“This bill will be the last one. The first and the last one.” That is how Emmanuel Macron answered the question I had just asked him: “What would happen, Mr. President, if France were hit by another terrorist attack in the coming months? Would you propose yet another bill?”

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) members secure a street as they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters/Charles Platiau

The exchange took place last Friday, in the late afternoon. I was in the Elysée as part of a delegation of leading human rights organizations, lawyers and magistrates to meet President Macron and two of his advisors. We had come to express our concerns and criticisms of two bills drafted by the government and submitted to Parliament: a sixth extension of the state of emergency until November, and a counterterrorism bill directly inspired by the provisions of the state of emergency. This bill would make permanent special powers which were supposed to be temporary, introduced as necessary only for the extraordinary circumstances of a time-limited state of emergency.

For over an hour and a half, we set out methodically the abuses committed against ordinary citizens when those powers were used under the state of emergency. We warned the President that the counterterrorism bill would entrench what were exceptional powers into regular law and pose grave dangers for fundamental rights and the rule of law. We denounced the lack of evaluation of the effectiveness of state of emergency measures and of the existing legal arsenal for counterterrorism. We lamented the choice of an accelerated procedure for the parliamentary review of these two proposed bills, depriving the country of what ought to be a meaningful democratic debate about the concept of liberty, one of France’s founding values.

But despite this discussion, President Macron did not waver.

Far from reinforcing freedoms, as the President claimed this past Monday in his speech to Parliament, the new bill would entrench in regular law abusive powers introduced under the state of emergency. It would normalize the considerable powers awarded by the state of emergency to the Ministry of the Interior and the administrative police. The drastic weakening of judicial safeguards, which are the foundation of the rule of law and an essential defense against abuse, would become permanent. In effect it treats France as if it is always in a state of emergency. By authorizing “assigned residence orders”, whereby individuals’ freedom of movement is severely limited even though they have not been accused of a crime, this new bill also confirms a dangerous shift towards so-called preventive justice. Just this week we’ve learned that since the state of emergency was declared in November 2015, there have been 708 assigned residence orders. More than one a day. This is a trend, not a small set of isolated actions. The “logic of suspicion”, on which these orders are predicated, opens the door to significant abuse.

During the meeting, the President admitted that the state of emergency can foster “arbitrary behaviors” and has led to « excesses ». Emmanuel Macron, then a candidate, had himself expressed in his book, Revolution “that reducing the freedoms of all, and the dignity of each citizen, has never anywhere led to an increase in security.” Despite that, Emmanuel Macron chose to follow in the footsteps of governments that, over the last two decades, have responded to the threat of terrorism with ever harsher laws, turning France into the country with the most expansive counterterrorism laws in Europe. Members of Parliament, a large majority of whom are supportive of the President, will most likely adopt the bill without much opposition. Macron may well say this is his “first and last law” on security; but recent history in France and elsewhere teaches us that once states start down this legislative slope, more repressive laws follow.

If we refer to the past 18 months, France may well be addicted to emergency powers. As a responsible leader, however, the French President’s job is to break that dependency and resist the temptation to react to the fear of another attack with laws that do more harm to rights than they do good to security. As activists, lawyers, and voices of civil society, that is what we will keep telling the President and our elected representatives. End the state of emergency, don’t simply inject a dose of it into ordinary law. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

French soldiers from Operation Barkhane stand outside their armored personnel carrier during a sandstorm in Inat, Mali, May 26, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters
“The jihadists are the law now,” an elder from central Mali told me. “The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages,” confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.

The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.

Hailed as a military success, the 2013 French-led military intervention in northern Mali ended the region’s occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali’s previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.

Since 2015, I’ve interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). “We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together,” one man said. “Not anymore.”

Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to send one of their sons to join the Islamists.

However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali; they saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions.

Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others. Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. “We heard gunshots in the distance,” one witness said. “I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave.” This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. “We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere,” he said.

While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made no meaningful  effort to investigate those implicated in violations.

The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us. Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth.

Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.

“The jihadists speak a lot about corruption… how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us,” one elder said. “Honestly, they don’t need to try very hard to recruit the youth…”

Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists’ efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.

“We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official,” one villager said. “The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows.”

It was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that significantly contributed  to Mali’s spectacular collapse in 2012. The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But the French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won’t succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. Military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.

When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali’s weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Like an addict, France does not know how to quit its state of emergency even though it has become clear that maintaining it erodes the rule of law and fosters human rights abuses while not keeping the country safer. The February 22 report by the parliamentary commission tasked with monitoring the state of emergency provided yet another reminder that it no longer serves any meaningful purpose.

French police and anti-crime brigade (BAC) secure a street they carried out a counter-terrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris, France, July 21, 2016.

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The commission president, Dominique Raimbourg, from the governing Socialist Party, noted that activity under the state of emergency has been “greatly reduced” since the last extension. His fellow commission member, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, from the main opposition party Les Republicains, noted that “time that passes erodes the efficiency and nature of the state of emergency.” A French commission of inquiry into the Paris attacks had already concluded back in July 2016 that  the state of emergency had “limited impact” on improving security and any effect it may have had “quickly dissipated.”

Human Rights Watch’s own research has found repeated abuses against ordinary people during policing operations under emergency powers.

So why is France maintaining the state of emergency despite repeated warnings by its own oversight mechanisms?

It is mainly due to confusion by politicians about the purpose of a state of emergency. Many have said that it is justified by an ongoing terrorist risk. This was clearly displayed in December 2016 when Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux justified his request for a fifth extension by saying that “the terrorist threat was at its highest.” Under this reasoning, a state of emergency is needed as long as there is a high security risk.

This reasoning is dangerous on many levels. By suggesting that regular laws, procedures, and oversight mechanisms are not sufficient to counter threats, it weakens the premise of the rule of law and relegates it to a luxury for “normal” times. But it also sets the stage for the trap in which France finds itself. French leaders have implied that they will only lift the state of emergency when the security risk has subsided but since they can’t predict the risk of future terrorist attacks, they prefer to maintain it rather than pay a political price if a subsequent attack takes place.

So lifting the state of emergency becomes less dependent on security considerations and more on political calculations. This would explain why France’s latest extension was driven by the electoral calendar, punting the issue to the next president and legislature. Call it political procrastination, or perhaps more aptly, political cowardice.

This disconnect between its initial purpose and current raison d’être was captured nicely by Sébastien Pietrasanta, a parliamentarian and rapporteur for the commission investigating the state’s response to the November 2015 attacks, who recently noted that “the effect of the state of emergency is fading and yet we extend it…even though the link with terrorism is quite tenuous.”

I have seen this logic at play in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria, countries I have worked on for years, maintained their states of emergency for 31 and 48 years respectively. Every time the state of emergency was up for renewal, the country’s rulers argued that the risk was still there or that the timing was not right to lift it. France is not a tin-pot autocracy and its rulers are not despots, but there is a cautionary tale in these experiences.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk – an exogenous measure that cannot be controlled by political calculations. It should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment. It may have been justified for a few days immediately after the November 2015 attacks as the country’s security forces were caught unprepared. But it should have been lifted as soon as the institutions resumed their normal functioning – regardless of whether the underlying security threat has been addressed.

It is time to reframe the debate in France. A continuing state of emergency should not be dependent on the existence of risk, it should be restricted to situations where there is an exceptional need for exceptional measures at an exceptional moment.

Nadim Houry

Director, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program

The French government’s own website on the fight against terrorism noted in August 2016 that the government has “completed its legal arsenal and put in place an unprecedented reinforcement of its means in the police, justice, army and intelligence services.” France already has a raft of laws under the non-emergency regime that permit the authorities to investigate, detain, and prosecute terrorism suspects. Judicial controls in no way impede their effectiveness.

France needs to adopt a clear path out of the state of emergency. The parliamentary commission monitoring the state of emergency suggested in December setting an upper limit on the extension of a state of emergency but parliament ignored it and voted a fifth extension with almost no debate. Candidates in the upcoming presidential election have largely avoided talking about the issue, perpetuating the procrastination strategy by the political class, and journalists have not pushed them on the issue.

It is no longer enough to wait and hope that the security threat will simply vanish or that the future president or legislature will finally decide to tackle the issue. The debate about lifting the state of emergency should become a priority topic in this presidential election. Like any addict hoping to recover, France needs to start by recognizing the problem and begin a serious conversation on how to quit.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Nigeria: Military Holding Children as Boko Haram Suspects

The Nigerian military has arbitrarily detained thousands of children in degrading and inhuman conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram. 

(Abuja) – The Nigerian military has arbitrarily detained thousands of children in degrading and inhuman conditions for suspected involvement with the armed Islamist group Boko Haram, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many children are held without charge for months or years in squalid and severely overcrowded military barracks, with no contact with the outside world.
The 50-page report, “‘They Didn’t Know if I Was Alive or Dead’: Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria,” documents how Nigerian authorities are detaining children, often based on little or no evidence. Children described beatings, overwhelming heat, frequent hunger, and being packed tightly in their cells with hundreds of other detainees “like razorblades in a pack,” as one former detainee said.
“Children are being detained in horrific conditions for years, with little or no evidence of involvement with Boko Haram, and without even being taken to court,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Many of these children already survived attacks by Boko Haram. The authorities’ cruel treatment adds to their suffering and victimizes them further.”
Between January 2013 and March 2019, Nigerian armed forces detained over 3,600 children, including 1,617 girls, for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups, according to the UN. Many are detained at Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, the main military detention facility in Borno State.
Nigerian authorities have released at least 2,200 children from detention, nearly all without charge. According to the UN, 418 children were detained in 2018, a significant decrease from 2017, when over 1,900 children were detained. Human Rights Watch does not know the number of children who may be currently detained.
The Nigerian government should sign and put into effect a United Nations handover protocol to ensure the swift transfer of children apprehended by the military to child protection authorities for rehabilitation, family reunification, and community reintegration. Other countries in the region, including Chad, Mali, and Niger, have already signed such protocols.
In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed in Maiduguri 32 children and youth who had been detained as children at Giwa barracks for alleged involvement with Boko Haram. None of the children said they were taken before a judge or appeared in court, as required by law, and only one saw someone who he thought may have been a lawyer. None were aware of any charges against them. One was detained when he was only 5 years old.
Nigerian authorities arrested the children during military operations, security sweeps, screening procedures for internally displaced people, and based on information from informants. Many of the children said they were arrested after fleeing Boko Haram attacks on their village or while seeking refuge at camps for internally displaced people. One said he was arrested and detained for more than two years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members. Several girls had been abducted by Boko Haram or forced to become Boko Haram “wives."
Approximately one-third of the children interviewed said security forces beat them during interrogation after their arrest or at Giwa barracks. One girl who was forced to marry a Boko Haram member said that after soldiers captured her, “The soldiers were beating us with their belts, calling us names and telling us they will deal with us because we are Boko Haram wives.” Others said they were beaten if they denied association with Boko Haram.
Children described sharing a single cell, approximately 10-by-10 meters, with 250 or more detainees. They said the stench from a single open toilet was often overwhelming and that detainees sometimes fainted from the heat. In Maiduguri, the average annual maximum temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and temperatures can exceed 40 degrees.
Nearly half of the children said they saw dead bodies of other detainees at Giwa barracks. Many said they suffered frequent thirst or hunger.
Fifteen of the children had been detained for more than a year, and some had been held for more than three years. None had been allowed to contact family members outside the detention center, nor had the authorities contacted their families. Such cases may constitute enforced disappearances, a serious human rights violation.
The children said that Giwa has a cell for boys under 18 with children as young as 7, or even younger. The military also detains children in adult cells, where children said food and water were scarcer and conditions even more crowded. Very young children and babies are kept with their mothers and older girls in a separate cell. Three girls said they saw male soldiers making sexual advances toward female detainees or removing girls from the cell for long periods for what they believed was sexual exploitation.
The military provides no formal education or rehabilitation activities for children at Giwa. Children reported that their only activities were prayer, watching television, and informal lessons that some children provided for others. The overcrowded conditions made physical activity impossible, and some children said they developed sores from restricted movement.
Following their release, some children said they suffered social stigma from presumed involvement with Boko Haram, even if they had no ties to the group. Nearly all said they wanted to go to school, but many said that available schools were too far away, or that they didn’t have money for transportation.
Nigerian authorities should immediately release children currently in military custody. If military or intelligence authorities have credible evidence of criminal offenses by children, they should transfer them to civilian judicial authorities to be treated in accordance with national and international juvenile justice standards.
“Nigeria faces formidable challenges from the Boko Haram insurgency, but detaining thousands of children is not the answer,” Becker said. “Children affected by the conflict need rehabilitation and schooling, not prison.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A destroyed home near Ashqala al-Sagheer village in Hamdaniya, July 2019. Hasansham camp is in the background.

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is preventing about 4,200 Sunni Arabs from returning home to 12 villages east of Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today. More than three years after the Hamdaniya district was retaken from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), in one area KRG authorities have only allowed Kurdish residents and Arabs with KRG ties to return, in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Arab families seeking to return home had fled primarily to ISIS-controlled Mosul during fighting in 2014. Approximately 3,400 Sunni Arabs have been residing in camps for the displaced with dwindling services, according to aid workers. Affected families said they have been blocked from their homes and farmland and unable to earn a living. A KRG official wrote in an email to Human Rights Watch that residents were free to return to their homes, but provided Human Rights Watch with a list of Nineveh villages that were difficult to return to, identifying six from Hamdaniya as “blocked” for return.

“The Kurdistan Regional Government is preventing thousands of Arab villagers from returning home without a lawful reason,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the KRG is permitting Kurdish and well-connected Arab residents back suggests that these villagers are being improperly punished.”

Human Rights Watch has conducted three investigations into the KRG’s prevention of returns to the Hamdaniya district since 2016, most recently in June 2019, when we interviewed 11 Arab residents of Hasansham camp from the villages of Hasansham, Manquba, Shirkan, and Tal Aswad.

The KRG’s coordinator for international advocacy, Dr. Dindar Zebari, wrote on August 10 in response to a Human Rights Watch letter that in the 15 villages Human Rights Watch investigated, population counts showed that there had been few or no returns to 6 of the villages and minimal returns to 2. In 4 villages, about half the population had returned. In only 3 villages had all or nearly all residents returned. Residents blocked from returning said that these 3 villages were either predominantly Kurdish or had Arab residents with strong KRG ties.

Zebari’s information matched satellite imagery analysis from 2016 to 2019 that identified signs of reconstruction and needed reconstruction of many area buildings.

Sunni Arab residents and aid workers disputed claims that authorities were willing to investigate reported cases of blocked return. After anti-ISIS forces retook Mosul in November 2016 and the KRG had put in place a security and civil administration system in the area, former residents sought to return to Hamdaniya district. However, Iraqi forces redirected the displaced to the nearby Hasansham camp. After one month at the camp, the KRG’s security forces, Asayish, informed them without a clear explanation that they were not allowed to return home. Families and aid workers said that in late 2017, Asayish reiterated that they were not allowed to return home but could leave the camps to move to the broader Mosul area or to KRG-controlled Erbil, leading some families to leave the camps.

“Families like mine have become victims of abuse because we went to Mosul when ISIS came, instead of fleeing towards the Kurds,” said a 69-year-old Arab villager from Manquba. “Now we are punished because we didn’t go to [Kurdish-controlled] Kalak.”

KRG officials, in communications with residents, aid workers, and Human Rights Watch, have provided reasons for blocking returns to the district: inadequate services, unexploded ordnance, uncleared landmines (including those of an improvised nature), property destruction; social conflicts and property and land ownership issues, concerns about attacks by villagers who had joined ISIS, and security issues arising from the September 2017 KRG referendum on independence, which makes the area a front line if there is future fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

Under international humanitarian law, the forced displacement of civilians is prohibited except when necessary to protect civilians or for imperative military reasons, and then only for as long as needed. Possible future hostilities are not a lawful basis. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to order the unlawful displacement of civilians. Furthermore, people may only be punished for crimes for which they are responsible, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or communities violates international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime.

Actions imposed for security reasons need to be according to law, proportionate, and have a legitimate aim, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, Human Rights Watch found that the displacement camps are also located in the so-called “front line” area and that the KRG has allowed some residents to return to certain villages in the area. With respect to landmines, international demining organizations have conducted considerable survey and clearance activity in the vicinity since 2016 and, if mines remained a genuine threat, no villagers should have been allowed to return.

Satellite imagery analysis shows that since 2016 the KRG military forces, the Peshmerga, have deployed and built significant military infrastructure in four of the villages, none of which have received significant population returns. The KRG should immediately remove all restrictions preventing the return of residents where there is no military necessity for doing so and investigate government officials who have been preventing lawful returns, Human Rights Watch said.

“KRG authorities should not prevent families from returning to their villages because they want to punish the community,” Fakih said. “These villagers have the right to return to their own land and homes.”

Flight and Impact of Displacement

In August 2014, ISIS forces, after capturing the city of Mosul, took control of Hasansham and surrounding areas, which had been under KRG control since 2003. Residents said they fled their villages once fighting between ISIS and the Peshmerga broke out. They said that most Arab families fled in the direction of Mosul, because ISIS told them the city was safer. However, almost all Kurdish families fled in the direction of Erbil, taking refuge in Kalak and other KRG-controlled areas.

A 50-year-old man from the village of Shirkan said that the local Kurdish families fled to areas under KRG control while most Arab families fled to Mosul. “I heard in 2017 from camp security that the Peshmerga allowed the 20 Kurdish families from our village to return home,” he said. Human Rights Watch verified the return of Kurdish villagers to Shirkan during a July visit. He said that camp officials had told him he was not allowed to return home, without providing him with a clear reason why.

A 63-year-old man from Ehsar said that only his Arab neighbors who had personal ties to the Peshmerga said they were allowed to return to his village. Only 8 people out of an original population of 60 have returned to Ehsar, according to the KRG’s population count.

Three camps in the Hasansham and Khazir areas are holding about 3,400 displaced people from 11 surrounding villages, according to camp management. Another 800 people, including some from a twelfth village, were living outside the camp in another location, aid workers said. Some of the villages are historically Arab while others are mixed Arab-Kurdish. The camps are run by a nongovernmental organization linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the governing parties in the KRG, and the Asayish manages camp security. Management at all three camps said that funding shortfalls over the last two years had resulted in aid agencies suspending and reducing services to camp residents.

Most of the families interviewed said that before fleeing their homes, farming had been their main source of income. All said that since 2014 they had not been able to farm their land, even after the KRG regained control and fighting had ceased. Almost all the families said that they had been unable to find any paid employment since moving to the displacement camp.

One former camp resident, 36, said he moved to Mosul and was living with his family in an abandoned building and working as a taxi driver. In his village he used to make about US$16 a day but now makes as little as $8. His 14-year-old daughter is not going to school because he cannot afford a bag, books, and appropriate clothing for her.

A 45-year-old laborer from Hasansham who has not been allowed to return said he can see his destroyed home from his tent in the displacement camp: “I want to go back to my village because here in the camp we don’t have a future. How long are we going to stay here? No work, bad education, no proper health care, we are without hope.”

Health professionals providing mental health and psychosocial support in the camps identified that families showed signs of heightening psychological distress and frustration because they were being prevented from returning home, findings consistent with a recently published report on displaced families in Iraq.

Advocating Villagers’ Return

Several aid workers in the camps told Human Rights Watch that senior aid officials had been advocating since 2018 for the return of the 4,200 people with senior KRG officials, local mayors, the governor of Nineveh, the local Peshmerga unit, and members of Parliament in Baghdad. In June 2018, then-Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani agreed with aid agencies that all Arab families should be allowed to return and instructed the KRG’s Ministry of Interior to follow up, two aid workers present said. The Erbil Joint Crisis Coordination Centre, established under the KRG’s interior ministry in 2014 to “coordinate all matters related to crisis management and response in the Kurdistan Region,” informed humanitarian partners in September 2018 that the KRG’s interior ministry and Baghdad authorities had agreed to allow the families to return. However, in October, a high-ranking Peshmerga commander told senior aid officials that returns would only be permitted if there was a political agreement between the KRG and the Iraqi government to “ensure no hostilities in the area,” the aid workers said.

Families that sought permission to return with KRG and Baghdad officials said the officials told them the decision was “not in their hands” but in the hands of the Peshmerga.

Area Contamination

At a July 2018 meeting with senior aid officials, a high-ranking Peshmerga commander raised concerns that Hamdaniya villages were contaminated with landmines (including those of an improvised nature) and unexploded ordnance, according to several aid workers. Zebari’s email to Human Rights Watch also noted the presence of unexploded ordnance and landmines. However, these concerns do not appear to be the reason KRG authorities have not allowed families to return to their villages.

Three demining organizations provided Human Rights Watch with maps showing clearance activities in the area, which demonstrates that considerable clearance activity was conducted in and around the villages since 2016. Human Rights Watch and aid workers have also observed shepherds grazing their sheep throughout the area, including in abandoned villages, and Peshmerga driving through the villages. The KRG authorities have allowed some residents to return to certain villages, so it is unclear why return would be safe for some but not others.

If landmine or explosive remnants of war contamination concerns persist in some of the villages of blocked return, KRG authorities should direct mine clearance organizations to provide additional mine risk education to the families in the camps. They should ensure, with the Iraqi government’s Directorate of Mine Action, which oversees work in the return areas, that demining organizations survey and clear high priority areas like main roads and public spaces, and mark other areas of contamination. The KRG should also instruct security forces to accompany camp residents on “go-and-see” visits, assisting them in avoiding any possible unexploded ordnance or landmine.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Government buses waiting to move families from one camp in Anbar governate to another during a previous wave of camp closures in December 2018. 

© 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Local authorities have forcibly expelled more than 2,000 Iraqis from camps for displaced people in Nineveh governorate since August 23, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

Some were forced to return to their home regions, despite fears for their safety, including from former neighbors who perceive them as being linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). Some have come under attack since being forced home. Authorities in Nineveh have also blocked families who tried to leave the camps to avoid expulsion.

“Displaced people, like all other Iraqis, have the right to move freely in their country and decide where they feel safe to live,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities can’t move people without first consulting them, especially not to places where they and their families face danger.”

Authorities in Salah al-Din have also announced plans to close camps for displaced people or are already forcing people to return to their governorates of origin.

In early July, the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, passed “Resolution 16.” The resolution is not public, but officials have described its contents in letters to humanitarian organizations. It orders people from areas other than Nineveh – currently at least 38,040 people – to leave the Nineveh camps. It mandates security forces to develop a database of residents and isolate families who are perceived as ISIS-affiliated. The resolution also calls for increased security to keep people from entering or leaving camps without permission and assigning more police to the camps, to “control” people’s movement and to “assess and audit” the work of nongovernmental organizations who work in the camps.

In response, the authorities began screenings across the Nineveh camps. On August 21, Migration and Displacement Ministry officials informed aid workers at the two camps in Nineveh where screenings had been completed that they intended to expel everyone there from other governorates, starting with those from Anbar governorate, two aid workers said. Anbar is a former ISIS stronghold.

On August 23, security forces from the Nineveh Operations Command expelled 36 families from Anbar, most headed by women, totaling about 150 people , and transported them to their areas of origin in Anbar against their will and without letting them bring their belongings. They were told they were being taken to a camp in Anbar, three families told Human Rights Watch. The families called aid workers to express fears when they found they were actually being taken back home, and aid workers unsuccessfully tried to intervene.

An aid worker in Ramadi said that one of the families fled to a camp for displaced people 25 kilometers away after local residents threatened to kill them because of their perceived ISIS affiliation. Since August 25, 16 families who security forces had taken back to the Haditha area have been living in a public school encircled by police about three kilometers away because they feel unsafe, two told Human Rights Watch. They said that on August 28, someone threw a hand grenade at the school. No one inside was injured.

Two aid workers said that elsewhere in Anbar, local security forces said they denied at least six families entry to their areas of origin because of perceived ISIS affiliation. They said several more families have contacted aid groups asking for help to relocate to nearby camps because they feel unsafe.

Camp management did not have time to issue the deported Anbar families departure letters to help them pass through checkpoints, obtain security clearances in areas they returned to, and to apply for funds available for people returning.

After the expulsions, other families who are not from Nineveh started leaving the camps to avoid expulsion but on August 25, the Iraqi Army’s 16th division ordered camp management in at least two of the camps to prevent families from leaving. The army forced some departing families to return to the camps under threat of arrest, three of the families and aid workers said.

On August 28, security forces forcibly expelled from the same camps 151 families – at least 610 people – originally from Hawija, an area in western Kirkuk that continues to experience ISIS attacks and military operations, to camps in the Kirkuk area, an aid worker there said, causing food shortages in the camps they were transferred to. But two aid workers have since told Human Rights Watch that the Kirkuk governor later agreed to allow the families to continue living in camps there, instead of forcing them to return home.

Security forces also expelled at least another 671 people from Nineveh camps to a camp in Salah al-Din on August 31. Two families said that the morning after they arrived, two grenades hit the camp fence. One man, 50, said that he and other families did not feel safe there after social media posts – some containing veiled execution threats – urged local people to protest the families’ presence. Aid workers present said security forces transferred the families to another Salah al-Din camp on September 2 because of increased security concerns for the families. Residents at the new camp location launched protests when they heard of the families’ arrival.

On September 2, authorities expelled another 481 people from Nineveh camps to Salah al-Din, after keeping them waiting on buses for over five hours without a bathroom, food, or water.

The deputy governor of Salah al-Din, which currently houses at least 105,390 displaced people, told aid workers in June that he aimed to close most displaced people’s camps and informal settlement sites by early September, with statements from local officials in late August and early September that at least two camps would be closed by early September. By August 24, security forces had expelled more than 500 families from an informal settlement in Salah al-Din, an aid worker said.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement ensure displaced people’s rights to free movement and freedom to choose their residence, as well as their right to move freely in and out of camps.

Authorities in Iraq should not force people to return to or remain in specific locations and respect their right to free movement. They should immediately facilitate the return of families who want to return to areas not affected by ongoing military operations. And if authorities cannot ensure families’ safety, they should allow families to remain in or relocate to camps that allow for free movement or other areas where authorities can properly protect them.

In line with these standards, authorities should ensure that displaced people have at least seven days’ notice of their expulsions and provide a range of detailed options for safe assisted relocation. Authorities should ensure that camp management has time to issue departure letters needed to travel, resettle, and apply for assistance, and allow people to take their belongings with them.

“Over the last two weeks government has effectively transferred people into situations where they are being targeted with grenades and death threats,” Fakih said. “Before people board buses provided by the government transporting them from the camps, authorities should clarify where the buses are traveling so families can make an informed decision about how to keep themselves safe.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The school at Hammam al-Alil 1 camp for displaced people south of Mosul that security forces occupied on July 6, 7, and 9 in order to conduct security screenings of camp residents. 

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) The Iraqi government is denying thousands of children whose parents have a perceived Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation of their right to access an education, Human Rights Watch said today. The children, who were born or lived in areas under the control of ISIS between 2014 and 2017, lack the civil documentation the Iraqi government requires for school enrollment and the government is making it difficult for them to acquire it.

A September 2018 document signed by senior Education Ministry officials endorsed a discussion that appears to allow children missing civil documentation to enroll in school. But officials are instructing school principals and aid groups providing support services for education that undocumented children are still barred from enrolling in government schools.

“Denying children their right to education because of something their parents might have done is a grossly misguided form of collective punishment,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It undermines any potential government efforts to counter extremist ideology by pushing these children to the margins of society.”

Iraq: Not a Homecoming

Iraq: Not a Homecoming

At the peak of the fighting between Iraqi forces and ISIS in 2017, at least 5.8 million people had been forced to flee their homes. Dozens of camps sprang up across Iraq to house the displaced, and as fighting subsided some families started to go back home. But many remain displaced and those returning home face significant challenges.

An aid worker coordinating an education program in Nineveh and three school principals there told Human Rights Watch that ministry officials told them that despite the September 2018 decision, as of January 1, 2019 students could only attend school if their parents pledged in person at their governorate’s General Directorate of Education that they would obtain their child’s civil documentation by the end of the school year or within 30 days of making the pledge.

The principal of a primary school adjacent to a camp for displaced families 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul said that the ministry instructed schools to expel students whose parents failed to carry through on their pledge. At least 1,080 children of school age are living in the camp next door to the school, camp management told Human Rights Watch, but only 50 of these children, all with valid documentation, were enrolled at the school.

The principal of a school in a camp 30 kilometers south of Mosul said that since 2018 he had been allowing all children in the camp to enroll but that after he received the ministry’s new instructions, “at least 100 kids stopped coming to school. Either their parents couldn’t afford to go to Mosul to make the pledge, or they didn’t see the point because they knew that they would not be able to get civil documentation for them within 30 days.”

A 13-year-old girl who had been in 6th grade at the school said she had to stop attending in January. Her mother has no death certificate for the girl’s father who, the mother said, joined ISIS and died, and thus cannot get her daughter a valid identity card. “I like to learn and I want to keep studying and become a teacher but I don’t know if I will be allowed to,” her daughter said.

Many families who lived under ISIS rule between 2014 and 2017 are missing one or more of the civil documents schools are requiring parents to provide to enroll these children. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 families whose children could still not enroll in school for this reason after the September 2018 decision. It could not identify any families missing documentation who were able to enroll their children in school.

When in control of territory, ISIS regularly confiscated Iraqis’ civil documentation and issued their own, which the Iraqi authorities do not recognize. Iraqi security forces also confiscated some families’ documents as they fled fighting or when they arrived at camps for displaced people. Families whose children were born in ISIS-run hospitals have faced difficulties obtaining birth certificates and all subsequent documentation for their children, particularly if the husband is dead, missing, or detained. Authorities ask women to provide a valid death or divorce certificate in order to issue them and their children documentation, which most women in that situation do not have.

Ten women in that situation said that under those circumstances, neighborhood mukhtars, government-paid community leaders, have to sign off for security forces to grant the security clearances required to apply for civil documentation for the mother and subsequently the child. However, a mukhtar from Sinjar, an area in Nineveh governorate ISIS formerly controlled, said that security forces there had ordered him and other mukhtars not to stamp women’s documents if their husbands had joined ISIS unless the woman went before a judge and opened a criminal complaint against her husband for his ISIS membership. He said that not all women have been willing or able to do that.

As a result, many women married to men who joined ISIS have not been able to obtain divorce or death certificates. Government forces have even threatened them with arrest or other forms of collective punishment when they tried to obtain civil documentation. A woman from the town of Qayyarah, Nineveh, said that when she presented her 3-year-old son’s ISIS-issued birth certificate at the local civil status directorate in early 2018 in an effort to get a state-issued birth certificate, an official tore it up. “He said to me, we won’t give your son a birth certificate, his father was ISIS,” she said.

An upcoming joint study by the Norwegian Refugee Council, Danish Refugee Council, and International Rescue Committee, “Paperless People of Post-Conflict Iraq: Denied rights, barred from basic services and excluded from reconstruction efforts,” revealed another barrier for some families. They found that officials at some schools have been requiring not only the child’s documentation, but also various types of civil documentation for the parents, including their identity cards, or the death or divorce certificate of a parent not present.

Even those children who have valid documentation because they were born before ISIS took control in 2014 may be excluded by schools that demand these documents if their father is no longer present and their mother has no divorce or death certificate.The joint study found that nearly half of the families interviewed could not enroll their children in school without presenting the father’s civil identity card or death certificate.

On July 26, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Iraqi government asking for clarification on the government’s position on whether children missing civil documentation are able to enroll in school but has received no response.

In addition to their fundamental obligation to guarantee the right to education to all children, free from discrimination, governments should adopt measures to ensure education is not interrupted during humanitarian crises, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 18 of the Iraqi Constitution stipulates that all children born to an Iraqi father or mother shall be granted citizenship and are therefore entitled to identity documents. Parliament should amend or revoke other laws and policies in force that thwart this constitutional right and Parliament should consider enacting a proposal submitted in June by the parliamentary human rights committee for the judiciary to set up special courts to issue civil documentation to children of families with perceived ISIS affiliation. In any case, Iraq should remove requirements for families to obtain security clearance from security services as a prerequisite for obtaining civil documentation.

To ensure that children can enroll by September 15, the beginning of the school year, the Education Ministry should urgently notify all school staff not to require civil documentation as a condition for enrolling, taking examinations, or obtaining certificates until a procedure is in place facilitating the issuing of civil documentation for all Iraqi children. The ministry, working with aid agencies, should seek to notify parents living in areas formerly under ISIS control and in camps for displaced people that the civil documentation requirements have been waived.

“Some Iraqi children lost three years of education under ISIS.” Fakih said. “The government should be doing everything in its power to ensure that children do not miss any more years of crucial education.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

 Al-Hawl camp in Syria

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
(Al-Hol Camp, northeast Syria) –Sitting on the floor of a shack in a locked desert camp in north-east Syria, her baby boy in her lap and her two other children nestled by her side, Radhia* had only one question.

"Please, can you tell me," she asked, "when will Australia bring us home?"

That same week in June, Australia evacuated eight Australian children from al-Hawl, the same camp where Radhia and her children have been detained since January.

Radhia and her children, too, are Australian citizens. While the eight evacuated children were brought home to Australia, Radhia and her children remain indefinitely detained by a Kurdish-led coalition in al-Hawl, a camp rife with disease and despair.

"People think we are monsters," said Radhia, who did not want her real name used in order to protect her children. "Please tell them we are humans, just like them."

At least 50 Australian women and children remain in al-Hawl, according to Save the Children, which has urged Australia to bring them all home. They are among about 11,000 foreigners — more than 7,000 children and about 3,000 women — from about 50 countries who are held in the camp.

The self-declared Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria, which is detaining the foreigners, says it will not prosecute them and has urged their governments to repatriate them. But most countries are bringing home only token numbers, leaving the rest in legal limbo.

Indeed, just days after the evacuations of the eight children from al-Hawl, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton introduced draconian revisions to Australian law that would ban alleged foreign fighters as young as 14 from returning to Australia for two years.

During visits to al-Hawl from June 21 to 23, I found dire conditions including overflowing latrines and sewage trickling into tattered tents.

Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs and swollen bellies were drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Other children lay limp with fever on tent floors, their bodies dusted with flies and dirt.

Children are dying from acute diarrhea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers told me.

A key reason for the squalor is donor nations' reluctance to assist potential Islamic State members or sympathizers, camp managers and aid workers said. But international law forbids denying essential aid based on religious or ideological affiliation. Moreover, children who lived under Islamic State are victims first and foremost, and many of their mothers are, too.

Speaking softly and stroking the hair of her children, ages 3, 1 and a half and 6 months, Radhia said she had never planned to leave Australia to live under Islamic State. But one day, she said, her Australian husband told her, "'I am going, you are coming with me.' I was thinking, 'Why? We are comfortable.' But as a Muslim woman you follow your husband."

She said the couple crossed into Syria via Turkey in 2014 and settled in Tal Abyad, an IS-held town on the northern border. After Tal Abyad fell in 2015, they moved from one shrinking IS-held pocket to another.

In 2017, Radhia's husband was killed in a coalition drone strike. Radhia said she could not find a way out until January, when the caliphate lost its grip on Deir al-Zour. Then she and her children joined thousands of starving, shell-shocked families streaming out.

Radhia did not want to talk about her husband or the father of her third child. But she spoke at length about her dreams for her children: a real roof over their heads, clean water, fresh food, school.

Like all detainees at al-Hawl, Radhia and her children live in a tent and subsist on scant dry rations. The shack where she sat was a shared kitchen whose concrete floors and walls were her greatest luxury.

While I can't verify Radhia's story, her children deserve to be rescued and promptly brought to Australia from al-Hawl like the children evacuated in June.

Absent clear, compelling evidence that they could harm their children, women like Radhia should be brought home as well. Leaving mothers behind places children in even greater danger and risks fueling instability and grief. International law provides all nationals the right to return to their home country.

If the Australian authorities have grounds to believe that Radhia or other Australians have committed crimes during their years under Islamic State, they should investigate them in line with international standards, and prosecute them in Australia as appropriate.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself said that children born in IS areas or brought there by their mothers or fathers "should not be punished for the crimes of their parents".

Yet that is precisely what Australia will do if it abandons Radhia and her three children to indefinite detention without charge in al-Hawl.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A girl stands in the annex of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, where more than 11,000 women and children from nearly 50 nationalities are confined as family members of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects. The Kurdish-led coalition controlling northern Syria wants home countries to take the women and children back. But most governments have only repatriated small numbers of their citizens.

© 2019 Sam Tarling

(Al-Hol, Northeast Syria) – The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration for northeast Syria is holding more than 11,000 foreign women and children related to Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects in appalling and sometimes deadly conditions in a locked desert camp in northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. At least 7,000 of the children are under 12.

During three visits to the section of al-Hol camp holding foreign women and children in June 2019, Human Rights Watch found overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tattered tents, and residents drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs, and swollen bellies sifted through mounds of stinking garbage under a scorching sun or lay limp on tent floors, their bodies dusted with dirt and flies. Children are dying from acute diarrhea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers said.

“Foreign women and children are indefinitely locked in a dustbowl inferno in northeast Syria while their home countries look the other way,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should be doing what they can to protect their citizens, not abandon them to disease and death in a foreign desert.”

At least 240 children have died en route or upon arrival to al-Hol, according to the United Nations. Authorities from the camp, which is overseen by the Autonomous Administration, do not appear to consistently record deaths, international aid group members said. The groups did not want to be identified for fear of losing access to al-Hol.

Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria has rapidly expanded with the influx of more than 63,000 women and children displaced by the offensive against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Baghouz between December 2018 and April 2019. The area at lower right shows the annex, now housing more than 11,000 non-Iraqi foreigners.

© 2019 Planet Labs

Al-Hol guards do not allow the women and children to leave the camp except when escorted out for emergencies such as surgery not available in camp hospitals.

Officials from the Autonomous Administration told Human Rights Watch they do not intend to prosecute the women and children. Asked about the legal status of the women and children, they said only in a brief written statement that when the women and children left ISIS-held areas, they were “transferred to al-Hol to work on delivering them to their countries given that they are from different nationalities.” The Autonomous Administration has repeatedly called on home countries to take back all foreigners in their custody. “We are overwhelmed,” a camp manager said.

Countries should immediately assist efforts of their citizens held in al-Hol camp to come home if they choose to do so. The Autonomous Administration, as well as home countries, should ensure that detention is only imposed according to law, on an individual basis, and with all basic rights of detainees under international law including judicial review of detention.

Donor governments, the United Nations, and humanitarian agencies should also immediately increase aid to all camp inhabitants, more than 7,000 of them children.

From June 21 to 23, Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 foreign women confined in al-Hol annex from countries including Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and Trinidad. The women included mothers who begged camp guards for news of husbands or sons whom US-backed, Kurdish-led troops, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), had separated from them when they fled ISIS-held areas over the past several months.

“Please, tell me, where are my sons? Please, let me visit them,” pleaded “Aisha,” a pregnant woman from Trinidad. The SDF took her two sons, ages 14 and 15, and their father when the family fled ISIS-held Abu Badran in January, she said.

“First they said they would bring my boys to me in a month. Then they said two more weeks. Then they said they were sick in the hospital,” Aisha said of camp officials. Like other women interviewed, Aisha did not want her real name used. “Then for the past two months, nothing.”

Conditions are dire throughout al-Hol, which holds 62,000 Syrians and Iraqis in the main camp sections, most of them also wives and children of men accused of ISIS membership. However, the worst conditions are in the annex holding the 11,000 non-Iraqi foreigners. The annex receives less aid from donors and annex inhabitants must wait for armed escorts to bring them to the camp market, hospitals, and food distribution center, which Syrian and Iraqi women and children can reach freely, aid workers said.

All but one of the foreign women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they wanted to go home. One, from Uzbekistan, said she wanted to go to a third country because she feared persecution if repatriated. All said they are not allowed to leave the locked camp. None said she had been taken before a judge to review whether she should be detained or been contacted by a representative of her government.

“We were prisoners under al-Dawla [ISIS] and now we’re prisoners of our liberators,” said “Layla,” a 29-year-old Frenchwoman. “I’ll go to prison again back home if I have to but please, just get me out of here.”

International law allows imposing punishment for crimes only on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families by preventing them from leaving the camps violates the laws of war.

Unless they are lawful places of detention such as prisons, camps for displaced people should respect the free movement right to leave the camps and return. Movement restrictions are only permissible if they are provided by law and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. Any restrictions must be nondiscriminatory, proportionate, and necessary to achieve legitimate aims.

Anyone detained, including civilians initially detained in wartime as security threats, should be detained on a clear legal basis, and have the right to challenge the necessity and legality of their captivity before a court. No one should be detained in inhuman or degrading conditions. International law obligates all countries to ensure justice through fair trials for the gravest crimes, such as those by ISIS.

International law also grants everyone the right to return to their home country and obligates countries to fulfill a child’s right to acquire a nationality. This duty has been interpreted to extend to children born abroad to a country’s citizens who would otherwise be stateless.

“The conditions in al-Hol annex are untenable and unconscionable,” Tayler said. “Abandoning citizens to indefinite confinement without charge will only make the problem worse.”

More than 7,000 foreign children and 3,000 foreign women from about 50 countries are held in the al-Hol annex according to officials from the Autonomous Administration, which is led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Several hundred more foreigners are held in two other camps in northeast Syria, Ain Issa, and Roj. In addition to Westerners, the foreigners include Algerians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Moroccans, Russians, Tunisians, Turks, and Uzbeks, among others. About two-thirds of the foreign children are under age 12 – with most under age 5 – and hundreds are orphans, their parents missing or dead, aid workers said. While most women and children are recent arrivals, some said they had been held at Al-Hol for over a year.

Reluctant Donors, Insufficient Access

Autonomous Administration authorities blamed the conditions in al-Hol annex on insufficient aid from foreign donors. “We feel abandoned by the international community,” Abdulkarim Omar, the administration’s co-chair for foreign affairs, told Human Rights Watch. “Taking care of these foreigners is a big, big problem for us. Countries should take back their people and rehabilitate them.”

The Autonomous Administration and SDF have already made significant sacrifices as part of the international coalition fighting ISIS, Omar said. About 12,000 SDF troops were killed and another 20,000 were injured fighting ISIS, he said, in part “so that people in Europe can sleep calmly at night.”

About three dozen aid agencies including the UN Refugee Agency and UNICEF work in al-Hol. But many donor countries are wary of supporting a camp population that may include ISIS members or sympathizers, Autonomous Administration authorities and humanitarian workers said, even though the majority of people in the camp are young children who had no choice but to live with their parents under ISIS.

“We are seeing the stigmatization of a vast section of the camp population that is perceived as affiliated with the Islamic State group,” said Fabrizio Carboni, who heads Near and Middle East operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Carboni warned against a “good victim-bad victim” double standard. International standards prohibit denying essential aid, including if the denial is based on ideological or religious affiliation.

Some organizations are also concerned that their assistance could enable indefinite detention of women and children without charge. “It is one thing to assist a refugee camp and another to assist a prison,” one aid worker said.

The three field hospitals in the main camp areas are understaffed and under-resourced, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in July. Doctors Without Borders runs a health clinic inside the annex and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) runs a mobile clinic there, but their hours are limited due to staff shortages and security concerns.

Two-fold access problems also hinder delivery of services, aid groups said. Humanitarian agencies with agreements to work in Syria must obtain permission to access al-Hol through Damascus because the Autonomous Administration controlling the northern third of Syria, including al-Hol camp, is not an internationally recognized government. Negotiations with the Syrian government on humanitarian access are often difficult, as Human Rights Watch documented in a June report.

But even agencies that receive Syrian government permission, or that work under the radar in al-Hol without it, sometimes face delays in obtaining the Autonomous Administration authorities’ permission to deliver assistance inside the annex, aid workers said. In its July report, OCHA said that humanitarian access to the annex “remains restricted” in ways that “continue to impact and prevent delivery of services.”

Dire Health Conditions

One reason for poor conditions at al-Hol is that the camp population soared from 10,000 people in December 2018 to more than 73,000 by April, camp managers and aid groups said. During that period, a US-led military coalition routed ISIS from its last stand in Baghouz, a town in eastern Deir al-Zour governate. Many new arrivals from Deir al-Zour were severely injured, traumatized, and malnourished. Yet while conditions are dire throughout al-Hol, they are worse in the annex than in the main areas where Syrians and Iraqis are confined, camp officials and aid workers said.

During Human Rights Watch visits, al-Hol annex was filled with the sounds of children wailing and women and children coughing. A funnel-shaped dust whirl blew hot dust and debris into tents.

Many women and children had visible skin sores from leishmaniasis, a sand fly-borne parasite. Some inhabitants have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, camp managers said. Drinking water is insufficiently chlorinated and remains in short supply, aid workers said. Human Rights Watch saw children drink water from a wash-water tank that had worms coming out of the spout.

In July, OCHA reported a “sharp increase” in acute diarrhea and a “slight increase” in acute malnutrition throughout al-Hol.

Some women, including those with risky pregnancies and pre-natal complications such as anemia or high blood pressure, are giving birth in their tents without a doctor or midwife, aid workers said. One reason is that Asayish – Autonomous Administration security agents who guard the camp –sometimes delay or refuse their requests to go to a hospital, or they arrive at a hospital only to be turned away because the facility is full, they said. In an added disadvantage, women who give birth in a hospital automatically receive post-natal care and essentials such as diapers whereas women who give birth in tents must request such assistance, they said.

Three women said that a young girl had died from kidney failure in the annex the previous week.

Human Rights Watch saw several wounded children in the annex. One was a bone-thin, 12-year-old Russian boy wearing a patch over his left eye. “Shrapnel in Baghouz,” he said, adding that he had lost vision in that eye.

Another boy, a 4-year-old from Uzbekistan, sat with a blank stare as his mother pushed him across the rubble in a stroller, his right leg missing up to his mid-thigh. The boy’s leg was blown off during a US-led coalition strike in the Syrian town of Sousa in late 2018, his mother said, adding: “I have been trying to get him crutches and a prosthetic leg for four months.”

Worse Conditions for Foreigners

In addition to problems accessing essential services in the main camp areas, nearly all the women interviewed in the annex said they had scant if any means to buy fresh food for their children to supplement their rations of lentils, grains, oil, and sugar, or extra diapers. SDF troops and Asayish agents have confiscated women’s cash and other valuables and barred them from selling any possessions that they may have been able to hold onto, camp inhabitants and aid workers said.

Camp administrators allow Syrian and Iraqi women in the main camp areas to make purchases through the Hawala alternative money transfer system but the foreigners cannot, aid workers said.

Autonomous Administration authorities also bar women in the annex from using cell phones for fear they may contact ISIS members, although cell phones are allowed in sections holding Syrians and Iraqis, aid workers said. The ICRC has begun helping women send letters to family members, but many have not yet made contact and communications have been irregular for those who have.

On all three visits Human Rights Watch saw dozens of women pounding on the chain-link fence that cordons off the annex, clamoring for escorts to reach supplies or health services. Human Rights Watch saw some of the women waiting for hours, with no shade, in 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) heat. The temperature at al-Hol has soared as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) this summer.

“I am going into labor,” shouted a visibly pregnant woman. “What about our human rights?” demanded another. By the time they reach the food distribution point, the rations are sometimes gone and they have to return the next day, the women said.

Living in Fear

Tensions run high in al-Hol, and many women said they were terrified for their safety and that of their children. Women in the camp who adhere to ISIS’ extremist ideology have threatened and set fire to tents of women and children who they consider infidels. Twice, in separate attacks in June and July, a woman stabbed a guard with a knife hidden in her abaya, camp managers and aid workers said.

Guards raid tents at night and frequently shoot in the air to keep order. On July 3, guards shot and wounded two boys, ages 12 and 10, who they said were throwing rocks at them, aid workers said. Twice while at the camp in June, Human Rights Watch heard gunshots fired.

Interviewees also consistently said they feared the Asayish security agents who frequently search tents and take away families in the middle of the night. Camp managers said that the night raids were necessary to remove women or children who were security threats, or to relocate families who feared for their safety to other areas of al-Hol or other camps.

Many women said they also feared tent fires caused by women cooking inside tents; at least one child died in a cooking fire. Others spoke of insects and snakes that crawl onto their sleeping pallets at night.

Piecemeal Repatriations

Repatriations of ISIS suspects and family members from northeast Syria, as well as from neighboring Iraq, have been piecemeal. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Kosovo, and Turkey have organized the return home of more than 1,250 nationals held in northeast Syria and Iraq, most of them children.

But most countries have ignored the Autonomous Administration’s calls for them to repatriate citizens or have taken back only small numbers, primarily orphans, calling them a security threat and citing complications in verifying citizenship of children lacking documents or born in areas under ISIS control.

Norway in June repatriated 5 orphans from northeast Syria. France in March and June flew home 18 children – 17 from northeast Syria and 1 from Iraq. In June, Sweden brought home 7 children and the Netherlands brought home 2 children from Syria. Germany has flown home fewer than 10 from Iraq. Australia in June brought home 8 children from Syria. The US, which has criticized Western allies for refusing to repatriate all its nationals, has brought home 16 adult suspects and children since July 2018. Italy in June took back one suspected ISIS fighter.

France has allowed 11 citizens to be prosecuted in Iraq although the defendants were sentenced to death in rushed proceedings tainted by allegations of torture. The UK has stripped citizenship from nationals including Shamima Begum, who joined ISIS abroad, and Denmark in March proposed stripping children of ISIS members of citizenship. Australia in July introduced draconian revisions to Australian law that would ban returns of citizens as young as 14 for two years if they are suspected of being foreign fighters abroad.

Expressions of Regret

All the women interviewed said they realized soon after arriving in Syria that they had made a mistake. They all insisted that during their life under ISIS their roles had been solely those of housewives and mothers. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to judge the veracity of these claims and it is clear that some women in the camp support – and seek to enforce – ISIS ideology. Women who have committed international crimes should be charged and those who do not face criminal charges should be freed. But children brought to or born in ISIS-controlled areas should not be punished for their parents’ poor judgment or crimes.

“My children did not choose this life,” said “Fatima,” a 27-year-old Belgian widow held in al-Hol with her four young children. Fatima said her 7-year-old daughter did not even learn to read and write under ISIS. Her 6-year-old daughter has a viral infection; unable to obtain medical care in the annex, she scrounged funds to buy rehydrating fluids and inserted an intravenous drip in her daughter’s arm with a friend.

“My children don’t even have a working toilet,” Fatima said. “When there is shooting, they cry and remember the fighting. They deserve a second chance.”

Additional Recommendations

As part of measures to assist repatriation efforts, countries should immediately take all possible steps to ensure that their citizens trapped in any areas of al-Hol or in other camps or prisons in northeast Syria have a way to request repatriation and expedite efforts to verify citizenship, particularly of children. Countries that can guarantee fair trials and humane conditions should investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute returnees responsible for international crimes such as war crimes and torture.

Children should be treated first and foremost as victims, including those recruited by ISIS, and decisions about their future should be made based on their best interests. Parents should be brought home with children unless separation is in the child’s best interest. Children should face prosecution only in exceptional circumstances.

In the meantime, Autonomous Administration camp administrators, humanitarian organizations and donor governments, including those with nationals confined to camps in northeast Syria, should improve sanitary conditions, access to food and clean water, shelter, and medical and psychosocial services for all camp inhabitants. The Autonomous Administration should increase annex inhabitants’ access to essential services in other camp areas.

The Autonomous Administration and US-led coalition fighting ISIS should facilitate contact between camp inhabitants and their families including relatives held in separate prisons or camps.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should press and assist UN agencies including the UN Refugees Agency and member states to coordinate a swift global response that upholds international human rights protections and includes repatriations and resettlements.

Statements from Women Confined in al-Hol annex

This is a nightmare I cannot wake up from. As Muslims we wanted to experience the Islamic State like Christians want to visit Jerusalem. It was so easy to get to Syria through Turkey. But then we found there was no way out. Bombs were falling everywhere and we could not afford a smuggler. In the end they [ISIS] even hid food from us. The only people they fed were their fighters. We are so broken. We are not threats to anyone. We just want our children to go to school and to stop stressing about where is the next meal coming from.

  • “Ayisha,” 37 weeks pregnant, from Trinidad. Mother of five children including two boys, ages 14 and 15, who were taken with her husband when the family surrendered to SDF forces in January.

From the first day I got to Syria I wanted to go home. They [ISIS] treated us like garbage. There was so much injustice. But my husband kept saying, “Forget going back. If they know we want to leave they will put us in prison or kill us.” Then my husband died two years ago. He just never came home. Since then I have been trying to find a way home. The Prophet…says the Sham [Levant] is a blessed place. But I never saw a blessing.

  • “Maria” from Belgium, widow, mother of two children born in Syria.

One day my husband said, “I am going, you are coming with me.” I was thinking, “Why? We are comfortable.” But as a Muslim woman you follow your husband. I just want to go back to Australia. My family says they will take me and the children back. People think we are monsters. Please tell them we are humans, just like them.

  • “Radhia” from Australia, widow, mother of three children born in Syria.

I thought, “Now I’ll be able to practice my religion and cover my face without being harassed the way I am at home.” I heard there was bombing and stuff but I didn’t think I’d be living under it. But then I got here [to Syria] and realized how dangerous it was. My husband became disillusioned, too. A year ago, we found a smuggler to take us out. We wanted to start over. But then Kurdish [SDF] forces took us.

  • “Miriam” from Canada, mother of two children born in Syria, husband in SDF-controlled prison.

I came to Syria because I was having problems at work and at home. It sounds so cliché. I was 20 when I left. I got the idea while I was conversing online with sisters [ISIS members]. I married two weeks after I arrived. They gave me a paper with three men’s names, ages, and hometowns. I chose the man from my hometown. We met and we liked each other. Then he was killed by a bullet in the head. If I have to go to prison I will. I just want to come home.

  • “Hanneke” from the Netherlands, widow.
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The beginnings of a gate erected in Jadah 5 camp intended to enclose a section of the camp to prevent free movement. 

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Erbil) – A local Iraqi organization managing a camp for displaced people is making preparations to unlawfully confine families scheduled to be transferred from northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Jadah 5 camp, 65 kilometers south of Mosul, has forcibly relocated 175 families from one sector of the camp to another in order to make room for the families, mostly women and children. Iraqi authorities have previously arbitrarily detained families perceived to have possible ISIS affiliation.

“Authorities in Iraq are planning to detain returning families arbitrarily, in violation of Iraqi and international law,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Segregating families – mainly women and children – coming from Syria is a step toward stigmatizing and labeling them in the absence of any credible allegation that they have committed a crime.”

Human Rights Watch visited the Jadah 5 camp, estimated to house over 16,000 people on July 16, 2019. Four residents in the sector known as “400,” because of the number of tents, said that camp management told the 175 families there on July 10 that they had to relocate to other camp areas. The rest of the tents in the sector were empty. The families currently living in the camp are generally able to move freely within and outside the camp within its immediate vicinity.

They said the camp head told them they had to move, apparently because they planned to detain the new arrivals. “If you don’t move you will regret it,” two of the residents quoted one camp management official as saying. “It will become like prison and you will need permission to come in and out, you won’t be able to move freely.” He said the families would be brought from al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, which holds Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign families who lived under ISIS in Syria.

Another camp management official told the group that the arriving families “have the same extremist ideology… it is not in your interest to live next to them,” the residents said.

Iraqi authorities said on July 9 that al-Hol families would be relocated to the camp. But the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, told aid groups and camp management on July 10 that Jadah 5 would not house the al-Hol families, three aid workers said. They said that authorities have not indicated when these families will be transferred or how long they would be confined in camps before being allowed to move freely.

By the evening of July 11, the families from “400” had all relocated within the camp, with the exception of four or five families who left the camp, residents told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch visited the section on July 16 and found it empty, with the beginnings of a fence being erected around it. Two other residents said camp management also told families in sector “500,” which holds about 240 families, that they would need to relocate. But the families interviewed refused and threatened to protest and had not been forced to move at the time of the visit, possibly because aid agencies intervened. Both “400” and “500” areas are isolated outcrops of the camp.

Al-Hol camp holds 30,000 Iraqis in northeast Syria, the vast majority of them female-headed households, often including many children. Some fled ISIS when it controlled parts of Iraq, and others lived under ISIS control in Syria until the battle to retake Baghouz, ISIS’s final pocket in Syria in early 2019. Few, if any, have been charged with any crime. Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine the extent to which the families in al-Hol, who aid workers say have signed up to voluntarily return, have done so with informed consent, given that that Iraqi authorities seemingly plan to arbitrarily detain them in camps.

A United Nations plan from early 2019 for the return of Iraqi families from al-Hol, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, calls on Iraqi authorities to ensure that the families are not sequestered into one specific camp but are instead mixed with existing camp populations. It said this would ensure that the families would not be further stigmatized and marginalized. The plan said that international assistance to these families would depend on compliance with these conditions.

International human rights law prohibits arbitrary detention. Any deprivation of liberty must be according to law that is “accessible, understandable, non-retroactive and applied in a consistent and predictable way” and allows people to seek judicial review of their detention. Any detention that lacks such legal basis is both unlawful and arbitrary.

International human rights law and humanitarian law allow punishment only for people found responsible for crimes after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and amounts to a war crime. Under international human rights law and the laws of armed conflict, children may be detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. If children are detained, detaining authorities must fulfill their rights, including to appropriate food and medical care, education and physical exercise, legal assistance, privacy, complaints mechanisms, and contact with their families.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement stipulate that if displacement occurs in situations other than during the emergency stages of a conflict, “Adequate measures shall be taken to guarantee to those to be displaced full information on the reasons and procedures for their displacement and, where applicable, on compensation and relocation… The free and informed consent of those to be displaced shall be sought… The authorities concerned shall endeavour to involve those affected, particularly women, in the planning and management of their relocation… The right to an effective remedy, including the review of such decisions by appropriate judicial authorities, shall be respected.”

In light of recent developments, authorities should suspend all transfers until they are able to ensure that they are voluntary and that Iraqis have adequate information about what awaits them upon their return, Human Rights Watch said. Once people are in Iraq, if they are not wanted for a crime, authorities should ensure that their rights to free movement are respected, including either to return home or to relocate where they choose, as security allows. Iraqi authorities should ensure that they do not confine people not charged with any crime in camps.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A motorboat passes by the MI6 building in London August 25, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters
The British government is expected to announce this week whether an independent inquiry will resume into the UK’s involvement in overseas torture and transfers (known as “renditions”) in US-led counterterrorism operations after the 9/11 attacks. If it does, it may help bring justice for victims who suffered terrible abuses in which UK officials were complicit.

The original UK government inquiry, set up in 2010, was tasked with investigating alleged UK complicity in the kidnapping and unlawful rendition of terrorism suspects and their detention and torture outside the country. But the inquiry was shelved in 2012, following criticism about its weak powers and lack of independence.

In 2013, the government handed responsibility for the matter to a parliamentary committee with limited powers.

And although the UK police opened a separate criminal investigation in 2012 into the role senior British officials played in assisting torture, the Crown Prosecution Service announced in 2016 it would not prosecute anyone. This despite strong evidence showing UK officials’ involvement in several egregious cases of rendition to torture in Libya.

The UK government has since publicly apologized to several of the Libyan victims for its role in their brutal treatment, and reached out-of-court compensation settlements with British nationals detained by the US at Guantanamo Bay and another family renditioned to Libya. Intelligence guidelines have been revised. And the parliamentary committee’s deeply damning findings have been made public.

But no one has yet been held to account for their role in abuses. And disturbing new allegations keep trickling out.

The Crown Prosecution Service seems to have set the bar for complicity in torture so high that it may be nearly impossible to prosecute anyone in the UK for assisting torture overseas. In explaining why it would not prosecute anyone for rendition to torture in Libya, the prosecutors’ office suggested it would have needed evidence that the “conduct” of UK nationals had “influenced” the Libyan decisionmakers.

The Director of Public Prosecutions should publish clear guidance on the evidence needed to prosecute someone for complicity in torture abroad, and this guidance should be applied objectively to those implicated in breaking the law.

Years after Human Rights Watch found clear evidence of UK complicity in torture in Libya and Pakistan, the UK government should finally help victims obtain justice.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The school at Hammam al-Alil 1 camp for displaced people south of Mosul that security forces occupied on July 6, 7, and 9 in order to conduct security screenings of camp residents. 

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Erbil) – Iraqi military have accompanied police in entering a camp for displaced people south of Mosul and started “screening” over 3,500 households there, Human Rights Watch said today. The screenings appear to include questioning camp residents about the actions and whereabouts of their relatives who are suspected of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation.

The arrival of the armed men, who occupied a school in the camp, is causing panic among camp residents, who have told Human Rights Watch that they fear arrest over the acts of their relatives, and in some cases sexual exploitation. Iraqi authorities have said they plan to conduct similar screenings at other camps for displaced people in the governorate.

“While Iraqi police forces should be taking reasonable actions to improve security for everyone, the military should not be occupying schools or even entering camps for the displaced,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should become a criminal suspect just because of their relatives.”

Nine residents of Hammam al-Alil 1 camp, 30 kilometers south of Mosul, told Human Rights Watch that on July 6, agents arrived from Military Intelligence, the National Security Service (NSS), the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) forces under the Ministry of Interior, and local police.

The camp houses over 3,500 families who have been displaced for years, since fighting between ISIS and Iraqi forces broke out in the area. The families in the camp were screened when they arrived.

After some discussion, the residents said the security agents decided to conduct the screenings from the school inside the camp, which is closed for summer recess. Given the involvement of military forces, this violates international humanitarian principles and is contrary to the Safe Schools Declaration, a commitment Iraq endorsed to protect education in conflict by refraining from the use of schools by military forces. Human Rights Watch has found that the presence of fighting forces in schools endangers students and teachers, can lead to the damage and destruction of education infrastructure, and can interfere with students’ right to education.

Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there is already a screening site next to the camp. Aid workers at the camp said they protested the use of the school, but that security forces ignored their concerns and began using the school to screen residents on July 9, calling on families to start coming in in groups of 25.

After the first day of screening, security forces halted the process because of the objections from the aid groups, three aid workers said. As of July 17, Human Rights Watch was informed that authorities in Baghdad had decided that the screenings would relocate to the nearby screening site in coming days. 

Three witnesses also said the security forces were carrying arms when they arrived and during the screening, including at the doorway into the school caravan. An army colonel who manages security at the screening site adjacent to the camp told Human Rights Watch that they needed to be armed because his forces do not have a presence inside the camp, and because of fears that camp residents are potentially armed, smuggle drugs and alcohol into the camp, and are engaged in criminal activity like prostitution.

Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a decree in 2017 reiterating orders that security forces are not allowed to enter camps with weapons.

Three aid workers said the authorities told camp management they intended to conduct screenings to gather the details about the families inside the camp including their governorate of origin and to identify which families were ISIS-affiliated. The aid workers said the managers implied that families might be hiding ISIS relatives, saying they had been informed that some women in the camp with supposedly missing husbands had become pregnant in recent months, and they said they wanted to issue civil documentation to those without it.

The witnesses said they saw security forces give a group of informal community leaders in the camp forms and told the leaders that they had to give one form to each family and would risk legal action if they missed anyone. Human Rights Watch has obtained copies.

The forms tell each family to list all family members, with names, birthdates, gender, and marital status, the family’s home address, type of vehicle, and date of displacement. The forms tell families to list every family member who joined ISIS and to provide details on when they died, disappeared, or were arrested. The forms provided do not say why this information is being gathered, or by which authority.

The military colonel who manages security at the screening site outside the camp also told Human Rights Watch on July 11 that the authorities wanted to ensure that all families in the camp missing civil documentation could obtain it. However, two families who underwent the screenings on July 9 said that they told security forces they had children without civil documentation and the security forces did nothing to register the children or facilitate their access to documentation.

One woman said that she told security forces that her husband, who had joined ISIS, died in September 2017. She said: “They asked me if I was sure he was dead, and I said yes. Then they threatened – we will check that and if it turns out that you lied, we will take legal action against you.”

Another resident said: “The screenings triggered a panic in the camp, with families fearing arrest just because they have a relative who joined ISIS.” He said he knew of families who fled the camp upon hearing about the screenings, even though their home had been destroyed during military operations and they had nowhere to go.

Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances in the context of screenings linked to counterterrorism operations over the last three years in Iraq, including of family members of people perceived to have been affiliated with ISIS.

“Women near my tent were saying to me they were scared of what might happen to them going into that school alone to be screened by a group of male security forces,” the second resident said.

Four camp residents said they personally knew of cases of security forces engaging in sexual exploitation in the camp in the past. Two women described security forces entering the camp and coercing women they knew into sex, including for pay, particularly women who no longer had male adult relatives with them. One camp resident said she knew of two women in the camp who had become pregnant within the last six months as a result of coerced sex by security forces in incidents not linked to the screenings.

Two senior aid workers said the authorities have said they are planning to conduct these screenings at all camps for displaced people in Nineveh. They said they fear the security forces will again violate principles around the civilian nature of the camp by entering the camp armed and by taking over and using civilian infrastructure.

Iraqi forces should carry out Iraq’s commitments under the Safe Schools Declaration and refrain from using schools for military purposes. No military forces should enter displacement camps with their arms.

Individuals should only be detained according to the law, when there is evidence of their having committed criminal offenses themselves, and not because of the actions of their relatives.

“Security forces should ensure that they conduct their operations in line with Iraqi and international principles, and in a way that is humane and dignified for the families who participate in it,” Fakih said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A checkpoint in the Syrian city of Daraa.

© 2018 Friedemann Kohler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Beirut) – The Syrian government is punishing entire families of people placed arbitrarily on a list of alleged terrorists by freezing their assets, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should end collective punishment of families, provide evidence of unlawful activity of the people targeted, and allow them to appeal their listing or unfreeze their assets.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented that Syrian authorities have used overbroad language in the counterterrorism law to criminalize providing humanitarian aid, recording human rights abuses, and engaging in peaceful dissent. Decree 63 empowers the Finance Ministry to provide permission to freeze the assets of people pending investigation of their crimes as suspected terrorists under Syria’s Counterterrorism Law of 2012, even where they have not been charged with any crime. Beyond the substantive and due process flaws within the law and the law governing the Counterterrorism Court (Law No. 22), new research by Human Rights Watch shows that the way the ministry is carrying out the provisions, including targeting families of people listed, constitutes collective punishment and violates their property rights.

“The expansive reach of Decree 63 shows how threatened the Syrian government feels by the mere expression of humanitarian activism and dissent,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria should stop using the counterterrorism law in arbitrary ways that amount to collective punishment.”

The decree also contradicts the government’s stated intent of encouraging Syrians who fled the eight-year civil war to return to Syria. By widening the scope of the decree to arbitrarily punish families of people who may be charged or prosecuted, the government is signaling to the families that they too are at risk.

Human Rights Watch spoke to four people who have been affected, the relative of another, and a former land registration employee. These cases involved former residents of Eastern Ghouta, Aleppo, and the Damascus countryside, areas that government forces had retaken from anti-government groups between 2014 and 2019. Human Rights Watch also examined documents circulating online with lists of names of hundreds of people whose assets were frozen under the counterterrorism law.

The lists include date of birth, age, and mother’s name of individuals from areas previously held by anti-government forces whose assets had been seized or frozen. The lists also name immediate families, including wives and children, and in several cases, parents. The land registration employee confirmed the authenticity of the documents, but Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify the lists. The lists were dated from 2016 to 2018.

The people interviewed indicated they had not been notified they were included. They said they only became aware their assets had been frozen or seized when they attempted to access, register, or conduct a transaction involving their property, or when they saw their names on these lists circulated on media outlets affiliated with opposition forces.

“I was not informed of this decision,” one person said. “I found my name on one of the lists circulated by Zaman al-Wsl [one of the media outlets]. My name, and my father’s. We lost a house, a car, and a factory.”

The lists also had far-reaching impact on relatives not named. One person said he was not surprised to see his name on a list, but that the asset freeze had negative implications for family members still in government-held areas who relied on a family-owned pharmacy for income. He too found out through Zaman al-Wsl, as did his brother, who remained in the government-controlled area and was not able to access or transfer the property to himself.

“When [my brother] went to the pharmacy, he found that it had been waxed shut, and the keys were with the [local] National Security branch,” the person interviewed said. “When he went and asked for the key, they told him I was a traitor and a terrorist. He replied that he is not in touch with me, and that this is an important source of income for the family. They hit him and sent him away.”

All but one person interviewed said they were aid workers or had participated in protests but had never taken up arms. The relative of one woman whose assets had been frozen said that the woman was not politically active. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify these claims.

With the exception of the one man whose brother reached out to the security services to attempt to retrieve property, the other people said they had not approached the authorities. They were either afraid of putting family members at risk or did not know whom to approach to resolve the confiscation issues.

By penalizing people solely on the basis of their family relationship with an accused person, and not on the basis of their individual criminal responsibility, the Finance Ministry’s implementation of Decree 63 constitutes collective punishment, which is prohibited under international humanitarian and human rights law in all circumstances. The prohibition on collective punishments applies to criminal sanctions for actions for which the people concerned do not bear individual criminal responsibility, but also to “all sanctions and harassment of any sort, administrative, by police action or otherwise.”

The decree also violates due process guarantees in that the law provides no appeal and no official notification for those on the list. By allowing the government to seize individuals’ property without due process or notice, the decree also violates property rights which are protected under Article 15 of the Syrian constitution and international law.

Syria’s counterterrorism law defines terrorism as “every act that aims at creating a state of panic among the people, destabilizing public security and damaging the basic infrastructure of the country by using weapons, ammunition, explosives, flammable materials, toxic products, epidemiological or bacteriological factors or any method fulfilling the same purposes.” Human Rights Watch has documented that the phrase “any method” allows the government to label almost any act as a terrorist offense, and jail people providing humanitarian aid or participating in non-violent protests.

The law itself does not clearly outline the procedures governing terrorism prosecutions, but Law 22 of 2012, which created the Counterterrorism Court empowered to look into crimes under the Counterterrorism law, does contain procedural references. These few references to procedural standards underscore a number of fair trial concerns, including inadequate oversight and appellate procedures.

The Syrian government should provide specific reasons for including people on its list of alleged terrorists or remove them from the list and unfreeze their assets. It should also allow affected people to appeal the listing. The government should amend the counterterrorism law, and the laws and decrees subsequent to it, to remove any overbroad definitions of terrorism and incorporate due process and fair trial guarantees, including an open trial with a right to legal counsel and a full right to appeal.

“As with other legal instruments, Syria is using Decree 63 to authorize abusive and arbitrary practices that rob people of their very livelihoods,” Fakih said. “So long as its laws and practices violate people’s rights, Syria will not be safe or stable.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Berlin, July 12, 2019) – Russian authorities have brought unfounded terrorism charges against 24 Crimean Tatars, 20 of whom were arrested during heavily armed raids on their homes in the spring of this year, Human Rights Watch said today. Security officers tortured four of the men, denied lawyers access to search sites, planted evidence, and later briefly detained two activists who spoke out on behalf of the arrested men.

Crimean Tatars are a Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to the Crimean Peninsula. Many openly oppose Russia’s occupation, which began in 2014.The crackdown in the spring of 2019 is the latest in a pattern of repression to smear peaceful activists as terrorists and to stifle dissent in occupied Crimea. Russian authorities should release the activists and stop misusing the country’s overly broad counterterrorism legislation to stifle freedom of opinion, expression, and religion.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am