“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

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

Rusafa Central Criminal Court in Baghdad.

© 2018 Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo
The Australian government is taking an important step by helping eight Australian children of suspects of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) return home from northeast Syria. The children were held for months without charge under horrific conditions in Syria’s al-Hol Camp. The youngest is two years old.

To ensure their release, the government sent diplomats into northeast Syria. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that, “children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents.” He’s right, and it’s time other governments put forward similar efforts to ensure protection for these children.

But questions remain about what to do with Australian adults in northeast Syria suspected of ISIS crimes. Some countries have reportedly been negotiating the transfer of their nationals to Iraq for prosecution, but Australia should resist this option. At least 11 French nationals have been transferred to Iraq and sentenced to death.

Human Rights Watch has monitored Iraqi trials of ISIS suspects and has serious concerns about due process, allegations of torture, use of the death penalty, and access to justice. Some trials of ISIS suspects in Baghdad have lasted just five minutes, often relying on coerced confessions, with no effective legal representation.

In November 2018, an Iraqi court convicted an Australian citizen, Ahmed Merhi, of ISIS membership and sentenced him to death. According to media reports, he told the court his confession was coerced and he was tortured by Iraqi officials, but the judge said a medical examination found no physical torture marks on his body. Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi interrogators using a range of torture techniques, including beating suspects on the soles of their feet (falaka) and waterboarding, that would not leave lasting marks on the body. Two French citizens also tried in Iraq for affiliation with ISIS said they were tortured or coerced to confess.

The Australian government has strongly advocated for abolition of the death penalty, a position that should be applied in all cases, including terrorism offenses. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

Australia should not outsource management of its terrorism suspects to abusive justice systems, especially when the end result could be death. The government should fully investigate and fairly prosecute these individuals at home in trials that meet international standards. And it should also solicit victims’ participation in trials, which Iraq has not done, even as witnesses.

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

A woman walks with a child in Roj camp, which holds foreign wives and children of Islamic State (ISIS) members, in northeast Syria, September 2018.

© 2018 Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Western European intransigence on ensuring that citizens detained abroad as ISIL suspects or their family members can return home made world headlines recently when an Iraqi court sentenced nine French citizens to death following trials tainted by allegations of torture.

Countries including France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands insist that logistical challenges and security risks make it practically impossible for them to help their citizens accused of membership in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIL). But others, like Kosovo, Turkey, Russia, and especially Central Asian countries are showing that where there is a will to bring citizens home, there is a way.

Three Central Asian states - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan - have repatriated 756 nationals so far, most of them women and children. Kyrgyzstan is discussing possible repatriations as well.

In stark contrast, repatriations by Western European countries have been piecemeal, despite far greater resources and, in many cases, fewer numbers of ISIL-linked detainees. Their focus, such as it is, has been on children.

Norway, for example, in early June repatriated five orphans from northeast Syria but left 35 other children behind. France since March has flown home 17 children from northeast Syria and one from Iraq, most of them orphans. But the government says more than 400 other French citizens remain detained in northeast Syria, at least half of them children, and there is little sign of any French movement on their returns. Sweden and the Netherlands have brought home seven and two children respectively from Syria; Germany has flown home fewer than 10 from Iraq.

To be sure, repatriation is a complex process. In Iraq, the authorities are prosecuting hundreds of foreign ISIL suspects, including some women and children, in deeply flawed trials but want to send home children detained without charge. In northeast Syria, the Kurdish-led authorities, who do not have an internationally recognised government, are not prosecuting any of the 13,000 non-Iraqi foreigners - 2,000 men and 11,000 women and children - they say they are holding and want their home countries to take all of them back.

Many detainees, particularly children, lack birth certificates or other documents to confirm their nationalities. And many detained children were born to parents from two different countries, raising the issue of which nationality they could, and should, legally claim.

The most difficult obstacle to repatriation may be public opinion. Fearful of being blamed for an attack by a repatriated ISIL member, spouse, or child, government officials often prefer to let nationals remain detained in squalid conditions abroad and even, in some cases, revoke their citizenship. Western European governments say the onus is on their citizens to reach a consulate and request repatriation, but detainees cannot leave the camps and prisons they are locked in to do so.

Central Asia instead has cast airlifts as humanitarian rescues, with some of them releasing footage of cherub-faced children and of women, their black veils replaced by colorful kerchiefs, kissing the tarmac upon arriving home.

Central Asian governments should follow such messaging with greater transparency on what happens to repatriated citizens upon return, allowing independent oversight and monitoring of rehabilitation programs to ensure they comport with international human rights standards. They should take the same approach to any prosecutions of returnees, given the region's history of unfair trials and torture.

In May, the United Nations independent expert on human rights and counterterrorism, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, expressed concern that Kazakhstan's anti-terrorism legislation may conflate violent extremism with non-violent religious views and infringe on freedom of expression, assembly and belief. Yet she also found much to praise in the country's repatriation and rehabilitation efforts, noting that it was doing far more than Europe.

All countries, including Western European ones, with citizens held in Iraq and northeast Syria need to address two basic issues: the right of everyone to return to their home country, without their home state throwing up direct or indirect barriers; and the duty to ensure justice for the worst crimes committed in Syria and Iraq through fair trials for those most responsible.

The conditions in camps and detention centres in northeast Syria and Iraq are dire, with children reportedly dying from preventable diseases in al-Hol. The camps are also ideal incubators for violent extremism. That makes it all the more urgent that Western Europe stops dragging its feet and ensures that its citizens are repatriated.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Erbil, June 14, 2019) – An estimated 1.8 million people remain displaced by the conflict between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) two years after the heaviest fighting ended. A new Human Rights Watch web feature highlights the experiences of families who are struggling to find a safe home in post-ISIS Iraq.
“Iraqi authorities have put in place a system that has allowed communities, security forces, and government agencies to collectively punish families whose relatives were allegedly linked to ISIS,” said Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This system has put these families in a purgatory that prevents them from returning home, imprisons them in camps, and forces them to endure dire conditions that portend bleak futures for their children.”


Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
(Tunis) – Mauritanian authorities should issue a passport without delay to a former Guantanamo Bay detainee or explain the legal grounds for denying his right to travel, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Mohamedou Ould Slahi

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
The United States released Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of a renowned prison memoir, after he was detained for more than 14 years in Jordan, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, and returned him to his native Mauritania. The authorities now appear to be arbitrarily restricting his rights.
“It is not enough that the United States held Mohamedou Ould Slahi without charges for 14 years,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Now his own government is depriving him of his rights without filing a single charge against him.”
Ould Slahi told Human Rights Watch that he suffers from back pain and pain resulting from an operation at Guantanamo to remove his gall bladder. Without a passport, Ould Slahi, who holds no other nationality, cannot travel abroad for medical treatment that he says is unavailable in Mauritania.
In 2001, Ould Slahi surrendered to Mauritanian authorities for questioning about terrorism-related matters. They handed him to what appeared to be Jordanian intelligence forces, who held him in a Jordanian prison, then transferred him to US custody at Baghram Air Base in Afghanistan. In August 2002, US authorities transferred him to Guantanamo Bay.
In 2015, while still detained, he published Guantanamo Diary, which US authorities permitted after redacting numerous passages. The book describes physical and psychological abuse, primarily by US authorities, that Ould Slahi says he suffered, and has been translated into many languages and published in over 25 countries. In 2017, following his release, Slahi published a new edition, with the redacted passages reinstated.
In July 2016, a US review board approved Ould Slahi for release, and flew him to Mauritania that October. By then he no longer possessed a passport or Mauritanian ID documents. When he arrived, Mauritanian security officers told him that based on a US request, he would not be issued a passport for two years, he told Human Rights Watch.
A New Yorker article of April 15, 2019 cites an unnamed US diplomat as saying that Mauritania had agreed with the US not give Ould Slahi a passport until after an undisclosed amount of time had passed since his return from Guantanamo Bay.
Several weeks after his return, Ould Slahi applied for a new national ID and card, the first step toward obtaining other key documents relating to civil status, including a passport. He did not receive a national ID card until July 2017, he said.
Ould Slahi formally applied for a passport in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, on January 2, 2019. Ould Slahi and his lawyer, Brahim Ebety, said that he has received neither a passport nor any response to his application.
On February 25, Ebety submitted a petition to the Interior Ministry, saying that Ould Slahi has a legal right to a passport and asking the ministry to instruct civil registration authorities to issue him one. The ministry has not responded, Ebety said.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Mauritanian authorities on May 13 to ask them to explain Ould Slahi’s civil status and the basis for having declined to act on his request for a passport. At the time of publication, we had not received a response.
Article 10 of Mauritania’s constitution guarantees the right of citizens to enter and leave the country freely. Article 12 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantee the same right, subject to restrictions as provided by law. Mauritania is party to both treaties.
Ould Slahi was born in Rosso, in southern Mauritania, and grew up in Nouakchott. After high school, he won a scholarship to study engineering in Germany, and lived in Germany, Canada, and Mauritania before his detention in 2001. In the early 1990s, he joined Afghan Mujahideen forces to support their fight against Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government. At that time, he swore allegiance to Al-Qaida, but has said that in 1992 – the year of his last visit to the country – he cut all ties with the organization. Ould Slahi is married and the father of a young son.
“The human right to travel is fundamental,” Fakih said. “If the government has a legitimate basis to deny one of its citizens a passport, it needs to provide, in writing, a compelling reason, and allow that citizen to challenge the refusal.”
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Burkina Faso is in the grips of a dangerous threat from armed Islamist fighters who are murdering civilians and threatening to destabilize other West African countries. But the government’s abusive counterinsurgency strategy, notably the summary execution of suspects, risks inflaming the conflict by driving more people into the hands of Islamist militant recruiters.

Since 2017, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial execution by the security forces of more than 150 men accused of supporting or harboring terrorists. I cannot confirm whether any of the executed men supported armed Islamists. But all of the victims were last seen in the custody of government security forces and found hours later shot in the head or chest.

Nearly all the victims were ethnic Fulani, or Peuhl in French, whose grievances have been exploited by the Islamists to garner recruits. “We are hostage to both sides,” a Peuhl elder told me. “By day we fear the army, and by night the jihadists.”

One Sunday morning in May, armed Islamist fighters rode into the Burkina Faso town of Dablo and headed straight for the Catholic church. “We were singing, when they burst in,” a member of the congregation told me. “They gunned down the priest, then ordered five men, including a choir member, to lie down, then executed them in front of their families. Before leaving, they told our women to start wearing the veil.”

The attack on the church was the latest by the armed Islamists since the emergence in 2016 of a homegrown group, Ansaroul Islam. Since then, this group and others linked to both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have murdered teachers and mayors; gunned down people in cafes in the capital, Ouagadougou; kidnapped foreigners; pillaged livestock; and forbidden villagers from farming or celebrating marriages.

The increased pace and breadth of the attacks has displaced more than 130,000 people, prompted the government to declare a state of emergency and stoked fears that the violence could spread beyond Burkina’s border.

The kidnapping, in May, of two French tourists and their guide in a game reserve in northern Benin, and reports of emergent armed Islamist cells in other West Africa countries previously untouched by this violence, should be a wake-up call to the international community.

But in response to a legitimate threat, the government has adopted a hard-line approach in which scores of suspects have been unlawfully executed. This approach has alienated the nomadic Fulani, members of the ethnic group most affected by this approach, and whose members reside in several of the countries at risk.

Dozens of witnesses to more than 20 raids by government forces in northern Burkina Faso provided me with lists of the victims and drew maps indicating where the bodies were found.

“The soldiers surrounded the market and detained 17 men,” said one witness to an operation on May 10 in the northern town of Titao. “Before taking the men away, a soldier said, ‘you will not live to see another market day.’” Another witness described finding the men two days later some 25 kilometers away, some of whom had been shot in the head.

Three witnesses described how nine suspects were found dead after being detained in a similar operation in Belharo village in February. A witness showed me photographs of the victim’s burial and said, “We found Hamadoun, 72 years old, with both knees and his forehead on the ground, like he’d asked to pray before being shot.”

A Burkinabe human rights organization documented an additional 60 executions of suspects they say took place during a major operation in February, near the town of Kain.

Fulani villagers complained bitterly to me of being caught between the armed Islamist groups and government forces. The Islamists try to recruit them and threaten to execute those collaborating with the government, and the security forces pressure them for intelligence about the presence of armed groups and mete out collective punishment if they do not provide it.

In a recent interview, Defense Minister Moumina Cheriff Sy, appointed in January, identified as a top priority the reassurance of the population that “there is a government and an army that is there to protect them.”

And yet, villagers with a front-row seat to his army’s operations don’t see it that way. “People are fleeing the army in great numbers; for them, their army is synonymous with fear, not security,” a community elder told me.

Burkina Faso civilians and security force members have paid a heavy price since 2016, but killing suspects in the name of security is only fueling its terrorism problem. The government is bound by domestic and international laws to guarantee suspects a fair trial and prevent unlawful killings by security forces. Moreover, the atrocities by the army appear to be alienating the population they are mandated to protect and shoring up the ranks of these abusive groups.

Burkina Faso’s international partners should raise their voices, insist that the authorities rein in abusive units committing atrocities and lend crucial support to the chronically neglected judiciary and military justice systems.

Burkina Faso is facing a very real threat, but it has to get its counterterrorism strategy right. That means anchoring it in respect for human rights.

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

Egypt: War Crimes in North Sinai

 Human Rights Watch’s two-year investigation documented crimes including mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, and possibly unlawful air and ground attacks against civilians.

(Beirut) – Egyptian military and police forces in the Sinai Peninsula are committing serious and widespread abuses against civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Some of these abuses, part of an ongoing campaign against members of the local ISIS affiliate, the Sinai Province group, amount to war crimes.

The 134-page report, “‘If You Are Afraid for Your Lives, Leave Sinai!’: Egyptian Security Forces and ISIS-Affiliate Abuses in North Sinai,” provides a detailed look into an underreported conflict that has killed and wounded thousands of people – including civilians, militants, and members of the security forces – since fighting escalated in 2013. Human Rights Watch’s two-year investigation documented crimes including mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, and possibly unlawful air and ground attacks against civilians. While Egyptian military and police forces were responsible for the majority of abuses documented in the report, extremist militants have also committed horrific crimes, including kidnapping and torturing scores of residents, killing some, and extrajudicially executing detained security force members.

“Instead of protecting Sinai residents in their fight against militants, the Egyptian security forces have shown utter contempt to residents’ lives, turning their daily life into a nonstop nightmare of abuses,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This horrific treatment of Sinai residents should be another wake-up call to countries like the US and France that heedlessly endorse Egypt’s counterterrorism efforts.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 54 North Sinai residents between 2016 and 2018 for the report, as well as activists, journalists, and other witnesses, including two former army officers, a soldier, a former official who worked in North Sinai, and a former United States national security official who worked on Egypt issues. Human Rights Watch also reviewed scores of official statements, social media posts, media reports, and dozens of satellite images to identify home demolitions and secret military detention facilities. The military has effectively banned independent reporting from North Sinai and has prosecuted and imprisoned several journalists who covered events there.

Human Rights Watch found that hostilities in North Sinai, with sustained fighting between organized forces, have risen to the level of a non-international armed conflict, and that warring sides have violated international laws of war as well as local and international human rights laws.

The targeting and abuse of civilians, as well as the failure to distinguish civilians from combatants by both sides, has obliterated civilians’ basic rights and destroyed meaningful space for peaceful political mobilization or opposition. The abuses have also contributed to the escalating militarization of the conflict and the displacement of residents.

“Why all of this? Should we carry weapons and work with the militants or work with the army or live like victims? Everyone is preying on us,” a resident told Human Rights Watch, describing how the army punished him and destroyed his house after ISIS (also known as Islamic State) militants kidnapped and tortured him.

From January 2014 until June 2018, 3,076 alleged militants and 1,226 military and police personnel were killed in the fighting, according to government statements and media reports. Egyptian authorities have not released civilian casualty figures or publicly acknowledged wrongdoing. Human Rights Watch found that Egyptian authorities frequently counted civilians among the alleged militants killed and that hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured.

Based on military statements and Egyptian media reports, Human Rights Watch concluded that military and police forces in North Sinai arrested more than 12,000 residents from July 2013 until December 2018. The military and the police have officially acknowledged over 7,300 arrests, but rarely released names or charges. Human Rights Watch found that many of those people were arbitrarily arrested and forcibly disappeared, and that some were extrajudicially killed. Thousands of people have probably left the governorate in recent years, either to escape the conflict or after being forcibly evicted by the military.

North Sinai is a sparsely populated governorate with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip. Armed groups have long existed in North Sinai, but attacks against government installations, military forces, and Israeli troops began to rise after the 2011 uprising that led to the resignation of the longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

Violence escalated dramatically after July 2013, when the Egyptian military forced former President Mohamed Morsy out of office and arrested him. A local militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, pledged allegiance to ISIS in late 2014, changing its name to Wilayat Sina’ (Sinai Province). In response, the army has deployed over 40,000 troops, including naval, air, and infantry units. Egypt has coordinated these deployments with Israel and has apparently allowed Israel to conduct airstrikes inside Sinai on militants’ targets, media reports said.

In this report, Human Rights Watch documented at least 50 arbitrary arrests, including 39 people who were probably forcibly disappeared by the military or police. Fourteen of them remain disappeared more than three years later.

The army held detainees in isolation and in abysmal conditions, far removed from any judicial oversight. The military and police have detained children as young as 12 alongside adults but have usually detained women separately. At any given time in the past several years, Human Rights Watch found, the army may have been holding up to 1,000 detainees in secret in al-Galaa Military Base, one of three main military detention sites detailed in the report.


Map of North Sinai showing the three main Sinai detention centers: Al-Azoly military prison (inside Al-Galaa Military Base at Ismailia on the Suez Canal), Battalion 101 in al Arish, and al-Zohor camp in Sheikh Zuwayed. May copyright HRW 2019, road data OSM 2019. 

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Former detainees said conditions in military and police detention included lack of adequate food, water, and medical care, and small, overcrowded cells. Soldiers and officers tortured many detainees, including with beatings and electric shocks. Human Rights Watch documented three deaths in custody.

The military and police killed some of those secretly detained in the desert without trials, later claiming they had been killed in shootouts. Human Rights Watch documented 14 such cases and previously documented six others.

The Egyptian army has recruited North Sinai residents into militias that have played a substantial role in abuses, Human Rights Watch found. These unofficial irregular militias have helped the military – which lacked significant experience in North Sinai prior to the conflict – by providing intelligence and carrying out missions on the military’s behalf. Militia members use their de-facto powers to arbitrarily arrest residents and settle scores and personal disputes. They have also participated in torture and extrajudicial killings.

Sinai Province, the local ISIS affiliate, has taken root in a small northeastern corner of North Sinai on the Gaza-Israeli border and maintains a presence there, even after six years of sustained fighting. Its militants have committed horrific crimes, interviewees said, including kidnapping scores of residents and members of the military or police and extrajudicially killing some of them.

Sinai Province’s indiscriminate attacks, such as using improvised explosive devices in populated areas, have killed hundreds of civilians and led to the forced displacement of residents. The group has also deliberately attacked civilians. Sinai Province members were probably responsible for a November 2017 attack on the al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai that killed at least 311 people, including children, the deadliest known attack by a non-state armed group in Egypt’s modern history. In parts of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, two towns in North Sinai, the group established its own Sharia (Islamic law) courts that oversaw unfair “trials,” set up checkpoints, and enforced certain Islamic rules.

The United Nations Human Rights Council and the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights should open independent commissions of inquiry into the abuses in Sinai, given the failure of Egyptian authorities to do so. Egypt’s international partners should immediately halt all security and military assistance until Egypt ends its abuses. War crimes, under international law, can be prosecuted without any time limit, and many states, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, allow individuals to be arrested and prosecuted in their countries for war crimes committed anywhere in the world.

“North Sinai’s ISIS affiliate deserves the global condemnation it has received and full accountability for its heinous abuses, but the army’s campaign, marred with equally serious violations, including war crimes, should also be roundly criticized rather than praised,” Page said. “Egypt’s closest allies should halt their support for an abusive military campaign that has left thousands of civilian victims in its wake.”   

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut, May 28, 2019) – Egyptian military and police forces in the Sinai Peninsula are committing serious and widespread abuses against civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Some of these abuses, part of an ongoing campaign against members of the local ISIS affiliate, the Sinai Province group, amount to war crimes.

The 134-page report, “‘If You Are Afraid for Your Lives, Leave Sinai!’: Egyptian Security Forces and ISIS-Affiliate Abuses in North Sinai,” provides a detailed look into an underreported conflict that has killed and wounded thousands of people – including civilians, militants, and members of the security forces – since fighting escalated in 2013. Human Rights Watch’s two-year investigation documented crimes including mass arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, and possibly unlawful air and ground attacks against civilians. While Egyptian military and police forces were responsible for the majority of abuses documented in the report, extremist militants have also committed horrific crimes, including kidnapping and torturing scores of residents, killing some, and extrajudicially executing detained security force members.

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

A checkpoint in the Syrian city of Daraa.

© 2018 Friedemann Kohler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
(Beirut) – Syrian intelligence branches are arbitrarily detaining, disappearing, and harassing people in areas retaken from anti-government groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuse is taking place even when the government has entered into reconciliation agreements with the people involved.

Human Rights Watch has documented 11 cases of arbitrary detention and disappearance in Daraa, Eastern Ghouta, and southern Damascus. The government retook these areas from anti-government groups between February and August 2018. In all cases, the people targeted – former armed and political opposition leaders, media activists, aid workers, defectors, and family members of activists and former anti-government fighters – had signed reconciliation agreements with the government. Local organizations, including Syrians for Truth and Justice and the Office of Daraa Martyrs, have documented at least 500 arrests in these areas since August.

“Active combat has ended in much of Syria, but nothing has changed in the way intelligence branches trample rights of perceived opponents of Assad’s rule,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lack of due process, arbitrary arrests, and harassment, even in so-called reconciled areas, speak louder than empty government promises of return, reform, and reconciliation.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 former residents of Daraa and Quneitra governorates, Eastern Ghouta, and towns in southern Damascus. They said that Syrian intelligence branches have detained and harassed people related to anti-government activists or former fighters, along with defectors, members of anti-government groups, or activists. Humanitarian workers, community leaders, and media activists who remained in government-held areas were also detained and harassed. People have been arrested in their homes and offices, at checkpoints and in the streets, relatives and witnesses said.

The locations include Da’el, Ibtta’, Naua, al-Yadudeh, and Etaman in Daraa governorate; a town in Quneitra governorate whose name is withheld due to concerns about reprisals; Douma in Eastern Ghouta; and Babila in southern Damascus. Residents said, based on checkpoints and personnel conducting raids, that Da’el and Ibtta’ are under the control of Air Force Intelligence, while al-Yadudeh and Etaman are under the control of Military Intelligence.

In southern Damascus, the Military Intelligence Patrols Branch arrested people and transferred them to the Palestine Branch, also operating under Military Intelligence. Human Rights Watch could not ascertain which intelligence branch was responsible for detentions in Ghouta.

Most of those detained were apparently never charged. In three cases, intelligence branches apparently arrested people because someone filed a complaint against them. In the majority of cases, people were held incommunicado either throughout or for part of their detention and denied access to a lawyer. The authorities did not inform their families of their whereabouts or take them promptly before a judge, as far as their relatives and colleagues could tell. In one case, a detainee told friends that military intelligence beat them before taking them to military court, even though they were arrested in a civil suit.

In at least one case, authorities transferred the person to Sadnaya prison, which is known for torture and extrajudicial executions. In three cases, relatives were detained and/or harassed by intelligence branch members to gain information about their wanted family member or to force that family member to return.

Relatives and friends of detained people said they were released only after their families paid a bribe and, in some of the cases, asked high level members of the reconciliation committees or Russian military police to intervene. One person interviewed said he got a relative released after reaching out to the Russian military police. Two others said they brokered the release of relatives through the Fifth Corps, an affiliated militia. In at least two other cases, relatives said they tried to reach the Russian military police or the local reconciliation committees but failed.

Interviewees said the Russian government’s ability to help depended on the area where the person was arrested and whether the person asking was an important community leader or had connections. In two other cases, former residents said, protests in the town where the detained person lived led to their release.

The Syrian government should immediately release all arbitrarily held detainees, or if there are valid grounds for holding them, make those clear. The authorities should present detainees to a judge within 48 hours of their arrest, provide them with access to a lawyer, and inform their families of their whereabouts.

Russia should use its influence with its ally Syria to stop arbitrary detention and harassment, Human Rights Watch said. Russia should expand its ad hoc intervention to release arbitrarily held detainees and information regarding those disappeared. Russia should also support the work of impartial international organizations to gather information on the whereabouts of disappeared people, monitor detention sites, and facilitate communications with families. Russia should press the Syrian government to cooperate fully with these organizations to ensure they have full access to formal and informal detention centers.

Local reconciliation committees should continue to monitor and address arbitrary detention, harassment, and disappearance and raise individual cases with the Russian military police, the Syrian government. Impartial international organizations working on these issues should provide support to the local committees.

Despite the ongoing threats of persecution in areas held by the Syrian government, countries hosting refugees, including Lebanon, Denmark, and Germany, are under domestic political pressure to encourage returns. In some cases, countries have actively organized returns, created incentives for refugees to return, made conditions in host countries increasingly inhospitable, and even deported refugees back to Syria.

“Those who tell you there is stability or security in the south are lying,” a humanitarian worker from Daraa told Human Rights Watch. “There are still assassinations and arbitrary detentions, and the residents continue to suffer persecution.”

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called on all governments not to forcibly return anyone to Syria.

“Nowhere is the effect of an absence of protection guarantees starker than in areas re-taken by the government,” Fakih said. “The harassment and abuse by intelligence branches is a major deterrent for people considering return and has forced out people who wish to remain. If Russia is serious about encouraging refugee returns, it should pressure the government to end detention abuses and create conditions conducive to a safe and dignified return.”

Applicable International Law

Under international law, detention is arbitrary when the detaining authority violates basic rights of due process, including for a prompt hearing before a judge. Principle 11 of the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment states that a detainee must be “given an effective opportunity to be heard promptly by a judicial or other authority,” and that a judicial or other authority should be empowered to review the decision to continue detention.

Extended detention without charge or trial or without an appearance before a judge is arbitrary and violates international human rights standards. Detention is also arbitrary if it lacks a clear basis in domestic law or if the person is detained for exercising a basic right such as free assembly.

Collective punishment is also prohibited under international law. It comprises any form of punitive sanctions and harassment, including but not limited to judicial penalties, imposed on families or other targeted groups for actions that they did not personally commit. It is contrary to basic principles of international human rights and humanitarian law, which provide that no person may be punished for an offense they have not personally committed. This covers “sanctions or harassment of any sort, administrative, by police action, or otherwise.”

Under international law, governments are in principle prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when civilian courts can still function. Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees everyone the right to timely trial by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body authorized to monitor compliance with the ICCPR, has stated that civilians should be tried by military courts only under exceptional circumstances and only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process.

Under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, enforced disappearance is defined as:

The arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.

Government Takeovers in 2018

Eastern Ghouta, Daraa, and Quneitra were identified as de-escalation zones as part of the Astana process, a negotiations track guaranteed by Turkey, Russia, and Syria. However, between February and August 2018, the Syrian-Russian military alliance opened an offensive on each of these areas, and within a few months managed to regain control of them. Southern Damascus was not included in the de-escalation zones, as it was controlled by Islamic State militants, but was also subject to an offensive that ended in May.

In the follow up to each of these take-overs, residents were given the option of being evacuated to areas under the control of anti-government armed groups in northwest Syria or remaining in these areas under government control. For many, remaining under the threat of arrest and abuse by the Syrian government was not an option, and they decided to leave. Others chose to remain.

The Syrian government’s takeover of Daraa and Quneitra in Syria was faster and resulted in fewer civilian casualties and less destruction than in other areas, including Aleppo and Ghouta. In these areas, there was a proliferation of Russian-mediated reconciliation agreements, and guaranteed deals between anti-government commanders and the Syrian government. These deals allowed the majority of fighters to remain with their light arms, provided a vetting process to clear people of charges by the intelligence branches, and provided a six-month break before conscription for those still required to serve in the military. In return, people who chose to remain had to sign a document indicating they would not be involved in anti-government activities.

Former residents and experts said that the result of these deals was that Daraa and Quneitra governorates were divided up by various security forces, including the armed forces and the National Defense Forces, various intelligence branches, and a newly created Fifth Corps. The Fifth Corps consists of former members of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group for anti-government forces. Former members told Human Rights Watch that it is led by Ahmed al-Odeh, a former anti-government group, supported by Russia, and controls certain towns in Daraa governorate.

In Ghouta and south Damascus, anti-government armed groups have not maintained any power even if they signed reconciliation agreements, and intelligence branches have regained full control of the area. The offensives to re-take these areas included unlawful tactics such as indiscriminate strikes and the use of prohibited weapons.


All but 1 of the 16 Human Rights Watch interviews were conducted remotely with people who had managed to leave the areas in question after the government retook the area or with people who were in close and regular contact with their relatives in government-held areas.

Of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed, six had left the area because security forces had harassed them or because authorities issued warrants against them or arrested their relatives. In several cases, the humanitarian situation and government restrictions on their ability to move freely also contributed to their decision to leave.

Human Rights Watch only included those cases in which the person interviewed was a close relation or had witnessed or experienced the harassment. Given the restrictions on access and associated security concerns, it is likely that the total number of people arrested and harassed in these areas is much larger than the cases identified.

Arrests, Harassment of Aid Workers, Activists, Community Leaders

In 6 of the 11 cases documented, security forces harassed, arbitrarily detained, disappeared, or placed on wanted lists aid workers, activists, and community leaders, seemingly as a result of their legitimate work.

“Yaser” and “Tareq”

“Yaser” and “Tareq,” Palestinians born in Syria and who worked for a Palestinian relief organization, were arrested by the Patrols branch of Military Intelligence in Babila, a town south of Damascus, in the first week of April, 2019, three of their colleagues said. The government retook the town the first week in May 2018.

They were among 15 Palestinians taken in a wave of arrests from Babila, Qudsieh, and Yalda, all towns retaken by the government in May 2018 and whose residents were primarily Palestinian. Their colleagues said that both Yaser and Tareq had signed reconciliation agreements and neither was required for military service or had participated in any anti-government armed action.

The colleagues said the Patrols branch had summoned both men from the organization’s headquarters. It is unclear why they were detained. Their colleagues had been able to visit Yaser once while he was in Patrols branch, the day after his arrest. Since the men’s transfer to the Palestine branch of Military Intelligence, neither their colleagues nor family members had heard from them, and their whereabouts have not been revealed.

“Wael” and “Farid”

“Haitham,” a media worker with anti-government groups, said that almost immediately after the reconciliation in Daraa in August, two of his friends in Da’el were arrested: “Wael” and “Farid,” brothers who were closely affiliated with the opposition. Their sister said that Military Intelligence raided their house at 1 a.m., looting and causing damage, and roughing up the women. Their sister called Haitham right after the arrests and said the men were taken without being told why or where they were being taken.

When the sister followed up by visiting the local security branches, she was told that there was a suit filed against them, but the family was not told where they were or given access to them.

They were released in mid-November and told Haitham that they had been handed over to Air Force Intelligence in Sweida and then transferred to Damascus. They said they had been denied access to a lawyer or contact with their families. They were not promptly brought before a judge, and when they were taken to court, it was before a military tribunal despite their civilian status.

The brothers told Haitham that members of the Air Force Intelligence branch beat them fiercely but that they had not confessed to anything. Four or five months into their confinement they were taken before the military judge who ordered their release.


“Samir” worked for prominent humanitarian organizations, including the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Swiss Department for Foreign Affairs, in al-Yadudeh, in Daraa governorate. He left Daraa in January 2019 after he found out that he was wanted by the Criminal Intelligence branch for working with aid groups and receiving funding from foreign entities for his work in contravention of the Counterterrorism Law of 2012.

He said that after he signed the reconciliation agreement, both the Political Intelligence Directorate and Military Intelligence asked him about others who had signed the agreement. A few days later, a contact he had inside the Military Intelligence branch told him they would be coming for him. He immediately left. His family told him that an official summons from the authorities arrived a few days later.


“Jamil,” a media activist from Da’el and a former detainee who left Syria for Jordan in October 2017, told Human Rights Watch that Military Intelligence arrested “Sahar,” a community leader, in mid-November at the ‘Manket al-Hattab checkpoint. While Daraa was under the control of anti-government armed groups, Sahar had been a member of the local council and the head of the Women’s Affairs Bureau. Her husband had died in protests in 2012 and her son had died in the conflict. She signed the reconciliation agreement in the hopes that she would be able to remain in Daraa, but was detained nonetheless. Jamil said that he and one of her brothers used several personal connections to get her released.

Relatives Detained, Harassed

In three of the cases documented, intelligence branches either arrested or repeatedly harassed relatives of media activists, former fighters, and people who fled Syria in an attempt to gain information about their wanted family member or to force him to return.


“Jamil,” the media activist, said that Military Intelligence arrested his sister, “Manal,” on November 16 at the same checkpoint as Sahar. She was on her way from Da’el to Damascus to visit her husband, who had had heart surgery. He said a friend who was with her alerted him at the time. Jamil said that he reached out to one of the reconciliation committee members in Daraa, who then reached out to the Russian military police who helped release her after a few days. He indicated that they also had to pay 300,000 SYP (US$582) to the military intelligence officials for her release.

Jamil said that his sister told him that during the interrogation, she was asked about him and one of her other brothers who fought with the anti-government armed groups in Daraa before the government retook it. When she chose to remain in Da’el, she had signed a reconciliation agreement, but had been arrested nonetheless. As Jamil put it: “Reconciliation or no reconciliation – it is the same.”

“Iyad’s” family

“Iyad,” a media activist, left Syria where he was living in Etaman, Daraa in February because he needed medical treatment that he could not reliably obtain in Damascus due to concerns about being arrested at the checkpoints on the way there.

He said that after he left, Military Intelligence went to his house and detained his father, mother, and wife. Intelligence officials held the family for a day and interrogated them regarding Iyad’s whereabouts. The family members said they didn’t know. He said that based on the questioning, he was unsure if the authorities were detaining his relatives because of his work as a media activist or because he was wanted for military service.

He said that after the arrests, his neighbor had immediately called him, telling him to come back. Iyad then reached out to his uncle, who was close to Military Intelligence officers in the region. The uncle intervened and managed to secure their release in a couple of days but had to pay 700,000 SYP (US$1,359) to the officers.

He said that Military Intelligence had visited his family four more times after their release, most recently on April 12, only a week before he spoke to Human Rights Watch, and they threatened to re-arrest his wife, mother, and father unless they paid them 50,000 SYP (US$97). Now his parents rarely leave the house, Iyad said.


“Hashim” was a media activist in al-Yadudeh, in Daraa governorate in Syria, but left in December when he found out that Air Force and Military Intelligence wanted him for his media work. He said he discovered he was wanted when Military Intelligence called in a relative with a government job and asked about Hashim and his whereabouts.

After that, members of the Air Force Intelligence branch visited his house three times to ask about him. “I wasn’t there, but can you imagine if I had been?” he said. “It would have been over. The next day I prepared to leave. Since I left, they’ve visited the house twice more.”

Detaining and Disappearing Defectors

Human Rights Watch documented the detention or disappearance of three defectors by Military Intelligence and other security forces even though the men had signed reconciliation agreements with the government.


A man who left Quneitra in August in the evacuations after the government retook the area, said that Military Intelligence took away his son in February. “Laith,” who defected from the army in 2012, chose to remain in Quneitra following the government takeover and signed a reconciliation agreement in August, his father said. In February, Military Intelligence asked Laith to report back to their station and detained him. His father does not know his whereabouts.


“Iyad” said that 20 days after the Syrian government retook Etaman in Daraa governorate, between August 10 and 15, he and a group of three other men attempted to re-enter the area to check on their houses. Military Intelligence members at the checkpoint at the town entrance stopped them and requested their identification and settlement cards, which they checked against the computer. Iyad and one of the others were wanted for military service but were told they could wait until the six-month grace period ended. But “Khaled,” a defector, was detained even though he had signed a reconciliation agreement.

Iyad said he was afraid to ask the Military Intelligence officers questions for fear of being arrested but did raise Khaled’s case with the Etaman reconciliation committee, who promised he would be released. But as of April 14, Khaled’s whereabouts had not been revealed, Iyad said.


Security services arrested “Omar,” a 27- or 28-year-old defector who had lost both his legs in a landmine accident, in February or March in Naua, in Daraa governorate, his cousin said. Omar’s wife said even though he had signed a reconciliation agreement, he was arrested after someone had submitted a complaint about him.

His cousin said that Omar’s wife was able to track him to Sadnaya prison, where she was able to visit him. The wife told Omar’s cousin that Omar’s situation was very difficult, and that he looked like he had been beaten and tortured.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am