greece has also repeatedly created obstacles for people who may be in need of protection to access asylum, including most recently under the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic. Denying people the fundamental right to seek asylum is in breach of EU law. The Greek Asylum Law also includes many provisions that threaten rights guaranteed by EU standards, undermine access to protection, and expose asylum seekers to greater risks of deportation and longer periods of detention.

The European Commission is set to release its new Pact on Migration and Asylum tomorrow. If the EU wants to demonstrate that the pact is a new start for a more humane and rights-respecting migration policy, the Commission should show more readiness to hold to account member states when, like Greece, they flout protection standards with practices such as pushbacks.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 22, 2020, 1:56 pm
Click to expand Image A mural reading, "The Revolution will go on" is seen on a wall in Khartoum, Sudan, June 18, 2019. © 2019 Umit Bektas/Reuters

On September 18, a court in Khartoum sentenced five Sudanese artists to two months in prison and made them pay a fine of 5,000 Sudanese pounds (USD $90) on charges of “disturbing public peace” and “public nuisance,” for chanting pro-democracy slogans at the police station. The case exposes serious flaws in Sudan’s legal, criminal justice, and judicial systems.

The artists are members of the art collective Civic Lab and were arrested on August 10 while rehearsing a play. According to witnesses, two neighbors, who had previously objected to the group’s activities, entered their offices complaining of noise. One of them physically attacked the group’s office manager, 28-year-old Duaa Tarig.

When the police arrived, they arrested 10 artists even as the neighbors continued to assault them. Police accused the artists of violating Sudan’s Covid-19 curfew, along with the public nuisance charges.

The court dropped the curfew charge but convicted five of the artists on public nuisance. Six others face the same charges. The group’s neighbors were not arrested or charged.

The case underscores how police, prosecutors, and judges are still operating as they did under former president Omar al-Bashir, using vague provisions that give wide discretionary powers for authorities to restrict basic rights and freedoms. The case also highlights the abusive tactics used by police and security officials. At the police station, an officer assaulted Duaa Tarig when she objected to him recording the arrests on his phone. She says that she filed a complaint, but authorities have yet to take action.

At the prison, officers also beat Hajooj Kuka, an internationally-acclaimed filmmaker and activist, and cut part of his hair – a well-known humiliation tactic under al-Bashir’s government, which authorities used during the government’s bloody crackdown on protesters in Khartoum in June 2019.

The five convicted artists are serving their sentence in a prison in Omdurman and appealing the ruling. The court is expected to render its verdict on the remaining six this week.

Sudan’s transitional government has been slow on reform, and these artists are paying the price.

Authorities should release the artists and drop all charges. They should address the longstanding problem of police brutality, investigate abuses, and hold those responsible to account. They should introduce safeguards to prevent authorities using vague “disturbing public peace” and “public nuisance” provisions to restrict freedoms of expression and assembly.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 21, 2020, 7:11 pm
Click to expand Image Roma children play in the Cesmin Lug refugee camp in Mitrovica city, northern Kosovo. Cesmin Lug is one of several camps that the UN established in what was known to be a heavily contaminated area near a defunct lead mine. December 12, 2007.  © 2007 Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Today, the United Nations human rights expert on hazardous waste called out the UN for consistently failing the victims of widespread lead poisoning in refugee camps it ran in Kosovo. The UN leadership should listen and take long-overdue action in response.

For more than a decade following the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999, about 600 Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian minorities lived in refugee camps operated by the UN. The camps sat on land contaminated by lead from a nearby industrial mine. Now, seven years after the last camp was closed, victims experience ongoing health impacts and are still awaiting compensation and health and educational support for themselves and their families.

As the UN expert explains in his report to the UN Human Rights Council, victims of toxic pollution often face multiple challenges when trying to get justice. Evidence for the link between exposure to pollution and related harms may require further study, or it may be difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for the exposure.

Not in this case. The exposure to lead and resulting health impacts in adults and children, including permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities, are undisputed and there is no doubt that the UN, Kosovo’s de-facto government at the time, operated the camps despite clear evidence at the time of contamination. A strong assessment from the UN’s own advisory panel in 2016 found violations against members of displaced communities and recommended the UN pay individual compensation, publicly acknowledge responsibility, and apologize to the victims. But the UN dodged responsibility and four years later there is still no remedy.

The UN human rights expert describes the situation for the Kosovo lead poisoning victims as particularly destructive because, even though the facts of the case are undisputed, their hope for compensation “has been dashed time and again by legalistic apologies … and silence from the international community after report after report.” The United Nations should finally heed its own expert’s advice, clearly admit full responsibility, and finally provide a remedy to the victims.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: September 21, 2020, 6:56 pm