Click to expand Image A sculpture of African slaves by Ghanaian artist, Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, at the beginning of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. © Dreisen Heath/Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The US Congress will take a historic step on April 14, 2021 when a congressional committee is to vote on a slavery reparations bill, Human Rights Watch said today. The House Judiciary Committee announced on April 9 its upcoming vote on H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. 

H.R. 40 would establish a federal commission to study the legacy of slavery in the United States and its ongoing harm and develop proposals for redress and repair, including reparations. The bill has been introduced at every congressional session since 1989 but has never before reached a committee vote, normally the first step toward passing legislation. The vote comes amid an acceleration in the reparations movement’s success at the state and local levels.

“The centuries-long injustices of slavery and its legacy, fueling the persistence of racial inequality today, remain largely unaccounted for,” said Dreisen Heath, racial justice researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “As states, cities, and other institutions pursue reckonings, Congress should step up to lead the nation in accounting and atoning for the ongoing impact of slavery. The committee vote on H.R. 40 is a crucial step in that direction.”

In March, the City Council of Evanston, Illinois approved the country’s first reparations program for Black people, and in 2020 California established its own H.R. 40-style commission at the state level to study and recommend reparations for Black Californians. Reparations efforts have also made progress recently in cities such as Providence, Rhode Island; Asheville, North Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; and Amherst, Massachusetts, with bills and grassroots initiatives being considered in many other communities. Religious and other institutions, as well as businesses, have also begun to acknowledge their roles in slavery and to address its continuing harm.   

The Judiciary Committee vote will be the first time that lawmakers cast a ballot to decide whether to bring H.R. 40 to the full House for consideration. In February, a House Judiciary Subcommittee held a hearing on the reparations bill. Human Rights Watch’s Heath testified, imploring Congress to address systemic racism by passing H.R. 40, rather than perpetuating it by continuing to let the bill languish.

The late Congressman John Conyers first introduced H.R. 40 more than 30 years ago on the heels of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations, including cash payments, to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and forcibly relocated during World War II. However, H.R. 40 did not gain significant momentum until 2019, when the House held its second congressional hearing on the bill. Then, in 2020,  the bill gained unprecedented support as the Covid-19 coronavirus took a disproportionate toll on communities of color and millions of people took to the streets following the police killing of George Floyd to demand an end to structural racism.  

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who took over as the bill’s lead sponsor after Conyers’ death in 2019, mobilized support among legislators, an effort backed by a coalition of over 300 groups including the National African American Reparations Commission, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, Color of Change, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Japanese American internment camp survivors, including former US Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and the actor George Takei, voiced their support. The Amalgamated Bank, the US Conference of Mayors, the Players Coalition, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, among others, have also expressed support.

President Joe Biden recently expressed support for a study of reparations for slavery, which was also a 2020 campaign promise.

As Human Rights Watch said in its testimony to Congress in February, passing H.R. 40 is essential because the full impact of creating laws and policies that forced hundreds of thousands of Africans to be enslaved in the United States, a gross human rights violation, has never been fully examined, accounted for, or assessed at the national level. Following emancipation, many US cities and states raced to enforce white supremacy and racial segregation, passing repressive laws to limit Black people’s rights.

Organized racial terror by the Ku Klux Klan, white paramilitary groups, and deputized white mobs that the authorities often have not done enough to prevent or account for, helped to maintain racial social order and to corrode Black people’s progress toward equality. Jim Crow laws passed by local and state governments in the 19th and 20th centuries entrenched racial discrimination. Federal, state, and local policy decisions in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as redlining, urban renewal, and highway construction, further contributed to structural racism. And these policies helped create present day economic, education, employment, and health inequalities, as well as housing segregation and everyday abusive policing practices in Black and brown communities.

To date, 175 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of H.R. 40, many more than in previous years. Its Senate companion, S. 40, the first reparations bill to be introduced in the Senate since Reconstruction, has 19 co-sponsors.

“The Judiciary Committee should seize this moment and vote to move H.R. 40 to the House floor for full consideration,” Heath said. “Racial justice and racial healing can only be achieved if the US finally reckons with its racist past and present and takes steps to provide genuine, meaningful repair.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 9, 2021, 4:24 pm
Click to expand Image People attend a rally for the protection of women's rights in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, protesting the kidnapping and killing of Aizada Kanatbekova, April 8, 2021. The banner reads, "The Authorities are Responsible for Femicide." © 2021 Sputnik, Svetlana Fedotova

On April 5, several men abducted 27-year-old Aizada Kanatbekova in broad daylight in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. One of them had allegedly been stalking her for months. Two days later, a farmer found Kanatbekova’s body in a car outside Bishkek. Police confirmed she was strangled to death. They said the body of one of her abductors was also in the car, displaying stab wounds that were self-inflicted.

I can’t stop thinking how it could have been me or any young Kyrgyz woman walking down the street that morning.

Kidnapping women for marriage is a crime in Kyrgyzstan, but men abduct women regularly and with impunity. Kanatbekova’s mother said police had laughed off her plea for help after the abduction and told her she’d soon be dancing at her daughter’s wedding. It’s a stark example of the disregard police exhibit when it comes to reports of bride kidnapping.

Their inaction is particularly shocking in Kanatbekova’s case because a witness alerted police immediately after the abduction. Street cameras installed as part of Bishkek’s “Safe City” project captured the license plates of both cars.

At an April 8 press conference, the Bishkek police chief insisted police searched for Kanatbekova nonstop, but her family and friends told the media that local police offices outside Bishkek were not aware of the search.

The case is similar to that of Burulai Turdaly kyzy, a young woman who was murdered by her two-time kidnapper in May 2018, after officers left them alone together in a room at the police station. There is a prevailing belief in Kyrgyz society that bride kidnapping, forced marriages, and other forms of domestic violence are a family affair and outsiders, even police, should not meddle, even though they are criminal offenses.

People in Bishkek and Osh, shocked and angry at yet another woman’s murder, protested outside police headquarters in each city. Several members of parliament have also called for tougher punishment for bride kidnapping.

But tougher punishment won’t help if law enforcement inaction persists. Kyrgyz officials should treat abduction of women for marriage for what it is – a crime. They should enforce existing laws and hold perpetrators accountable. They should also conduct an internal investigation into the flawed response to the abduction that ultimately led to Kanatbekova’s murder and punish the officers responsible. Otherwise, women and girls, like Burulai and Aizada, will continue to die, as police laugh on.

This text has been modified to correct the spelling of Aizada Kanatbekova’s name.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 9, 2021, 3:12 pm
Click to expand Image An asylum seeking family from Guatemala stands on the Paso del Norte international bridge. After border agents turned the family away at the port of entry, the family swam across the Rio Grande. © 2021 David Peinado/NurPhoto via AP

(Washington, DC) – The United States government’s summary expulsion of irregular border crossers without regard to their asylum claims or need for protection on ostensible public health grounds puts lives at risk and violates US obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a “question and answer” analysis. The administration of President Joe Biden should immediately stop returning asylum seekers to harm and rescind the March 2020 order invoked to authorize the expulsions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the order under pressure from the administration of former President Donald Trump. The order, which is based on the misapplication of Title 42 of US law – an obscure 1944 public health law not intended for immigration enforcement purposes – has been wrongfully used to give US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unchecked authority to summarily expel migrants, including asylum seekers, arriving at US land borders.

“President Biden promised during his campaign to restore the right to seek asylum, but close to 100 days into his administration, Trump’s border expulsion policy remains in place,” said Ariana Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Biden administration should immediately stop returning asylum seekers to harm, and instead build a humane border regime that protects public health and respects rights.”

CBP agents have so far performed more than 642,700 expulsions under the CDC order, which uses public health as a pretext for dismissing human rights obligations. Under the order, agents have been denying asylum seekers access to nonrefoulement screenings required under US and international law to ensure they are not returned to persecution or torture.

The expulsion policy is only being applied at the border, and other travelers do not face the same restrictions.

At least 13,000 unaccompanied children were expelled during the Trump administration. The Biden administration has since made an exception in processing unaccompanied children but has continued expelling children traveling with family members.

The expulsions of Haitian asylum seekers are particularly concerning. Leaked DHS documents show the agency knew that Haitian asylum seekers would likely face harm if expelled to Haiti, a country the agency identified as suffering from political instability, kidnapping, and violence. Nevertheless, DHS has expelled hundreds of Haitians, including young children and babies, both to Haiti and Mexico.

Human Rights Watch interviews with people summarily expelled and the observations of other groups strongly suggest that the people subjected to summary expulsions are largely Black, brown, and Indigenous people. With no meaningful review or oversight of individual CBP officers’ discretionary decisions, existing structural inequalities in immigration law and access to protection are likely to be even more pronounced.

Migrants are either expelled to their country of origin or dangerous Mexican border cities, where they are routinely targeted by criminal organizations for extortion, rape, assault, and other violence, and where they often lack resources. Haitians are especially easy to identify as non-Mexicans, making them particularly vulnerable to such targeting. And the language differences for Haitians and other non-Spanish-speaking migrants create barriers to finding transportation, housing, case management, and daily necessities.

Migrant shelters in El Paso performing humanitarian reception were misled by DHS under the Biden administration. They said they were told to expect more families to be released into their care. The shelters had prepared for and were ready to receive those families, offering medical checks, help with travel, and quarantine as needed. It was a surprise when the asylum seekers were expelled to Mexico instead.

“They told us we were going to El Paso, [Texas],” said one asylum-seeking father who was unexpectedly expelled to Ciudad Juárez along with dozens of other families after spending days in CBP custody. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. They said, ‘Come on, follow us. Cross this bridge.’ We ended up in Mexico. They tricked us into coming here.” The father said he could not return to his home in Honduras because of threats against his life by gang members.

Biden has since announced he is looking to ramp up expulsions of families. The administration should invest in existing organizations and shelters already successfully performing reception at the border instead.

The expulsion policy has also resulted in family separation. Children traveling with adult relatives other than their parents are also being separated by border agents who are then expelling the adults and classifying the minors as unaccompanied.

The right to seek asylum applies even in times of emergency. The United States should respond to people who arrive at the border in a fair, efficient, and rights-respecting manner that also protects public health, Human Rights Watch said. It should end summary expulsion and return and develop a humanitarian reception system. The US government should also implement public health procedures to limit the spread of Covid-19, provide sufficient resources and structural reforms to process asylum claims fairly and efficiently, and act quickly to address border agency impunity.

“There is no public health justification for singling out asylum seekers and migrants at the border and subjecting them to harsher restrictions than other travelers,” Sawyer said. “By continuing these expulsions, the Biden administration is violating the rights of asylum seekers and should change course immediately.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 8, 2021, 8:15 pm
Click to expand Image A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around a facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux, western China's Xinjiang region, December 3, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is hoping the Chinese government will grant UN experts unrestricted access to detention centers in Xinjiang where over a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have faced torture and myriad other human rights abuses. But he should make clear to Beijing that an investigation can take place with or without access.

In a recent interview with Canadian broadcaster CBC, Guterres urged Beijing to give the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, and other UN experts “unlimited access” to Xinjiang, which Bachelet had first requested over two years ago.

In the face of Beijing’s foot-dragging, Guterres should go a step further and endorse Bachelet’s team conducting a remote investigation that publicly reports its findings.

As shown by UN inquiries into abuses in North Korea and Myanmar, an investigation in Xinjiang can be comprehensive and credible even without the Chinese government’s cooperation. There is ample evidence of the impact of Beijing’s repressive policies in the public domain, including internal Chinese government documents and satellite imagery published by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and news outlets.

Guterres, who is seeking a second term as secretary-general, has not yet called on China to end its abuses in Xinjiang, as have 50 UN experts and dozens of UN member countries. But he recognizes the value of speaking out publicly. As he said in another interview, “Our power in the UN is the power of persuasion, is the power of speaking up, is the power of denouncing what needs to be denounced.”

Guterres has been getting it right in Myanmar, where over the past two months he has repeatedly condemned the Myanmar security forces’ atrocities against demonstrators protesting the military’s February 1 coup. And the junta is facing mounting pressure, partly due to Guterres, his special envoy, the UN special rapporteur, and other UN officials’ speaking out.

It’s time to do the same with China.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 8, 2021, 12:41 pm
Click to expand Image A Ukrainian soldier watches guard with a machine gun in his shelter near the front-line town of Krasnohorivka, eastern Ukraine, March 5, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File

International attention to the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine had faded in recent years. Recent reports of Russia massing troops near Ukraine’s border have brought it back into focus. Monitors reported a significant uptick in hostilities in recent weeks.

A key issue of the renewed international focus on the conflict in eastern Ukraine should be how civilians will be protected if there is a further escalation in hostilities.

Russia has been pursuing a proxy war in eastern Ukraine since it occupied Crimea in 2014, supporting armed groups in Donetsk and Luhansk regions financially and providing them with military support. According to the United Nations’ human rights office, at least 3,077 civilians have been killed and more than 7,000 injured since the war began. On April 2, a child died from blast trauma and fragmentation wounds in the village of Oleksandrivske, Donetsk region. Wounds from explosive weapons with large area effects can be especially difficult to treat in children.

Eastern Ukraine remains a heavily mine-contaminated region. In 2020, the majority of civilian casualties resulted from mine incidents and the handling of explosive remnants of war.

The laws of war governing fighting in eastern Ukraine require all parties to the conflict to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military targets and civilian objects, and to refrain from attacks that would cause disproportionate harm to the civilian population in relation to the military advantage gained. This means all parties should  take precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including by protecting civilians from the effects of landmines and explosive remnants of war, and by avoiding the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 8, 2021, 11:11 am
Click to expand Image People in the streets of N'Djamena, Chad’s capital, protest against President Idriss Déby Itno running for a sixth term in the April 11, 2021 election. © Private, March 27, 2021, Ndjamena, Chad

(Nairobi) – Chad’s security forces have ruthlessly cracked down on protesters and the political opposition in the lead-up to the country’s April 11, 2021 presidential election, harming Chadians’ right to freely choose their elected representatives, Human Rights Watch said today. Incumbent President Idriss Déby Itno, who has ruled Chad since December 1990 when he removed the autocratic leader Hissène Habré, is running for a sixth term.

Since February, a coalition of nongovernmental groups, labor unions, and opposition political parties have organized peaceful demonstrations in the capital, N’Djamena, and other cities across the country, despite a government ban on public gatherings. Witnesses described how security force members beat protesters with whips, sticks, and batons; pulled a wounded person out of a car and beat other passengers; arbitrarily arrested scores of people, and, in the attack on the home of an opposition leader, killed his mother. One protester said he was subjected to electric shocks while in detention.

“As many Chadians are bravely taking to the streets to peacefully call for change and respect of their basic rights, Chad’s authorities have responded by crushing dissent and hope of a fair or credible election,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should respect freedom of speech and assembly, ensure that police exercise restraint during opposition protests, and urgently investigate the deadly assault on the family of an opposition leader and other allegations of abuse.”

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews by telephone between March 22 and 30 with 24 human rights activists, protesters, opposition party leaders and members, lawyers, and journalists. Human Rights Watch also analyzed videos and photographs and reviewed reporting by media outlets and national and international rights groups. Human Rights Watch spoke with Chad’s justice minister Djimet Arabi on April 7. He said that security forces acted with “professionalism” while policing protests and that they had a responsibility to put an end to demonstrations that had been banned and that “sometimes led to violence and public disorder, with protesters burning tires on different roads.”

Click to expand Image Two military vehicles stationed outside the home of opposition politician Yaya Dillo in the capital of Chad, N'Djamena, on February 28, 2021, hours after security forces attacked the home, killing Dillo’s mother. © Private, February 28, 2021, Ndjamena, Chad

Human Rights Watch found that security forces used teargas to disperse peaceful protesters in N’Djamena on February 6, February 15, March 20, and March 27, injuring dozens of protesters and bystanders. They also arbitrarily arrested at least 112 opposition party members and supporters and civil society activists, subjecting some to severe beatings and other ill-treatment. In a brazen attack on the home of a political opposition leader and presidential candidate Yaya Dillo on February 28, security forces killed his 80-year-old mother and wounded five other family members.

Communications Minister Chérif Mahamat Zene said in a February 28 statement that the purpose of the raid was to arrest Dillo, who had failed to comply with two judicial warrants. He said that Dillo “put up an armed resistance” and that two people were killed and five others injured in the fight, including three members of the security forces. The witnesses with whom Human Rights Watch spoke reject this account and maintain that there was no armed response from Dillo’s home.

Protesters told Human Rights Watch that they demonstrated to call for political change, and for an end to social and economic injustices. They cited the appalling rates of poverty, despite the country’s vast oil resources. Chad was placed last in the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index, while the United Nations Development Programme ranked Chad 187 out of 189 countries in its 2020 human development index. 

“We are an oil-rich nation, but the population remains desperately poor because resources have been misused,” Mahamat Nour Ibedou, a prominent human rights defender, told Human Rights Watch. “There’s an extremely wealthy elite made up of a few people close to the government, and then there’s a whole population struggling to survive and living in dire conditions, eating once a day.”

Seventeen candidates submitted their applications to contest the presidential election. On March 3, Chad’s Supreme Court stated that only 10 had been approved, rejecting the remaining candidates on grounds that their parties were not “legally constituted.”

Following the deadly raid on Dillo’s home, some of the remaining candidates withdrew, including Saleh Kebzabo, president of the opposition party National Union for Democracy and Revival (Union nationale pour la démocratie et le renouveau, UNDR), who denounced a “climate of insecurity and militarization of the political scene” and called for a boycott of the elections. Dillo, whose candidacy was not accepted, went into hiding after his home was attacked.

Opposition parties have accused the government of using Covid-19 regulations to block their campaigns and ban political gatherings, including a strict lockdown that was imposed in N’Djamena from January 1 to March 10.

“The authorities have used the pandemic as an excuse to quash the political opposition,” Mahamat Ahmat Lazina, president of opposition party Mouvement National pour le Changement au Tchad (MNCT), told Human Rights Watch. “They imposed a lockdown not because they cared about the health of people, but because they wanted to stop opposition parties from mobilizing support. We watched President Déby travel to all of Chad’s provinces and organize meetings with hundreds of people, while we were forced to stay home.”

The security forces’ use of excessive force against protesters violates not only their rights to free speech, assembly, and liberty but also the absolute prohibition on inflicting inhuman and degrading treatment and torture.

The Chadian government should instruct the police and gendarmes to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Guidelines on Policing Assemblies in Africa. Under these principles, law enforcement officers may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. Anyone found not to act in compliance with them should be held to account and appropriately punished.

“Human rights violations and denial of fundamental freedoms have undermined the credibility of Chad’s upcoming elections,” Sawyer said. “Chad’s international partners should not turn a blind eye to the abuses but instead press the government to respect freedom of assembly, rein in the security forces, and ensure accountability for abuses.”

For more information on the recent repression in Chad, please see below.

Context


Chad has received significant international support for its role in the fight against armed Islamist groups in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin. Chad has committed 1,000 troops to the G5 Sahel Joint Force – a military force created to counter Islamist armed groups in the Sahel region, with support from the European Union, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, among others.

It has also contributed 3,000 soldiers to the Multinational Joint Task Force, a joint military force mandated by the African Union to respond to Boko Haram attacks across the Lake Chad basin, with support from the European Union, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, hosts the headquarters of Barkhane, the French counterterrorism force operating in Mali.

But Déby’s government has a long track record of cracking down on fundamental freedoms and banning or repressing peaceful demonstrations. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that while Article 28 of the revised 2018 Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, the law regulating the conditions under which assemblies can be restricted has never been adopted, leading the authorities to use outdated decrees from 1962 to ban peaceful protests.

Repression of Demonstrations on February 6 and 15

Media outlets and Amnesty International reported that security forces fired teargas to disperse peaceful demonstrations in N’Djamena on February 6 and arrested dozens of people, including Ibedou, secretary general of the Chadian Human Rights Convention. Success Masra, head of the opposition party Les Transformateurs, who participated in the demonstration, sought refuge at the US embassy in N’Djamena. On February 11, the embassy issued a statement saying that it “received assurances” from the Chadian government that Masra “would not be arrested if he departed the embassy” and asked Masra to leave. He has not been arrested since leaving the embassy.

On February 15, police in N’Djamena fired teargas to disperse a peaceful march organized by the MNCT opposition party, other political parties, and civil society organizations. Several protesters and their lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the police arrested over 30 demonstrators and beat many of them. Two were held for nine days without charge, while the others were released the day of arrest, also without being charged.

Lazina, the MNCT president, was among those arrested, and he later told Human Rights Watch: “They took me to N’Djamena’s third district police station and from there to a building of the police intelligence service within the same compound. Then they beat me. Six policemen and intelligence officers in plain clothes hit me with sticks and kicked me repeatedly on my back.”

Lazina was released later that day. Human Rights Watch reviewed Lazina’s medical records issued by a doctor at the Sultan Cherif Kasser hospital in N’Djamena on February 16, acknowledging that Lazina was temporarily incapacitated due to spinal, pelvic, and thoracic pain following a traumatic injury suffered on February 15.

A 46-year-old member of the MNCT, who was also among those arrested, said that he was tortured at the headquarters of the police intelligence service by men in plain clothes: “They beat me and gave me electric shocks with cables, three times, on the day of my arrest. They wanted me to confess, to tell them who organized the march and who was behind the demonstrations. They also hit me with a whip multiple times before throwing me in a cell where I slept for eight days on the floor.”

The Attack at Yaya Dillo’s House on February 28

Dillo, Chad’s former representative to the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), told Human Rights Watch that members of the presidential guard, soldiers, and policemen attacked his home at about 5 a.m. on February 28. Human Rights Watch spoke with four other witnesses to the attack and reviewed photographs of the body of Dillo’s mother and of injured people, and video footage showing his house and property that was damaged in the attack.

Dillo and four other witnesses said that security forces killed Dillo’s mother and son and injured at least five other family members. Chad’s justice minister told Human Rights Watch that Dillo’s son was not killed in the attack. Video footage shows at least one member of the security forces who was injured. Witnesses said that other security force members shot him when he refused an order to mount an assault on Dillo’s home. Chad’s justice minister said that two security force members were killed and that three or four other security force members were injured. He added that a judicial investigation has been opened to determine who was responsible for the death of Dillo’s mother and the deaths of two security force members.

“They came with military vehicles to destroy me and my house,” Dillo said. “They fired indiscriminately at all civilians who were in the house. They killed one of my sons, a little child of 11 years old, and my 80-year-old mother.”

A witness to the attack said that soldiers surrounded Dillo’s home and forced their way into his compound with tracked and wheeled armored vehicles: “They crushed the gate of the compound with an armored vehicle and smashed at least four vehicles parked in the courtyard. We, the people who had gathered at Dillo’s house, resisted by throwing stones and other objects at the soldiers.”

Another witness, and a relative of Dillo’s, said he was shot and wounded in his right tibia when the soldiers started firing inside Dillo’s home: “The military sprayed us with gunfire. They fired several rounds of bullets and one hit me in the leg. I fell down and was later taken to the hospital for treatment.”

While Chad’s justice minister told Human Rights Watch that there were armed men with Dillo who responded to the security forces with gunfire, all the witnesses who spoke with Human Rights Watch denied that there was any armed security at Dillo’s home who fired at security forces or provoked any use of weapons or lethal force.

Dillo had refused, on his lawyer’s advice, to respond to an earlier arrest warrant, which they say was not lawfully executed.

Netblocks, a nonprofit organization monitoring internet censorship, reported that internet access in Chad was severely disrupted on February 28 following the deadly raid at Dillo’s house. Several other people interviewed confirmed it. A N’Djamena-based reporter said:

The government was extremely nervous because scenes of the attack [on Dillo’s home] were filmed by witnesses and were being circulated on social media. I did not have access to the internet for several days and had to buy a Cameroonian sim card in order to communicate with the outside. The internet block hindered people from communicating with each other and prevented journalists from reporting on unfolding events.


The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned measures by governments to prevent or disrupt online access to information.

The spokesperson of the United Nations secretary-general said on March 1 that he “regrets the use of violence and the resulting loss of life” at Dillo’s residence and urged authorities “to conduct a prompt and rigorous investigation into the incident and to hold perpetrators accountable.” France’s foreign minister also said that the Chadian government should open an independent investigation into the incident and ensure freedom of assembly ahead of the elections.

Repression of Demonstrations on March 20 and 27

Click to expand Image A woman demonstrating in the streets of N'Djamena, Chad’s capital, holds a sign saying, “No to a 6th term for Deby”, on March 20, 2021. © Private, Ndjamena, Chad, March 20, 2021

Ten witnesses said that the police violently dispersed peaceful demonstrations organized by a coalition of nongovernmental groups, unions and opposition parties in N’Djamena on March 20 and 27. Witnesses said that anti-riot police fired teargas canisters directly at protesters, turning them into dangerous projectiles that led to serious injuries.

Human Rights Watch reviewed five videos from the March 20 protest, where peaceful demonstrators can be seen singing the national anthem, calling for Déby to step down, and calling for jobs for the youth and access to basic services for the population. Eight witnesses, three lawyers, and media reports said that the anti-riot police dispersed the demonstration by firing teargas and beating protesters, injuring at least 10 people. They then rounded up and arrested at least 40 people.

“I was hit and burned in my left thigh by a teargas cartridge fired by anti-riot police just some 10 meters away,” said a civil society activist who participated in the demonstration. “The police seemed to fire these cartridges indiscriminately. While I was being taken to the hospital in a car, a police vehicle rear-ended ours. The police took us out of the car and fired teargas again. I couldn’t breathe. One of the people in the car with me collapsed. The police beat him with a truncheon on his back and shoulders before taking us all to the police station.”

A member of an opposition party who also participated in the demonstration said: “We were waiting to start the march in front of the premises of the Chadian Workers’ Union when the police came and started firing teargas. They fired from close range. I was hit by a cartridge fired at me from about two meters away. I was injured on my right shoulder.”

A member of an opposition party who was among the March 27 protestors said: “Our policemen are not professional. When they fired teargas, they did not aim at the ground, but at our heads! I saw how they were throwing the cartridges irresponsibly. They also fired huge quantities of teargas, making the air unbreathable and causing protestors to feel dizzy or collapse."

Click to expand Image A screenshot of a video showing women demonstrating on March 27, 2021 in N'Djamena, Chad’s capital, holding signs saying, among others, “We Want Justice” and “Freedom”, “Idi out”. © Private, Ndjamena, Chad, March 27, 2021

Media outlets, as well as protestors and lawyers interviewed, said that the police arbitrarily arrested at least 40 protesters and bystanders during the March 20 demonstrations, and at least 28 during the March 27 demonstrations. The police also beat some of the protesters either upon arrest or at the police stations. All protesters have been released.

Police arrested and beat François Djékombé, president of the opposition party Union sacrée pour la République (USPR) on March 27. “I was thrown into the police vehicle and beaten up by four police officers,” he said. “I fell on my neck, which is still hurting. A policeman slapped me twice, while another forced me to lie down in the vehicle and shoved his boots into my neck.”

The well-known Chadian rap singer, Alfred Ngueita Allashasko (known as “N2A”), said that he was arrested both on March 20 and March 27. “The policemen were brutal. On both occasions, they beat me up,” he said. “They put me in their vehicle with other protesters and kicked me with their boots. On March 20, I also witnessed a police officer beating a pregnant woman with a stick.” A lawyer said that a police officer beat one of his clients, a pregnant woman who participated in the protest, at N’Djamena’s 6th district police and that she was taken to a health center for treatment.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 8, 2021, 11:00 am
Click to expand Image Syrian farmers harvest olives in Idlib, Syria on November 21, 2020. Despite the negative effects of fertilization, tree pruning and transportation costs as well as the increase in fuel prices, farmers started to harvest olives, their main source of their income. The land pictured is not representative of the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch. © 2020 Muhammed Abdullah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Syrian authorities are unlawfully confiscating the homes and lands of Syrians who fled Syrian-Russian military attacks in Idlib and Hama governorates, Human Rights Watch said today.

A pro-government militia and the government-controlled “Peasants’ Unions” were involved in seizing and auctioning these lands to government supporters.
“Peasants’ Unions are supposed to help protect farmers’ rights, but have become one more tool in the Syrian government’s systematic repression of its own people,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Aid organizations should ensure that Peasants’ Unions are not providing assistance for farming on stolen land.”

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the authorities in Hama and Idlib seized at least 440,000 dunums (44,000 hectares) of agricultural land following the government takeover of the area from dissident groups.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six people, five of whom said that the Syrian authorities had seized land they or their immediate relatives owned in Idlib or Hama governorates without notice or compensation, between March and November 2020. The confiscations occurred after they fled the 10-month-long Syrian-Russian military alliance’s offensive on Northwest Syria in 2019.

“I was maybe the last civilian to leave Morek,” one person said. “Five days before they [Syrian government forces] took Khan Sheikhoun. I left but tried to go back to get our belongings, but the roads got blocked and helicopters in the air were firing. I had to turn back and leave.”

In one case, a person from the town of Morek had paid US $5,000 to a member of the Tiger Forces, an abusive pro-government militia in control of the area, operating under Suheil Hassan, to release their land. He also said that to keep the land off the auction lists he was required to have an immediate relative present in the area. He paid to have his mother smuggled back to the area, as he was wanted by the Syrian government. His brother had already been detained by government forces.

The lands included cultivated lands used for planting pistachios, wheat, olive trees, and other types of crops. In most cases, they formed the primary source of income for the families.

“For the family, when we found out, it was like lightning struck us,” one person said. “I can compare [it] to an olive tree being torn from its roots … We lost our land, our house, our homeland. These lands were our source of income, helping us with our livelihood. We used to harvest it and benefit from it.”

Those interviewed said that a few months after the government takeover of these areas, they began to receive news from relatives and on social media that lists were circulating for public auctions of lands they owned.

Human Rights Watch reviewed several of these publicly available announcements by the Peasants’ Cooperative Associations (PCAs) in Hama and Idlib. The website of the General Union of Peasants, as of September 2017, said that there were 5,621 of these associations with almost 1 million members. The cooperative associations consolidate and redistribute the means of production, including loans, livestock, fodder, and compost, as well as farming machines. The announcements called for tenders to lease the lands belonging to “people who reside outside the Syrian Arab Republic or who reside in areas under the control of ‘terrorists.’”

In three cases, people said that a security committee consisting of Syrian military intelligence, the Peasants’ Cooperative Associations (PCA), and members of a pro-government militia (shabiha) were responsible for seizing and then leasing their land. In three other cases, individuals said that pro-government individuals or high-level commanders of pro-government militia had rented the land and provided names.

All six landowners interviewed were also wanted by the Syrian government for various issues, such as defecting from the Syrian army and participating in peaceful protests, and therefore were living abroad or in territories not controlled by the government, and were unable to return to areas held by the government due to security concerns.

None of the landowners received compensation. One landowner who managed to contact the person who leased the land said the person told him they would lease it back to him if he promised to share half the proceeds from the harvest.

Some of the notices posted by the associations, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, claimed that the properties had been seized for outstanding loans the owners had with the Agricultural Cooperative Bank (ACB). Five of the people interviewed denied it. They also indicated that they had not received any notice or request for repayment and had not been able to challenge the legality of the confiscation, reflecting systemic due process concerns in Syria.

“We owe nothing to anyone, no loan, nothing,” one person said. “No person in the world wouldn’t wish to go back to his land. This is my demand. I want to go back. At least I want to smell the land. It became a dream.”

All of those interviewed said they or their parents had deeds to the land, but three lost their personal and property documentation either when they fled during the military offensive, or because of attacks or raids on their homes that destroyed the documents. In three cases, the lists clearly indicate that they are the owners. In one case, the man interviewed said the land was in his mother’s name.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented that the Syrian government passed laws and policies to confiscate property without due process or compensation. They include Law 10 of 2018, which ostensibly allows the government to seize property and develop it, and Counterterrorism Law of 2012, which the government has used to punish entire families by arbitrarily placing them on a list of alleged terrorists and freezing their assets.

Human Rights Watch has also reported the wheat shortages in government-held territory that have created a severe bread shortage, exacerbated by the government’s restrictions, corruption, and discriminatory approach.

In 2020, at the same time people’s land was being confiscated, the Agriculture Ministry, with the support of the Peasants’ Associations issued a plan to subsidize and provide support to farmers to plant wheat and other needed crops. Aid groups have provided seeds and restored irrigation systems, including in some parts of Hama governorate. Aid organizations should ensure that they are not providing assistance for farming on stolen land, Human Rights Watch said.

Under customary international law, property rights are protected. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that “everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.” Furthermore, “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Governments are entitled to confiscate land for public purposes, if done according to the law, with public participation, due process, and adequate compensation. However, these cases show that such guarantees have not been provided.

Further, the Pinheiro Principles, widely agreed-upon principles that govern property rights of refugees and internally displaced people, encompass several additional protections that apply in this situation. The principles protect refugees and displaced people from discrimination and require that legislation covering housing, land, and restitution is neither de facto nor de jure discriminatory, and is transparent and consistent. If a refugee or displaced person is unlawfully or arbitrarily denied their property, they are entitled to submit a claim for restitution from an independent and impartial body.

The Syrian authorities should immediately stop confiscating and auctioning the properties of citizens without getting their consent, providing them with notice, or full and adequate compensation. It should inform these owners of intent to seize the land, any requests for loan repayment, or any problems concerning their land, and provide them with an opportunity to challenge these decisions in a fair trial. International aid agencies operating in these areas should ensure that none of their programs, including providing seeds and tools to farmers in government-held areas, advance these violations. If the Syrian government fails to do this, the US, EU, and other countries should sanction the Syrian government officials most responsible for ongoing and widespread unlawful land confiscation programs.


“This is not the first time that Syrian authorities have used laws and policies to punish people they perceive to be opposing their brutal rule,” Kayyali said. “Unless the international community takes decisive action to punish these abuses, we will only see more of these initiatives.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 8, 2021, 4:01 am
Click to expand Image Belarusian journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich, right, and Dr. Artsiom Sorokin attend a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, 19 February, 2021. © 2021 Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA pool photo via AP

On April 2, Belarus’ parliament moved forward eight bills, including a raft of amendments to the country’s Mass Media Law and Mass Gatherings Law. If adopted, these amendments will further undermine freedom of speech and the work of independent journalists in Belarus.

The new bills expand legal restrictions on mass media outlets and broaden the already extensive list of grounds authorities can use to deny them accreditation, shut them down, or block their websites. Proposed amendments also further restrict journalists, especially when reporting on mass protests.

Since last year, Belarusian authorities have been charging independent journalists with participation in peaceful protests they cover and stripped one independent news outlet of its media credentials. The government attempts to stifle independent press through smear campaigns, arbitrary arrests, raids on homes and offices, police brutality, and political prosecutions.

In the last six months, authorities opened at least 18 criminal cases against journalists. Three journalists – Katsiaryna Barysevich, Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalava), and Darya Chultsova – were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years over their reporting on peaceful public protests. The new legislative amendments would provide formal grounds for further escalation of the crackdown.

According to the leading Belarusian news outlet TUT.BY, the proposed amendments to the Mass Media Law would make it illegal for journalists to “discredit” the state, effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government. The amendments would also enable authorities to strip journalists of accreditation for allegedly committing a crime while carrying out professional duties.

The draft amendments to the Mass Gatherings Law prohibit journalists from livestreaming mass unauthorized protests. When reporting on authorized gatherings, journalists are required to follow the same rules as protest participants.  

Another bill empowers police to prohibit any filming or photography, including at protests.

The parliament should reject these bills, which aim to deal another crushing blow to media freedom in Belarus. Instead of stifling independent press, the authorities should be striving to create a climate in which all journalists can carry out their legitimate work without fear of reprisals.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 7, 2021, 7:43 pm

Following the January 19 death in police custody of a teenage Tibetan monk, Chinese authorities have commenced an operation to “clean up” Tibetan homes in the grassland town of Dza Wonpo, Sichuan province. Tenzin Nyima died from injuries he received while being detained after participating in a peaceful protest with three other monks. Now, it seems, officials are looking to clamp down on any further information getting out.

Click to expand Image Screenshot of a video showing dozens of police and commandos parading through the town of Dza Wonpo, carrying a large red flag and shouting battle-cries. © Private

The Snow Wolf Commandos, a unit of the People’s Armed Police responsible for counterterrorism operations, arrived in Wonpo on March 5, ostensibly to visit a home for older people and clean up the residents’ rooms.

But video seen by Human Rights Watch also shows dozens of police and commandos parading through the town of about 3,000 residents, almost all Tibetans, carrying a large red flag and shouting battle-cries.

A local source says the commandos searched houses, including the home for older people, confiscated photos of the Dalai Lama, and put up portraits of China’s leaders on the walls. Authorities detained several Tibetan residents who had posted notes on social media expressing concern about Tenzin Nyima’s death. Their identities and whereabouts are unknown. Local residents have also been required to download an app to their phones, giving officials access to the user’s data.

This “clean-up” operation took place one day after the county’s top official, Communist Party Secretary Yang Mingguang, visited Wonpo to inspect “recent key tasks” in the town. Yang had given “in-depth guidance” to monks at the local monastery and told the town’s police to “strengthen key tasks to ensure social stability in the near future.”

Since then, officials have announced that anyone possessing or displaying images of the Dalai Lama would be liable to criminal prosecution and would have to repay in full any assistance or funds received from the government. At a public meeting on March 17, officials required attendees to sign a five-point document undertaking not to keep or distribute pictures of the Dalai Lama and agreeing to “follow the Party and oppose any illegal activity.”

Tibetans who distribute unofficial news about their situation risk severe punishment, especially if that information is sent outside the country. Apart from photos of police helping older citizens, future news from Wonpo is likely to be scarce.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 7, 2021, 7:04 pm
Click to expand Image UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 14, 2017. © 2017 KYDPL KYODO

(New York) – Women should have full participation in the talks between Afghan government officials, opposition political leaders, and the Taliban under United Nations auspices, Human Rights Watch said today. Human rights advocates in Afghanistan have raised concerns that women and victims’ organizations will be sidelined in the talks, tentatively scheduled for April 16, 2021, in Istanbul.

Senior UN officials – notably Secretary-General António Guterres, Deputy Secretary‑General Amina Mohammed, the secretary-general’s personal envoy on Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, and the special representative for the secretary-general on Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons – should make a public commitment to fully include women in the main talks, and not only in “parallel” side events devoted to civil society groups.

“As the Afghanistan conference host, the United Nations needs to ensure that women are full participants in the core talks,” said Heather Barr, interim women’s rights co-director at Human Rights Watch. “UN officials should make clear that women should not be relegated to side discussions but need a central role in determining Afghanistan’s future.”

The Istanbul talks, tentatively scheduled to begin on April 16, 2021, are to discuss proposed peace plans that include a possible interim government. Leading Afghan political figures, including former president Hamid Karzai and other heads of political factions, are likely to attend along with government officials from the High Council on National Reconciliation. The United States government has promoted these talks in an effort to accelerate negotiations before a US troop withdrawal.

A meeting in Moscow on March 18 that aimed to advance peace talks included a similar roster of political figures, including several implicated in serious human rights abuses from the Afghan government and other political groups, plus the Taliban, along with diplomats from partner countries. The Afghan government delegation at that event included only one woman, Dr. Habiba Sarabi, even though the government’s official delegation on intra-Afghan talks that have been ongoing in Doha, Qatar, includes 4 women among its 20 members. In both settings, the Taliban delegation has been entirely male.

The UN has repeatedly stated its commitment to ensuring the full participation of Afghan women in the peace process. In November 2019, Deputy Secretary‑General Mohamed said that “women’s inclusion is critical to sustainable peace and development in Afghanistan. Afghan women can rely on the full solidarity and commitment of everyone here today as individuals, and as representatives of Member States and organizations.”

UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, calls for women’s “equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” Since then, the Security Council has passed seven additional resolutions on women, peace, and security.

Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan have for years raised concerns that the government will trade away women’s rights to reach an accommodation with the Taliban. The Afghan government has often resisted including women in peace talks. In June 2015, the government adopted a national action plan to implement Security Council Resolution 1325 from 2015 through 2022, including the goal of “[e]nsuring women’s effective participation in the peace process,” but the plan lacked detail and has not been meaningfully carried out. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has also called for a commitment to women’s full participation in the talks.

The US, in particular, has an important role to play in promoting full participation by women in the upcoming talks, Human Rights Watch said. The US is seeking an agreement in Afghanistan as the administration of President Joe Biden weighs whether to comply with the May 1 deadline for US troop withdrawal that was set in the February 2020 deal between the US and the Taliban negotiated by the previous US administration.

A leaked US government draft plan, dated February 28, calls for a transitional “peace government” in Afghanistan with appointments to that government be made “with special consideration for the meaningful inclusion of women…throughout government institutions.” But “meaningful inclusion” falls short of the “full participation in the peace process” set out under Resolution 1325.

“The US should not stay silent if the Afghan government shuts women out of peace talks,” Barr said. “It’s critical for the Biden administration to be clear that Afghan women need to be full participants in all talks, and that women’s rights are not a bargaining chip.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 7, 2021, 6:30 pm
Click to expand Image A person in Soweto, South Africa receives an injection as they participate in a clinical trial for a Covid-19 vaccine in June 2020.  © 2020 Siphiwe Sibeko/AFP via Getty Images

Today marks World Health Day with the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for increased government investment and cooperation to tackle global health inequities. Government policy and practice primarily determine the equity or otherwise of health outcomes both within and between countries. But the actions of pharmaceutical companies also have a huge impact on whether people have access to affordable life-saving health care.

Structural weaknesses in countries’ healthcare and social safety nets contribute to massive disparities in access to lifesaving support.

To chart an equitable exit from the Covid-19 pandemic, governments should ensure universal and affordable vaccine access or they risk further entrenching inequality and eroding human rights. Vaccine roll-out has so far largely mirrored the inequities that marked the rest of the pandemic: rich governments made opaque deals and prebooked the vast majority of scarce vaccine supplies, while also opposing efforts to temporarily waive complex global trade rules that could give us the best chance of universal and affordable vaccine access for all. This has increased the risk that the pandemic — as well as the inequality and rights abuses that have flourished — will continue in many countries for years to come.

Responding to the pandemic — via social distancing, quarantines, and business closures — has had an enormous economic impact. Low-income workers, who are often unable to work remotely, were disproportionately affected. Economic support during the pandemic has helped, but many people in need were left out. And government reliance on poorly designed or neglected technological infrastructure to distribute benefits has delayed and denied access to support while causing privacy problems.

Health care workers faced serious health and safety risks. Older people, people with disabilities, and women shouldered extraordinary burdens due to neglectful and discriminatory policy decisions. Schools around the world closed, shutting out an estimated 1.4 billion students, who may fall behind with some maybe never returning to education.

Health as a human right — enshrined in the WHO charter — means Covid-19 vaccines should be available to everyone. It means water and sanitation for everyone, social protection for everyone, and health care for everyone.

Covid-19 vaccine developments have shown that science can create technologies to save lives at a miraculous pace. Now it’s time to ensure everyone benefits — to end this pandemic and protect the right to health more broadly.

Equity is not a miracle, but fundamental for protecting rights.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 7, 2021, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Cambodian school girls walk home at the end of their school day outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia. © 2021 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government’s “Stop Covid-19” QR Code system raises serious privacy and other human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should use less-rights-intrusive measures to contain and prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

On February 20, 2021, Cambodia’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and Ministry of Health initiated a QR Code system that aims to assist with contact tracing of new Covid-19 cases, which have recently increased. The ministries should publicly explain how the data collected through the QR Code system is used, who has access to the data and for what purpose, the measures taken to secure the data, and the period for which the data is stored.

“Cambodia’s QR Code system is ripe for rights abuses because it lacks privacy protections for personal data,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “These concerns are heightened by the government’s stepped-up online surveillance of Cambodians since the outset of the pandemic, putting government critics and activists at greater risk.”

The Post and Telecommunications Ministry did not respond to a March 19 letter from Human Rights Watch asking about access to personal data and its storage and protection measures under the “Stop Covid-19” QR Code system. Other ministries copied on the letter also did not respond.

The Post and Telecommunication Ministry’s Facebook page contains posts that state that the use of the QR Code system is “voluntary,” but “participation is strongly encouraged.” It asks users to scan the QR code when entering establishments or institutions that have previously registered their participation in the QR Code system and downloaded and printed a QR Code from the government’s website.

When a user indicates they have entered a certain establishment, their phone receives a six-digit code in a text message, which they need to enter into their phone. On March 25, a post on the ministry’s Facebook page announced that 154,869 public and private institutions around the country had registered to use the QR Code system, with more than 11 million locations scanned by users. Several provincial authorities are using the system at provincial border crossing-points as part of mandatory screening for Covid-19 symptoms.

Health Minister Mam Bunheng has stated that the aim of the QR Code system is to record the movements of customers, visitors, and staff at registered locations without violating users’ privacy. However, on March 8, the Post and Telecommunications Ministry announced that the QR Code scan would provide the government with information about the user’s location, allowing the authorities not only to quickly identify the user, but also reveal data on whether they were violating the two-week quarantine requirement.

Creating a log of people’s locations reveals sensitive insights about their identity, location, behavior, associations, and activities that infringe on the right to privacy, adding to the government’s existing intrusive surveillance practices, Human Rights Watch said.

Some business owners told Human Rights Watch that they have strictly enforced the QR Code system out of fear of being deemed non-compliant with government-imposed measures. This could make them subject to sanctions such as under the recently passed Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases, which introduced disproportionate criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison and fines. The QR Code system does not have any basis in legislation and its ostensible voluntary nature should not include sanctions.

Cambodia should enact a data protection law that would regulate and protect the usage, collection, and retention of data in accordance with international standards for privacy and other rights, Human Rights Watch said.

International law obligates governments acting to contain and prevent the spread of Covid-19 to ensure that such measures are based in law, necessary, proportionate, and the least intrusive for the purpose intended. Any contact tracing measures, such as Cambodia’s QR Code system, should be limited in scope and purpose, protect the right to privacy, and be used only for responding to the pandemic.

The measures should also ensure sufficient security of any personal data collected; be transparent about any data-sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities; incorporate protections and safeguards against abusive surveillance; and give people access to effective remedies. They should also be time-bound and only continue for as long as necessary to address the pandemic, mitigate any risk of discrimination or other rights abuses against marginalized populations, and provide for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders in data collection efforts.

“The Cambodian government should urgently develop a law on data protection and specific guidelines on protecting the right to privacy and security of data collected to apply to the QR Code system,” Robertson said. “The United Nations agencies in Cambodia should jointly call out the government’s failure to abide by international human rights law in its Covid-19 response.”
 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 6, 2021, 6:51 pm
Click to expand Image A nurse prepares a Covid-19 vaccine syringe at the Saint George Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon on February 16, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

(Beirut) – The Lebanese government’s Covid-19 vaccination program risks leaving behind marginalized communities, including refugees and migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite the government’s promises of an equitable program, the effort has been tainted by political interference and a lack of information.

United Nations data shows that Syrian and Palestinian refugees have died from Covid-19 at a rate more than four and three times the national average, respectively. Yet, according to the government’s online Covid-19 vaccine registration and tracking platform, only 2.86 percent of those vaccinated and 5.36 percent of those registered to receive vaccinations are non-Lebanese, even though they constitute at least 30 percent of the population.

“With one in three people in Lebanon a refugee or migrant, a third of the population risks being left behind in the vaccination plan,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to invest in targeted outreach to build trust with long-marginalized communities or the Covid-19 vaccination effort is doomed to fail.”

Between February and March 2021, Human Rights Watch spoke to 21 Syrian refugees, 6 Palestinian refugees, the caretaker labor minister, and staff from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a grassroots collective in Lebanon that fights discrimination.

The Health Ministry has said that it aims to vaccinate 80 percent of the population by the end of 2021 and that the national vaccination plan covers everyone living in Lebanon, regardless of nationality. The first phase of the vaccine rollout prioritizes healthcare workers and those over age 75, followed by those over 65, and then those over 54 who suffer from certain underlying health conditions.

However, the government has so far only stated its intention to purchase seven million doses, enough for about half the country’s population. The vaccine rollout has been slow, with only 233,934 doses administered as of April 5 in large part due to the limited quantity of vaccines available. Lebanon has so far received almost 300,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and on March 24 received 33,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX facility, a global pooled procurement system that aims to provide lower-income governments with enough doses for 20 percent of their populations by the end of 2021.

The AstraZeneca doses lead to the addition of new priority groups, including teachers and workers in productive sectors (sectors that produce products such as agriculture and manufacturing), to the vaccination rollout starting in April, the caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan said. As of April 5, only 3,638 Palestinians and 1,159 Syrians have been vaccinated, though 19,962 Palestinian refugees and health workers and 6,701 Syrian refugees are eligible in the first phase of the vaccine rollout.

To speed up the vaccine rollout, the Health Ministry has allowed the private sector to import additional vaccines. Some politicians have already started securing vaccines for their constituents, raising fears that the distribution of vaccines will be based on political affiliation rather than transparent, evidence-based distribution criteria that apply equally to everyone in Lebanon, leaving marginalized groups behind.

Trust in the government’s vaccination plan was further eroded by a scandal around politicians jumping the vaccine line and getting vaccinated in parliament, in secret. The World Bank representative in Lebanon has threatened that “any violation of the criteria established for priority groups to be vaccinated” would be “dealt with” by the bank, which is financing much of Lebanon’s vaccine rollout and partnering with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to monitor the effort.

Given the limited supply of vaccines and the slow pace of vaccinations, some nongovernmental groups have started to secure funding to buy vaccines specifically earmarked for refugees.

Syrian refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch raised fears of arrest, detention, or even deportation if they registered through a government-managed platform, especially if they do not have legal residency in Lebanon. Due to restrictive Lebanese residency policies, only 20 percent of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon have the legal right to live in the country, leaving the vast majority vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment, and even deportation.

Although the 200,000 Palestinian refugees do not face the same fears over arrest and deportation, many have very little trust in the Lebanese government, which has systematically discriminated against them and barred them from getting government social services, including health care. They can get health care only through the private sector, which charges prohibitively high fees, or through international organizations like UNRWA.

Mistrust of the Lebanese government runs so deep that Palestinian refugees told Human Rights Watch they fear that even if they were to register, they would not actually receive the vaccine and would have to pay a fee they could not afford.

Migrant workers, many of whom are working in Lebanon under the exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system, either had no information whatsoever about the vaccine or expressed mistrust of the Lebanese authorities.

To ensure equitable vaccine distribution despite the huge supply shortages, Lebanese authorities should follow the World Health Organization (WHO) SAGE values framework for the allocation and prioritization of Covid-19 vaccines, which offers guidance on the prioritization of groups when vaccine supply is limited. The SAGE guidance calls for ensuring national equity in vaccine access, particularly for groups experiencing greater burdens from the pandemic, such as people living in poverty, especially extreme poverty, and low-income migrant workers and refugees, especially those living in close quarters who are unable to physically distance.

The United Nations has warned that “in the absence of effective firewalls between health and public services and immigration authorities, data collection and information sharing related to Covid-19 vaccinations may also further raise fears among migrants in an irregular situation.”

“Lebanon was initially praised for its inclusive plan to vaccinate everyone living on its territory, but it has quickly become clear that there are serious gaps in the plan’s implementation,” Hardman said. “If Lebanon wants to achieve equitable vaccine distribution this year and kickstart the economy, it will need to ensure that everyone has access to information.”

Availability of Vaccines

Lebanon confronts external challenges facing many lower-income countries in obtaining Covid-19 vaccines. Human Rights Watch and many others are supporting a proposal by South Africa and India to the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive some intellectual property rights rules until “widespread vaccination is in place globally.”

The waiver of these rules under the Agreement of Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) would allow more international collaboration in the manufacture of the vaccines and other medical products – without authorization from the companies that created them – and could speed production and availability of vaccines worldwide. The World Trade Organization considered the proposal when it met in March, but most rich Western countries, including the UK, US, EU, and Australia, continue to oppose the waiver.

Lack of Information Among Refugees, Migrants

In addition to problems around vaccine supply and equitable distribution, the Lebanese government has failed to provide accurate and up-to-date information for Syrian and Palestinian refugees, as well as migrant workers, about the vaccine and how to register to be vaccinated, and reassure them that vaccination efforts will be firewalled from immigration enforcement activities.

As of April 5, only 17,891 Syrians registered for the vaccine, and only 1,159 had received the vaccine.

None of the Syrian refugees that Human Rights Watch interviewed had registered through the online platform. Seventeen Syrian refugees did not know of the existence of the online platform and nine did not know that they were entitled to register, believing it was just for Lebanese citizens. People interviewed said they had heard rumors they had to pay for the vaccine, and several said they did not know where the vaccination centers were, and suspected they would not be able to afford the transportation to get there. Three said they had heard the vaccine is not safe and could lead to fatalities.

Even when told that they were eligible to register and receive the vaccine free, nearly all expressed fears regarding the consequences of registering with a government-led application that could lead to arrest, detention, or deportation for lacking legal residency. Several had heard rumors that registering for the vaccine was somehow linked to a government plan to send them back to Syria.

Human Rights Watch’s findings mirrored those of the International Rescue Committee and the Lebanon Protection Consortium, who reported on February 26 that based on 883 household level interviews with Syrian refugees in North Lebanon and the Beqaa, “extremely few [Syrian] refugees appear to have information on the Covid-19 vaccine” and observed “high levels of vaccine hesitancy.”

Syrians’ lack of legal status has affected their ability to move freely due to the ubiquitous checkpoints that predate Covid-19, making it very difficult for them to access services such as health care. Discriminatory movement restrictions imposed by some municipalities on Syrian residents further marginalize the refugee population and impede their access to services. Syrian refugees have been particularly hard hit by Lebanon’s economic crisis, which has left 89 percent of Syrian refugees living in extreme poverty – up from 55 percent the year before.

The Palestinian refugees that Human Rights Watch spoke with also lacked awareness about the government’s vaccination plan and their eligibility and expressed fear that they would be discriminated against in the rollout, given the Lebanese government’s history of discriminating against them in access to virtually all social services.

A 39-year-old Palestinian woman living in Rashidieh refugee camp said:

Nobody has come to explain anything to us. It is not like the beginning of pandemic when people came to explain [about the coronavirus] to us... Even I didn’t trust the vaccine and it was only when I knew someone who received the vaccine overseas that I changed my mind… There is no awareness-raising – instead rumors are spreading on WhatsApp. Nothing has been explained properly. It is essential that the positive side of the vaccine is explained so people understand.

A UNRWA spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that the low registration rates among Palestinian refugees could be attributed to a lack of trust in the vaccine and a reluctance to take the vaccine in centers located outside the camps.

There is mixed messaging from the Lebanese authorities on whether migrant workers are included. While the national Covid-19 committee, responsible for devising the plan, has publicly stated that everyone in Lebanon can register regardless of nationality, the Health Ministry has said that it does not have the funds to inoculate migrant workers.

The caretaker Labor Minister Lamia Yammine told Human Rights Watch that Lebanon has about 500,000 registered migrant workers and estimates many more undocumented workers. The IOM confirmed to Human Rights Watch that it is “looking at ways to support the vaccine roll-out to ensure migrants can be reached, including the procurement of doses.”

In a positive step, the vaccination registration platform enabled undocumented people to register without having to submit an ID number, but it remains to be seen whether those who are eligible for vaccination according to the plan will be given appointments.

There are also other significant barriers for migrant workers. The ARM found in research conducted in March that migrant workers lacked accurate information about the vaccine itself and about the process of receiving it in Lebanon. Some migrant workers told ARM that they fear the Lebanese government will not give them the “good vaccine,” demonstrating the low trust between the community and the government. The IOM has provided assistance to a group of migrant workers over the age of 55 with additional health issues to help them register for vaccination.

The Health Ministry has said that it does not have the funds to inoculate migrant workers, but caretaker Labor Minister Yammine has expressed her commitment to ensuring that all migrant workers can access the vaccine. Yammine said that she is working with the IOM on developing a plan to gather data about undocumented workers, ensure that all migrant workers can register, raise awareness about the vaccine among employers and migrant workers, and obtain funding.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, the IOM office in Lebanon also recommended that “Governments offer solutions to remove some of the main barriers faced by some categories of migrants: including administrative or legal (e.g. requirement for documentation proving residence, work permit, ID…); financial (e.g. high costs sometimes required for accessing health service); and cultural and informational (e.g. use of channels and languages for communication on public health matters that are not adequate for migrant populations).”

In the joint guidance issued alongside regional human rights mechanisms, the United Nations Committee on Migrant Workers has suggested that “Communication messages and public information campaigns should make clear that migrants in irregular situations will not be penalized or targeted for immigration enforcement when seeking access to Covid-19 vaccination.”

Recommendations for Raising Awareness

The Lebanese authorities should build confidence in the vaccines and the national strategy by providing accessible information about the vaccines and how to register for them, and reassuring refugees and migrant workers that under no circumstances will their information be used to target them for arrest or deportation, now or at any point in the future, nor will they have to pay for the vaccine, Human Rights Watch said.

More broadly, donor governments should push Lebanese authorities to review their coercive policies against marginalized groups that have contributed to an environment of fear and mistrust at a time when that trust is most needed. This lack of trust could easily undermine national vaccine rollout efforts.

Information about Covid-19 vaccines should be accessible and available in multiple languages, including for those with low or no literacy. Communication materials should utilize plain language to maximize understanding.

To facilitate access to vaccines for those without identity documents, including undocumented migrant workers and refugees, the authorities should consult with community members to identify other ways they can confirm their identities. This could include allowing witnesses to attest to a person’s identity or having the person sign a statement attesting to their identity and eligibility.

In addition, governments should focus on community-based approaches to raise awareness and dispel myths for people to change their behavior. This is critical as past experiences in public health crisis response show that sustained behavior change over a long period depends on strong partnerships between all stakeholders, in particular women and religious leaders.

Community health systems can also monitor for potential adverse events from vaccination. Without a system in place to respond immediately and investigate such reports, unfounded rumors can form as a result of unrelated illnesses or deaths in people who have been vaccinated. Failing to address such events will strengthen vaccine hesitancy and undermine vaccination efforts. Developing strong ties to communities and community leaders can also help increase accountability if, for example, vaccines are mishandled or distributed in ways that contradict the priority criteria.

To overcome obstacles in reaching vaccination centers for marginalized groups who may not be able to afford transport to local hospitals, governments should consider providing mobile clinics in partnership with aid groups operating on the ground.

The WHO has recommended that “as countries gear up to deploy Covid-19 vaccines, they will need to design and implement monitoring systems to measure the progress and effectiveness of these programmes. This involves measuring vaccine uptake and coverage among the overall population, as well as among the at-risk populations prioritized for vaccination.” Governments with refugee and migrant populations should ensure that data is disaggregated with separate recording and reporting of vaccinations administered to specific populations, including those living in camps or camp-like settings for refugee and internally displaced people.

International standards

Discrimination on the basis of national origin or residency status is contrary to international law and, in particular, would violate Lebanon’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Indirect discrimination refers to laws, policies, or practices that appear neutral but have a disproportionate impact on the exercise of human rights. Any differential treatment based on national origin or immigration status can only be justified as nondiscriminatory if it pursues a legitimate aim and is proportionate to its achievement.

Governments are responsible for providing information necessary to protect and promote rights, including the right to health. Upholding the right of unhindered access to information is key to overcome vaccine hesitancy and to counter misinformation and mistrust, some of which are rooted in cultural stigma and taboos.

A rights-respecting response to Covid-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, vaccines, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all. Health authorities should provide regular health information briefings and public service announcements to counter misinformation, help calm panic, restore public confidence, and encourage people’s assistance in the crisis.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 6, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Cameroonian soldiers patrolling along National Road 1, Mora, Far North region, Cameroon, February 5, 2021. © 2021 Private

(Nairobi) – The Islamist armed group Boko Haram has stepped up attacks on civilians in towns and villages in the Far North region of Cameroon since December 2020, killing at least 80 civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The group has also looted hundreds of homes in the region. The government should take concrete measures to both increase protection to vulnerable communities and ensure a rights-respecting security force response to the worsening violence.

“Boko Haram is waging a war on the people of Cameroon at a shocking human cost,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As Cameroon’s Far North region increasingly becomes the epicenter of Boko Haram’s violence, Cameroon should urgently adopt and carry out a new, rights-respecting strategy to protect civilians at risk in the Far North.”

Click to expand Image The area where a Boko Haram’s female suicide bomber detonated her explosive vest in the bush around Mozogo, Far North region, Cameroon, killing 11 civilians, February 2021 © 2021 Private

Human Rights Watch documented how a Boko Haram suicide bomber blew up fleeing civilians, dozens of local fishermen were killed with machetes and knives, and an elderly village chief was assassinated in front of his family. Research suggests that the actual number of casualties is much higher, given the difficulty of confirming details remotely and that attacks often go unreported.

From January 25 to February 25, 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 20 victims and witnesses to 5 Boko Haram attacks since mid-December in the towns and villages of Blabline, Darak, Gouzoudou, and Mozogo in the Far North region, as well 4 family members of victims, 2 humanitarian workers, and 5 local activists. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 2 victims and a witness to human rights violations in the region by Cameroonian soldiers. Human Rights Watch reviewed reports from humanitarian and other nongovernmental organizations and local media reports on attacks in the region and consulted with academics, political analysts, and representatives of the African Union, the United Nations, and the European Union.

Human Rights Watch shared the research by email with Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo, the Cameroonian army spokesperson, on February 1 and again on March 19, requesting information about the Boko Haram attacks, the ongoing military operations, and the specific allegations Human Rights Watch documented. The army spokesperson did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Cameroon’s territorial administration minister said on February 12 that the security situation in the Far North region is “under control” and that Boko Haram is “living its last days.”

One of the deadliest recent attacks was in Mozogo on January 8, when Boko Haram fighters killed at least 14 civilians, including 8 children, and wounded 3 others, including 2 children. As fighters shot at residents and looted homes, a female suicide bomber infiltrated a group of fleeing civilians and then detonated her explosive vest, witnesses said.

“As the shooting started, I ran away toward the forest,” a 41-year-old resident said. “I heard a powerful explosion and lay on the ground. I saw a 7-year-old child covered in blood running toward me. He took me to the place where the kamikaze detonated her explosive vest. It was a bloodbath.”

The Boko Haram insurgency began in Nigeria in 2009 and then spread across the Lake Chad basin countries, including Cameroon. Boko Haram’s attacks are often indiscriminate, including suicide bombings in crowded areas that appear designed to maximize civilian deaths and injuries. Cameroon has had a sharp spike in attacks over the past year. According to a November 2020 report of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a United States Department of Defense think tank, the number of Boko Haram attacks against civilians in Cameroon in 2020 was higher than in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad combined.

In 2015, the African Union established the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), made up of troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, to respond to Boko Haram attacks across the Lake Chad basin. Comprising over 8,000 troops, the MNJTF receives technical, financial, and strategic support from international partners, including the European Union, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. The multinational force has conducted joint military operations across the Lake Chad basin.

It is essential for Cameroon and the multinational force to improve the conduct of forces deployed to counter Boko Haram attacks and to ensure that allegations of human rights violations by its forces are investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2014, rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have documented widespread human rights violations and crimes under international humanitarian law by Cameroonian security forces deployed on operations in the Far North, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, systematic torture, and forced return of refugees. 

On December 9, soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), an elite unit of the Cameroonian army, arrested four fishermen in Dabanga, in the Far North region, beat them, and took them to the Dabanga military base, where one of them died, said two of the fishermen and a family member. The fishermen said that the soldiers accused them of being Boko Haram members and that they saw one of the fishermen who was arrested with them taken from the cell soon after they arrived.

A family member of the fisherman who died said that BIR soldiers brought his body to their home hours after he was arrested, claiming he had died of a heart attack. The two fishermen and the family member said they believe the security forces killed him.

Cameroon’s international partners should push for accountability for human rights violations and work to strengthen the civilian component of the multinational force and its human rights compliance office, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also urges the Cameroonian parliament to hold a hearing to explore the government’s response to the increasing attacks on civilians in the Far North, to provide recommendations on how to enhance civilian protection, and to seek input from international actors as needed.

International humanitarian law, applicable to the armed conflict with Boko Haram, prohibits deliberate disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects. Those who order or commit such attacks with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes.

“With Boko Haram attacks on the rise in Cameroon, more needs to be done to effectively protect civilians, including by boosting the military presence and patrols across the Far North region and ensuring that the soldiers respect people’s rights,” Allegrozzi said. “Cameroon’s regional and international partners, including those supporting the multinational force, should bolster these efforts and ensure that their assistance does not contribute to human rights violations.”

For more details about the recent attacks and abuses in the Far North region, please see below.

Humanitarian Crisis

The Cameroonian military has deployed thousands of soldiers to the Far North region to prevent and repel attacks by Boko Haram, but residents and humanitarian workers said the soldiers’ presence is far too thin to effectively protect civilians. Cameroon’s overstretched army is also confronting a separatist insurgency in the country’s Anglophone regions and the threat of cross-border raids by rebels in neighboring Central African Republic. It has relied on over 14,000 so-called “vigilantes,” community self-defense groups, and in some cases forced untrained civilians to carry out security tasks without adequate training or protection, putting them at great risk.  

The Boko Haram violence in Cameroon has led to a major humanitarian crisis, forcing over 322,000 people from their homes since 2014, including 12,500 since December. Given the heightened insecurity, access to many areas is only possible with military escorts, making it difficult for humanitarian organizations to deliver aid while respecting their neutrality, depriving those in need of life-saving assistance. Aid workers and residents said that increasing the military presence and military patrols in violence-prone areas, including on market days, would both improve civilian protection and expand humanitarian access by enabling aid workers to safely travel without escorts.

Mozogo

Raid and Suicide Attack

Witnesses said that about 100 fighters, whom they recognized as being Boko Haram members from the way they dressed and spoke, entered the town of Mozogo on foot at about 1:30 a.m. on January 8, breaking into homes, looting property, and shooting at residents, killing two men, one of whom was 80 years old. As they fled towards the nearby bush, witnesses reported hearing a loud explosion. A female suicide bomber had infiltrated a group of fleeing civilians and detonated her explosive vest, killing 11 people on the spot, including 8 children, and wounding 3 others, including 2 children. A 43-year-old man later died three days later at the Koza Adventist hospital from wounds caused by the explosion.

Human Rights Watch spoke to five witnesses to the attack, including three family members of victims. Human Rights Watch also obtained lists of the 14 people killed from four sources and spoke to relatives and residents who carried out the burials. These details correspond with the information published by local media.

A 43-year-old woman who lost two of her children, a 17-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl, in the suicide attack said:

Boko Haram [fighters] fired shots and screamed “Allahu Akbar” [God is Great]. We ran toward the forest. Minutes later, we heard a loud explosion. I found myself on the ground. When I stood up, I looked for my children. My girl was dead, while the boy was badly injured. They were both covered in blood with wounds all over their bodies. Residents helped me carry the boy to our home, where he died.


A relative of the 80-year-old man said that four Boko Haram fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes broke into their home and fired twice at the elderly man, who was too weak to run away:

Gunshots woke us up and suddenly they [Boko Haram fighters] were at our door. They destroyed the door and broke in. They shot twice at the husband of my grandmother, an 80-year-old man who could not walk very well because of his age. He was not quick enough to escape. I did. He was shot in the stomach and stabbed with a machete on his head. When the attack ended, I came back home and found him in a pool of blood. I took him to the hospital, where he died the same day.

Response of the Security Forces and Displacement

Witnesses said that soldiers from the 42nd Motorized Infantry Battalion (BIM) based in Mozogo intervened after the female fighter detonated her explosive vest. They fired in the air to chase away the Boko Haram fighters.

In a January 8 statement, Cameroon’s communication minister said that local authorities and security forces had opened an investigation into the attack.

On January 9, Midjiyawa Bakari, governor of Cameroon’s Far North region, said that military reinforcements had been deployed to Mozogo to secure the area, which was confirmed by witnesses, who said that up to five additional military vehicles patrolled the town for a few days. But residents said these military reinforcements appear to have left.

Residents said they are worried about their security especially since the departure of the military reinforcements. “We live in fear,” a 50-year-old man said. “We are tired of this situation; we have been economically and psychologically drained.”

Following the January 8 attack, hundreds of people fled Mozogo to nearby villages and towns, including Koza, Mokolo, and Touboro. At least 300 who remained in Mozogo did not spend the night at home, sleeping for over a month instead outside, in a secondary school compound near the gendarmerie brigade, or at the public stand used for national celebrations near the army base.

A 38-year-old man who survived the suicide attack said on January 28 that he had not slept at home since January 8 and spent his nights, from about 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., in the veranda of a secondary technical school, along with his two wives and six children: “I sleep with all my family on one single mat on the veranda of the school, which is 20 meters from the gendarmerie brigade. There are about 100 people sleeping there, outside.”

Night Guard Duty

Human Rights Watch previously documented how soldiers in Mozogo forced civilians to perform local night guard duty to protect the town against attacks by Boko Haram, using beatings and threats against those who refused. While the beatings appear to have stopped, Human Rights Watch spoke to residents who continue to perform night duty out of fear of renewed beatings and threats. Some expressed concerns for their safety and said they feel they are being put in harm’s way, lacking the necessary experience and equipment to perform the dangerous security tasks demanded of them.

“I usually do my night guard duty twice a week,” a 39-year-old mechanic said. “I only have a flashlight. I have no whistle, no weapon, no phone. This type of work is not remunerated and is dangerous. It is not the type of work civilians should do. It is up to the military to protect us from Boko Haram attacks. We are being unnecessarily exposed to great risks.”

A 50-year-old man from Mozogo said he stopped performing the night guard duty following a Boko Haram raid in November during which civilians who were on duty were attacked and fired upon: “We were alone. There was no member of the vigilante committee or soldier with us that night. We were just 10 civilians at the security post called Municipal Stadium. Up to 30 Boko Haram fighters shot at us. It was a miracle none got injured.”

Darak

On December 24, Boko Haram fighters attacked Darak, an island on Lake Chad. Human Rights Watch spoke to two survivors, three people who carried out burials, and a relative of a survivor. Those who carried out burials said that Boko Haram killed up to 80 civilians, the majority of them fishermen. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify the number of civilian deaths.

Local authorities told international and national media outlets that “scores” were killed in the attack. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that Boko Haram attacked four islands on the lake, on the border between Chad and Cameroon, on December 24, killing 27 people and kidnapping 12 others.

According to information collected by Human Rights Watch, about 100 Boko Haram fighters on wooden pirogues stormed an area of Darak known as Tonganamie, where night fishermen cast their nets, at about midnight. They rounded up the fishermen and killed them, mostly using knives and machetes.

“I heard people talking in Kanuri [a language commonly spoken in the Far North of Cameroon] and saying: ‘Come on! Come quickly! Go ahead.’ They were Boko Haram fighters and they were rounding up the fishermen to kill them,” a 24-year-old fisherman who witnessed the attack said. “I hid. Later, I went back to Darak town. I know eight among those who were killed that night; they were all fishermen from Darak.”

A 32-year-old fisherman who was seriously injured said:

Over 100 Boko Haram fighters came with their wooden rowboats. Some remained in the boats; some got out and rounded us up. They gathered all the fishermen who were there and killed them with their knives and machetes as they tried to escape. I was caught and they hit me with a machete on the head. I was also hit in the right hand with a spear. I thought I was dead. I jumped into the water to save my life. I swam and reached the grass side [of a nearby marsh]. Some fishermen later found me. I was taken to the hospital, where I stayed for 15 days. My wounds are yet to heal.

“I was among those who helped recovered the bodies from the water,” a 25-year-old Darak resident said. “It took us three days to collect them all. Bodies were floating in the water. The first day, after the attack, we collected over 40 bodies, including with the help of nets. The following two days, we collected 40 more, for a total of over 80 bodies. Most of them had visible stab wounds.”

Witnesses said the overnight attack in Darak took the security forces based there, including soldiers from both the marine and land forces, by surprise. They said Boko Haram fighters arrived on pirogues without engines and only fired a few gunshots to limit any noise that could have prompted soldiers to intervene.

In a previous Boko Haram attack on Darak in June 2019, insurgents killed 21 soldiers and 16 civilians.

Gouzoudou

On December 16, at about 1:45 a.m., a group of five Boko Haram fighters attacked the home of Gouzoudou’s traditional authority, known as the lawane, firing several gunshots and wounding two men. The lawane escaped and ran to the military camp in town to sound the alarm. The soldiers came shortly after, but the insurgents had already fled. Soldiers evacuated the wounded to the Maroua regional hospital. One of them, a 60-year-old man, is still receiving medical treatment, including amputating his right hand.

Human Rights Watch spoke to the lawane, as well as seven witnesses to the attack. “I was outside with my 30-year-old brother when we heard some noise,” the lawane said. “My brother used his flashlight to light the surroundings. I saw five Boko Haram fighters armed with Kalashnikovs. They shot my brother in his heel as I jumped off a little wall to save my life. When I returned home, I found that my food shop and my motorbike had been looted.”

Residents said Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted Gouzoudou, with at least eight raids recorded between December 14 and January 21. They said that until the end of 2020, there was a military camp in Gouzoudou, but that the camp has been dismantled.

Blabline

On December 2, at about 6 p.m., at least five Boko Haram fighters attacked a group of four civilians in the outskirts of Blabline village, killing one – a lawane from a neighboring village – and injuring three others, including a 16-year-old child. Human Rights Watch spoke to two witnesses of the attack and three Blabline residents who buried the body of the lawane and helped rescue the wounded.

One of the witnesses said:

I was a few meters away from the scene. I saw the Boko Haram fighters and hid. I watched as they captured the lawane, two of his sons and another man. They forced them on the ground and stole their phones. They spoke Kanuri and Arabic. Then, they fired a series of gunshots at them. The lawane was hit in the head and died on the spot. The fighters stole his motorbike and ran away with it. I rushed to rescue the wounded, including a 28-year-old man who was shot in the right shoulder, a 16-year-old child who was shot in the heel, and a 45-year-old man who was shot in the ribs.

Boko Haram fighters attacked Blabline again at about 11 p.m. on December 4. They fired at people as they fled, shooting a 38-year-old man in the stomach. They also broke into scores of homes, looting bicycles, motorbikes, food, telephones, clothes, and other items.

Human Rights Watch spoke to five witnesses to the attack, including the village chief who said that the attackers had looted 80 of the village’s 142 households.

Witnesses said soldiers intervened and chased the assailants away, but only after widespread looting. They also said that Boko Haram fighters attempted to attack the village four more times – on December 14, 27, and 31 – but that the military expelled them. In another attack on January 11, insurgents looted four homes.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 5, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image A man is held by police during a crackdown on anti-coup protesters holding a rally in front of the Myanmar Economic Bank in Mandalay, Myanmar on February 15, 2021. © AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s military junta has forcibly disappeared hundreds of people since the February 1, 2021 coup, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have taken into custody politicians, election officials, journalists, activists, and protesters and refused to confirm their location or allow access to lawyers or family members in violation of international law.

The security forces have arrested many people suspected of participation in anti-coup demonstrations or in the opposition Civil Disobedience Movement during nighttime raids on homes throughout the country. The nongovernmental organization, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, told Human Rights Watch they could confirm the location of only a small fraction of the more than 2,500 recent detainees they have identified.

“The military junta’s widespread use of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances appears designed to strike fear in the hearts of anti-coup protesters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Concerned governments should demand the release of everyone disappeared and impose targeted economic sanctions against junta leaders to finally hold this abusive military to account.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to family members, witnesses, and lawyers of 16 people feared to have been forcibly disappeared since the coup.

On February 1 at about 5:30 a.m., four uniformed soldiers and a man in civilian attire arrived at the home of Mya Aye, 55, an outspoken activist and member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, Yangon. The men showed no arrest warrant and offered no basis for his arrest to family members, which was caught on a neighbor’s CCTV camera and later was posted on Twitter.

Later that day, two plainclothes officers came to the residence to collect his medications but refused to provide additional information. In late March, Mya Aye’s family said that the authorities still had not told them where Mya Aye was being held and had not provided him access to a lawyer.

On March 6, police arrived at the funeral in Mandalay of a protester shot dead by police, causing those attending to flee in panic. A prominent activist, Nyi Nyi Kyaw, fell and the police arrested him. A friend of Nyi Nyi Kyaw said that the authorities did not tell his family where he was, and that they went into hiding out of fear that they may be targeted as family members.

The family received one communication from Nyi Nyi Kyaw – a short but chilling phone call to his eldest son from a blocked number – four days after his disappearance in which he sounded agitated and distressed, the friend said. The call was ended before the family could ascertain his whereabouts.

On March 9, military trucks arrived around 1:30 p.m. and parked outside the office of Karmayut Media in Yangon, neighbors said. At about 3 p.m., they saw soldiers take away the media outlet’s co-founder, Han Thar Nyein, 40, and the editor-in-chief, Nathan Maung, 45. Their families still have not been informed of their whereabouts, a family member said.

“We’re so anxious about where they are, and we’re worried for their well-being,” the family member of Han Thar Nyein said. “We want to see them with our own eyes, to accept that they are okay, that they are alive. And we want this to happen quickly, not to wait in this agonizing way.”

Many friends and family members of anti-coup protesters who have been arrested told Human Rights Watch they do not know exactly where the person was being held, heightening concerns about their safety and well-being.

In many cases, families have only received information informally about the location of their family member, such as when newly released detainees notify family members or lawyers that they had seen a person who had been detained. Some families believe that because a prison accepts a package for their family member, it is most likely the place where their relative is being held. However, this is conjecture and does not relieve the authorities of their obligation to provide information on a detainee’s whereabouts, produce a detainee in court within 48 hours, and allow access to counsel and family members.

Under international human rights law, a state commits an enforced disappearance when government authorities or their agents arrest or detain an individual followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealing the fate or whereabouts of the person, placing them outside the protection of the law. Forcibly disappeared people are commonly subjected to torture or extrajudicial execution. Families must live with the uncertainty of not knowing if their loved ones are dead or alive, and worrying about their treatment in captivity.

Enforced disappearances are grave violations of international law, and when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, are crimes against humanity.

“Enforced disappearances are a heinous crime, not least because of the anguish and suffering caused to family and friends,” Adams said. “Myanmar’s security forces have continually flouted any respect for human rights, but they should know that they will be held accountable for the disappearances of these individuals and for the safe return of everyone forcibly disappeared.”

Examples of Enforced Disappearances

Mya Aye

Mya Aye is a vocal critic of the military and a veteran pro-democracy activist who has been arrested twice previously, in 1989 and again in 2007. He served lengthy sentences both times. His daughter said that both times, he was also forcibly disappeared for months before the family could locate him.

Mya Aye was arrested on February 1 at his home in Yangon. On February 3, family members went to the Mingalar Taung Nyunt township police station to ask where he was being detained and the charges against him. The family said that police chief, Tin Maung Swe, said police were not responsible for Mya Aye’s detention and could not provide further details. On February 6, the family requested assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross to help locate him. On February 17, the family made a submission to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

Mya Aye’s family said that in the two months since he was disappeared the authorities have not informed the family of his whereabouts and failed to respond to the family’s numerous requests for an investigation into the circumstances of his arrest and disappearance. They said that he has had a quadruple bypass operation and requires daily medication. The family has sent packages that include food and medication to Yangon’s Insein prison with the hope that he is there, and that the medication reaches him, but they have no way to confirm if he has received them.

Nyi Nyi Kyaw

On March 6, police arrested Nyi Nyi Kyaw in Mandalay as he attended the funeral of a protester shot dead by the police. When security forces arrived at the service, held on the corner of 62nd and 102nd streets, the funeral congregation ran in panic. Nyi Nyi Kyaw fell over as he was running and appeared to be immediately targeted for arrest by the police there, his friend said. While other civil society activists were at the funeral, only Nyi Nyi Kyaw was arrested.

In attempts to locate Nyi Nyi Kyaw, his family on March 7 took packages to two prisons in Mandalay: Obo and then Lan Dwin. Both facilities denied that he was being held there.

The family decided to go into hiding after Nyi Nyi Kyaw’s son received a distressing phone call from his father on March 10, four days after his arrest. The family is unsure whose phone Nyi Nyi Kyaw was using, but he repeatedly avoided answering questions about his whereabouts or his well-being. His son told the family friend that his father seemed disoriented and asked questions about another individual involved in the civil disobedience movement who was on the run. The call was cut from Nyi Nyi Kyaw’s end when his son could not answer questions about the key leaders of the anti-coup movement.

“Maybe Nyi Nyi Kyaw called because he wanted to let his son know he was alive,” a family friend said. “His son is terrified for his father’s well-being but also worried that the family is being tracked so they have gone into hiding. This makes things even more desperate for Nyi Nyi Kyaw because he’s not receiving the packages from his family members that are so essential for the survival of prisoners in Myanmar jails.”

Nathan Maung and Han Thar Nyein

On March 9, the authorities arrested the Karmayut Media editor-in-chief, Nathan Maung, and co-founder, Han Thar Nyein, after security forces raided their office in Yangon. Two videos posted on Facebook on March 10, recorded from a neighboring building, show at least six army vehicles parked outside the office. Soldiers can be seen leaving the office building carrying bags and equipment and placing them in the vehicles. By matching the buildings visible in the videos with satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch confirmed it to be the location of Karmaryut Media in Kamayut township.

“No one has been able to tell me where they are,” a family member of Han Thar Nyein said. The family member said that lawyers had not had access to the pair and that the authorities had not told them where they were holding them.

On March 10, the families tried to send packages to Insein prison, but the next day prison officials told them to collect the packages as no one with those names was in the prison.

Yan Paing Hein

On March 9, the authorities arrested Yan Paing Hein, 25, together with 22 other residents from 3rd St., Lanmadaw township in Yangon, after protesters detained seven police officers who had been involved in trying to quash protests.

In a video livestreamed on Facebook on March 8 that Human Rights Watch could no longer locate but has access to an offline copy, Yan Paing Hein can be seen and heard attempting to prevent residents from beating the captive police officers. Soon after, the military arrives in a large convoy and shots can be heard. Yan Paing Hein can be seen running away. Human Rights Watch identified Yan Paing Hein in this video through interviews with family members. He later ran back to his home along with others who were not immediately arrested, a family member said.

Around 12:30 a.m., police broke down the front door of Yan Paing Hein’s house. Soldiers entered the house and arrested Yan Paing Hein. The soldiers also arrested 22 other young men from the neighborhood.

“They pointed guns at me and my father while they were searching our home, while they were questioning my dad and while they took Yan Paing Hein,” said his sister. “I didn’t see that my brother was beaten when they took him away, but I heard from another guy who was later released that Yan Paing Hein was beaten, that his nose was broken, and that he couldn’t breathe properly because the blood was clotting in his nose.”

The security forces took Yan Paing Hein to an interrogation facility in Shwe Pyi Thar township. Another man taken that night said that he saw 23 men there that night, including himself, but that when he and others were released at 5 p.m. the next day, he noticed that seven were missing, including Yan Paing Hein.

The authorities have not told the family where Yan Paing Hein is but detainees who were subsequently released told the family they saw him inside Insein prison. The family has sent four packages to the prison, none of which have been returned. Neither the family nor the lawyer have managed to have direct contact with him.

Sai Phyo Htike

On March 14, the authorities arrested Sai Phyo Htike, 23, an engineering student, on the corner of 81st and 21st streets in Mandalay. A friend of his now living abroad said that Sai Phyo Htike was riding home to Sein Pan Ward from an anti-coup protest when a group of armed men in civilian clothes ran in front of him and fired warning shots in the air. Sai Phyo Htike fell from his motorbike and was arrested in front of the No. 8 Police Station. The authorities have provided no details about why he was arrested and have repeatedly denied requests from his family and lawyer to see him. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 2, 2021, 11:43 pm
Click to expand Image Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. © 2018 Marina Riera/Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – US President Joe Biden’s cancellation of punitive sanctions targeting the International Criminal Court (ICC) removes a serious obstacle to the court’s providing justice to the victims of the world’s worst crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 2, 2021, Biden revoked a June 2020 order by then-President Donald Trump authorizing asset freezes and entry bans to thwart the ICC’s work.

In announcing the repeal of the executive order, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “[t]hese decisions reflect our assessment that the measures adopted were inappropriate and ineffective.” The State Department also lifted existing visa restrictions.

“The Trump administration’s perversely punitive sanctions against the ICC showed stark contempt for the victims of grave international crimes and the prosecutors who seek to hold those responsible to account,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “In removing this unprecedented threat to the global rule of law, President Biden has begun the long process of restoring US credibility on international justice through the ICC.”

The Trump administration put the sweeping executive order into effect in September, when it imposed sanctions on the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and another senior official, Phakiso Mochochoko. It had repeatedly threatened action to thwart ICC investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine. In 2019, the Trump administration had revoked the prosecutor’s US visa.

Human Rights Watch had urged the Biden administration to rescind Trump’s executive order as a matter of priority. The Trump administration’s order was a threat to the global rule of law and the court’s work in bringing justice to victims.

It also created apprehension and uncertainty for nongovernmental organizations, consultants, and lawyers who work with the ICC in investigative and adjudicative capacities. Several academics and practitioners who provided expertise to the Office of the Prosecutor or represented victims before the court challenged the constitutionality of the executive order in two lawsuits in US federal court.

Several US lawmakers spoke out after the order was used to sanction the two ICC officials, as did ICC member countries, the European Union, and nongovernmental organizations in the US and globally. Significantly, ICC member countries repeatedly affirmed their collective support for the court, including during their most recent annual meeting, in December.

Even while repealing the order, though, the Biden administration made clear it continues to oppose the “ICC’s actions” in the Afghanistan and Palestine situations. In response to the ICC prosecutor’s March decision to open a Palestine investigation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to such an inquiry, contesting the court’s jurisdiction over the situation. The prosecutor’s investigation provides a long-awaited path to justice for both Palestinian and Israeli victims of serious international crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

ICC member countries should act on the lessons of the executive order’s repeal and voice their support for the court. The countries that created the ICC should stand ready to protect its crucial role against any action aimed at undermining its independence as a court, Human Rights Watch said.

With the punitive sanctions no longer in place, the US government should review its future engagement with the ICC. A US State Department spokesperson had previously indicated that the administration might consider resuming cooperation with the court in “exceptional cases.” While differences will remain between Washington and the court, the Biden administration should seek regularized cooperation with the ICC. Justice through the ICC can advance important US policy interests, as the February 4 conviction of Dominic Ongwen, a former leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, demonstrated. The Ongwen case highlighted the very constructive role that can be played by the US, which provided essential support for his surrender to the court in 2015.

While the US should work toward joining the court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, even as a non-member it can advance ICC cases by providing evidence, cooperating in the arrest of fugitives, calling for and endorsing UN Security Council actions to support the court, and engaging in discussions at the Assembly of States Parties that consists of the ICC’s 123 member countries.

“The ICC has its limitations, but its role as a court of last resort for the worst crimes is needed now more than ever,” Dicker said. “The Biden administration should back the ICC to ensure that victims get a chance for justice and that cooperation should be the rule, not the exception.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 2, 2021, 8:26 pm
Click to expand Image Police forcefully detain a protester during demonstrations against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rector appointment to Boğaziçi University, April 1 2021, Kadıköy, İstanbul, Turkey. © 2021 Murat Baykara/Sipa via AP Images

A Turkish court today ordered the release of two student protesters detained since February 4. Şilan Delipalta and Anıl Akyüz were arrested for joining an unauthorized protest against President Erdogan’s controversial appointment of an unelected rector to Turkey’s Boğaziçi University in January. Their detention was just one episode in a broad crackdown on student protesters in Turkey this year.    

Police have responded to peaceful demonstrations with excessive force detaining around 700 protesters since January – the majority of whom have been released shortly afterwards. At least five students were reportedly detained for carrying LGBT flags on March 25. The latest images of violent arrests of student protesters, 35 of whom were detained for a few hours on April 1, showed police grabbing some students by the throat and throwing them to the ground. These shocking images show growing government intolerance for students demonstrating against what they see as the Erdogan government’s bid to control higher education through the appointment of rectors.

At least 12 students have spent periods in pretrial detention and dozens currently face prosecution on charges such as “resisting police orders,” “violating the law on demonstrations,” and “inciting public hatred” for merely exercising their right to peaceful assembly. Authorities have imposed restrictive measures on dozens of other students including house arrest, travel bans, and judicial controls requiring they sign in at the nearest police station on a regular basis. Boğaziçi University has also placed dozens of students under disciplinary investigation, accusing them of  “insulting campus security personnel” and “organizing unauthorized protests on campus,” which could result in temporary or permanent expulsion from the university.

Turkey’s authorities should urgently drop their policy of crushing peaceful student protests, respect the rights of assembly and expression, and drop all arbitrary charges and sanctions against students for their involvement in them.

Boğaziçi University too should drop the ongoing disciplinary investigations against students and not misuse its authority to silence dissent on campus.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 2, 2021, 6:09 pm
Click to expand Image Melissa Moore of Drug Policy Alliance (M) speaks at a rally in support of the Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) alongside supporters of the bill on the steps on New York City Hall on November 21, 2019. © 2019 Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa via AP Images

On Wednesday, the US state of New York enacted two groundbreaking pieces of legislation. One law will limit the cruel practice of solitary confinement, the other legalizes marijuana, and both laws will advance justice and protect rights.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) not only legalizes marijuana in New York by removing it from the state’s Controlled Substances Act, but it also takes funds generated by a sales tax on certain marijuana-related products and reinvests the money into communities most harmed by the drug war. It does so by funding community-based projects, including adult education services, job training, after school programs, and re-entry services for people recently released from custody. This will help repair the harm from decades of racist enforcement of drug laws, including arrests for possession of marijuana, as documented by Human Rights Watch and many others. The law also creates ways for people convicted of marijuana-related offenses to have their sentences removed or reclassified. New Mexico’s legislature simultaneously passed a similar bill that is awaiting its governor’s signature.

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act (HALT Solitary Act), which will go into effect in a year, limits the use of solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days and bars it entirely for several groups, including those 21 and younger, 55 and older, and people with disabilities. It also creates more humane, effective alternatives to solitary, limits its use to the most egregious conduct, and enhances procedural protections, staff capabilities, and transparency and accountability through mandatory reporting and oversight. Our research and that of others has shown that jail and prison staff often impose prolonged periods of isolation that could amount to torture under international human rights law for minor misconduct, and in conditions that are needlessly harsh, counterproductive, and inconsistent with recognition of each person’s basic humanity and dignity.

Human Rights Watch supported both pieces of legislation, which are part of the JusticeRoadmap for New York, which is taking on laws that target Black and brown communities. But it is the bold state lawmakers who supported the bills, advocates from the Drug Policy Alliance, which led efforts on the MRTA, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which led on the HALT Solitary Act, VOCAL-NY, and many others, some of whom were convicted of marijuana-related offenses or spent years in solitary confinement themselves, who are responsible for this victory. These laws will make New York a better, safer, fairer place to be.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 1, 2021, 9:16 pm
Click to expand Image Afghan journalists film at the site of a bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

(New York) – Taliban forces are deliberately targeting journalists and other media workers, including women, in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Threats and attacks against journalists across the country have increased sharply since talks began between the Afghan government and the Taliban, heightening concerns about preserving freedom of expression and the media in any peace settlement.

Human Rights Watch found that Taliban commanders and fighters have engaged in a pattern of threats, intimidation, and violence against members of the media in areas where the Taliban have significant influence, as well as in Kabul. Those making the threats often have an intimate knowledge of a journalist’s work, family, and movements and use this information to either compel them to self-censor, leave their work altogether, or face violent consequences. Provincial and district-level Taliban commanders and fighters also make oral and written threats against journalists beyond the areas they control. Journalists say that the widespread nature of the threats has meant that no media workers feel safe.

“A wave of threats and killings has sent a chilling message to the Afghan media at a precarious moment as Afghans on all sides get set to negotiate free speech protections in a future Afghanistan,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “By silencing critics through threats and violence, the Taliban have undermined hopes for preserving an open society in Afghanistan.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 46 members of the Afghan media between November 2020 and March 2021, seeking information on the conditions under which they work, including threats of physical harm. Those interviewed included 42 journalists in Badghis, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, Wardak, and Zabul provinces and four who had left Afghanistan due to threats.

In a number of cases that Human Rights Watch documented, Taliban forces detained journalists for a few hours or overnight. In several cases they or their colleagues were able to contact senior Taliban officials to intercede with provincial and district-level commanders to secure their release, indicating that local commanders are able to take decisions to target journalists on their own without approval from senior Taliban military or political officials.

Taliban officials at their political office in Doha, Qatar, have denied that their forces threaten the media and say that they require only that journalists respect Islamic values. But Taliban commanders throughout Afghanistan have threatened journalists specifically for their reporting. The commanders have considerable autonomy to carry out punishments, including targeted killings.

Women journalists, especially those appearing on television and radio, face particular threats. The recent wave of violent attacks has driven several prominent women journalists to give up their profession or leave Afghanistan altogether. Female reporters may be targeted not only for issues they cover but also for challenging perceived social norms prohibiting women from being in a public role and working outside the home.

Journalists outside the country’s main cities are especially vulnerable to attacks because they are more exposed and lack even the minimal protection that a larger Afghan media, government, and international presence provides. However, as the fighting has increasingly encroached on major cities, these have offered decreasing protection to journalists seeking safety from the violence in their home districts.

A journalist covering the fighting in Helmand province said that one of his sources told him the Taliban were looking for him and he should lie low. “The majority of Afghan journalists feel intimidated and threatened,” he said. “All the journalists are scared because everyone feels like they could be next.”

Residents of Taliban-held areas have long expressed fear of retaliation if they complain about the way Taliban forces carry out military operations or enforce restrictions. In a June 2020 report, Human Rights Watch documented severe restrictions in areas under Taliban control, including limits on freedom of expression and the media.

The Taliban leadership should immediately cease intimidation, threats, and attacks against journalists and other media workers, Human Rights Watch said. They should urgently provide clear, public directives to all Taliban members to end all forms of violence against journalists and other media workers, and intimidation, harassment, and punishment of Afghans who have criticized Taliban policies. The Taliban leadership should also explicitly reject violence against women in the media.

The United Nations and governments supporting the Intra-Afghan Negotiations should publicly press the Taliban leadership to adopt these recommendations, and provide increased support, including protection, to independent media organizations and journalists in Afghanistan, especially those facing threats.

“It’s not enough for Taliban officials in Doha to issue blanket denials that they’re targeting journalists when Taliban forces on the ground continue to intimidate, harass, and attack reporters for doing their jobs,” Gossman said. “Countries supporting the peace process should press for firm commitments from all parties to protect journalists, including women, and uphold the right to free expression in Afghanistan.”

Taliban Threats to Afghan Media

Although the Taliban routinely deny responsibility for attacks on journalists, the Afghan Journalists Security Committee (AJSC) has said:

Since the beginning of the spike in targeted killings in early November [2020], supporters of the group [Taliban] have welcomed the killings of journalists on social media, calling these killings in many cases a religious duty. Taliban supporters accuse journalists of being agents of Western countries, and corrupted by Western values, thereby legitimizing any violence against journalists and the media as not only being permissible but a key part of their war.

Taliban Threats Related to Reporting on the War

Taliban commanders and fighters have long targeted the media, accusing them of being aligned with the Afghan government or international military forces. If journalists report unfavorably about Taliban actions or military operations, the Taliban often accuse them of being spies. District and provincial-level Taliban commanders have also criticized journalists for not reporting incidents such as civilian casualties from government airstrikes. Journalists have said that the role some of them play as influential and prominent figures in many communities has made them targets of the Taliban. By attacking them the Taliban effectively threaten all local media. A journalist in Helmand said:

If the more prominent journalists are targeted first, the other journalists, who might be less influential or prominent, are automatically intimidated and fear for their lives .… Pro- Taliban accounts on social media … explicitly issue warnings to other journalists, along the lines of “learn something from the death of this journalist”—you can be next.

The effect on Afghan media has been profound. The killings and threats have generated fear among journalists and media workers, many of whom have altered their work patterns in an effort to mitigate the danger or try to be less visible.

Taliban pressure on the media is an apparent part of an effort to shape public debate about the war at a time of heightened political tensions surrounding the peace talks. Local journalists said Taliban commanders and fighters call them to complain about published reports, questioning why a certain issue was covered in a certain way. A journalist in Kandahar said:

The Taliban warned me about reporting on casualties related to a suicide attack. They wanted me to say that a lot of people got killed but I just reported the attacker dying … The Taliban threatened a couple of journalists over the last couple years for not reporting on assassinations. They say, ‘Why don’t you report the actual number?’ When we argue with them that it is the correct number, they threaten us.

When one journalist reported a Taliban attack on a civilian facility in Kandahar, he said that within minutes he received death threats and other warnings on his phone. The Taliban called him to say that they had not targeted civilians but a nearby government checkpost. The journalist said that he lives in fear that the Taliban might still come after him. Other journalists in Kandahar have reported being followed by Taliban fighters. Because of such confrontations, journalists often self-censor their stories.

In Helmand, Taliban commanders targeted journalists who reported on military operations during a Taliban offensive in October. Taliban forces attacked the outskirts of Lashkargah city, overrunning Afghan government checkpoints until US airstrikes drove them back. In the months before he was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) on November 11, Elyas Dayee, a journalist, had received multiple threats from Taliban commanders in Helmand, warning him to stop his reporting on their military operations. Another reporter covering the fighting said that the morning after his report came out, a Taliban commander called and accused him of publishing reports against the Islamic Emirates and warned that he would face consequences.

The Nature of the Threats

In Taliban-controlled provinces, threats often come from local commanders with knowledge of the journalist’s family, work habits, and movements. These commanders maintain individual contact with journalists and editors, and usually communicate these threats by phone or through social media.

A radio presenter in Zabul province said that he and his colleagues routinely receive threats from the Taliban accusing them of giving the government publicity. The callers always know details about the journalists they call, including their jobs, family members’ names, and often their addresses. One caller told him that he should either leave the area or work for the Taliban. When he refused the caller told him he should “count down to his death.” He said his relatives also receive these threats and are told to communicate them to him.

In Ghazni province, reporters say that they have been threatened and intimidated by various groups and do not know who is behind every attack. However, despite official denials from the Taliban leadership, comments by Taliban commanders and fighters on social media have led journalists to suspect that the Taliban are responsible for many attacks. These commanders generally have considerable autonomy to plan and carry out military operations independently.

The Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee said that in Ghazni province, the Taliban had instructed the majority of the local media outlets that they would only be permitted to continue media activities if they followed Taliban directives. Another journalist in Ghazni said that the Taliban commanders in the province object to any content that is negative or critical about them. Journalists whose reporting is perceived as favorable to the Afghan government may immediately become a target. Leaving their jobs is often their only recourse.

On December 21, Rahmatullah Nekzad, head of the Ghazni journalists' union, was fatally shot as he walked from his home to a local mosque. Although the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied that the group was responsible for the attack, Nekzad had been receiving threats from local Taliban commanders since at least 2019. He said in early December, that the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), the country's intelligence agency, informed him that he and 15 other journalists in Ghazni were at risk of a Taliban attack. He described the threats he received:

I use a social media account to upload daily news. Some local Taliban called me to accuse me of running social media pages that post anti-Taliban news. … Their argument was that every time you post something on your wall, these … are also your accounts. They also threatened people who commented on the post.

In another case in mid-December, Taliban forces stopped the vehicle in which a local journalist was traveling. He called a contact, who then contacted a Taliban official. As a result of this intervention, the local Taliban released him. While he was in their custody, the Taliban accused him of working for the government’s intelligence agency and for “foreigners.”

Journalists have also been threatened for reporting on Taliban abuses. A radio correspondent from Badghis province said that after he and his colleagues broadcast a report about the Taliban extorting payments from highway drivers, the journalists began to receive threats: 

In addition to the radio, we have a Facebook page where we publish the news of the day. After I posted this story, one of the comments read: “The martyrs of the Islamic Emirate will soon kill the employees of this media station.” The same message came in [Facebook] Messenger. Since then, we report less news on Facebook now. Badghis’s capital is a very small city. Everyone knows each other and I have no doubt that they also know the address of our office.

Another journalist from Badghis said that in November, as he was traveling from Herat to Badghis province, Taliban fighters stopped him and forced him out of his car. They interrogated him about whether he had cooperated with government security forces and threatened to kill him. He said that his family was aware that he was on the road. He was finally released after local and ethnic Taliban elders who knew them mediated his release. “I am still in fear and … shock from this incident,” he said. “Now I publish less news of the war. Whenever I go to a press conference, I am fearful and cautious. I only cover news from the capital now.”

Local Taliban fighters have assaulted journalists who have traveled into Taliban-controlled districts. A journalist from Wardak province said that a group of Taliban fighters stopped and beat him and another reporter, accusing them of spying and “going around without the Taliban's permission to take pictures, record videos, and talk to people.” The journalists showed their press identification but were not released until after they called a contact, who then informed senior Taliban officials, who ordered them released.

Threats also come in writing. A journalist in Ghazni said that a letter was dropped by his house ordering him to meet with the local Taliban because his reports were not “neutral.” It warned him that if he did not change, his death was “close.” After the warning, he left his home district and stayed in Kabul for a few months. Eventually he returned home but avoided his office out of fear.

The Taliban also send cell phone text messages to comment on media coverage, often chiding reporters that they should have included the Taliban point of view. While criticism of media reporting is not in itself problematic, when it comes from an armed group with a history of killing journalists, the messages are intimidating and create fear. “Being a journalist is something that can put your life in danger without even doing anything specific to antagonize the Taliban,” one journalist in Ghazni said.

Journalists also receive threats when they share their political views on social media. Taliban commanders also use Facebook to issue threats. A journalist in Ghazni said that shortly after he posted a government statement on a military offensive that resulted in Taliban casualties, he received a message from a Taliban commander demanding to speak with him:

He told me not to listen to what [government officials] say and ordered me to come see him. I had to comply. He came with his men in a Toyota vehicle. He threatened me and told me not to post anything more on Facebook.

Another journalist in Ghazni had a similar experience after using Facebook to post his report on the police killing a suspected Taliban bomber. He received a call from a man who said he was with the Taliban and asked him why he was publishing inaccurate information. The man warned him that they would watch out for what he published and that he should not publish such reports anymore.

Local Taliban commanders issue warnings about radio and television stations airing music programs, which they consider prohibited, and blame journalists for this practice. One journalist described the threats he received:

Whenever the Taliban hears about music on local radio channels, they immediately start calling you, threatening to kill you. They told me many times that they held court sessions about me, proving that I am guilty of broadcasting music. They threatened to kill me. I left this job because of these threats.

The journalist said that local Taliban officials had also told him not to broadcast election-related news because elections were “US-instigated.” He said: “I argued with them for a couple of months that this is not my personal choice but the station’s editorial decision. Then the Taliban asked for my boss’ number and threatened him until he left.” Another Ghazni reporter said he had received at least six threats in which callers warned him of vague consequences if he did not remove music or make other changes to the programs.

Threatening to harm relatives is a common tactic to spread fear. A journalist in Khost said that he received threatening calls from unknown numbers, some accusing him of working for Christians, others accusing him of being a foreign spy. Some specifically warn him that they know his relatives and where he lives:

I am terrified but cannot do anything about it … One of my relatives said that I should leave [journalism] because he is scared … I cannot carry on with my work. I cannot go outside freely. A caller shared a lot of information about me as proof that they have been watching me – he told me my name, my father’s name, where I work, and the address of my house … after a few days, I got a message saying “the path you have chosen is not the right path, so you should move on from it or else we will decide what to do with you.”

For the time being, the journalist has changed his phone hoping to prevent further threats.

Taliban Threats to Women in the Media

The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee reported that 14 women working for media outlets in Afghanistan were threatened or violently attacked in 2020. An increasing number of Afghan women in journalism have left the profession because of worsening security and threats, a trend that emerged after 2015 and has accelerated.

The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), an armed group affiliated with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), took responsibility for killing four women journalists and media workers, including Malala Maiwand, the first woman TV presenter for Enikass News, on December 10, and the March 2 killings of Mursal Waheedi, Saadia Sadat, and Shahnaz Raufi, who worked at Enikass News dubbing foreign language news reports. 

It is often not clear whether the ISKP, the Taliban, or other groups are responsible for some threats and attacks against women. In Ghazni province, the Taliban have instructed media outlets that the hosts of entertainment programs should not be women, and that no music should be broadcasted.

Farahnaz Forotan, one of Afghanistan’s best-known journalists noted for her hard-hitting interviews on Tolo News, left the country in November after hearing that she was on a Taliban blacklist and would soon be killed.

She said that the Taliban:

do not accept free media, and, in many events, they had rejected being interviewed by women. The reason they wanted to kill me, was because as a woman I am not accepted according to their values … The situation in Kabul is very scary. I know four journalists in Kandahar who left their jobs. The local media does not reflect it because they cannot. They are being threatened and the government cannot provide protection … Every morning I check messages to make sure that everyone is safe. I live with fear – it is very difficult to live with the fear of losing a loved one.

Another Kabul-based journalist had worked as a producer for a television news outlet but left her job in mid-2020 after receiving threats. She said:

The Taliban threatened me a couple of times on the phone, and they told me to leave my job. I also found a letter from the Taliban in a hole in our door. The letter repeated that I must not work anymore for news agencies because this job doesn't suit me morally. If you continue, then you have no right to complain [about the consequences].

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 1, 2021, 7:47 pm
Click to expand Image © 2019 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

In a major victory for meatpacking workers, a United States district court in Minnesota on Wednesday found that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had violated federal law with a 2019 rule eliminating slaughter line speed limits in hog processing plants. In its order, the court found the agency had failed to appropriately consider workers’ health and safety.

The USDA’s rule was a focus of Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants,” and our campaign to #SlowDownTheLine.

September 4, 2019 “When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting”

Nearly all the meat and poultry workers I interviewed for the report identified production speed as the biggest factor making their job dangerous. Human Rights Watch documented alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among meatpacking workers, and called on the USDA to stop pursuing this rule — which at the time was not yet in effect — and other policies that increase work speeds in meat and poultry plants. We also described concerns raised by workers’ rights advocates about the failure of the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to adequately consider the effects that eliminating line speed limits would have on workers.

I met with the then-acting head of the FSIS to talk about the experiences and concerns that workers shared with me. In short, she reiterated what FSIS had consistently said about whether they are required to address potential impacts of their policies on workers: That’s not our job.

This week’s court decision ultimately centered on this issue. But US District Judge Joan Ericksen roundly rejected the agency’s excuse:

“[T]he [rule] provided a shield that allowed the agency to avoid explaining why it chose to not only increase, but entirely eliminate line speed limits despite decades of research about the effects that change could have on workers.”

USDA and FSIS have 90 days to decide how to respond to the ruling. The agencies now have a second chance to listen to the concerns raised by meatpacking workers, health and safety experts, and advocates, and finally take steps to #SlowDownTheLine.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 1, 2021, 6:17 pm