Click to expand Image I.A. Rehman, center, addresses a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 16, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/B.K. Bangash, File

Many years ago, I.A. Rehman said to my young, overconfident, and impatient self, “This [struggle for human rights] is a marathon, not a sprint.” Rehman’s long, victorious marathon came to an end on April 12. Three generations of Pakistani human rights activists, journalists, trade unionists, women rights advocates, farmers, religious minorities, and millions of ordinary Pakistanis have been left orphaned. Rehman, or “Rehman Sahib” as he was almost universally known, started working as a journalist and human rights activist in the early 1950s and published his last regular newspaper column four days before his death.

He opposed and actively resisted four military dictatorships and in return was imprisoned, fired from jobs, threatened, and banned. He was one of the first and loudest voices to oppose Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy laws. His resolve to help victims of these laws was not dampened even when his nephew, the lawyer Rashid Rehman, was assassinated in 2014 for representing a university professor charged under the blasphemy law. Even at nearly 90 years old, Rehman would join protest camps for victims of enforced disappearances, walk with landless peasants, and stand on the frontline holding placards for the Aurat (Women’s) March.

In 1990, Rehman joined the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan as a director and later secretary-general and for the next 25 years his leadership and vision helped turn it into Pakistan’s largest and most effective human rights organization. In 1994 Human Rights Watch honored him for his human rights activism. For more than six decades he remained the flagbearer for free expression in Pakistan.

His long battle with tyranny, oppression and injustice did not make him bitter or cynical. He retained his sense of humor, calm, and an informed sense of optimism. Pakistan and the world will miss Rehman for his unwavering belief in freedom of expression, rule of law, equality, and above all for his decency and courage.

In 2018, when Rehman’s protégé and friend Asma Jahangir, who herself was an icon for human rights, passed away, he said to me in Urdu, “yeh Janay ka waqt nahien thaa” (“It was not time yet”). For Pakistan’s human rights movement, no time for the departure of Rehman and Asma would have been the right time. The ultimate tribute to Rehman Sahib’s legacy is to take his struggle forward.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 1:01 pm
Click to expand Image Jacinta Miller holds a painting by her brother Stanley, a 19-year-old Noongar man with a mental health condition, who is suspected to have taken his own life in Acacia Prison, Wooroloo, on July 11, 2020. Stanley was a talented artist who had been planning an exhibition of his artwork upon his release. © 2020 Sophie McNeill/Human Rights Watch

(Sydney) – The Australian government’s continued failure to address Indigenous deaths in custody tarnishes the country’s rights record and global standing, Human Rights Watch said today. April 15, 2021, is the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which contained numerous recommendations for reform.

An Indigenous man held in Casuarina Prison in Perth died on April 3 after being transferred to the hospital, the fifth Indigenous death in custody in just over a month. The Guardian’s Deaths in Custody tracking project reported that since the 1991 Royal Commission, more than 470 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody in Australia. Some of these deaths were clearly preventable, from suicide, violence, or a lack of prison support.

“Three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, First Nations people in Australia are still unacceptably being incarcerated and dying in prison,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the recent spate of Indigenous deaths in custody, it’s clear that this is a national crisis.”

The 1991 Royal Commission noted that more Aboriginal people were likely to die in custody partly because they were incarcerated at disproportionate rates. At the time, Aboriginal people made up about 14 percent of Australia’s prison population. Thirty years on, the rate of Indigenous incarceration has doubled, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising 29 percent of the adult prison population but just 3 percent of the national population.

In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch documented the serious risk of self-harm and death for prisoners with mental health conditions, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, in Western Australia. Between 2010 and 2020, about 60 percent of adults who died in prisons in Western Australia had a disability.

The 1991 Royal Commission made 339 recommendations in its final report. Among the commission’s findings were serious concerns regarding the “extreme anxiety” caused by solitary confinement, which was noted to have a particularly detrimental impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners.

The Australian government should make a commitment to fully implement the Royal Commission recommendations. Aboriginal people should be imprisoned only as a last resort, and general and mental health services in prisons should be culturally appropriate. The government should make it a priority to end solitary confinement for people with disabilities and raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14, Human Rights Watch said.

“Thirty years since the Royal Commission, there is still a pressing need for adequate and culturally appropriate mental health support for prisoners,” Pearson said. “Instead of focusing on changing the physical infrastructure of prisons to make it harder for people to harm themselves, the Australian government should act to end preventable prison deaths by improving services and support.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 12:00 pm
Click to expand Image In this Dec. 18, 2020 file photo, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gives his daily morning news conference at the presidential palace in Mexico City. On January 14, 2021, López Obrador vowed to lead an international effort to combat what he considers censorship by social media companies that blocked or suspended the accounts of Former US President Donald Trump. © 2020 AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File.

(Washington, DC) – Mexican Senate Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal’s proposed bill to regulate social media networks could severely restrict free speech in Mexico, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill would require companies to censor broadly defined categories of online content in violation of international norms currently in force. Senator Monreal should withdraw his proposal.

On February 8, just a few weeks after social media networks like Twitter and Facebook suspended the accounts of Former US President Donald Trump, Senator Monreal, who leads President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s party, Morena, in the Senate, published a draft bill on his website that would impose regulations on social media networks with users in Mexico. In January, President López Obrador had expressed his concern over the power of the networks to suspend Trump’s accounts.   

“This bill would place the harshest restrictions on free speech that Mexico has seen in decades, opening the door to bans on social media networks and enabling the government to censor speech it disagrees with,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Senator Monreal claims he wants to protect free speech in Mexico, but this bill would do exactly the opposite.”

The draft bill would make Mexico’s telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT), the final arbiter in disputes over content moderation, empowering it to overrule social media network operators’ decisions about how and when to delete a user’s content or suspend or cancel their account. And it would enable the IFT to punish social media network operators with fines of up to US $4.4 million if they fail to comply with its rules or if the IFT disagrees with their content moderation decisions. This could encourage further media concentration by forcing smaller companies to stop operating in Mexico altogether to avoid steep fines.

Under the bill, any social media network with one million or more users would need to obtain permission from the IFT to operate in Mexico. The IFT would be able to set rules about how social media networks operate and the types of content they can allow. And it would have the authority to review and change the networks’ terms of service, the rules that users must follow.

In effect, this would enable the IFT to prevent any social media network from operating in Mexico or prohibit users in Mexico from joining an “unauthorized” network, placing significant limits on freedom of expression. It could also encourage social media networks themselves to begin blocking users from Mexico to avoid the IFT review process.

The draft bill would also require social media networks to censor certain types of speech, such as “hate messages,” “fake news,” and any other type of speech the IFT deems should be censored to preserve “order and public interest.” The bill does not provide clear guidelines on what these terms mean, however, requiring social media network operators or the IFT to make determinations about whether statements are true or false. These requirements could lead to arbitrary censorship of legitimate content, enabling the government to force social media networks to censor content it disagrees with. This would be inconsistent with the prohibition on prior censorship in the American Convention on Human Rights.

Finally, the bill would prohibit social media networks from moderating the content on their platforms for reasons that the bill does not specifically mention, such as to prevent spam. This would restrict the ability of social media networks to make reasonable decisions about what kind of content they allow. Social media networks focused on specific groups, subjects, or interests, such as environmental issues or Indigenous culture, would be unable to operate.

Protecting free speech on the internet, ensuring that private entities do not interfere with that freedom, and giving people the ability to appeal restrictions on their speech are legitimate goals. But under international human rights law, Mexico has a responsibility to promote a “free, independent, and diverse communications environment,” and an obligation to ensure that any restriction on speech is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose. This includes regulation of speech through “indirect methods or means,” such as government controls over media companies.

Under international human rights standards, Mexico should not pass laws against so-called “fake news” or other “vague and ambiguous ideas,” or impose unnecessary or disproportionate restrictions on social media networks or online content. Instead it should promote media diversity and digital literacy. It should also incentivize companies to be transparent about their content moderation policies and to offer remedies for users whose accounts are suspended so that they can make their own choices about which platforms to use and how.  

“Senator Monreal’s proposal is nothing more than censorship—pure and simple. It violates international legal standards by allowing the Mexican government to restrict access to certain websites and to decide what content social media users can and can’t share,” Vivanco said. “Imposing these kinds of heavy-handed regulations will stifle free speech, not protect it.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image Njeuken Loic (known as “Shakiro”) and Mouthe Roland (known as “Patricia”), two transgender women, in a Douala prison. © Private, Douala, Cameroon, March 2021

(Nairobi) – Cameroonian security forces have arbitrarily arrested, beaten, or threatened at least 24 people, including a 17-year-old boy, for alleged consensual same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity, since February 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. At least one of them was forced to undergo an HIV test and anal examination.

Based on Human Rights Watch’s monitoring and discussions with Cameroonian nongovernmental organizations, the recent accounts of abuse documented here seem to be part of an overall uptick in police action against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Cameroon. Sexual relations between people of the same sex are criminalized in Cameroon and punished with up to five years in prison.

“These recent arrests and abuses raise serious concerns about a new upsurge in anti-LGBT persecution in Cameroon,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The law criminalizing same-sex conduct puts LGBT people at a heightened risk of being mistreated, tortured, and assaulted without any consequences for the abusers.”

Between February 17 and April 8, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 18 people, including 5 who had been detained, 3 lawyers, and 10 members of Cameroonian LGBT nongovernmental organizations. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports by Cameroonian and international LGBT organizations, court documents, police reports, and medical records.

Human Rights Watch shared its findings with the justice minister, Laurent Esso; the state secretary at the Defense Ministry in charge of the national gendarmerie, Yves Landry Etoga; and the delegate general for national security, Martin Mbarga Nguele, in a March 25 letter, requesting answers to specific questions. Cameroonian officials have yet to respond.

On February 24, police officers raided the office of Colibri, an organization that provides HIV prevention and treatment services, in Bafoussam, West Region, and arrested 13 people on homosexuality charges, including 7 Colibri staff. The police released all 13 people on February 26 and 27. Three of those arrested said that police beat at least three Colibri staff members at the police station and that the police threatened and verbally assaulted all those arrested. They also said that the police interrogated them without the presence of a lawyer and forced them to sign statements they were not allowed to read.

One of them, a 22-year-old transgender woman, said: “Police told us we are devils, not humans, not normal. They beat a trans woman in the face, slapped her twice in front of me.”

Police also forced one of the 13 arrested, a 26-year-old transgender woman, to undergo an HIV test and anal examination at a health center in Bafoussam on February 25. She told Human Rights Watch: “The doctor was embarrassed but said he had to do the examination because the prosecutor needed it. He carried out the examination. I had to bend over. The doctor wore gloves and put in his finger. It was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever experienced.”

What this transgender woman experienced is not an isolated case. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that prosecutors in Cameroon have introduced medical reports based on forced anal exams into court, contributing to convictions of individuals charged with consensual homosexual conduct.

Human Rights Watch documented two additional arrests in 2021 and one mass arrest in 2020. In Bertoua, on February 14, gendarmes arrested 12 youth, including at least 1 teenager, on homosexuality charges and subjected them to ill-treatment before releasing them the same day. On February 8, gendarmes arbitrarily arrested two transgender women in Douala, targeting them in the street on the basis of their gender expression. Prosecutors charged them with homosexual conduct, lack of identity cards, and public indecency.

“It is not illegal to be homosexual or transgender,” said Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom. “According to Cameroonian law, it is the act which is the crime. So, this is a blatant human rights violation. They should be released immediately.”

In May 2020, police arrested 53 people, most of them LGBT, at a gathering hosted by an HIV organization in a hotel in Bafoussam and charged them with “homosexuality” related offenses. At least 6, including 3 teenagers ages 15 to 17, were subjected to forced anal examinations and HIV tests.

The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights guarantees the right to equal protection before the law and nondiscrimination. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body charged with monitoring states parties’ compliance with the African Charter, has said that equal protection extends to sexual orientation. It has also stated that the principle of nondiscrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation, is the foundation for the enjoyment of all human rights. The commission has called for African governments to end all forms of violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and to bring the abusers to justice.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cameroon is a state party, provides for equal protection, nondiscrimination, and the right to privacy. On this basis, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled that the criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct between adults violates the ICCPR.

Forced anal exams constitute a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that can, in some cases, rise to the level of torture. In November 2013, Dr. Guy Sandjon, president of the National Medical Council of Cameroon, told Human Rights Watch that Cameroonian doctors should not conduct the exams, as they violate medical ethics, and that the authorities should not order them. Involuntary HIV and sexually transmitted infection tests constitute a violation of the right to bodily integrity and privacy, protected under the ICCPR, and the right to health under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“The Cameroonian government has an obligation to uphold the rights of everyone in Cameroon, regardless of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity,” Ghoshal said. “The authorities should immediately end arbitrary arrests on the basis of sexual identity and forced anal examinations and should take swift steps to repeal the law criminalizing consensual same-sex relations.”

For more details about the recent human rights abuses against LGBT people and recommendations for Cameroonian authorities, please see below.

Bafoussam, West Region, May 2020
On May 16, 2020, police arrested 53 people, the majority of whom were LGBT, including at least 6 teenagers ages 15 to 17, in a hotel in Bafoussam during a gathering organized by the HIV association, Colibri. They were charged with “homosexuality,” pimping, and complicity in pimping, and were held at the judicial police station. Ten were released on May 17, and the rest on May 21.

Two of those arrested and the lawyer who represented them said that the police beat, humiliated, and threatened many of those arrested, held all of them in a tiny cell, and deprived some of the HIV treatment they needed. One of the men arrested said:

They [police officers] stormed the hotel; they took everyone by force. They forced some of us to undress. They beat a trans woman in front of me, they slapped her twice in the face and ordered her to take off her clothes in front of everyone. They also seized medicine, including antiretrovirals, thermometers, and HIV tests. Then they brought us to the police station and threw us in a very small cell where we could barely breathe. Men, women, children, everyone in the same cell. Police also deprived those who were HIV positive of their life-saving treatment and refused to let any medicine into the cell. It was tough. One year on, they are yet to give us back what they took, like medicine and HIV kits. Also, I am yet to recover from the trauma this incident has caused me.

One of those arrested, a transgender woman, said that on May 18, police forced her to undergo an HIV test and anal examination at the regional hospital in Bafoussam without her consent. She said 5 other LGBT people, including 3 of the teenagers, experienced the same treatment. She said:

The doctor did not want to do the exams because he said he needed my consent, but the police officer insisted and said they needed the exams to provide proof of our sexual orientation for the prosecution. So, the doctor went ahead. I had to bend. I was afraid. I was in shock. I could not believe that a medical professional, who is supposed to be bound by the highest ethical standards, would do this to me. It is such an intrusive, invasive practice.

Human Rights Watch reviewed medical records indicating that the anal examinations and HIV tests were carried out by a doctor at the orders of the regional commissioner of the judicial police. The records confirm that the six people were subjected to digital penetration, a form of sexual assault when conducted by force without consent.


Bertoua, East Region, February 2021

On February 14, gendarmes arrested 12 youth, including a 17-year-old boy, in a restaurant in Bertoua on homosexuality-related charges. Human Rights Watch spoke to a 21-year-old woman, who was among those arrested, who said that gendarmes beat, threatened, and verbally assaulted her and the others at the gendarmerie station:

They ordered us to lay on the ground on our stomachs with our legs bent. A gendarme would put a foot on your back so that you could not move, while another gendarme would hit you on the soles of your feet. That’s how I was beaten up. Everyone was beaten like that. Gendarmes wanted us to confess we were homosexuals. They insulted and threatened us. They said: “You are those destroying our country, we should kill you.”

All of those arrested were released the same day without charge.

A woman working for a local human rights group that provided legal and other assistance to those arrested told Human Rights Watch that some of the youth needed medical care upon their release because of the beatings.

Douala, Littoral Region, February 2021
Gendarmes arrested Njeuken Loic (known as “Shakiro”) and Mouthe Roland (known as “Patricia”), two transgender women, in Douala on February 8.

They were charged with homosexuality-related offenses, lack of identity cards, and public indecency, and taken to a gendarmerie brigade in Nkoulouloun neighborhood, where they spent the night. The next day, a court ordered them to be placed in pretrial detention. They were transferred the following day to the New Bell prison in Douala, where they remain. Their trial is ongoing before the Bonajo Court of First Instance in Douala.

Two of their lawyers and three LGBT rights activists who visited them in prison said that gendarmes interrogated Shakiro and Patricia at the gendarmerie brigade without the presence of their lawyers, forced them to sign statements they were not allowed to read, beat them, and threatened them. A member of a Cameroonian LGBT organization based in Douala said:

I visited Shakiro and Patricia several times in prison. They told me that they were beaten and threatened with death at the gendarmerie station. They said gendarmes twisted their hands behind their backs for almost 30 minutes and hit them with their boots, including on their backs. Gendarmes accused them of being homosexuals and called them “dirty faggots.”

LGBT rights activists and lawyers also said that detainees and prison guards at New Bell prison beat, threatened, and verbally assaulted Shakiro and Patricia repeatedly. An LGBT activist who visited them in prison said:

Their detention conditions are extremely poor. They are constantly insulted by prison guards and other inmates because of their sexual orientation. They were chained up upon arrival at New Bell prison and beaten by prison guards. They are being held with many men in small cells. Shakiro is in a cell with about 70 men, while Patricia in another cell with about 50 men. Holding them with men is problematic, they would prefer to stay with women. They told me inmates always verbally assault them, saying horrible things like they are not supposed to exist.

On March 24, the Bonajo Court of First Instance in Douala denied their bail application, claiming that section 301 of the Cameroonian criminal procedure code, on which Shakiro and Patricia’s lawyers have based their defense, is not applicable. Section 301 states that, “Where a case is not ready for hearing, the court shall adjourn it to its very next sitting and may order the release of the accused on bail, with or without sureties.”

The next hearing in their case is scheduled for April 26.

Recommendations
Human Rights Watch urges Cameroon’s authorities to take the following steps:

· The delegate general for national security and the secretary of state for defense in charge of the gendarmerie should issue written orders to all police and gendarmes to immediately stop arbitrarily arresting people based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender nonconformity, or alleged consensual same-sex conduct.

· The judiciary should immediately release and dismiss charges against Shakiro and Patricia and others charged on the basis of perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender nonconformity, or alleged consensual same-sex conduct.

· Parliament should initiate a repeal of article 347 bis of the Cameroonian Penal code, which punishes consensual same-sex sexual relations with up to five years in prison.

· The justice minister should make absolutely clear, in particular to all law enforcement, prosecuting and judicial authorities, that Cameroonian law does not make it a crime or offense to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person, or to dress in a way that is perceived as gender nonconforming, and that any official purporting to exercise authority to detain, charge, or prosecute an LGBT person on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender nonconformity, or threatening to do so, is acting without a lawful basis and shall be held to account for abuse of power.

· The National Human Rights Commission should investigate allegations of ill-treatment of detainees on the grounds of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 14, 2021, 4:00 am

Magomed Gadaev, 37, an asylum seeker from Chechnya and key witness in a high-profile torture case against Chechnya’s leadership, was abducted by Chechen security officials on April 11, two days after his deportation from France to Russia.

Click to expand Image Magomed Gadaev pictured in Paris, France.  © Private

France expelled Gadaev on April 9, despite a ruling by the national asylum court recognizing that he could come to harm if deported to Russia and asking the authorities to ensure he not be sent back.

Border guards at the Moscow airport held Gadaev for 12 hours before allowing him to board a flight to Novy Urengoi, where his relatives live. Soon after the flight landed, two Chechens apparently linked to Chechnya’s authorities appeared at his relatives’ doorstep demanding to see Gadaev.

Gadaev and his lawyer went to the police to report the threats and surveillance they had noticed, and returned to the apartment they were staying at accompanied by police officers who were supposedly designated to ensure their safety.

The next day, the police asked Gadaev and his lawyer to meet with an investigator. When they left the apartment, Chechens in plain clothes forced Gadaev into a car, as the local officers stood by. One of the men pushed Gadaev’s lawyer away and said they were taking Gadaev, and the local police could answer any questions. At the station, police told the lawyer they did not know what happened.

On April 12, the lawyer travelled to Grozny, where law enforcement authorities claimed they weren’t aware of the case. But, on the morning of April 13 according to Gadaev’s relatives, Chechen security officials brought Gadaev to his parents’ home to briefly speak with his mother. They didn’t explain why they were holding him and quickly led him away. Before his detention, Gadaev had told his family and lawyer that if Chechen authorities detained him and then present any written confession, it would have been the result of torture. Gadaev’s lawyer finally learned he was held at the Urus-Martan police department, but police there didn’t let him in.

Torture in Chechnya is widespread. If any harm comes to Gadaev, police in Novy Urengoi will be complicit and so will French authorities. The French Interior Ministry’s decision to expel Gadaev put him at immediate risk of torture and his life in jeopardy violating France's international obligations prohibiting the return of any person to a country where they are at risk of torture.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 13, 2021, 6:22 pm
Click to expand Image A boy flies a homemade kite in the foreigners’ section of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria on March 15, 2021.  © 2021 Sam Tarling

(Berlin) – Regional authorities in northeast Syria are unlawfully detaining an estimated 40 Ukrainian women and children in inhuman and degrading conditions in camps, Human Rights Watch said today. They are among nearly 43,000 foreigners linked to the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) who are being held by Syrian regional authorities.

The majority of the 40 are children, some as young as two.

In a March 25, 2021 letter, Human Rights Watch urged Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to take prompt action to assist and repatriate the Ukrainian women and children. Human Rights Watch also sent a letter to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky with the same request.

“Ukrainian women and children are being held in horrific and appalling conditions while their government chooses to look the other way,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Ukrainian government should comply with the regional authorities’ repeated calls for countries to bring home their nationals, prioritizing the most vulnerable.”

None of the 40 has been taken before a court or investigated or prosecuted for any crime, and their indefinite and arbitrary detention by the armed forces of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria violates international law.

A recent Human Rights Watch report found that the conditions in these camps are often inhumane and life-threatening, with growing insecurity and shortages of vital aid. Covid-19 presents another threat to the lives of these detainees, with the United Nations reporting at least 8,537 cases of the virus in northeast Syria as of February 2021.

According to Children in Syria and Iraq, a Ukrainian independent group of investigative journalists and activists that monitors this issue, as of April, there are 8 Ukrainian women and 19 children held in al-Hol camp and 2 Ukrainian women and 11 children in Roj camp. The activists said that all detainees are held in intolerable conditions. Three of the detained women and one child have disabilities, one woman has an acute kidney disease, one child and one woman have shrapnel injuries, and one child has a severe gum infection. The activists also said that detainees live in constant fear and are terrified for their health and safety.

The Ukrainian government has repatriated only nine Ukrainian citizens, two women and seven children, from northeast Syria. The government should work with local authorities to repatriate the remaining Ukrainian nationals. Children who are in the camps with their mothers should be repatriated together, in keeping with the children’s right to family unity, Human Rights Watch said.

Upon transfer, home or abroad, detainees can be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services and, as warranted, investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. Children who lived under ISIS and any women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims. International standards require authorities to seek alternatives to prosecuting children and prohibit the detention of children except as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

The Ukrainian government should also immediately increase consular assistance to its citizens and humanitarian aid to the camps and prisons in northeast Syria to complement – not replace – repatriations, Human Rights Watch said.

Ukraine is one of at least 58 countries, including France, Germany, and Russia, with citizens being held as ISIS suspects and family members in northeast Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Turkey. Many countries cite the potential security risks posed by repatriations as a reason for not bringing their nationals home. Yet failing to protect these detainees poses a potentially larger risk, Human Rights Watch said.

“Detaining people in such inhuman and degrading conditions is clearly prohibited under international law,” Gorbunova said. “Ukraine, like all countries whose nationals are being held as ISIS suspects, has a responsibility to protect its citizens and uphold their rights.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 13, 2021, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image An aerial picture shows a section of the Hagadera camp in Dadaab near the Kenya-Somalia border, May 8, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The Kenyan government has again issued an ultimatum to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide a plan and timeline for closing the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Though the government has issued these demands before, its new ultimatum has caused anxiety for more than 400,000 Somali, South Sudanese, Congolese, and other refugees, many of whom have never known life outside these camps.

When the Kenyan government announced the closure of Dadaab in 2016, it put heightened pressure on Somali refugees to sign up for cash-incentive “voluntary repatriation” by threatening to dump them back empty-handed in Somalia if they missed the deadline.

As journalist Ty McCormick recounts in the newly published Beyond the Sand and Sea: One Family’s Quest for a Country to Call Home, life in the Kenyan refugee camps can feel like a hopeless trap with restrictions on free movement, food rationing, and limited educational opportunities. While the book focuses on one man who escaped Dadaab with a Princeton University scholarship, it makes clear that most people in the camps are “permanent exiles facing a lifetime in waiting.”

But sending refugees to a “home” many have never seen is no solution when conditions there have not improved. As journalist Moulid Hujali, himself a Somali refugee raised in Dadaab, said in a recent podcast, some of those who have signed up for voluntary repatriation because of pressures and conditions in Dadaab have ended up in camps for the internally displaced within Somalia with fewer resources and where the security situation is more dangerous.

On April 8, Kenya’s high court ordered a temporary stay of the government’s ultimatum, which buys the UNHCR about a month to respond. But in the midst of a political crisis, conditions in Somalia will look no better one month down the road.

UNHCR has no quick fix to offer consistent with its protection mandate. Of course, many refugees would like to go home, indeed anywhere but these remote camps, but declaring the problem solved and threatening to truck people to the border is not a solution; it’s a recipe for further dislocation and suffering.

Until the situation in Somalia stabilizes, Kenya needs to maintain asylum and consider allowing refugees at long last to integrate. They could start by opening up, not closing, the camps and allowing those forced to live there freedom to move. Meanwhile, donor governments need to provide financial support and resettlement opportunities that can keep a glimmer of hope alive for those living in the camps.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 13, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a closing speech at the Sixth Conference of Cell Secretaries of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 8, 2021.  © 2021 Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Speaking at a ruling Workers’ Party of Korea conference on Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was surprisingly candid about the country’s dire economic situation, calling on the country to “wage another more difficult ‘Arduous March’” – a propaganda term used in the 1990s during the country’s infamous famine.

Back then, the government refused to import food and stood by failed food distribution programs, all the while outlawing the very use of the term “famine” – hence the use of the term “Arduous March.” Kim appears to be saying the country should prepare for the very worst.

The famine killed a still-unknown number of people, with estimates ranging from between several hundred thousand to over two million. For people who lived through it, Kim’s words raise horrific memories of North Korea’s most difficult period since the Korean War.

“Everybody was so hungry, eating any wild greens, grass, and tree bark,” recalled a former party member in her 50s, whose parents died during the famine. “It was horrible. You would see dead bodies everywhere, in the streets, especially near the train stations. Dirty, pitch black, and skinny children that barely survived stealing food, most of whom also died. People who died weakened in their apartments were not found for days or weeks.”

Kim’s warning may be yet another attempt to take advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to further tighten his grip on power. The 1990s famine not only killed multitudes but also undermined the government’s repressive rule, as survivors learned to evade food supply programs and set up their own illicit markets. Kim may be using the pandemic to take the country back to when there was an entirely closed border and very few imports. This allowed the government to completely control the distribution of food and supplies while also prohibiting the population from accessing any information not sanctioned by the government from inside or outside the country.

That is more than arduous. It is terrifying.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 12, 2021, 4:21 pm
Click to expand Image Sudanese celebrate after officials said the military had forced longtime autocratic President Omar al-Bashir to step down after 30 years in power in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, April 11, 2019. © 2019 AP Images

When Sudan’s long-standing president Omar al-Bashir was ousted on April 11, 2019, protesters who had placed their lives on the line hoped this would mark the beginning of a freer and more just Sudan. Two years on, amidst slow progress and complex challenges, protesters, lawyers, and families of victims are understandably concerned over whether justice will ever come for abuses against those protestors.

The former regime responded ruthlessly to protests that began in December 2018 against al-Bashir’s regime, and security forces, notably Sudan’s National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS), used lethal force, including live ammunition, to break up the protests, killing dozens of unarmed protesters.

After the transitional authorities were sworn in they established a range of committees to investigate past abuses. While there is no body to specifically address crimes committed against protesters between December 2018 and April 2019, the attorney-general established a committee in January 2020 to investigate a wide range of abuses including extrajudicial killings, from the beginning of al-Bashir’s rule through to his ousting.

This year has seen some progress on such cases. Prosecutors announced an unknown number of NISS agents have been charged in connection with abuses against protesters. On March 28, a Khartoum court found the crimes committed against peaceful protesters were part of an attack against the civilian population and confirmed for the first time charges of crimes against humanity against another NISS agent for the killing of a protester in December, 2018.

But many challenges remain, some of which will require resources, others mainly political will.

Mahmoud al-Sheikh, a member of the attorney-general’s committee pointed to several challenges undermining their efforts: “We are struggling to get the security forces to cooperate including by providing us with access to crucial evidence or accept requests of lifting immunities of suspects.” Sudan’s criminal law does not recognize command responsibility as a mode of liability, which could hinder the possibility of holding mid-to-top level commanders accountable.

While the justice efforts required in Sudan are ambitious and long-term, this does not mean the government, with international support, cannot take effective, prompt actions to bolster current efforts.  A meaningful justice process should be transparent, and the government should provide regular public updates on the progress in investigations of public interest and guarantee victims and their families effective participation.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 12, 2021, 3:12 pm
Click to expand Image Building that houses the Munduruku Wakoborun Women’s Association in the Jacareacanga municipality, state of Pará, damaged on March, 25, 2021. © Archive MPF/PA.

(São Paulo, April 12, 2021) – Brazilian federal authorities should immediately remove miners who have unlawfully entered the Munduruku Indigenous territory in the Amazon rainforest, Human Rights Watch said today.

Munduruku Indigenous people in the Tapajós basin – an epicenter of illegal gold mining in the Amazon rainforest – in southwestern Pará state have reported increasing encroachments upon their lands by armed “wildcat” miners known as “garimpeiros” since March 14, 2021. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office has warned of a potential for violence between local residents and the miners and urged the deployment of the federal police and other authorities to remove the trespassers. But the government has yet to act. The tension has escalated in recent weeks after a group of miners brought equipment to the area.

“Indigenous people in the Munduruku territory are facing land invasions, environmental destruction, and serious threats by criminal groups involved in illegal mining,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless the government takes decisive action to enforce the law and expel the invaders, the situation will only get more dangerous.”

Illegal mining causes significant deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and has been linked to dangerous levels of mercury poisoning, from mercury widely used to process the gold, in several Munduruku communities along the Tapajós basin. Indigenous people also fear that miners could spread the Covid-19 virus in their communities.

In a public statement on March 16, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office reported that a helicopter appeared to have escorted the miners and their equipment, suggesting the invasion is “an orchestrated action” by an organized crime group. The office also reported that the miners may be coordinating the invasion with a “small group” of Indigenous people who support the mining.

Members of Munduruku communities who oppose the mining and have reported the invasions to the authorities say they have faced threats and intimidation. On March 19, armed men reportedly prevented a group of Munduruku Indigenous people from disembarking from their boats in an area within their territory. On March 25, in the Jacareacanga municipality, miners and their supporters forced their way into a building that houses the Wakoborun Women’s Association and other community organizations that have opposed the mining. The attackers destroyed furniture and equipment and set fire to documents, Indigenous leaders reported.

Click to expand Image Building that houses the Munduruku Wakoborun Women’s Association in the Jacareacanga municipality, state of Pará, damaged on March, 25, 2021. © Archive MPF/PA


The Munduruku Indigenous Territory has long suffered from encroachments by miners, but the situation has “clearly worsened” under the Bolsonaro administration and reflected a broader upsurge in illegal mining in the region, a federal prosecutor told Human Rights Watch.

Illegal mining activities and the associated deforestation have also threatened the health and food sources of the peoples in the Tapajós River basin. A recent study by Fiocruz, a research institution affiliated to Brazil’s Health Ministry, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that mercury, a toxic substance, has contaminated river fish that Munduruku communities in the Sawré Muybu territory rely on for their livelihoods. In three of its villages, 58 percent of residents tested for the study had unsafe levels of mercury in their blood. Mercury poisoning can cause lifelong brain damage and other serious, irreversible health conditions.

Federal prosecutors have opened an investigation of the failure of federal authorities to curb illegal mining activities in Munduruku territories in southwestern Pará. In 2017, federal prosecutors said that Brazil’s environmental agencies – the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio) – should conduct periodic enforcement operations against illegal mining in the region, and petitioned the federal court in 2018 to require enforcement action.

These measures produced just a single large operation by the environmental agencies over the course of two years, in May 2018, a federal prosecutor told Human Rights Watch.

In June 2020, federal prosecutors again said that federal agencies should curb mining within Munduruku lands and urged the Federal Police to act to remove the trespassers. Two months later, IBAMA began an operation in the Munduruku and Sai Cinza territories, but the Defense Ministry halted the operation to “reevaluate” it after Environment Minister Ricardo Salles met with an Indigenous group favoring mining activities. The next day, the Defense Ministry also barred aircraft used by IBAMA from taking off from a military airbase in Pará. The operation was never resumed.

In December 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) urged Brazil to protect the right to health, life, and personal integrity of the Munduruku Indigenous people. The commission expressed concern that illegal miners and other trespassers could spread Covid-19 in communities lacking sufficient access to health services. In response, the Bolsonaro administration claimed it was protecting the communities and said the Ministry of Justice and Public Security was developing plans to remove trespassers from Indigenous lands.

“There may be plans in the works, but that shouldn’t stop them from acting now to contain the scenario of imminent violence that we are seeing,” the federal prosecutor told Human Rights Watch.

The Bolsonaro administration has weakened the agencies tasked with protecting the environment, effectively emboldening criminal networks involved in illegal logging and mining, among others, in the Amazon.

The suspension of the 2020 operation was indicative of a breakdown in broader cooperation between federal prosecutors and environmental agencies since President Bolsonaro took office. “We used to dialogue directly with federal agencies, but there is no longer a good environment for such interaction with IBAMA’s new agenda,” the federal prosecutor said.

In the absence of adequate law enforcement, Munduruku Indigenous people are left to patrol and protect their lands by themselves and report invasions to authorities, at great personal risk.

“We demand that federal bodies comply with their constitutional duties immediately,” the Munduruku Ipereg Ayu Movement, a group of Munduruku forest defenders, said on March 21. “If something happens to our people, we blame the Brazilian state, which does not act even after several reports of invasions and destruction of the territory in the middle of a pandemic.”

Under Bolsonaro, deforestation in Indigenous lands throughout the Amazon is higher than at any time over the past decade, according to official data, and invasions increased by 135 percent in his first year, the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI) reported. Other Indigenous communities in the Amazon struggling with incursions by miners include the Yanomami and Ye’kwana in Roraima state.

President Bolsonaro has signaled his aversion to protecting Indigenous lands. As a candidate, he vowed not to designate “one more centimeter” of land as Indigenous territory. His administration has halted the demarcation of Indigenous territories – there are 237 pending requests – leaving Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to encroachments, deforestation, and violence. The Munduruku territory is already demarcated.

In 2020, Bolsonaro introduced a draft bill in Congress to allow mining and other commercial activities in Indigenous territories. The bill is pending in Congress and is listed as one of Bolsonaro’s priorities.

“Previous administrations have also failed to protect the Munduruku territory from illegal mining,” Canineu said. “The difference now is that the federal government is run by an administration that has actively undermined environmental enforcement and the protection of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples’ lands.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: April 12, 2021, 12:30 pm
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 Український солдат на спостережному посту у бліндажі біля прифронтового міста Красногорівка на сході України. 5 березня 2021 року © 2021 AP Photo/Євген Малолєтка

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 Yuan 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