(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s military junta should stop prosecuting journalists and end its assault on independent media, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a video about the media crackdown.

Since the February 1, 2021 coup, Myanmar’s junta has arrested 98 journalists, 46 of whom are currently in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Six journalists have been convicted, including five for violating section 505A of the penal code, a new provision that makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” “Fake news” appears to be any news that the authorities do not want to reach the public.

The junta’s intensifying surveillance, harassment and detention of journalists is rapidly turning Myanmar into one of the region’s most dangerous places to be a journalist. Phil Robertson

deputy Asia director

“Myanmar’s junta has made the mass arrest of journalists and control over the media a key component of its seizure of power from a democratically elected government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The junta’s intensifying surveillance, harassment and detention of journalists is rapidly turning Myanmar into one of the region’s most dangerous places to be a journalist.”

On June 30 the Ministry of Information issued a warning to journalists to stop describing the military-appointed State Administration Council as a “junta” or face prosecution. It also warned foreign news agencies to cease using the terms “military council” or “military junta,” and to stop “disseminating false news to global people.” The order threatened that “action will be taken against them under the existing laws if they apply wrong usages, quote and exaggerate fake news, and disseminate false information.”

Those sentenced under section 505A are:

Kaung Myat Hlaing, from Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), who was arrested at his home in Myeik, Tanintharyi Region, and sentenced to two years in prison. Min Nyo, from DVB, who was arrested while reporting on a protest in Pyay Region, and sentenced to three years. Thet Naing Win, from DVB, who was arrested in Bago Region and sentenced to three years. Zaw Zaw, a freelance reporter who was arrested while covering demonstrations in Myeik, Tanintharyi Region and sentenced to two years. Htoo San, a freelance photographer in Myeik, Tanintharyi Region, who was sentenced to three years.

Another DVB reporter, May Thwe Aung, was sentenced to one month in prison under penal code section 188 for disobeying a public servant. She had learned on March 16 that the authorities had arrested her husband, Min Min Aung, who is a reporter for The Voice Daily. When she arrived at the police station in Oakkan township in Yangon region to try to find him, the police detained her, ultimately leading to her being charged and prosecuted.

The crackdown on journalists is part of the junta’s larger effort to suppress independent media coverage of the situation in Myanmar, and to deny the serious rights violations the military is committing across the country, Human Rights Watch said. “If the situation becomes worse, then it becomes not a safe place for us and the only choice would be to leave the country,” one local reporter told Human Rights Watch. 

On May 4 the authorities arrested the US journalist Danny Fenster, the managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, at the Yangon International Airport as he prepared to leave the country. On June 18 the authorities charged Fenster under penal code section 505A in a closed hearing inside Insein prison. The basis for the charge against him is not clear.

On March 9 the police arrested the Kamayut Media founders Nathan Maung and Han Thar Nyein at their office in Kamayut township in Yangon. Nathan Maung, who has since been released and left the country, said both endured days of torture including routine beatings and sleep deprivation. Han Thar Nyein remains in detention. “Although I am free, my aim now is to make sure Han Thar and the others are also released,” he said. “They are journalists, not criminals.”

The many arrests and prosecutions of journalists have had a severe chilling effect on independent journalism in Myanmar. On March 8 the junta stripped media licenses of five local outlets: DVB, Khit Thit Media, Mizzima, Myanmar Now, and 7Day. On May 4, the authorities banned 2 other outlets, the Kachin-based 74 Media and the Shan-based Tachilek News Agency. They also banned satellite television on May 4, extending strict censorship restrictions. Mobile internet restrictions imposed on March 15 remain in place.

International human rights law prohibits arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of speech and expression, including by detaining journalists and banning media outlets.

“The military’s sustained crackdown on independent media and the arrests of journalists, combined with tightening censorship, threatens to isolate Myanmar’s people with only junta propaganda,” Robertson said. “The junta should immediately and unconditionally drop all politically motivated charges against journalists, reinstate the licenses of banned media outlets, and revoke abusive laws used against members of the media.”

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 27, 2021, 7:46 pm
Click to expand Image Women protest child marriage at the New York state capitol in Albany, on Feb. 14, 2017. © 2017 Anna Gronewold/AP Photo

New York State’s Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation on Thursday to end child marriage, making New York the sixth state in the United States to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 without exceptions.

When the law goes into effect next month, New York will join Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as states that have banned child marriage outright. There’s no doubt that this law was urgently needed: An estimated 4,890 children were married in New York between 2000 and 2018, almost all of them girls wed to adult men.

Between 2000 and 2018, nearly 300,000 children under the age of 18 were legally married in the US. Around the world, 12 million girls under age 18 marry every year. Human Rights Watch opposes all marriage of children under the age of 18, without exception, because of the devastating consequences for children who marry, the vast majority of whom are girls. Married children usually leave school and are more likely to live in poverty. Married girls are more likely to experience domestic violence than women who marry as adults; child brides also face serious health risks, including death, due to early and closely spaced pregnancies.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed more girls out of school and plunged millions of families into poverty, two of the main risk factors for child marriage.

While this big victory in New York is worthy of celebration, child marriage is still legal in much of the US and progress has been gradual. As recently as 2018, child marriage was legal in every state. But laws to end child marriage have been introduced in a growing list of states, as activists across the US – and around the world – push for reform. The United Nations has set a goal of ending all child marriage by 2030.

Last week was a great one for girls and boys in New York, but there is still a long way to go in the fight against child marriage in the US. It's time for the other 44 states to follow in New York's footsteps and end child marriage once and for all.  

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 27, 2021, 7:03 pm
Click to expand Image Kais Saied during the sworn ceremony in Bardo, Tunis, Tunisia on October 23, 2019. © 2019 Nicolas Fauque/Images de Tunisie/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images

(Tunis) – Tunisian President Kais Saied should safeguard the human rights of all Tunisians and reverse any repressive measures taken since announcing July 25 measures that largely concentrate powers in his office, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 25, 2021, Saied announced that he was dismissing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspending parliament, lifting parliamentary immunity, taking over supervision of public prosecution, and implementing other extraordinary measures that he said were necessary to address Tunisia’s months-long political crisis. Amid much finger-pointing, the president blamed the Mechichi government for mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic, which has aggravated a prolonged economic slump. On July 26, police raided the Tunis headquarters of Al Jazeera TV, evicting its staff and closing down the office.

“It’s ominous for human rights when a president claims constitutional backing for seizing enormous powers and the next thing you know police start going after journalists,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the government’s record in responding to the Covid-19 crisis, concentrating powers that could be used against basic rights should always set off alarm bells.”

In his televised speech on July 25, Saied announced that he will run the government “with the assistance of a new prime minister” whom he will appoint to form a new government. The president claimed he was acting constitutionally, which others have contested. The following day, the president met with representatives of civil society and assured them, “There’s no possibility that rights and freedoms will be trespassed, and that principle of equality between all Tunisians remains the same.”

Saied invoked article 80 of the 2014 constitution, which authorizes the president to take “any measures necessitated” in case of “imminent threat jeopardizing the nation, and the country’s security and independence.” He said parliament will remain suspended “until the reasons for invoking article 80 have ended,” but a statement issued by his office said it will last for 30 days. The president said article 80 prohibits dissolving the parliament, implying that suspending it was permitted. However, article 80 provides that parliament should be in a “state of permanent session” when article 80 is invoked.

Saied’s decisions follow months of political deadlock among President Saied, a political independent, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, and the parliament, the Assembly of Representatives of the People, where the Islamist Ennahda and allied parties hold a majority. Immediately after the president’s speech, crowds gathered in several cities to support his move.

Early in the morning of July 26, military forces prevented members of the parliament, including its president, Rachid Ghannouchi, the Ennahda party leader, from entering the parliament premises in Bardo, and several government officials from entering the government headquarters in al-Kasba in Tunis.

The raid on the Al Jazeera office was carried out by about 20 plainclothes police. They did not show warrants but said they were acting on orders of the judiciary, the station reported. The police officers instructed the journalists to leave the premises and not to try to return. As of the afternoon of July 27, police officers reportedly continued to block access to the office.  

The president issued a statement around noon of July 26 saying he had fired Defense Minister Ibrahim al-Bertaji and acting Justice Minister Hasna Ben Slimane. Reuters also reported that he assigned Khaled Yahyaoui, the director general of presidential security, to oversee the Interior Ministry. Mechichi had also been acting interior minister.

On the evening of July 26, the president decreed a one-month nighttime curfew starting July 26 and prohibited most intercity travel and public gatherings of more than three people, stating this was as part of a “comprehensive public health quarantine.” Any such drastic curbs on fundamental rights should be limited and clearly justified as necessary to confront a genuine emergency, and be subject to judicial review, Human Rights Watch said.

One of the factors adding alarm over the president’s July 25 announcement is the absence of a Constitutional Court, an institution that the 2014 Constitution created and endowed with the authority to overturn government measures it deemed unconstitutional, including those that violated the rights guaranteed under the constitution. Such a court would have the authority to review a decision by the president of the Republic to prolong the extraordinary powers decreed under article 80 of the constitution, to determine whether the circumstances warranted the extension.

But the court, a key guarantor of human rights, has never been created despite a constitutional deadline to do so. For years, parliament has failed to agree on the judges it gets to appoint to the court, which requires approval by two-thirds of the chamber. Human Rights Watch and many other groups have previously warned that the lack of the Constitutional Court hindered the protection of rights.

Saied also announced stripping parliament members of their immunity from prosecution, while at the same time putting himself in charge of supervising the Office of Public Prosecution. His office has yet to issue any declaration or decree explaining this move. However, taken together, these measures threaten the integrity of Tunisian judicial system, Human Rights Watch said, notwithstanding the continuing failure of courts to develop a reputation for independence following the country’s 2011 uprising and which the 2014 Constitution guaranteed.

Ghannouchi, the Parliament Speaker, denounced the president’s measures as a “coup d’état.” Former President Moncef Marzouki also denounced Saied’s measures as a “coup” and expressed concerns over their impact on human rights.

The 2011 uprising, the popular revolt that year in several Arab countries that resulted in a transition to democratic rule in Tunisia, was precipitated by the self-immolation of a young peddler over police harassment. Despite ousting authoritarian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and free elections resulting in a multiparty politics, political actors have failed to reverse the country’s economic slump and high unemployment.

President Saied should allow all media, including Al Jazeera, to operate freely and announce that he will tolerate no infringements on the rights of all media to cover and criticize his policies, Human Rights Watch said.

“Whether they cheered or protested President Saied’s decisions, all Tunisians deserve to live in dignity and to have a government that’s accountable,” Goldstein said. “People’s grievances, however legitimate, should not serve as a pretext to undermine rights."

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 27, 2021, 6:30 pm
Click to expand Image View of a former mine pit, now flooded, at the old mine site in Kabwe. In the foreground is an area where small-scale miners still work today. © 2019 Diane McCarthy for Human Rights Watch

(Lusaka) – Zambia’s next government should urgently clean up lead pollution that has affected the health of tens of thousands of children and adults in the city of Kabwe, six organizations said today, following the publication of a United Nations experts’ letter on the issue. The Zambian general elections are scheduled for August 12, 2021. The organizations are Human Rights Watch, Advocacy for Child Justice, Caritas Zambia, Children's Environmental Health Foundation, Environment Africa Zambia, and Terre des Hommes.

On July 26 the UN published a letter from two UN special rapporteurs, the expert on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana, and the expert on persons with disabilities, Gerard Quinn, to the government of Zambia, about the severe lead pollution and serious human rights concerns in and around the former mine in Kabwe, Central Province. They asked the Zambian government about its steps to address the toxic threat and urged robust steps to end the longstanding health rights violations and ensure the health, safety, and well-being of Kabwe’s residents. The experts also sent a letter to Jubilee Metals, a South African company planning to reprocess metals at the former mine, and a letter to the South African government, seeking information about the human rights impacts of their business.

“UN experts on toxic pollution and on people with disabilities have sounded the alarm bell over Kabwe,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Zambian political leaders and candidates should recognize the urgency of the Kabwe situation and commit in their election campaigns to cleaning up this toxic legacy.”

Kabwe was the site of a mine and smelter that polluted the environment with extremely high levels of toxic lead from 1904 to 1994. Kabwe residents still have lead-polluted homes, backyards, schools, play areas, and roads, as documented in a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch. Tens of thousands of children living near the mine are at acute risk of severe health risks from lead poisoning. It is estimated that up to 200,000 people in the vicinity have elevated blood lead levels.

The former mine area contains over five million tons of waste from the mine and smelter. Lead dust from these uncovered waste dumps continues to blow over to nearby residential areas and threaten community health. Rather than directly tackling the waste piles, the government has licensed further mining and reprocessing activities that pose additional health risks. In their letter, the UN experts expressed concern about reports of ongoing artisanal and small-scale mining.

Lead is a heavy metal so toxic that there is no known safe level of exposure, according to the World Health Organization. It can cause hearing loss, vision loss, high blood pressure, IQ deficits, behavioral problems, and even coma, convulsions, and death. Children are especially at risk because their bodies are still developing and absorb proportionally more lead than adults.

A 2018 medical study estimated that over 95 percent of children in townships exposed to lead from the Kabwe mine have elevated blood lead levels, and about half of children in the townships have such high blood lead levels that they urgently require medical intervention. Adults are also affected, with particular risks during pregnancy. A video made by local youth activists working with Environment Africa in 2019 highlights the impact on children and the need for action.

The mine was originally owned by British colonial companies, including Anglo American, and later nationalized. There was never a comprehensive clean-up even though the mine was closed in 1994. Anglo American is currently facing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of affected children and women of childbearing age in Kabwe, filed by lawyers from South Africa and the United Kingdom in October 2020.

“People in Kabwe whose rights to health have been violated have a right to effective remedies,” said Namo Chuma, country director of Environment Africa Zambia. “This includes access to health care, reparations, and immediate measures to end further toxic exposure.”

The UN expert on toxics and human rights, officially the special rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to examine the human rights implications of toxic and otherwise hazardous substances, as well as initiatives to promote and protect human rights in this context. The special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities is mandated to strengthen efforts to recognize, promote, implement, and monitor the rights of people with disabilities.

The Zambian government has taken some important steps to tackle the problem, the groups said. It is currently testing and treating children affected by lead in Kabwe with a loan from the World Bank, and has started to remediate homes and a school. However, its efforts do not address the source of the contamination itself, the mine waste. If the waste is not cleaned up, progress made could be quickly reversed, as it will continue to spread toxic dust across the area.

The government should conduct a comprehensive remediation process with the technical and financial support of donors and companies, the groups said. Regulations governing the human rights and environmental obligations of corporations in their global operations are urgently needed to avoid such disasters in the future.

“The lead pollution in Kabwe is a scandal,” said Bishop Clement Mulenga, the bishop of Kabwe. “Proper remediation and reclamation are needed right now to protect the health and future of Kabwe’s children.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 27, 2021, 7:00 am

Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups carried out attacks during the May 2021 fighting in the Gaza Strip and Israel that violated the laws of war and apparently amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. The Israeli military and Palestinian authorities have a long track record of failing to investigate laws of war violations committed in or from Gaza.

Human Rights Watch investigated three Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians where there were no evident military targets in the vicinity. Palestinian armed groups also committed unlawful attacks, launching more than 4,360 unguided rockets and mortars toward Israeli population centers, violating the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians. Human Rights Watch will separately release findings on rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups.

“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Israeli authorities’ consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes, as well as Palestinian forces’ rocket attacks toward Israeli population centers, underscores the importance of the International Criminal Court’s inquiry.”

The United Nations reported that during the May fighting, attacks by the Israeli military killed 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. The Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli forces injured 1,948 Palestinians, including 610 children. Israeli authorities said that rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian armed groups resulted in the death of 12 civilians, including two children, one soldier, and injured “several hundred” people. Several Palestinians also died in Gaza when rockets fired by armed groups fell short and landed in Gaza.

Click to expand Image Members of the Palestinian civil defense remove the body of one of the 44 civilians killed after three multi-story residential buildings collapsed as a result of Israeli airstrikes in central Gaza City on May 16, 2021.  © 2021 Rizek Abdeljawad/Xinhua via Getty Images 

Since late May, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person 30 Palestinians who witnessed Israeli attacks, were relatives of civilians killed, or were residents of areas targeted. Human Rights Watch also visited the site of four strikes, inspected remnants of munitions, and analyzed satellite imagery, video footage, and photographs taken following the attacks.

Human Rights Watch focused its investigation on three Israeli attacks that resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties and where there was no evident military target. Other Israeli attacks during the conflict were also likely unlawful.

On May 10 near the town of Beit Hanoun, an Israeli-guided missile struck near four houses of the al-Masri family, killing 8 civilians, including 6 children. On May 15 a guided bomb destroyed a three-story building in al-Shati refugee camp, killing 10 civilians, 2 women and 8 children from two related families. And on May 16 a series of Israeli airstrikes lasting four minutes struck al-Wahda Street in Gaza City, causing three multi-story buildings to collapse, killing 44 civilians. The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command center used by armed groups, but presented no details to support that claim.

On July 13 the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson replied to a June 4 Human Rights Watch letter that had summarized our findings on the above cases and requested specific information. The Israeli military said in part that it “strikes military targets exclusively, following an assessment that the potential collateral damage resulting from the attack is not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage, … makes concerted efforts to reduce harm to uninvolved individuals [and] in many of the [May] strikes … when possible … provided civilians located within military targets with prior warning.” The military also said that it was investigating a number of attacks that took place during the May fighting to determine whether its “rules had been breached.”

Human Rights Watch on May 30 requested permits for senior Human Rights Watch researchers to enter Gaza to conduct further investigation of the hostilities, but Israeli authorities on July 26 rejected the request. Israeli authorities have since 2008 refused access to Gaza for Human Rights Watch international staff, except for a single visit in 2016. Israel’s allies should push for access to Gaza for human rights organizations to investigate and document human rights abuses.

Israel's partners, particularly the United States, which supplies significant military assistance and whose US-made weapons were used in at least two of the attacks investigated by Human Rights Watch, should condition future security assistance to Israel on it taking concrete and verifiable actions to improve its compliance with the laws of war and international human rights law, and to investigate past abuses. 

Human Rights Watch is conducting research and will separately report on rocket attacks by Palestinian armed groups that unlawfully killed civilians in Israel and Gaza between May 10 and 21. During that period, more than 3,680 rockets struck Israel, according to the Israeli military. Lacking guidance systems, the rockets are inherently indiscriminate when directed toward areas with civilians.

The Israeli military said that victims of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks included 5-year-old Ido Abigail, killed in an attack in Sderot on May 12; Khalil Awad, 52, and his daughter Nadine, 16, both Palestinian citizens of Israel, killed on May 12 in the village of Dahmash; and Gershon Franco, 55, killed in Ramat Gan by a rocket on May 15 when for health-related reasons he could not reach a bomb shelter after sirens sounded.

Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, warring parties may target only military objectives. They must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including by providing effective advance warnings of attacks. Deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects are prohibited. The laws of war also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, which include attacks that do not distinguish between civilians and military targets or do not target a military objective. Attacks in which the expected harm to civilians and civilian property is disproportionate to the anticipated military gain are also prohibited. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly– are responsible for war crimes.

On May 12, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicated that it was monitoring the situation in Gaza. The prosecutor’s office should include in its Palestine investigation Israeli attacks in Gaza that resulted in apparently unlawful civilian casualties, as well as Palestinian rocket attacks that struck population centers in Israel.

The May hostilities, like those in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2018, and 2019, among others, took place amid Israel’s sweeping closure of the Gaza Strip, which began in 2007, and discriminatory efforts to remove Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem, policies and practices that are part of the Israeli government’s crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as Human Rights Watch has documented.

On May 27 the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to address violations and abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and Israel, including by advancing accountability for those responsible and justice for victims. The commission should examine unlawful attacks committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the May fighting. It should also analyze the larger context, including the Israeli government’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. The commission’s findings should be shared with the ICC prosecutor and other credible judicial authorities examining the situation, Human Rights Watch said.

Judicial authorities in other countries should also investigate and prosecute under national laws those credibly implicated in serious crimes in the OPT and in Israel under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Governments should also support a strong political declaration that addresses the harm that explosive weapons cause to civilians and commits states to avoid using those with wide-area effects in populated areas.

“Israel and the Palestinian authorities have shown little or no interest in addressing abuses by their forces, so global and national judicial institutions should step up to break the vicious cycle of unlawful attacks and impunity for war crimes,” Simpson said. “These investigations should also address the larger context, including the Israeli government’s crushing closure of Gaza and its crimes of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians.”
 

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, May 10-21

The May 2021 fighting followed efforts by Jewish settler groups to evict and confiscate the property of long-time Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem. Israeli courts allowed Jewish settler groups to pursue claims from before 1948 in occupied East Jerusalem, even though the Palestinians set to be displaced and all other Palestinians are barred under Israeli law from reclaiming property confiscated from them in the events of 1948 inside Israel. Palestinians held demonstrations around East Jerusalem, and Israeli security forces fired teargas, stun grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets, injuring hundreds of Palestinians.

On May 10, Palestinian armed groups in Gaza started to launch rockets toward Israeli population centers. The Israeli military, in turn, carried out attacks in the densely populated Gaza Strip with missiles, rockets, and artillery. Many of the attacks by the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups used explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. A ceasefire between the warring parties went into effect on May 21.

Human Rights Watch researched three attacks by the Israeli military in violation of the laws of war that killed 62 civilians and injured dozens more. Human Rights Watch also examined a fourth attack that killed two civilians and that may have targeted a Hamas fighter.

Beit Hanoun

Shortly after 6 p.m. on May 10, a guided missile struck near the town of Beit Hanoun and killed 8 people, including 6 children, all apparently civilians, and reportedly injured 18. The missile exploded about a meter above the ground, 10 meters from the closest of four houses built next to each other and owned by four brothers of the al-Masri family – Arafat, Ibrahim, Mohammed Attallah, and Youssef – who lived there with their families. The houses are located about a kilometer to the east of Beit Hanoun in the northeastern corner of Gaza.

Eight people killed in attack on Beit Hanoun, May 10, 2021

Ahmad Mohammed al-Masri, 21

Ibrahim Youssef al-Masri, 11

Marwan Youssef al-Masri, 7

Rahaf Mohammed al-Masri, 8

Yazan Soltan al-Masri, 14 months

Ibrahim Abdullah Hassanein, 16

Hussein Munir Hamad, 10

Mohammad Ali Nusseir, 23

Three al-Masri family members who saw the munition approach spoke to Human Rights Watch. Four other al-Masri family members and a relative of a victim not from the family also spoke to Human Rights Watch about what they saw during, and immediately after, the attack. Human Rights Watch also spoke to three relatives of two of the people killed who were not from the al-Masri family, one of whom witnessed the aftermath of the attack.

Those interviewed said that the attack happened shortly after 6 p.m., when family members were packing processed barley into sacks to sell to a local trader, Mohammed Nusseir. A video showing the aftermath and photographs taken the next day show empty and overturned sacks of barley.

Mohammed Attallah’s son, Mohammed Mohammed described the approaching munition:

I was with my brothers, packing barley into sacks. Suddenly, I saw something coming toward us from the east. When I first saw it, it was high in the air. Then it gradually descended as it came in our direction. It exploded about one meter from the ground. Something hit me in the eye, the abdomen, and legs. I flew into the air and landed on the ground. I didn’t lose consciousness. I saw that24 my brother Ahmed, my sister Rahaf, and my nephew Yazan were dead. Their bodies were all torn up. It was awful.

At the time of the attack, Youssef al-Masri was with his brother Ibrahim about 200 meters from their houses. He said he heard an explosion and saw smoke coming from near the houses:

We immediately ran to our houses. I saw my two dead sons, Marwan and Ibrahim. Imagine seeing your child’s brain on the ground. Imagine seeing your children’s eyes outside their heads. Imagine carrying your own child and feeling his body flop because his spine was broken. There was smoke coming out of my children’s mouths and from their clothes. It was horrible.

Three others said they saw the munition as it approached the area before it exploded. Ahed Hassanein, 12, said that while he was on the roof of his house, he saw a “big mass come from the Nahal Oz area” in Israel, which is about 7.5 kilometers southeast of Beit Hanoun, before it exploded nearby. Ghassan al-Masri, 24 , who was packing barley next to those who were killed and was injured in the attack, said that he was facing east when he saw something coming from the southeast that was “flying low and quietly towards the group which then exploded in the air close to the ground.”

Ihsan al-Zaneen, Arafat al-Masri’s 29-year-old daughter, was sitting outside her parents’ house when the attack happened. She said that before the explosion she saw “a missile” coming through the air “from the east.”

Relatives of the victims said that the attack killed Youssef’s sons Ibrahim, 11, and Marwan, 7; Mohammed Attallah’s son Ahmad, 21, his daughter Rahaf, 8, and his grandson, Yazan, 14 months; two children from neighbors’ families, Ibrahim Abdullah Hassanein, 16, and Hussein Munir Hamad, 10, and a neighbor and trader, Mohammed Ali Nusseir, 23.

Human Rights Watch visited the site on May 26, June 23, and June 26, and spoke with witnesses to the attack and its aftermath. Human Rights Watch analyzed photographs of munition remnants taken by another human rights organization that Human Rights Watch independently confirmed were taken the morning of May 11 at the location, as well as video footage filmed in the immediate aftermath of the attack that Human Rights Watch determined was authentic.

The limited blast and fragmentation damage at the scene suggests the use of a munition with a small explosive yield. The lack of an impact crater suggests the munition detonated in mid-air. Remnants of the munition photographed on the morning of May 11 indicate that the weapon used was a type of guided missile used to attack armored vehicles, fortified positions, or personnel in the open.

Based on interviews with al-Masri family members and geospatial imagery, Human Rights Watch concluded that significant additional damage to two of the four al-Masri houses occurred during another attack, after the families had left their homes, sometime between midday May 11 and May 20.

All those interviewed said that none of those who were killed or who survived the attack took part in any armed group. Relatives of Ahmed al-Masri, who was killed, said he was a member of Fatah, the dominant political party in the Palestinian Authority, which took no part in the Gaza hostilities. None of Gaza’s armed groups referred on their websites to any of those killed as members, which is their standard practice when a fighter is killed. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of the victims were combatants.

Official Israeli claims about this attack are unclear and contradictory.

On May 11 the Israeli news website Ynet reported that the Israeli military had said that six children in Gaza had been killed by “failed launches” by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

On May 16 the Israeli military published on social media a poster featuring men they said were Palestinian “activists” whom Israeli forces had killed in the Gaza Strip since May 10. These included “Mohammed Ali Mohammed Nusseir,” one of the men killed in the strike. The poster did not say when and where they had died. The same day, an article by the Israeli news website Walla reported that the Israeli military said that it had killed eight “activists” from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including Nusseir, again without saying when and where they had been killed.

Three people – a survivor of the al-Masri attack, a local journalist, and one of Mohammed’s brothers – told Human Rights Watch that the photo on the Israeli military poster showed Mohammed Nusseir. Human Rights Watch visited his house, saw a banner hanging on the outside of the family home showing Mohammed Nusseir’s face, and established it was the same person as appears in the Israeli poster.

Nusseir’s brother Jalal and three others told Human Rights Watch that he belonged to no armed group and that he was a trader who bought and sold barley for animal feed, including regularly from the al-Masri family, and did other piecemeal jobs.

Jalal said that Nusseir regularly carted materials and goods for sale using a horse cart. He said that on May 10, Nusseir took the horse cart to the al-Masri homes to pick up barley for the market. Mounir’s son Hussein, who was killed in the attack, joined Mohammed on the cart. Two people said that one of the reasons so many children were killed in the strike was that they had crowded around the horse when it arrived at the al-Masri homes.

Four witnesses said that shortly before the attack, they heard one or more munitions being launched into Israel from Gaza, though they did not see them and did not know where they had been launched. Based on interviews with a witness and a review of video footage, Human Rights Watch determined that just after 6 p.m., a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket struck a civilian vehicle at Camel Hill Lookout, also referred to as Yanchik Hill, in Israel, 2 kilometers west of the Israeli city of Sderot and about 2.6 kilometers east of the al-Masri houses, injuring a civilian standing next to it.

Israeli authorities, however, have not sought to justify the al-Masri strike as a response to the rocket attack. Other than the proximity in time, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a connection between the rocket attack and the strike.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the strike. An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful. The Israeli military has not provided information that would justify the attack. An investigation of the attack should consider whether Israeli forces targeted a military objective, and, if there was a legitimate military objective, whether all feasible precautions were taken to minimize civilian harm, and whether the expected military gain outweighed the anticipated loss of civilian life. An attack that was unlawful and was carried out with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – would be a war crime.

Al-Shati refugee camp

May 15 attack

At about 1:40 a.m. on May 15, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a three-story building owned by Alaa Abu Hattab in the al-Shati refugee camp. The camp, which covers half a square kilometer along the coast of northern Gaza, houses about 90,000 people, many in multi-story buildings. It is considered one of the most densely populated places in the world.

Abu Hattab told Human Rights Watch that he had lived on the first and second floors of the building for 30 years with his family. He said he rented the ground floor to a barber, a confectionery store, and a grocery shop, all of which were closed at the time of the attack. He said:

I left my house on foot at about 1:30 a.m. to go to some of the local shops that were open late during the run-up to Eid [holiday concluding the holy month of Ramadan] to buy toys and snacks for the kids for the Eid festival and to buy some food, as we were hungry. Before I left the house there was no warning that anything would happen to our house. We didn’t receive a phone call and there was no drone strike that they sometimes do to warn people that they will target a building. At least that would have scared the kids and they would have fled the house in time.

Abu Hattab said that about 15 minutes after he had left, he heard “a very loud explosion that shook the whole area”:

I ran back towards the smoke and saw it was my house. It was all rubble. I felt like everything was revolving around me. I was in shock and I fainted. When I regained consciousness, I saw rescue workers looking for bodies under the rubble and recovering body parts. The attack had shredded the bodies. Other parts remained under the rubble because they could not find them. There were no militants in or near my house and no rockets or rocket launchers there. I still don’t know why they bombed my house and killed my wife and children and my sister and her children. What sin did they commit?

Alaa Abu Hattab’s cousin Sami Abu Hattab, who lives close to his home, heard an explosion and soon heard on the local news that his cousin’s house had been hit. He ran to the house and saw that the whole building had collapsed. He said:

At first, I found his daughter Maria. She was walking in the street, with injuries to her face. Someone said that the explosion had been so strong, she had been blown out of a window. Then we heard a baby crying and found an opening in the rubble, about 50 centimeters wide. Through it, we could see a baby and his mother. It was Alaa’s sister, embracing her child. I saw that the back of her body was torn up. If she hadn’t been embracing him, he would have been killed. They said later that the baby’s leg was broken and I could see some other injuries on his face and body.

Sami said he continued to search under the rubble:

I suddenly touched a leg. Then I found a brain. Then I saw a child and recognized him as one of Alaa’s children, Yamen. Some of the features of his face remained. Then I found another of Alaa’s children, Youssef, also dead. We worked to free the bodies until 7 a.m. A bulldozer helped free some of the children’s bodies. All of them were missing parts: a hand, a leg, the skin from their head. It was indescribable. Just trying to imagine it, you start crying.

The attack killed 10 people, 2 women and 8 of their children. These included Abu Hattab’s wife, Yasmine Hassan Abu Hattab, 30, and four of their children, Youssef, 11, Bilal, 10, Mariam, 8, and Yamen, 6. Their 5-year-old daughter, Maria, was injured but survived. The attack also killed Abu Hattab’s sister, Maha Abu Hattab Al Hadidi, 35, and four of her children, Sohaib, 14, Yahya, 11, Abdulrahman, 8, and Osama, 6. Her 5-month-old son, Omar, was also injured but survived. There were no other reports of injuries in the attack.

Ten people killed in attack on al-Shati refugee camp, May 15, 2021

Yasmine Hassan Abu Hattab, 30

Youssef Abu Hattab, 11

Bilal Abu Hattab, 10

Mariam Abu Hattab, 8

Yamen Abu Hattab, 6

Maha Abu Hattab al-Hadidi, 35

Sohaib al-Hadidi, 14

Yahya al-Hadidi, 11

Abdulrahman al-Hadidi, 8

Osama al-Hadidi, 6

Human Rights Watch visited the site on May 23 and June 12, spoke with seven witnesses to the aftermath of the attack, found, photographed, and analyzed munition remnants on the roof of an immediate neighbor of the Abu Hattab family, and reviewed photographs and videos posted on social media.

Four people said the Abu Hattab building had collapsed by the time they arrived minutes after the attack. Satellite imagery taken the previous day shows no signs of damage, whereas imagery taken on May 15 at 10:36 a.m. shows that the Abu Hattab building had been destroyed. High-resolution satellite imagery collected on May 20 also shows that the four surrounding buildings were severely damaged with debris visible nearby.

Based on a review of the munition remnants that Human Rights Watch found on May 23, Human Rights Watch determined that the building sustained a direct hit from a guided air-dropped bomb equipped with a delayed-action fuze that allowed the detonation of the munition to destroy the structural supports of the building, leading to its collapse. The GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb is produced by Boeing and exported by the United States to Israel.

The Israeli military said it targeted a building in al-Shati camp on the night of May 15 because “a number of Hamas terror organization senior officials [were] in an apartment used as terror infrastructure,” and that the attack killed 10 people. The Israeli military also said that their strike on a bunker had collapsed the building.

Everyone Human Rights Watch interviewed about the attack said they were not aware of any militants in or near the building at the time of the attack. Human Rights Watch found no other evidence of any Palestinian armed groups’ presence in the building at the time of the attack, or any evidence that there was a bunker underneath the building. Mohammed al Sayed, a relative of Abu Hattab, the building owner, who rented space on the ground floor of the building for 14 years, said that Abu Hattab had no connection with any armed group.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the airstrike An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful. The Israeli military has not provided information that would justify the attack. An investigation of the attack should consider whether Israeli forces targeted a military objective, and, if there was a legitimate military objective, whether all feasible precautions were taken to minimize civilian harm, and whether the expected military gain outweighed the anticipated loss of civilian life. An attack that was unlawful and was carried out with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – would be a war crime.

May 11 attack

Shortly after 4:30 a.m. on May 11, an air-dropped munition struck the seven-story Tiba building, 50 meters from the Abu Hattab building, which was hit four days later. Two civilians were killed and two others were reportedly injured.

Ra’id Baroud, who lives on the fifth floor of the building and whose ceiling was damaged, said that he was preparing to perform dawn prayers when the attack occurred. He said that he did not hear an explosion and that suddenly his apartment was filled with black smoke and dust.

Ahmad Salah, who lives near the Tiba building, heard an explosion while attending dawn prayers at the nearby al-Sosi mosque. He ran to the building and climbed with other local residents and members of the civil defense to the sixth floor to look for survivors:

We found Um Soboh in the bathroom. She had been washing to get ready for her morning prayer. Half of her body was inside the bathtub. The other half was hanging outside it. There were fragments all over her body. We covered her body with the shower curtain. We looked for a long time for her son, Aboud. I found a blanket and then one of his heels, which was cold. He was under the rubble, lying on his stomach, his head fractured.

The attack killed Amira Abdelfatah Soboh, 58, and her son, Abdelrahman Youssef Soboh, 19, who had cerebral palsy.

During visits to the site on May 23 and June 12, Human Rights Watch observed that the southeast corner of the seventh floor of the building was completely destroyed and the same corner of the sixth floor was partially damaged. Human Rights Watch also visited an apartment on the fifth floor that was damaged, with part of the munition used in the attack visible in the ceiling. The damage to the building can also be seen in high-resolution satellite imagery collected on May 14.

The observed damage, photographs of a remnant that Human Rights Watch analyzed, and the apparent lack of an explosion on impact suggest that the weapon used was a guided air-dropped munition equipped with a delayed-action fuze, which allows it to penetrate a structure rather than explode on contact. This type of munition is frequently used by the Israeli military.

One civilian living in the immediate area of the attack, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch that a member of the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, was in the building at the time of the attack. No one Human Rights Watch spoke to about the attack reported him among the casualties.

Israeli authorities have not publicly provided any information about the May 11 attack, including the intended target and the precautions they took to minimize civilian harm.

Al-Wahda Street, Gaza City

Just before 1 a.m. on May 16, the Israeli military launched a series of strikes, lasting four minutes, in the center of Gaza City.

Omar Abu al-Awf was the only survivor in his family, after the four-story building they lived in collapsed. His father, Ayman, head of internal medicine at Gaza City’s al-Shifa hospital, his mother, and two siblings were killed. He said:

At about 1 a.m., I was sitting with my family in the living room. My father, a doctor, had just come back from work at al-Shifa hospital. Then we heard loud explosions. After the first, my mother wanted to flee the building, but my father refused and said they couldn’t possibly be attacking us as we live in a civilian area.

Then four explosions shook our house. They all happened in about five seconds. The house swayed and I thought it was going to collapse. After the second, the house started shaking. I caught my sister’s hand, pulled her to the corridor, and hugged her in an attempt to protect her. Then I heard another bomb and saw fire outside the window and the wall of the corridor collapsed and suddenly the floor disappeared, and everything started falling down on us. Then the final bomb came. It devastated us.

My sister remained under my arm, breathing for about 15 minutes. I asked her to say the shahada [statement of faith] and then she became a martyr [she died]. I didn’t know where my father was. I heard my mother say the shahada and then she was silent. My brother was still alive.

He said he was under the rubble for 12 hours:

I heard the civil defense members and ambulances. I shouted, but they didn’t hear me. I felt like I was dead. They finally found me.

Why did they kill my family and leave me orphaned? Until that day, we had a house. I had a family. Each family member had a dream. It all disappeared in one second.

Azzam al-Qoulaq lived with his family on the third floor of a building on the eastern side of the al-Qoulaq building complex. He said:

I heard a very loud explosion and felt the building vibrate. A minute or so later, a second explosion happened and the electricity went off, the walls started cracking and dust fell on our heads. A few seconds later a third explosion threw us to the floor. The floors and walls were badly damaged, the doors were gone, and we were leaning towards the street. I heard my cousins and neighbors outside saying, “Get out of here!” My wife and I grabbed the children and civil defense members helped us out.

His family’s apartment stayed largely intact while the two floors below collapsed, killing his two brothers, one of their wives, and five of their children:

At that point, the shock set in. Our [third-floor] apartment had come down to street level and I just remember thinking, “Where is the rest of the building?” When they found the body of my brother, Ezzat, about four hours later, they also found his 11-year-old son Aziz alive between his arms. God bless my brother’s soul, he had protected him.

Human Rights Watch reviewed aerial imagery posted online by the Israeli military, photographs and videos posted online and collected by independent researchers who visited the scene, and satellite imagery collected on May 20. The material shows that the four-minute attack involved between 18 and 34 strikes at various points along approximately 1,030 meters of five streets within a 0.7 square kilometer area. At least 11 of the strikes were along an approximately 400-meter stretch of al-Wahda Street.

The Israeli military said it was targeting tunnels and an underground command center used by armed groups. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health and relatives whom Human Rights Watch interviewed, the strikes killed 44 civilians – 18 children, 14 women, and 12 men – and reportedly injured 50, after three buildings collapsed. Of those killed, 22 were from the al-Qoulaq family. Twenty of the 22 people killed in the destroyed parts of the Abu al-Awf building include 11 members of the Abu al-Awf family, 5 members of the Eshkontana family, and 4 members of the al-Franji family. The strikes also damaged a number of nearby buildings.

44 people killed in attack on al-Wahda Street, May 16, 2021

People killed in eastern al-Qoulaq building:

People killed in western al-Qoulaq building:

People killed in the eastern part of the Abu al-Awf building:

People killed in the western part of the Abu al-Awf building

Ezzat Mueen al-Qoulaq (Abu Azeez), 44

Saeeda Youssef al-Qoulaq (Om Fayez), 86

Sobhia Ismail Abu al-Awf, 68

Tawfiq Ismail Abu al-Awf, 80

Doaa Omar al-Qoulaq (Om Azeez) 39

Fawaz Ameen al-Qoulaq (Abu Waseem), 63

Diana Abu al-Awf, 46 (died on 3 June)

Majdiya Abu al-Awf, 82

Mohammed Mueen al-Qoulaq, 39

Bahaa Ameen al-Qoulaq, 50

Shaimaa Alaa Abu al-Awf, 21

Ayman Tawfiq Abu al-Awf, 50

Hala Mohammad al-Qoulaq, 13

Amal Jameel al-Qoulaq, 42

Rawan Alaa Abu al-Awf, 18

Reem Abu al-Awf, 40

Yara Mohammad al-Qoulaq, 10

Riham Fawaz al Qoulaq, 32

Rajaa Sobhi Abu al-Awf, 41

Tawfiq Ayman Abu al-Awf, 17

Zaid Ezzat al-Qoulaq, 8

Sameh Fawaz al-Qoulaq (Abu Qusai), 29

Deema Rami al-Franji, 16

Tala Ayman Abu al-Awf, 13

Rola Mohammed al-Qoulaq, 6

Taher Shukri al-Qoulaq, 24

Yazan Rami al-Franji, 14

Abeer Nimer Eshkontana, 30

Adam Ezzat al-Qoulaq, 4

Abdelhameed Fawaz al-Qoulaq, 23

Mira Rami al-Franji, 12

Dana Riad Eshkontana, 9

 

Ayat Ibrahim al-Qoulaq (Om Qusai), 19

Amir Rami al-Franji, 10

Yahya Riad Eshkontana, 5

 

Ahmad Shukri al-Qoulaq, 16

Mohammad Ahmad Akki, 40

Lana Riad Eshkontana, 6

 

Hana Shukri al-Qoulaq, 15

 

Zein Riad Eshkontana, 2

 

Ameen Mohammad al-Qoulaq (Abu Fayez), 93

 

Hazem Adel al-Qamaa, 48

 

Khetam Saleem al-Qoulaq, 50

 

 

 

Qusay Sameh al-Qoulaq, 1

 

 

Human Rights Watch visited the site on May 27, June 12, and July 6, spoke with 10 witnesses to the strikes and their aftermath who lived near the affected buildings, analyzed satellite imagery, photographed the location of the strikes and the destroyed buildings, and analyzed photographs and videos of the attack’s aftermath, as well as photographs and videos posted on social media.

Satellite imagery collected on May 20 shows multiple impacted areas along al-Wahda Street and the adjacent streets. The three buildings that were destroyed are within a 150-meter stretch of road and are located on al-Wahda Street between two perpendicular roads that cross it: Abd al- Qader al-Husseini Street and Saeed al-Aas Street. Two witnesses of the aftermath said that they saw craters in the street in front of the Abu al-Awf building.

Interviewees said that all 44 people killed were inside the three buildings when the attacks occurred.

The al-Qoulaq family owned two of the three buildings destroyed. Azam al-Qoulaq, a survivor from one of the al-Qoulaq buildings, said his building was not struck directly but collapsed nevertheless. Omar Abu al-Awf, 17, said his family owned one building that had three sections and that people died in two of them. According to the description from another attack survivor interviewed and experts consulted by the New York Times, at least one of the two sections was not struck directly, but collapsed after strikes hit the street or sidewalk nearby.

On June 9, an Israeli military official told The Independent newspaper that the strikes on al-Wahda street involved targeting underground infrastructure by hitting the road at an angle with “a standard type of ammunition” that exploded “a few meters” underground to ensure “minimal collateral damage to anything above the surface.” He also said that the Israeli air force believed – but had not yet found evidence – that there may have been explosives or munitions stored underground and that these caused the buildings to collapse. The Israeli military also told the New York Times that they programed fuzes to allow the bombs to explode deep underground to increase the impact on the tunnels and minimize damage above.

On June 2, the Israeli military told the New York Times that during the attack on al-Wahda street they were actually targeting an underground command center. The military did not specify what that meant. They also admitted to not knowing its size or exact location at the time of the attack. If they were in fact targeting “an underground command center,” the extent of the strikes on al-Wahda street and the other four streets, involving about 1,000 meters of road, suggests they believed the center to be somewhere along those sections of the streets.

Based on Israeli military videos of the attack and images of munition remnants that the Palestinian police in Gaza said they recovered on al-Wahda Street on May 16 and showed the New York Times, Human Rights Watch concluded that the al-Wahda Street strikes involved the use of 1,000-kilogram GBU-31 series air-dropped bombs mounted with a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) guidance kit. This kit is produced by Boeing and exported by the United States to Israel.

None of the witnesses that Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had received or heard about any warning issued by the Israeli authorities to evacuate their buildings before the Israeli strikes.

The Israeli military has presented no information that would demonstrate the existence of tunnels or an underground command center in this vicinity, and has not shown that the anticipated military gain from the attacks exceeded the expected harm to civilians and civilian property. The military has also not said why circumstances did not permit providing an effective advance warning to residents of al-Wahda Street to evacuate their buildings before the attack.

The use of explosive munitions with wide area effects such as GBU-31 bombs in this densely populated area caused foreseeable harm to civilians and civilian objects.

Human Rights Watch did not find any evidence of a military target at or near the site of the airstrikes, including tunnels or an underground command center under al-Wahda street or buildings nearby. An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful. An investigation of the attack should consider whether Israeli forces targeted a military objective, and, if there was a legitimate military objective, whether the expected military gain outweighed the anticipated loss of civilian life and property. It should also consider whether all feasible precautions were taken to minimize civilian harm, including the likelihood that attacks on the road could cause adjacent multi-story buildings with hundreds of residents to collapse. An attack that was unlawful and was carried out with criminal intent – deliberately or recklessly – would be a war crime.

 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 27, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Ahmad Ali Abdelkader, 31. © Private

(Beirut) – A Saudi court sentenced a Sudanese media personality and journalist to four years in prison on June 8, 2021, for “insulting the state’s institutions and symbols” and “negatively speaking about the kingdom’s policies” among other vague charges, Human Rights Watch said today.

The sentence against Ahmad Ali Abdelkader, 31, is related to tweets and media interviews he shared to Twitter in which he discussed and expressed support for Sudan’s 2018-19 revolution and criticized Saudi actions in Sudan and Yemen.

“Jailing a media personality on bogus charges speaks more negatively about Saudi Arabia’s policies than anything Ahmad Ali Abdelkader ever posted,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This and other similar prosecutions demonstrate just how determined Saudi authorities are to stamp out even the most minor criticism or questioning on social media and deter all dissent under threat of long prison sentences.”

Saudi authorities arrested Abdelkader when he arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah on April 19 and detained him first in a police station in Jeddah for 20 days and then transferred him to al-Shumaisi detention center near Mecca. He has been denied access to a lawyer, including legal representation at his trial.   

His trial consisted of only two short sessions. In the first, the charges were read out to him, and the judge denied him the chance to defend himself. In the second, the judge immediately read out Abdelkader’s sentence, a source with direct knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch.

Abdelkader lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for five years, between 2015 and December 2020, first as a media coordinator for the Asian Football Federation and then for a Saudi supermarket chain’s marketing and communications department. In December, he left the country with a final exit visa, required to leave Saudi Arabia permanently. In April, he traveled back to Saudi Arabia on a new work visa and was arrested upon entry. Saudi prosecutors interrogated him twice in detention and accused him of behavior on Twitter that was harmful to Saudi Arabia, the source said.

Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah criminal court sentenced him on the basis of tweets and statements made to the media during and after February 2018, most of which he posted while based in Saudi Arabia, as well as email exchanges he had with major international human rights organizations in which he inquired about membership and subscribed and received newsletters. Human Rights Watch reviewed the nine tweets and two media interviews explicitly mentioned in the court ruling and determined that none of them incited violence, hatred, or discrimination, the only categories of speech that countries can target with sanctions under international human rights law.

Some of his tweets refer to Saudi relations with Sudan, including one in March 2020, responding to a tweet by the chairperson of the Sudanese Congress Party on Covid-19 measures, in which he accused Sudan’s military government of taking orders from Riyadh. In one September 2020 tweet on the possibility of Sudan’s normalization with Israel at the behest of the UAE, Abdelkader said that Sudan cannot operate outside of Saudi Arabia’s orbit and is unlikely to normalize with Israel unless Saudi Arabia does so too. 

In a July 2018 tweet responding to a Twitter poll conducted by the Saudi-based al-Arabiya news channel asking why Sudanese youth were joining the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Abdelkader accused Saudi media of targeting Sudan and Saudi Arabia of financing ISIS. In September 2020, Abdelkader thanked the Qatari government, which was in a dispute with the Saudi government, for what he said was its support to the Sudanese people.

The court ruling also cited Abdelkader’s Twitter interactions with an Egyptian journalist for El-Sharq Satellite Channel, Moataz Matar, as well as the fact he had his mobile number saved in his phone’s contact list, as evidence that he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sharq is an opposition TV channel based in Istanbul, and is widely known to be supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ruling did not cite specific interactions.

The ruling also mentioned two media interviews Abdelkader conducted with El-Sharq in January 2019 and with the Bosnian N1 TV channel in June 2019 in which he discussed the Sudanese revolution of 2018-19.

The court convicted him on charges of posting tweets “insulting to the states’ institutions and symbols and to the [Saudi-led] coalition forces in their war against terrorist Houthi militias,” “speaking negatively about the Kingdom’s policy and its relationship with the Government of Sudan,” “accusing the Kingdom of interfering in Sudanese affairs,” “exploiting the Hajj season for economic purposes,” “accusing the Saudi media of supporting the terrorist organization ISIS,” and “appearing on media platforms loyal to parties hostile to the Kingdom and speaking on such platforms in a way that is harmful to the Kingdom.”

In addition to the arbitrary charges above, which lack any basis in written or otherwise accessible and foreseeable law, the court also convicted him under articles 6(1) and 13 of the Saudi Arabia’s repressive 2007 anti-cybercrime law. Article 6(1) imposes prison sentences not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding three million riyals or to either punishment for publishing information online that “impinges on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.” Under article 13 of the law, the Saudi court ordered Abdelkader’s Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok accounts shut down and his mobile phone confiscated.

Saudi authorities have frequently used broadly worded charges, such as article 6 of the cybercrime law, to restrict the lawful and peaceful exercise of free expression, in violation of international human rights obligations. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia has ratified, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Article 32.

“Not only were Abdelkader’s basic rights to due process denied, but when a government uses vague charges designed to limit free speech and harshly punish peaceful criticism, there really is no chance at a fair trial,” Page said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 27, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, watches a pharmacist prepare a simulated vaccine at the Sydney local health district vaccination hub in Sydney, February 19, 2021. © 2021 Kate Geraghty/Pool Photo via AP

Right now, half of Australia’s population – more than 13 million people – are living under a hard lockdown after a growing outbreak of the Delta coronavirus strain that began in Sydney in June. The strict stay at home measures come amid a shortage in vaccine supply and a botched rollout that has left Australia largely unvaccinated, with only 12 percent of the population fully immunized, one of the lowest rates among developed countries.

When a wealthy country like Australia can’t secure enough vaccine supply, it is clear that global vaccine production and licensing arrangements are far from meeting the world’s needs.

In May, the United States announced its support for a waiver of the TRIPS agreement, the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines and other health products to enable quicker and fairer access for low-income countries. In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed to waive TRIPS rules for Covid-19 vaccines until widespread vaccination is in place globally.

Despite initially welcoming the US decision, Australia has since gone quiet. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government told Senate Estimates in June that Australia is not opposed to negotiation of the TRIPS waiver, but has not yet made a decision to support it.

This raises concerns about whether pharmaceutical companies are putting pressure on Canberra, as they have done in Europe, and what the European Commission, which has also not supported the waiver, is asking of Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan behind closed doors.

The global vaccine shortage is an urgent crisis. Australia’s neighbors are currently experiencing even greater hardships. Indonesia and Thailand have record death rates as the Delta variant hits their largely unvaccinated populations. People are dying in their homes, without access to medical care, as critical care beds across Asia are filling up fast.

The Morrison government’s continuing silence begs the question as to what more would be needed for the government to publicly support a TRIPS waiver. A recent poll showed most Australians support a temporary waiver.

Life-saving vaccines have become crucial in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The Australian government should play a leadership role and support all measures that will help expand their production around the globe.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 25, 2021, 11:34 pm
Click to expand Image Sarah al-Jabri and Omar al-Jabri © Private

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should immediately release the imprisoned children of a former Saudi official following an unfair trial that took place in an apparent effort to coerce him to return to Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said today. Omar Al-Jabri, 23, and Sarah Al-Jabri, 21, the children of Saad Al-Jabri, a former top Saudi intelligence official, were arrested in March 2020 and held incommunicado until January 2021.

Saudi authorities brought charges against the siblings in September 2020, a month after their father sued Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in US Federal Court under the Torture Victim Protection Act, alleging that the crown prince had sent a hit squad to murder him in Canada in 2018. Following their arrests and during their trial Saudi authorities held the siblings incommunicado, preventing them from meeting with their lawyer or speaking with family members. The authorities have also detained up to 40 other Al-Jabri family members and associates, who remain in detention, informed sources said.

“The treatment of Omar and Sarah Al-Jabri demonstrates the lengths to which Saudi Arabia is willing to go to pressure people who refuse to fall in line,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Detaining, imposing arbitrary travel bans, and railroading at trial two young people solely to create leverage against their father is collective punishment that demands accountability and justice.”

A Saudi court in November 2020 sentenced Omar and Sarah Al-Jabri in an unfair trial to nine and six and a half years in prison respectively, for “money laundering” and “attempting to escape” Saudi Arabia. In December 2020, an appeals court upheld their sentences in a secret hearing at which they were not present. Neither they nor their lawyer or other family members have been formally presented with the final court verdict detailing the reasons behind the initial judgment or the appeal decision.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a series of court documents, text messages, and other items related to Saudi authorities’ targeting of al-Jabri and his children and interviewed another family member by phone in June.

The family member said that the siblings had been targeted by Saudi authorities since 2017, when Sarah was 17 and Omar 18, to coerce their father to return to Saudi Arabia from exile. Saad Al-Jabri was formerly an intelligence official in the Saudi Interior Ministry and a top adviser to Mohammed bin Nayef, who was deposed as deputy crown prince in June 2017 amid now-Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s takeover of the Saudi security apparatus.

On June 21, 2017, shortly after bin Nayef was deposed, Riyadh airport officers stopped Sarah Al-Jabri from traveling to the United States, stating that the siblings were prohibited from travel for “security reasons.” They had been about to travel to the US to continue their schooling. They were never formally notified of the reasons behind the travel ban.

In late 2017, Saudi authorities froze their bank accounts and financial assets, and interrogated them separately about their father’s whereabouts and activities. The family member said that during the interrogation the authorities attempted to convince the siblings that their father and other family members living abroad should return to Saudi Arabia.

Following an expedited trial of four hearings over a few weeks, the court convicted the siblings based solely on their alleged confessions, but the judgment was only signed by two of three judges on the panel. While the family appealed the conviction, the authorities carried out a secret appeal session without notifying or the presence of the siblings, their lawyer or the family. The family only discovered the secret appeals ruling by a reference to it in a court filing by a lawyer representing Mohammed bin Salman in a US Federal Court requesting dismissal of the Al-Jabri lawsuit.

Given the trial irregularities and due process violations, Saudi authorities should immediately vacate the prison sentence, release the Al-Jabri siblings, and allow them to travel abroad to reunite with their family. The Saudi authorities should immediately cancel the arbitrary detentions and travel bans imposed on Al-Jabri family members and their associates since 2017.

Human Rights Watch has long documented due process violations under Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system. In early 2020, the authorities announced significant reforms curbing some of the worst outcomes for child offenders and promised to develop a written penal code. However, these changes did not go far enough to comply fully with international law standards, and whether some of the provisions have been carried out remains unclear.

“The treatment of the Al-Jabri siblings puts Saudi’s criminal justice reform announcements to shame,” Page said. “There remains a long way to go before the Saudi justice system can credibly carry its own name.”

Arbitrary Travel Bans

Sarah and Omar Al-Jabri faced reprisals from Saudi authorities as early as mid-2017, when they were teenagers. On June 21, 2017, shortly after bin Nayef was deposed, Riyadh airport officers stopped Sarah Al-Jabri from traveling to the US for “security reasons.” Omar allegedly refused to travel without her. The two siblings were traveling to the US to attend school in Massachusetts; Sarah at the International Baccalaureate Program at the British International School of Boston, and Omar at Suffolk University in Boston, where he had already taken classes. Both institutions reportedly inquired about the students’ whereabouts to US immigration authorities when they did not arrive on campus in time for the beginning of their terms.

Based on text message records publicly available in US court filings and reviewed by Human Rights Watch, Saad Al-Jabri texted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on June 21 to request lifting the travel ban on his children. Mohammed bin Salman did not acknowledge receipt of Al-Jabri’s messages.

On September 7, 2017, Al-Jabri texted Mohammed bin Salman again, saying that the travel ban impeded the siblings’ ability to begin their schooling. The crown prince replied: “I want to resolve this problem of your son and daughter, but there is a very sensitive file here that is related to [Mohammed bin Nayef].” He demanded that Al-Jabri should return to Saudi Arabia the following day to discuss the matter in person, and threatened him with an Interpol filing if he didn’t.

Al-Jabri did not return, and in December 2017 Saudi Arabia filed the complaint with Interpol, the International Crime Police Organization, to have him extradited on corruption charges. Al-Jabri’s wife and other relatives were barred from flying from Turkey to Canada that same month, apparently due to the Interpol complaint. The New York Times reported that Saudi authorities initially filed the complaint as a diffusion, a “less formal” way for Interpol members to request help from other members. A formal red notice was issued by Interpol in January 2018.

According to Interpol documents that Human Rights Watch reviewed, Interpol dismissed the case in July 2018 on the basis that pursuing Al-Jabri was a misuse of its resources and a violation of its bylaws. The commission reviewing the case noted the “collateral restrictive measures” taken against multiple members of the Al-Jabri family by Saudi authorities and also considered Saad Al-Jabri’s “relationship with [Mohammed bin Salman’s] formal rival for power, [Mohammed bin Nayef],” as part of the political motivations for the case.

Arrest and Incommunicado Detention

In March 2020 a high-level official in the Presidency of State Security summoned Omar and Sarah Al-Jabri to his office, where he pressured them to convince their family to return to Saudi Arabia, the family member said. A week later, a group of Saudi security forces, led by the same official, arrested the siblings at their home in Riyadh and held them incommunicado for about 10 months.

Under UN guidelines, prolonged incommunicado detention is a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment or treatment. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which Saudi Arabia acceded to in 1997, prohibits torture and other ill-treatment.

Between March 2020 and January 2021, the Al-Jabri family had no information about the siblings’ whereabouts or their detention conditions. An informed source told Human Rights Watch that the authorities repeatedly ignored the family’s requests for information, and barred the siblings’ access to legal counsel, visits, or phone calls. Text messages between the official and an Al-Jabri family member reveal that the family also asked directly about the children’s conditions, though the official did not respond to these questions.

In May 2020, armed security officers arrested Saad Al-Jabri’s brother in a home raid without explanation. He remains in detention. In June 2020 Al-Jabri’s nephew was summoned to the official’s office, then allegedly arrested and interrogated about the media coverage regarding the circumstances of Omar and Sarah Al-Jabri’s detention. In August 2020, Al-Jabri’s son-in-law was also detained after being summoned for a meeting. A family member estimates 40 Al-Jabri family members or close associates are currently in detention.

In early January 2021, Saudi prison authorities transferred the siblings from an undisclosed detention center to separate prisons in Riyadh and permitted them to make phone calls to their family in Saudi Arabia for the first time. The family member said that Omar is in Al-Ha’ir prison, and Sarah in Al-Malaz prison. The siblings are prohibited from having visitors or making direct calls to their parents abroad.

Disrupting family life by making visiting impossible or extremely difficult constitutes a violation of prisoners’ rights. International standards also require that “communication of the detained or imprisoned person with the outside world, and in particular his family or counsel, shall not be denied for more than a matter of days.”

Sentencing and Unfair Appeals Process

The family member said that the charges brought against Omar and Sarah Al-Jabri by the Riyadh Saudi Criminal Court in September 2020 are based “entirely” on purported confessions by the siblings. Human Rights Watch reviewed a copy of the court’s descriptions of the siblings’ alleged confessions as evidence for the case.

According to the charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch also reviewed, both siblings were charged with “money laundering” in violation of the Anti-Money Laundering Law, and attempting to “escape” the kingdom in an “irregular” manner. The charge of “irregular escape” apparently refers to their attempt to fly to the United States in 2017 for school, and the case files do not clarify how or why such travel would be considered “irregular.” The charge sheet does not include the name of the main prosecutor, which is unusual for court proceedings. The court judgment also identifies only two out of three judges on the panel who signed it, also an irregularity.

The Al-Jabri siblings’ lawyer filed an appeal in late November 2020 but received no notification of the outcome. The appeal hearing was only revealed by a court filing in the United States by a lawyer representing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Saad Al-Jabri in US Federal Court. According to the motion, the appeal hearing took place on December 24, 2020, and upheld the charges and sentences against the siblings.

The family member said that neither Omar and Sarah Al-Jabri, nor anyone else in the family or the lawyer were notified that the appeal was taking place. By carrying out the appeal in secret, the court left the family unable to appeal to the Supreme Court within the required 30 days.

Most of the siblings’ alleged crimes took place when the siblings were under age 18, according to the family member and the appeal sheet, meaning that Saudi authorities disregarded multiple provisions of the 2018 Juvenile Law, including reduced sentences for alleged child offenders.

The anti-money laundering law, issued by Decree No. 20 of 2017,  defines money laundering as including “concealing or falsifying the true origin of funds acquired.” On the September 2020 charge sheet, the Criminal Court claims the siblings received 200,000 Riyal (approximately US$53,000). In another document, the court says that Omar received this money via “one of the accused [Saad Al-Jabri],” implying that the court was aware of who had sent him the money.

The court also claims Omar that withdrew one million Riyal (approximately $267,000) from one of his father’s bank accounts after his father left the kingdom in 2017, shortly before the bank account was frozen. The family’s appeal document denies this claim, saying that it was impossible for Omar, who never held any authority over his father’s bank account, to withdraw money from it. The authorities also accused Sarah Al-Jabri of violating the law by using an ATM card belonging to a family associate who wanted to assist in covering the siblings’ living costs.

The family contends that the money in the siblings’ bank accounts originated from members of the Al-Jabri family or trusted friends’ bank accounts. The money was intended for the sole purpose of providing the siblings with spending money to cover living expenses and obtain their education, given that Saudi authorities froze the family’s other bank accounts in 2017.

Additionally, Al-Jabri’s legal counsel and his family experienced a series of reprisals by Saudi authorities. According to the family member, in January 2021 the Saudi Presidency of State Security office summoned the Al-Jabri siblings’ lawyer, the lawyer’s brother, and the lawyer’s sister for a meeting. During this meeting, State Security officials denied an appeal had taken place.

The lawyer allegedly admitted during the meeting that he had contacted members of the Al-Jabri family who were outside of the kingdom. Shortly thereafter, the lawyer and the lawyer’s relatives found out that authorities had banned them all from travel and frozen their financial assets.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 25, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Protestors marching to demand the end of femicide and violence against women in Paris, France, November 23, 2019.  © 2019 Christian Hartmann/Reuters

(Paris, July 23) “The world of work must not be a source of anxiety or insecurity for women.” ”France now intends to be a model in the implementation of [the] Convention, by ratifying it as soon as possible.”

France’s Minister of Labor, Elisabeth Borne, made this promise at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris on July 2. Today, the National Assembly adopted the bill to ratify the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention (C190), which sets out global standards for preventing and responding to violence and harassment at work.

This is a positive step, but France should therefore not be content merely to ratify the treaty. To put an end to sexual harassment at work, it needs now to effectively implement the Convention. France should adopt reforms in accordance with the Convention and accompanying recommendation, guided by emerging best practices from other countries.

While Minister Borne praised the strength of French law to combat the “scourge” of harassment and gender-based violence, significant gaps remain. During the debate over ratification, numerous members of Parliament expressed the importance of strengthening French law. Feminist groups, labor unions, and other civil society groups have identified specific areas for reform, and proposed concrete solutions.

French policymakers should introduce penalties for the reported 80% of employers who do not have a violence protection plan. They should make trainings compulsory for managers and raise awareness among workers of their rights. They should also oblige French companies to take measures to prevent and respond to risks throughout their supply chains, develop specific strategies to protect those most at risk, and adopt workplace protections, such as 10 days paid leave, for domestic violence survivors to seek help and safety without fear of losing their jobs.

Fighting gender-based violence is a stated priority for President Emmanuel Macron. Along with Minister Borne and members of parliament, he should act upon the reforms that feminists and trade union leaders are calling for.

France is providing a good example by striving to be an early ratifier of the Violence and Harassment Convention. But to truly earn the right to say it is at the forefront of the fight against sexual harassment at work, it should now adopt and implement national reforms.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 23, 2021, 6:53 pm
Click to expand Image A family flees Panjwai district in Kandahar province on July 4, 2021, after the Taliban captured the area.  © 2021 Javed Tanveer / AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – Taliban forces that have taken control of districts in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province have detained hundreds of residents whom they accuse of association with the government, Human Rights Watch said today. The Taliban have reportedly killed some detainees, including relatives of provincial government officials and members of the police and army.

Journalists told Human Rights Watch by phone that after Taliban forces took control of Kandahar’s Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan on July 8, 2021, and the Spin Boldak district center on July 16, they conducted searches to identify residents who have worked for the local government or security forces. Taliban forces that control areas around Kandahar city have carried out similar searches and have evicted some residents. Local media have reported that the Taliban have taken more than 300 people into custody and have detained them in unidentified locations.

“There are grave concerns that Taliban forces in Kandahar may commit further atrocities to retaliate against the government and security forces.” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Taliban leaders have denied responsibility for any abuses, but growing evidence of expulsions, arbitrary detentions, and killings in areas under their control are raising fears among the population.”

The Taliban have told members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), including police who have been the principal security force in Kandahar, to register with them to receive letters guaranteeing their safety, a local activist reported. Those who registered are required to report to the Taliban once a month. Taliban forces have gone to the homes of some ANDSF members who had registered, taken them into custody, and killed an unknown number of them. Local activists said that in one case, on July 9, the Taliban shot and killed a man named Nangiyali, in front of family members. He was a resident of Sarposa, Kandahar, who had previously worked with the police.

Media reported that on July 19, Taliban forces shot and killed two sons of a provincial council member, Fida Mohammad, who had reportedly had a close relationship with the late Kandahar police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq, whom the Taliban killed in 2018. Under Raziq, the Kandahar police were responsible for torture, hundreds of enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings of captured Taliban fighters and suspected Taliban supporters, as well as tribal rivals and other civilians.

International humanitarian law prohibits summary executions, enforced disappearances, and other mistreatment of anyone in custody, which are war crimes. It is unlawful to detain civilians unless absolutely necessary for imperative reasons of security. Retaliatory attacks are a form of collective punishment and are also prohibited. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating allegations of war crimes and serious human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, including the Taliban. Taliban commanders who knew or should have known about abuses by forces under their control and took no action to prevent or stop them are culpable as a matter of command responsibility.

“The UN, US, and other countries engaged in the peace talks should urgently call on the Taliban leadership to stop these killings and other abuses,” Gossman said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 23, 2021, 5:14 pm
Click to expand Image Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a cabinet meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Friday, July 23, 2021, announcing a "purge" on civil society.  © 2021 Nikolay Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo via AP

The Belarusian government is moving to close dozens of organizations that were the backbone of the country’s once vibrant civil society.

These groups work on issues such as disability rights, the environment, media freedoms, pensioners’ rights, among others. They include internationally acclaimed organizations like the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian Pen Centre, whose president is Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich, and the Belarusian Press Club.

Today, the Minsk city government shutdown Lawtrend and Human Constant, prominent groups that document and provide legal services to victims of rights violations, including pro bono legal defense, and conduct legislative analysis. The authorities used the Russian term “liquidated” which is routine for such closure procedures, but the Stalinist connotations resonate.

The forced closures came a week after sweeping police raids of more than 40 groups, seizing equipment, and arresting many of the country’s top human rights activists who are now in custody pending trial.

These recent moves are the latest in a year of tyranny in Belarus, as the government continues to punish people who took to the streets in the aftermath of the August 9 presidential election to protest what they saw as a stolen election and demand change. More than 500 people are in prison on charges related to these protests. The authorities have arrested journalists, raided and closed media outlets, and now they are eviscerating groups that protect a wide range of rights. They’ve also muzzled lawyers, who can’t even discuss charges against their clients in these cases without themselves facing charges.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a government that will resort to faking a bomb threat to force an airplane to land in order to arrest an activist, wouldn’t hesitate to take steps to swing a metaphorical ax through civil society.  

For decades, human rights and other civic society groups managed to survive despite Lukashenka’s authoritarian autocracy. They endured serial harassment, marginalization, and arrest of staff members. But this week’s purge signals the end of civil society in Belarus as we knew it. It will for sure live on, but likely underground and in exile.

Let’s stop calling this a crackdown. At a government meeting on July 22, President Alexander Lukashenka himself unapologetically called the recent actions “a purge.” These actions are a disgrace and key international actors should join efforts to stand up for Belarusian civil society and deliver a forceful response.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 23, 2021, 4:59 pm
Click to expand Image Grave of human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, who was arbitrarily arrested, tortured, convicted after an unfair trial in Kyrgyzstan and passed away in detention on June 25, 2020. Askarov’s grave is located in Yangibozor, Tashkent region, Uzbekistan. © 2020 Navbahor Imamova, VOA

(Brussels) – Kyrgyzstan authorities have yet to conduct an independent investigation into the death in detention on July 25, 2020, of the human rights defender and journalist Azimjon Askarov, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Movement: Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan, and International Partnership for Human Rights said today.

Askarov was arrested in 2010 while documenting inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan and had been unjustly held in prison for 10 years, serving a life sentence imposed after an unfair trial marred by torture and ill-treatment.  

“Kyrgyz authorities have failed to investigate human rights violations that led to Azimjon Askarov’s death,” said Philippe Dam, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “A full year has passed without any sign of an independent and credible investigation into the circumstances of his death and the human rights violations he suffered.”  

The Kyrgyz authorities’ inquiry into Azimjon Askarov’s death was conducted by the prison service, the same authority that oversaw Askarov’s arbitrary detention for 10 years. The inquiry was neither independent nor impartial as required under international law, the groups said. It closed in May 2021. The prison authorities concluded that Askarov died from complications of COVID-19 but denied that he was ill-treated in prison. They said that no one could be held responsible for his death, referring to the challenging epidemiological situation in the country at the time of his death. 

“Askarov was arbitrarily detained, tortured, and denied justice for over a decade,” said Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “His death in prison should not remain unaccounted for.”

Askarov died at age 69 on July 25, 2020, after his health dramatically deteriorated following years of worsening medical problems for which he did not receive adequate treatment in prison. It was known that he would be particularly vulnerable if he were to contract Covid-19.

Despite a number of appeals from his lawyer and family for urgent intervention to protect his health, it was only on July 24, when he had already been seriously ill for 10 days, that he was transferred to a prison hospital for examination and treatment. Tragically, Askarov died with Covid-19 related pneumonia the following day, after being denied timely and adequate medical care. As late as the day before Askarov’s death, the prison service insisted that reports about the defender’s deteriorating health were incorrect and that he was “doing well.”

The Kyrgyz civil society organization, Human Rights Movement: Bir-Duino Kyrgyzstan, filed a complaint with the court against the prison service’s decision to close the investigation, saying that it was unlawful and highlighting investigators’ failure to interview key witnesses. On  July 1, 2021, a Bishkek district court rejected this complaint, a decision that Bir-Duino said it would appeal.

In March 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and ill-treated without redress, and denied a fair trial. The committee said that Kyrgyzstan should immediately release Askarov, quash his conviction, and provide him with adequate compensation and rehabilitation.     

“Kyrgyzstan’s international partners should press the Kyrgyz government to ensure a truly independent and effective probe into his death and to finally implement the UN Human Rights Committee decision on his case,” said Brigitte Dufour, director at International Partnership for Human Rights.

The Kyrgyz authorities should comply with their international human rights obligations and promptly conduct an effective, independent, and impartial investigation into Azimjon Askarov’s death, grant compensation to his family for the rights violations he suffered, and posthumously ensure his legal rehabilitation, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Front Line Defenders, and International Partnership for Human Rights said.

“Human rights defender Azimjon Askarov deserves justice and his loved ones have the right to see his name cleared and to receive adequate compensation for the injustice served him,” said Claire Ivers, head of EU office at Front Line Defenders.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 23, 2021, 2:11 pm
Click to expand Image President Joe Biden speaks at a CNN town hall at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, OH on July 21, 2021. © 2021 Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Refugees are defined under international law as people outside their country who fear being persecuted upon return. United States President Joe Biden seeks to turn that definition on its head.

During a Town Hall on Wednesday, he told Central Americans not to seek asylum at the US border but instead to wait in their country and be processed for asylum from there.

“They should not come,” Biden said. “If you seek asylum in the United States, you can seek it from the country, from your – in place. You can seek it from an American embassy.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says otherwise; that everyone has the “right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

When a government persecutes its own citizens or fails to protect them from abuse, many will be compelled to flee for their very lives. But Biden is telling these people to stay.

Imagine if other refugees in history had, at the urging of a far-away president, stayed home and waited their turn to be interviewed and processed.  

History is one thing, but consider also what it would be like to be a Salvadoran whose life is being threatened by a gang today. If you were that Salvadoran, how long would you be willing to wait to be interviewed by the US Embassy in San Salvador, as promised by President Biden, and how many more months of waiting inside your country while your asylum claim was being processed? Waiting is a luxury a person facing violence cannot afford.

It is well and good for the US and other countries to establish orderly immigration procedures, including resettlement for refugees who have fled to third countries, but the right to seek asylum in other countries needs to be respected, even though it can be messy.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 23, 2021, 10:00 am
Click to expand Image European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders delivers the opening statements during a plenary session on the Commissions 2020 Rule of law report at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium on June 23, 2021.  © 2021 Aris Oikonomou/Pool Photo via AP

The launch of the European Commission’s latest report on the state of rule of law in the European Union should be a milestone. It contains dozens of pages of analysis for each EU country on threats to democratic institutions, covering judicial independence, media freedom, and attacks on civil society.

But beyond the depth of the analysis, the report demonstrates the Commission’s lack of vision on how to end the erosion it exposes.

In the Commission’s own words, a key goal of the report is to “raise awareness and promote an open discussion.” But when a house is burning, what is needed is action.

Such a report should at the very least include measurable recommendations to states, with set deadlines, so that it can truly serve as a “preventive tool.” It should also make it clear that some European governments have moved or are moving away from the EU’s founding principles and its laws. Pretending that all EU states are at the same level gives a false picture of reality. Finally, attacks on fundamental rights and the rule of law by member states should lead to serious political and institutional consequences. It’s disappointing that all of this is missing from the report.

If they take this report seriously, the EU Commission and member states should intensify proceedings on Poland and Hungary under Article 7 – the treaty mechanism to deal with countries at odds with the bloc’s democratic principles. They should move toward adopting rule-of-law recommendations and voting to determine that there is a “clear risk of serious breach” of EU values in both countries. The Commission too should be more active in steering Article 7 forward.

The Commission should also use legal infringement proceedings in a faster and more strategic way, to ensure the EU Court can effectively block policies that erode rights. It should end its foot-dragging and use a new tool conditioning access to EU funds on respect for the rule of law.

The Commission’s rule of law report shows the institution is clear-eyed about the risks to the EU’s core principles. But without a clear strategy to translate that commitment into action, abusive governments will simply ignore it. It’s time for the Commission to take that crucial next step.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 23, 2021, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image Photos of the North Korean refugees helped by the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea are displayed in Seoul, South Korea on June 11, 2019. © 2019 Josh Smith/Reuters

For months, North Koreans living in South Korea who have relatives detained in China have been imploring government officials, foreign diplomats, United Nations agencies, and others for help. They hope international pressure can dissuade Chinese authorities from forcibly returning their relatives and other refugees to North Korea.

Concerns among relatives spiked last week when Chinese authorities forcibly returned nearly 50 North Korean refugees who  now face torture, imprisonment, sexual violence, and forced labor. The North Korean government reopened its borders on July 14 after closing them in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, increasing the risk of forced repatriation. The families’ fears have grown as North Korean authorities are reportedly inflicting more severe punishments on anybody trying to escape the country.

The nearly 50 returned refugees are the latest victims of Beijing’s efforts to deter North Koreans from fleeing to China to escape horrific human rights conditions at home. Based on information from sources with local contacts, Human Rights Watch believes that the Chinese government is currently holding at least 1,170 North Koreans in detention. These include 450 North Korean men in a prison in Changchun, Jilin province serving sentences for alleged criminal activities, who will be deported after completing their sentences. There are also 325 North Korean refugees in Tumen city, 47 in Changbai county, 104 in Linjiang city in Jilin province, 180 in Dandong, and 64 in Shenyang in Liaoning province.

The Chinese government routinely labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and forcibly repatriates them under a 1986 bilateral border protocol. But as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and the UN Convention against Torture, China is obligated not to force back anyone who would be at risk of persecution or torture upon return.

North Korean authorities consider departures from the country without permission a serious crime. Since anyone who returns to North Korea after fleeing will likely be tortured or otherwise mistreated, all have a claim for refugee status in whichever country they reach.

The Chinese government should provide asylum to North Koreans in China or give them safe passage to South Korea or another safe third country. It should allow the UN Refugee Agency to exercise its mandate and let them have access to the detained North Korean refugees.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 22, 2021, 8:21 pm
Click to expand Image © Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities appear to have used excessive force against demonstrators in southwestern Iran protesting lack of access to water, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should transparently investigate the reported deaths of at least three protesters and hold those responsible to account. The government should also urgently address longstanding grievances on access to water in the country.

Since July 15, 2021, people in dozens of towns and cities in Khuzestan province, which has a large ethnic Arab population, have taken to the streets every evening to protest difficulties with accessing water in the area. In interviews with state-affiliated outlets, families reported the deaths of two men during the protests, while videos shared on social media show security officials using firearms and teargas and shooting toward protesters. On July 21, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRIB) reported that a third protester in the city of Izeh and a police officer in Taleghani city were killed. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the number of deaths and injuries may be higher.

“Iranian authorities have a very troubling record of responding with bullets to protesters frustrated with mounting economic difficulties and deteriorating living conditions,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Government authorities need to ensure the right to peaceful assembly and stop security forces from using excessive force.”

There are longstanding concerns across Iran, and Khuzestan in particular, over mismanagement of water resources and pollution from oil development. For decades environmental experts have warned that development projects in oil-rich Khuzestan, including the construction of hydroelectric dams, irrigation schemes, and water transfers to neighboring provinces are causing environmental harm and leading to water shortages affecting a range of rights.

On July 16, Omid Sabripour, the acting governor of Shadegan city, told Hamshahri newspaper that “rioters” had shot a young man during the protests, killing him. His family said the victim was Mostafa Naeemavi, 30. Family members of Ghasem Nasseri (also Ghasem Khozeiri) told Fars News Agency that he was fatally shot while returning from work.

On July 20, Human Rights News Activist Agency (HRANA) reported that it had identified at least 18 local activists whom the authorities arrested. Several videos shared on social media show law enforcement personnel shooting toward fleeing protesters.

Mojtaba Youssefi, a member of parliament from the city of Ahvaz, told the Asr-e-Iran news website that 702 villages in Khuzestan province lack drinking water. He added that in the southern and northern parts of the province, “their livestock are dying” for lack of water and “agriculture is a dream for [the] local population.” The Arman Melli newspaper reported that 660 villages in the area do not have tap water and that tankers are used to deliver water to all the villages in the area.

Videos shared on social media show the body of a man identified as Mohammad Abdollahi being carried by protesters during protests in Izeh. ILNA news reported that Hassan Nabovatim, the acting governor of Izeh, denied reports that three protesters had been killed during the protests there, but acknowledged that one person died from injuries and said that 14 police officers were injured. Fereydoon Bandari, the acting governor of Mahshar port, told Fars News Agency that two police officers were shot from the roof of a building in the town of Taleghani and that one of them was killed.

Taghi Rahmani, the husband of a prominent human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi, tweeted that authorities in Tehran on July 20 briefly detained Mohammadi and several other human rights defenders including Arash Sadeghi, Arash Keykhosravi, and Jafar Azimzadeh who had gathered in front of the Interior Ministry in support of the Khuzestan protests. Rahmani said that police beat the protesters during the arrest.

Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, police may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. The deliberate use of lethal force is permissible only when it is strictly necessary to protect life, and warnings should be given when possible. The authorities should promptly report and investigate all incidents of law enforcement officials killing or wounding people with firearms through an independent administrative or prosecutorial process.

The UN Human Rights Committee stated in its General Comment No. 37 that “[f]irearms are not an appropriate tool for the policing of assemblies, and must never be used simply to disperse an assembly.… [A]ny use of firearms by law enforcement officials in the context of assemblies must be limited to targeted individuals in circumstances in which it is strictly necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

Several users and Iranian reporters have reported trouble with internet access in the area. Over the past three years, authorities have frequently restricted access to information during protests.

Internet shutdowns violate multiple rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and access to information and the rights to peaceful assembly and association. Under international human rights law, Iran has an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information nor to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate the threats to Khuzestan’s water resources. Especially hot and dry weather in Khuzestan this summer has led to increased droughts and power outages and most likely to more sand and dust storms, all of which magnify the impact of the government’s mismanagement of water resources.

The right to water entitles everyone, without discrimination, “to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in its General Comment No. 15 on the right to water, stated that a “violation of the obligation to fulfill” the right to water can occur when there is “insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources which results in the non-enjoyment of the right to health by individuals or groups.”

The UN special rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation stated in a 2014 report that violations of the right to water may result from action or may be the result of the unintended consequences of policies, programs and other measures as well.

“Instead of repressing the protests, the Iranian authorities should acknowledge the severity of the water crisis and commit to addressing it urgently at the national level,” Sepehri Far said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 22, 2021, 8:00 pm
Click to expand Image President Alberto Fernández (center) with other authorities and members of social organizations, form an 'X', at the Bicentennial Museum in Casa Rosada, Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 21, 2021. © 2021 MARIA EUGENIA CERUTTI/Argentine Presidency

Starting July 21, 2021, Argentina’s National Identity Document and passports now include a third gender category, “X,” allowing people to choose to be designated other than female or male. The move makes Argentina the first country in Latin America to establish such a category.

The change comes per a decree by President Alberto Fernández, which states that “X” will be used to denote the following meanings: “non-binary, undetermined, unspecified, undefined, not informed, self-perceived, not recorded; or another meaning with which the person who does not feel included in the masculine/feminine binary could identify.”

Both citizens and non-national residents may access the designation for their documents via a simple administrative procedure.

Among the first to receive a non-binary identification document was Gerónimo Carolina González Devesa, a 34-year-old doctor, who explained what it means to have their non-binary identity recognized: “Leaving this binary [system] implies being able to start working in a world in which all people can enter and that effectively respects all identities. And it’s wonderful, the realization that this change is finally coming.”

A dozen other countries, such as the United States, Malta, and Nepal, already allow for non-binary passports. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations agency that sets global regulations for machine-readable passports, allows for three sex categories: female, male, or “X” for unspecified. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, are planning on scrapping gender from identity documents altogether.

With this move, Argentina continues to lead the way in the region when it comes to the legal recognition of gender identity. In 2012, the country passed a Gender Identity Law that allows anyone to change the gender and name on their identity card and birth certificate through a simple administrative procedure.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Argentina has ratified, protects the rights to recognition before the law, privacy, and nondiscrimination. To fully respect these rights, states should not only allow people to change from “F” to “M” and vice versa; they should also provide them with an “X” or equivalent option.

Countries in the region should join Argentina in recognizing the gender identities of their trans and non-binary citizens. Not only is it required by international law, but it will also go a long way to fostering equality, tolerance, and inclusion for all.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 22, 2021, 7:31 pm
Click to expand Image Jacky Ndala. © Private

On July 18, Jacky Ndala, youth leader for the political party Together for the Republic (Ensemble pour la République), noticed unusual activity outside his house in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a message widely circulated on social media, he described seeing jeeps and men in civilian clothes with radios in hand.

The men, officers in Congo’s National Intelligence Agency (Agence nationale de renseignements, ANR), picked him up around 9 a.m. Ndala spent the following night at “3Z,” a notorious ANR jail, before being handed over to a prosecutor. Two days after his arrest, on July 20, a court sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment for “incitement to civil disobedience” and transferred him to Kinshasa’s central prison. His lawyer said Ndala would appeal the verdict.

The arrest and summary trial came after Ndala told party members last week in the Lingala language to stand ready to “go protest at the People’s Palace [parliament]” in case a controversial draft law was debated. Known as the Tshiani or “congolité” bill, the law, if passed, would exclude from presidential office and senior institutional positions any Congolese with one parent of non-Congolese origin. This draft nationality law would discriminate against many Congolese citizens because of their parents’ nationality, further undermining human rights in the country.

The bill is widely seen as an attempt to sideline Moise Katumbi, who heads the Together for the Republic party. Although the party is currently part of President Felix Tshisekedi’s government, Katumbi himself is considered to be one of Tshisekedi’s potential opponents for the next general election in 2023.

In 2018, former President Joseph Kabila’s administration barred Katumbi from reentering the country to register his candidacy, effectively denying him his right to run for president.

The draft law has already triggered a deluge of discussion and diatribe on social media. Kinshasa’s archbishop, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, described the bill as “an instrument of exclusion and division.” Bintou Keita, head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, warned the UN Security Council of “potentially dangerous consequences of a divisive debate on nationality.”

Authorities may prosecute incitement to violence. But a rushed trial and harsh sentence suggests that the case was more about the mounting repression against dissent than a genuine matter of public order. Parliament should reject a draft nationality law that will entrench discrimination among Congolese citizens and fuel political unrest.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 22, 2021, 4:00 pm
Click to expand Image A woman walks under a parasol to shelter from the sun in Birmingham, U.K., on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. The U.K.'s Met Office has issued its first-ever Extreme Heat weather warning, stating that continuing high temperatures will lead to public health impacts. © 2021 Darren Staples/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the UK bakes in record-setting temperatures, its meteorological service issued its first-ever extreme heat warning this week. Public Health England extended its own heat health alert through July 23, as soaring day- and night-time temperatures persist.

Yet despite known links between extreme heat during pregnancy and poor birth outcomes, authorities have yet to take critical steps to protect pregnant people from rising temperatures due to the climate crisis.

Research shows high heat exposure during pregnancy – such as in heatwaves – is a risk factor for stillbirth and preterm birth, which can cause lifelong adverse health effects and is a leading cause of infant death globally. Heat stress also threatens health during pregnancy.  

Yet unlike Santé Publique in France, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) does not include pregnant people among those “most at risk” in its online guidance for coping with hot weather. The Heatwave Plan for England calls for identification and support of people “particularly vulnerable” to heat health issues, but does not include pregnant people in its “high-risk groups” and makes no mention of pregnancy and the associated risks from extreme heat.

Ensuring heat-related protections for pregnant people is an issue of women’s rights as well as racial and economic inequality. In the UK, stillbirths and preterm births are already more likely among Black and Asian babies. Black women are four times more likely and Asian women twice as likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than white women, and those living in the most deprived areas are nearly three times more likely to die than those in more economically advantaged areas.

People exposed to extreme temperatures for prolonged periods of time, such as workers in agriculture, warehouses, or kitchens, are more likely to suffer heat-related health effects. Women and people from Black, Asian, migrant, low-income, and other marginalized communities are often overrepresented among such workers.

As climate change makes heatwaves an ever-increasing reality across Europe, authorities in England and Wales should ensure pregnant people are identified as high-risk, include them in public messaging about heat-related precautions, and build this into heat action plans. The UK government should prioritize pregnant and other at-risk people for additional support, such as access to cooling centers or leave from jobs with high heat exposure when temperatures soar.

As the climate crisis accelerates, the effect of extreme heat on pregnant people is a public health risk that can no longer be ignored.  

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 22, 2021, 1:31 pm

Tsubasa Araya was a gifted 17-year-old high school volleyball player in Japan. In July 2018, he took his life, writing, “Volleyball is the hardest.” As Japan prepares to host the Summer Olympics and Paralympics starting this week, the abuse and suffering many young athletes there face should not be ignored.

Since 2013, there have been a number of suicides of teenage athletes in basketball, volleyball, and table tennis in Japan. All left notes blaming the suffering they endured in sport. Between 1983 and 2021, at least 121 children died during judo training in Japanese schools.

I began researching child abuse in Japan when I noticed the series of teen suicides, as well as beatings of athletes caught on video. 

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Human Rights Watch interviewed and surveyed more than 800 former child athletes from Japan for a 2020 report. Athletes from 50 sports described sexual violence, and being beaten, deprived of water, choked, and whipped with whistles or racquets.  

Athletes spoke of the “normalization” of these abuses, the lack of systems to report or seek remedies, and the absence of accountability throughout Japanese schools, federations, and elite sports.   

Many said they felt that enduring abuse was necessary to achieve success. “I was hit so many times, I can’t count,” said one athlete, referring to his treatment while a child. “The coach told me I was not serious enough with the running in practice, so I was hit in the face in front of everyone. I was bleeding, but he did not stop hitting me.”

Countless children worldwide are being abused in sport, and there aren’t adequate systems in place to stop it.

We have partnered with Japanese athletes, parents, and coaches to launch a petition called “Athletes Against Abuse” to achieve change before another generation of children is traumatized by preventable abuse in sport. The petition is available to sign in English and Japanese.

We are calling on Seiko Hashimoto, minister for the Tokyo Olympics, and Koji Murofushi, commissioner of the Japan Sports Agency, to commit to reforms to ban abuse in sport.  

One legacy of this summer’s Olympics should be the creation of a Japan Center for Safe Sport, which would allow athletes to report abuse. The International Olympic Committee needs to adopt its own human rights strategy, adopt a zero tolerance policy for athlete abuse, and stand with athletes who speak out. 

Those watching the Olympics and Paralympics can help ensure the path to the podium is no longer paved with abuse. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: July 22, 2021, 12:45 pm