(Hong Kong) – The Chinese government should immediately abolish a secretive detention system used to coerce confessions from corruption suspects. The Communist Party-run system, known as shuanggui, has no basis under Chinese law but is a key component of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

“President Xi has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system.”

Video

Video: Rare Story From Inside China's Secret Detention System

The Chinese government should immediately abolish a secretive detention system used to coerce confessions from corruption suspects.

The 102-page report, “‘Special Measures’: Detention and Torture in Chinese Communist Party’s Shuanggui System,” details abuses against shuanggui detainees, including prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods of time, deprivation of water and food, and severe beatings. Detainees are also subject to solitary and incommunicado detention in unofficial detention facilities. After “confessing” to corruption, they are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted, and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

The report is based on 21 Human Rights Watch interviews with four former shuanggui detainees, as well as family members of detainees; 35 detailed accounts from detainees culled from over 200 Chinese media reports; and an analysis of 38 court verdicts from across the country. While there have been commentaries and analyses on the shuanggui system, the Human Rights Watch report is the first to contain firsthand accounts from detainees, as well as drawing on a wide variety of secondary, official sources.

Shuanggui not only further undermines China’s judiciary – it makes a mockery of it.

Sophie Richardson

China Director, Human Rights Watch

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) oversees the shuanggui system, to which all of the party’s 88 million members are subject. The CCDI and its lower-level offices, local Commissions for Discipline Inspection (CDIs), typically target government officials, but those detained also include bankers, university officials, and entertainment industry figures, among others. Bo Xilai, a former member of the party’s powerful Politburo, was reportedly held under shuanggui, where he said he confessed under “improper pressure” and was later sentenced to life in prison.

The start of a shuanggui investigation is often marked by an individual’s disappearance – family members are given no notification of the person’s detention or location, no information about the alleged infraction, or the length of detention. Detainees have no access to lawyers. Although there are time limits for shuanggui, CDI investigators can seek repeated extensions, permitting detainees to be held indefinitely, often until they confess. Shuanggui facilities are typically rooms in hostels with special features, such as padded walls or a lack of windows, to prevent suicides or escapes. Detainees are guarded round-the-clock by shifts of officials, often put together in an ad hoc fashion for this purpose, and subjected to interrogations by CDI officers.
 

© 2016 Human Rights Watch

A former shuanggui detainee told Human Rights Watch, “If you sit you have to sit for 12 hours straight, if you stand then you have to stand for 12 hours as well. My legs became swollen, and my buttocks were raw and started oozing pus.”

While President Xi has characterized the fight against corruption as a “matter of life and death” for the Communist Party, the same is true for shuanggui detainees: there have been at least 11 deaths in shuanggui custody reported by the media since 2010. In most cases, authorities claimed these were suicides, but family members often suspected mistreatment, and the lack of comprehensive, impartial investigations into these deaths deepens these suspicions. While former detainees reported that the harsh conditions in shuanggui prompted suicidal thoughts, they also said the constant surveillance and the room’s modifications, designed to prevent suicide attempts, made it difficult to put such thoughts into action.

Some CDIs, concerned about the reputational damage caused by deaths in custody, have partnered with hospitals and doctors to provide medical care for detainees whom the CDIs know will be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

CDIs are supposed to hand over evidence of crimes to the procuratorate, the state investigators and prosecutors who are responsible for investigating official crimes. Instead, Human Rights Watch found that procurators work together with CDI officers and participate directly in shuanggui. Such “joint investigations” extract confessions during shuanggui – where detainees have no procedural protections – and then use those confessions in formal legal proceedings. If in those proceedings detainees retract their confessions, claiming that they were made under duress, the procurators typically threaten to send them back to shuanggui. Judges commonly reject detainee objections in court on the grounds that shuanggui and its practices are outside of the scope of the judicial system.

“In shuanggui corruption cases, the courts function as rubber stamps, lending credibility to an utterly illegal Communist Party process,” Richardson said. “Shuanggui not only further undermines China’s judiciary – it makes a mockery of it.”

The shuanggui system has been a highly effective tool for Communist Party investigators: once they obtain a confession, there is little suspects can do to exonerate themselves. Acquittals are extremely rare, and, except in cases of detainee deaths, few investigators face punishments for abuses. Some interviewees told Human Rights Watch that those who tormented them and their families were promoted for their “effectiveness” in handling corruption cases.

China has a serious problem with corruption, but successfully combating it requires an independent judicial system, a free media, and robust protections for the rights of suspects, Human Rights Watch said. A crucial step is the abolition of shuanggui.

“Eradicating corruption won’t be possible so long as the shuanggui system exists,” Richardson said. “Every day this system threatens the lives of party members and underscores the abuses inherent in President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.”
 

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Dakar, September 4, 2015) – The trial of the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture will begin in earnest on September 7, 2015.

Video

Act 1 of the Hissène Habré Trial

The long-awaited trial of Hissène Habré, was adjourned almost as soon as it was opened, as an outburst from the former dictator of Chad caused a scene in the courtroom.

When the landmark trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system formally opened on July 20, Habré had to be removed from court after an outburst. Habré’s lawyers then refused to appear and the trial was adjourned, giving new court-appointed lawyers time to study the case.  

“After 25 years of campaigning and 45 days waiting patiently, the survivors will finally get their day in court,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch who has worked with the victims since 1999. “Hissène Habré may try to create more disturbances, but he does not get a veto on whether he should be tried, or if the victims get justice.”

Habré has refused to communicate with the court-appointed lawyers, and it is expected that he will try to have them taken off the case. The president of the court, Gberdao Gustave Kam, has made clear, however, that in keeping with Senegalese law and international practice, the lawyers are needed to safeguard the rights of the accused and the integrity of the proceedings.

Habre is accused of tens of thousands of political killings as well as systematic torture during his rule, from 1982 to 1990. The trial is the first in the world in which the courts of one country prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes.

Habré is standing trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system. The chambers were inaugurated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the “person or persons” most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990, the period when Habré ruled Chad. Judge Kam, of Burkina Faso, president of the Trial Chamber, will hear the case along with two senior Senegalese judges.

The trial is expected to last two months, with about 100 witnesses and victims expected to testify.

“If I get a chance to look Hissène Habré in the face, I will do it without fear,” said Fatimé Sakine, 53, a secretary who was subjected to electroshocks and beatings during 15 months in prison from 1984 to 1986 and who is in Dakar for the trial. “I want to know why we were kept rotting, why so many of my friends were tortured and killed.”

“This case is a milestone in the fight to hold the perpetrators of atrocities accountable for their crimes, in Africa and in the world,” Brody said. “It's taken many years, and many twists and turns, but in the end a group of tenacious survivors have shown that it was possible to bring their dictator to justice.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Dakar, July 17, 2015) – The trial of Chad’s former dictator Hissène Habré is a victory for the victims of his government. The trial began in Senegal on July 20, 2015, almost 25 years after he was overthrown.  

Video

Hissène Habré Finally Facing Justice

The trial of Chad’s former dictator Hissène Habré is a victory for the victims of his government. The trial will begin on July 20, 2015, almost 25 years after he was overthrown.

 
“The opening of Hissène Habré’s trial, 25 years after he fled Chad, is a tribute to the survivors of his brutal rule who never gave up fighting for justice,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch who has worked with the victims since 1999. “This case warns despots everywhere that if they engage in atrocities they will never be out of the reach of their victims.”

Habré is charged with crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes. The trial will be the first in the world in which the courts of one country prosecute the former ruler of another for alleged human rights crimes.

 
Habré will stand trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegal court system. The chambers were inaugurated by Senegal and the African Union in February 2013 to prosecute the “person or persons” most responsible for international crimes committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990, the period when Habré ruled Chad. Judge Gberdao Gustave Kam of Burkina Faso, president of the Trial Chamber, will hear the case along with two senior Senegalese judges.

The trial is expected to last three months, with about 100 witnesses and victims expected to testify.

Habré, through his lawyers, has said that he does not want to appear in court. Under Senegalese law, however, the court president can require his appearance. 

“I have been waiting for this day since I walked out of prison almost 25 years ago, “ said Souleymane Guengueng, who nearly died of mistreatment and disease in Habré’s prisons, and later founded the Association of Victims of Crimes of the Regime of Hissène Habré (AVCRHH). “I want to look Hissène Habré in the face and ask him why I was kept rotting in jail for three years, why my friends were tortured and killed.”

Habré is accused of thousands of political killings and systematic torture. After he was deposed by the current president, Idriss Déby Itno, in 1990, Habré fled to Senegal. Habré was first arrested in Senegal in February 2000, but Senegal refused to prosecute him then or to extradite him to Belgium in 2005. It was only in 2012, when Macky Sall became president of Senegal and the International Court of Justice, acting on a suit by Belgium, ordered Senegal to prosecute or extradite Habré that progress was made toward the trial with the creation of the Extraordinary African Chambers. The chambers indicted Habré in July 2013 and placed him in pretrial custody. After a 19-month investigation, judges of the chambers found that there was sufficient evidence for Habré to face trial.

“This case is a milestone in the fight to hold the perpetrators of atrocities accountable for their crimes, in Africa and in the world,” Brody said. "It's taken many years, and many twists and turns, but in the end a group of tenacious survivors showed that even a dictator can be brought to justice." 

On March 25, a court in Chad convicted 20 top security agents of Habré’s government on torture and murder charges. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Today, eight Syrian civil society and international human rights organizations called on a number of UN Security Council member states to urgently address the widespread arbitrary detentions, kidnapping, torture and other-ill treatment, and enforced disappearances of tens of thousands of Syrians at the hands of the Syrian government, armed anti-government groups and the Islamic State. 

Over the course of the crisis, Syrian civil society and international human rights organizations have extensively documented staggering levels of serious violations against people deprived of their liberty by all parties. Hundreds have died in detention of torture or ill-treatment; tens of thousands have been forcibly disappeared by the Syrian government; and many have gone missing after being abducted by armed anti-government groups or the Islamic State.

Government forces have subjected tens of thousands to arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions. In many cases these violations amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Syrian government targeted those who were perceived to oppose the government or considered as disloyal, including political activists, protestors, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, doctors and humanitarian aid workers. Government forces arbitrarily detained such people in household raids, at checkpoints, and in their workplaces, universities and homes. Local sources indicate that in areas re-taken by the government these practices are continuing.

Throughout their detention, authorities subjected many detainees to enforced disappearance. They subjected many to torture from the moment of their arrest and continued to torture them for days, weeks or months using various methods including beating, electric shocks, and the use of stress positions for prolonged periods of time. In addition, they denied detainees their basic needs, including food, water, medicine, medical care and sanitation, and kept them confined in overcrowded cells without access to fresh air or ventilation.

Armed anti-government groups have also committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including abductions, torture and summary killings. According to several human rights organizations Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has detained hundreds of individuals in areas under their control, many because of their peaceful work documenting abuses or protesting the group’s rule. They have also subjected some of those detained to torture and ill-treatment. Local sources in Afrin reported at least 110 abuses that appear to amount to instances of arbitrary detention, torture and abductions of civilians by pro-Turkey armed groups. Meanwhile the Islamic state has kidnapped thousands. The fate of most of those kidnapped remains unknown even after the defeat of the group.

The families of the disappeared are also considered victims of the crime of enforced disappearance. Women in particular, are affected by the disappearance of their male relatives at different levels. In addition to the emotional and psychological impact the disappearance will have on the family members, women, whether it be mothers or wives, lose the main breadwinner of the household; without an official document recognizing the disappearance, wives of the disappeared often cannot receive aid or other services as some humanitarian organizations prioritize widows; their resettlement cases are often rejected. They also find themselves in a legal limbo, unable to claim inheritance and property, re-marry or in some cases relocate their children, since Syrian law requires permission from the male guardian.

To date, the Syrian government authorities continue to detain and subject tens of thousands to enforced disappearance. Their families are rarely told where their loved ones are held or whether they are still alive. Starting May 2018, the Syrian government updated civil registries in several parts of the country, including the Damascus countryside, Hama, Aleppo, and Sweida governorates to show individuals known to have been previously detained and forcibly disappeared by the Syrian government authorities as dead. In some cases, families were provided with death certificates reflecting dates of death as far back as 2013 and indicating their cause of death as “heart attack.”

However, the government has not responded to requests by families of detainees to obtain information on the circumstances of the enforced disappearances or the causes of death, or to take possession of the remains of those who died. Many were too scared to request additional information. As things stand, there is no way to verify the deaths without the government returning the remains to the families, and without the launch of an independent investigation into the cause and manner of death.

Despite the staggering evidence of violations and the continuing devastating impact these practices have had on Syria, very little progress has been made to release arbitrarily-held detainees, provide information on the whereabouts of the disappeared and missing, and hold the actors responsible for these violations accountable. Instead, government forces and anti-government armed groups continue to arrest and abduct individuals with impunity, while families ask questions but get no answers.

There has been an absence of a real and effective effort to resolve this issue, outside of limited prisoner exchanges that fail to capture the scale of the problem.

To that effect, we urged these states to consider the following recommendations that would end the suffering of the families of the disappeared and of the arbitrarily detained and provide them with access to justice:

  1. Pressure the Syrian government and armed anti-government groups, and their allies Russia, Iran and Turkey to:
  • disclose the names, fate, locations of people who were subjected to enforced disappearance and abduction, were extrajudicially executed, summarily killed, or died in detention,
  • immediately return the remains of the victims to their families to allow for proper burials and funeral rites, inform their relatives of the circumstances of their disappearances and deaths of their loved ones,
  • disclose the names, locations and legal status of all those being deprived of their liberty,
  • end the use of unfair trials and the practice of trying civilians in military courts, abolish Military Field Courts and reform the Anti-Terrorism Court in line with international fair trial standards in law and in practice,
  • grant independent international monitors unhindered access to all persons deprived of their liberty and allow them to investigate and monitor conditions in all detention facilities, including security branches and displacement centres,
  • ensure that those involved in the search for victims of enforced disappearance, notably the relatives of disappeared detainees, are protected against ill-treatment, intimidation, reprisal, arrests and enforced disappearance.
  1. As donors to the United Nations and other international organizations, we urge you to:
    • ensure that international co-operation and assistance programmes for reconstruction and development actively promote, protect and are guided by relevant human rights obligations and standards,
    • create and finance programmes aimed at ensuring justice and reparations for victims and their families taking into account the needs of the families of the disappeared, 
    • ensure that funded protection programming addresses salient protection concerns, including the continued patterns of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and harassment,
    • support the creation of a unified system for logging all cases of missing persons in Syria, including those that were kidnapped under Islamic State, as well as information regarding unidentified human remains or mass grave sites. The system should act as a repository of all available information regarding the fate of the disappeared in Syria in order to facilitate future identification and repatriation procedures. The criteria for and collection of such data should be standardized to ensure the utility of the system. Relatives of the missing should be able to review information about their loved ones available in such a system.
       
  2. Fund the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) and strive to ensure that the mechanism’s budget is incorporated into the UN regular budget so it can document the war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed against those deprived of their liberty.
     
  3. Exercise universal jurisdiction or establish an adequate legal framework for prosecuting international crimes committed in Syria where not in place, to hold perpetrators accountable. 

Signatory organizations:

Amnesty International

Dawlaty

Dammeh

Families for Freedom

Human Rights Watch

Nophotozone   

The Syria Campaign

Women Now

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Abu Dhabi Investment Authority building, modern tall buildings on the Corniche seafront, Abu Dhabi, UAE.

© 2012 Minden Pictures/AP Images

(Beirut) – A 42-year-old woman whom United Arab Emirates security forces denied adequate medical care and mistreated for more than three years died on May 4, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. Alia Abdel Nour had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, soon after her arrest on undisclosed charges.

A UAE court convicted Abdel Nour of terrorism in 2017 in a case marred by allegations of torture and serious due process violations. While imprisoned, she was denied regular family visits, and since her transfer to a hospital in November 2016, authorities had kept her hands and feet shackled to her hospital bed for extended periods of time. Since mid-March, authorities had allowed family members to visit Abdel Nour for no more than 20 minutes a day. Despite her failing health, the authorities ignored repeated calls by international rights groups, European parliamentarians, United Nations experts, and her family members to release her on health grounds. 

“UAE authorities showed just how cruel they can be by denying Alia Abdel Nour the chance to spend her last days with her family,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This case exemplifies why the UAE’s self-dubbed ‘Year of Tolerance’ is just another publicity stunt aimed at whitewashing the country’s deeply repressive policies.”

Abdel Nour’s family members said that after doctors informed them that she had only months to live, they repeatedly reached out to the crown prince, the Interior Ministry, and the public prosecutor to request her compassionate release on health grounds, which is permitted under Emirati law. They said that their requests had been rejected without explanation or ignored. Nor did the authorities respond to international calls for an investigation into the allegations of her ill-treatment and torture.

“Despite her deeply flawed prosecution and terminal illness, Emirati authorities chose to keep Alia Abdel Nour imprisoned and in isolation during her final days,” Page said. “The tragedy of her death in detention speaks volumes about the current state of human rights in the UAE.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In its August 2018 report on Faisaliya detention facility, Human Rights Watch interviewed Mahmoud who said he was hung in the “bazoona” position at least six times while in detention, for hours. He said that at least four of those times, he lost consciousness before being taken down. Sometimes officers threw water at him before beating his back with a metal cable, he said.

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

(Erbil, April 18, 2019) – Iraqi officers have committed torture at a detention facility in Mosul at least through early 2019, months after Human Rights Watch reported on the abuses and shared information about those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. The Iraqi government did not respond to two Human Rights Watch letters requesting an update on steps taken to investigate the allegations.

“If the Iraqi government ignores credible reports of torture, it’s no wonder that the abuses persist,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “What will it take for the authorities to take torture allegations seriously.”

In August 2018, Human Rights Watch published a report alleging the use of torture in three facilities under the Interior Ministry in and around Mosul. It was based on statements from two former detainees and the father of a man who died during interrogation. One former detainee, who was held at the Faisaliya detention facility for four months, provided Human Rights Watch with the names of four interior ministry officers whom he said he saw torturing detainees.

Before publishing its report, Human Rights Watch sent detailed allegations including the names of the four officers implicated to the human rights adviser in the Prime Minister’s Advisory Commission. In February, Human Rights Watch wrote to Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim and the Interior Ministry Inspector General, Jamal al-Asadi, asking whether the government had investigated the Human Rights Watch allegations. Human Rights Watch received no reply to either letter.

A former prisoner, whose name and identifying details have been withheld for his security, described what he saw at Faisaliya detention facility in early 2019.

He said that guards took him to a section behind a metal door cut off from the rest of the cells on the evening he arrived. His description matched that of other former detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch.

Diagram of the cells where Mahmoud said he was held in Faisaliya Prison from January until May, 2018

© 2018 John Holmes for Human Rights Watch

He said he saw eight detainees standing naked. Four guards were throwing water at them from a bucket, after which they pushed the detainees to the floor one by one, lifted their legs, and placed their feet through two rope loops attached to a wooden stick to keep the feet in place. He said he watched as the guards took turns beating each of the detainees on their feet with plastic piping for about 15 minutes nonstop. He said that after the beatings, six of the detainees confessed to being affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS), with each negotiating the length of their membership they would confess.

The guards used a form of “waterboarding,” referred to as al-safina (“boat” in Arabic) on the two detainees who had not confessed, he said. Five guards and an officer strapped each detainee in turn, still naked, onto an orange gurney and tipped it backward, so that the detainee’s feet were raised above his head and covered his face with a towel. For about five minutes, they beat each one with plastic piping while pouring water over his mouth.

He said that the guards then bound the men’s hands behind their backs and suspended them from the ceiling using a hook and pulley, in a position referred to as bazoona (the word for cat in Iraqi dialect) for about one hour. He said the men had all confessed by around 2 a.m. and were taken back to their cell.

An hour later, he said, when he and the 12 other detainees were in the group cell he shared lying down, three or four guards came in and stamped on them with their boots, while singing a well-known ISIS song.

He named three of the four Interior Ministry officers overseeing that section of the detention facility, whom Human Rights Watch had identified in its August report. He also gave the name of another officer he said had overseen the torture. He said that all four officers directly participated in the torture.

Iraqi judges, despite the extensive credible reports of torture in detention, routinely fail to investigate torture allegations. On April 1, 2019, Iraq’s High Judicial Council replied to a Human Rights Watch inquiry into the judiciary’s response to torture allegations, stating that a range of Iraqi courts had investigated 275 complaints against investigative officers by the end of 2018. The High Judicial Council stated that 176 of the cases have been “resolved” while 99 were still being addressed. The council did not indicate how many of the 176 cases were being further investigated or had been dismissed.

Inspector General Jamal al-Asadi should promptly investigate the allegations at Faisaliya detention facility, including the officers implicated in past Human Rights Watch reporting

Iraq’s High Judicial Council should issue guidelines on the steps judges are obliged to take when a defendant alleges torture. Judges should investigate all credible allegations of torture and the security forces responsible, and order transfers of detainees to different facilities immediately after they allege torture or ill-treatment, to protect them from retaliation. Parliament should pass the draft Anti-Torture Law, which would require judges to order a medical examination of any detainee alleging torture within 24 hours of learning of the allegation.

Iraq’s foreign minister should also urge parliament to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which would allow prison visits by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention. Pending ratification, the government should commit to setting up a national unit to prevent torture, known as a national prevention mechanism, with the authority to inspect all detention centers in Iraq and to set up an effective complaint systems for authorities and facilities involved in detention and interrogations.

The heads of the federal intelligence agency, NSS, and the new interior minister, once appointed, should issue statements to their subordinates prohibiting the use of torture and other ill-treatment, and making clear that they will punish those responsible. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi should publicly condemn the use of torture by all law enforcement, security, and military personnel.

“Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s government should demonstrate to the Iraqi people that it is serious about ending torture in Iraq’s detention facilities,” Fakih said. “Strong actions are needed.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

UPDATE: 

Ziad Itani told Human Rights Watch that after his hearing on April 12, 2019, the military prosecution decided to return the case to the civilian judiciary.

(Beirut) – Lebanese judicial authorities should move the Ziad Itani torture case to the regular criminal courts, The Legal Agenda, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch said today. The Military Prosecution summoned Itani for a hearing on April 12, 2019, in violation of Lebanese law, which states that torture cases against security officials should be heard in civilian, not military, courts.

Ziad Itani

© Private

Itani, a well-known actor exonerated of spying for Israel, has described in detail his forced disappearance and torture in detention at the hands of State Security in November 2017. Itani said that he was held for six days in what appeared to be an unofficial detention site where men in civilian clothing, who he claims were members of State Security, tortured him and subjected him to other forms of ill-treatment until he signed a confession. He was held in pretrial detention for more than three months, until the military investigative judge closed the case against Itani and charged two people with falsely accusing him.

On November 20, 2018, Itani filed a civil lawsuit with the State Prosecutor’s Office against the people who are accused of framing him and the State Security officials who conducted the preliminary investigation, who he claims tortured him. On November 28, 2018, State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud referred the complaint to the military prosecutor, Peter Germanos, on the grounds that the complaint is directed against security officers, Itani’s lawyer said.

“Itani’s claims of torture demand a thorough and fair investigation in the competent civilian courts,” said Nizar Saghieh, executive director of The Legal Agenda. “If his claims are true, the perpetrators should be held accountable and Itani must be provided with adequate redress for his suffering.”

The transfer of Itani’s torture complaint to the military courts violates article 15 of the Lebanese Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that offenses committed by judicial police officers during the performance of their duties fall under the jurisdiction of ordinary civilian courts. Lebanon’s 2017 anti-torture law specifies that the public prosecutor should refer torture cases to ordinary courts within 48 hours.

The jurisdiction of the ordinary criminal courts over torture complaints is vital for guaranteeing victims the right to a fair trial. Human Rights Watch has previously found that Lebanon’s military courts do not respect due process rights and that their structure undermines the right to a fair trial, including the right to be tried before a competent, independent, and impartial court and the right to a public hearing. Many military court judges are military officers, appointed by the defense minister, who are not required to have a law degree or legal training. Human rights organizations and journalists cannot monitor trials without the presiding judge’s prior approval.

Further, Lebanese lawyers have said victims cannot be a party in military trials and are considered witnesses, denying them the right to participate in the trial of the accused. Lebanese legal experts also state that there is only a limited right to appeal within the military court system.

The state prosecutor and the military prosecutor should immediately transfer Itani’s complaint to the competent regular judicial authorities to guarantee Itani’s right to a fair hearing of the torture complaint and to comply with Lebanese law, the groups said.

 

 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah listens during the first executive session of the CHOGM summit at Lancaster House in London, Thursday, April 19, 2018. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
(Kuala Lumpur) – The Brunei government’s introduction of a new Sharia penal code poses grave threats to basic rights, especially for the country’s most vulnerable people, Human Rights Watch said today.

The penal code, which goes into effect on April 3, 2019, requires death by stoning for extramarital sex and anal sex; amputation of limbs for stealing; and 40 lashes with a whip for lesbian sex. Abortion is also criminalized. Children who have reached puberty and are convicted of offenses can receive the same punishments as adults; certain younger children may be subjected to whipping.

“Brunei’s new penal code is barbaric to the core, imposing archaic punishments for acts that shouldn’t even be crimes,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Sultan Hassanal should immediately suspend amputations, stoning, and all other rights-abusing provisions and punishments.”

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah first formally published the Sharia, or Islamic Law, Syariah Penal Code Order in October 2013. At that time, the government stated it would implement the new law in three phases. The first phase would enact the provisions punishable by fines or imprisonment in April 2014. The second and third phases would then be introduced over the next two years, implementing provisions that included punishments such as amputation, whipping, or stoning to death. Following an international outcry over the severity of the punishments, the government delayed further implementation of the law. However, on December 29, 2018, Brunei’s attorney general quietly issued a notification that the law would be enacted in full on April 3.

On March 30, the Prime Minister’s Office sought to contain global outrage against the new law, issuing a statement that the code aims to “respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals.” Claims that this draconian law respects rights are without basis.

Brunei should immediately withdraw the order enacting Syariah Penal Code Order 2013, and amend its provisions in accordance with international human rights standards.

“Every day that Brunei’s penal code is in force is a multifaceted assault on human dignity,” Robertson said. “Governments around the world should make clear to Brunei’s sultan that there can be no business as usual so long as the threat of whipping, stoning or amputation remains on the books.”

How Do Punishments Included in Brunei’s Sharia Penal Code Violate International Human Rights Law?

Provisions of the Sharia penal code violate Brunei’s obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to life, freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, expression, religion, privacy, and individual autonomy, among others. The code is discriminatory on its face, and violates many rights of women, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, among others.

The punishments provided under the new code violate customary international law prohibitions against torture and other ill-treatment, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and treaties to which Brunei is party, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The use of stoning or intentional amputation as a punishment violates the absolute prohibition of all forms of torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said in its General Comment No. 36 that “under no circumstances can the death penalty ever be applied as a sanction against conduct” that is protected by international law, including adultery and homosexuality. Retaining the death penalty for such “offenses” is a form of arbitrary deprivation of life and violates Brunei’s international legal obligations.

The code also imposes the death penalty for some forms of robbery and rape, and for insult or defamation of the Prophet Mohammad (articles 63, 76, 220) by both Muslims and non-Muslims. This is inconsistent with the international principle that the death penalty should be reserved for only “the most serious crimes,” namely those involving intentional killing.

How does Brunei’s Sharia Penal Code Violate Freedom of Expression?

The new Sharia penal code punishes both Muslims and non-Muslims for printing, disseminating, importing, broadcasting, and distributing publications against Islamic beliefs (articles 213, 214, and 215). This is an excessive and disproportionate restriction on the rights to freedom of expression and religion.

The law also punishes “indecent” dressing and cross-dressing (articles 197, 198), which arbitrarily restricts freedom of expression and association and privacy rights, and constitutes a form of discrimination on the basis of gender expression.

How Does Brunei’s Sharia Penal Code Harm Women, LGBT People, and Children?

The Sharia penal code sets up serious barriers for Muslim women to escape violent marriages or seek equal employment opportunities. It criminalizes anyone who prevents a legally married Muslim couple living together or “entices” married Muslim women to leave their matrimonial home and similarly, punishes those who leave the custody of their parents or guardians. The law also punishes Muslim women for pregnancy outside of marriage (article 94). However, the attorney general’s order of December 29, 2018, exempted article 94 from immediate implementation starting on April 3.

The code makes consensual same-sex acts illegal and punishable by death or by whipping. It institutionalizes discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in its most severe form. At a time when many countries are decriminalizing consensual same-sex conduct, Brunei is joining seven countries that punish consensual homosexual acts with the death penalty. The law also attempts to legislate transgender people out of existence by prohibiting dressing in the attire associated with a different sex.

The penal code imposes criminal liability and punishment – including stoning, whipping, and imprisonment – upon children who have obtained puberty, referred to as baligh under the law. Children deemed old enough to know the difference between right or wrong, referred to as mumaiyiz under the law and traditionally interpreted under Sharia to be around age 7, may be punished, including by whipping. These provisions violate international law, including the rights of children protected in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, notably prohibitions against the death penalty, and torture and other ill-treatment. The penal code also criminalizes any conduct exposing Muslim children to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam.

Does the Sharia Penal Code Apply to Both Muslims and Non-Muslims?

In some legal systems said to derive from the Quran, Sharia applies only to Muslims. In contrast, most of the laws in Brunei’s Syariah Penal Code are applicable to both Muslims and non-Muslims. For example, articles 82 and 84, punishing liwat, or anal sex between two men or a woman and a man, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Article 69, punishing zina, or extramarital sex, and article 92, punishing musahaqah, sexual relations between women, apply in instances in which the accused persons are two Muslims or a Muslim and a non-Muslim.

Non-Muslims who commit khalwat – living together, cohabiting, or being in close proximity to another in private – under article 196 will be punished with imprisonment and a fine.

Anyone who publicly consumes food, drink, or tobacco before sundown during the month of Ramadan faces imprisonment and a fine under article 195.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

In this Oct. 10, 2018, photo, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a question and answer session after delivering her policy speech at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong.

© 2018 AP Photo/Vincent Yu
(Hong Kong) – The Hong Kong government should withdraw proposed revisions to two laws concerning extradition, Human Rights Watch said today in a joint letter to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The amended laws would allow the transfer of people accused of crimes abroad to mainland China, as well as other countries, where they would be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment, and unfair trials. The letter was co-signed by Amnesty International and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.

“The proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws would permit transfers to mainland China, putting Hong Kong people at risk of torture and unfair trials,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The amendments would tarnish Hong Kong’s reputation for the rule of law, and should be scrapped.”

China's justice system has a record of arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment, of serious violations of fair trial rights, and of various systems of incommunicado detention without trial. These problems are exacerbated because the judiciary lacks independence from the government and the Chinese Communist Party.

Under existing legislation, the Hong Kong government can only extradite people to countries with which it has standing extradition agreements, or to other countries on a case-by-case basis. Changes to these arrangements must be ordered by the Hong Kong chief executive ­ handpicked by Beijing ­ and scrutinized by the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s partially elected legislature.

In February 2019, the Hong Kong Security Bureau proposed changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance, which would expand the case-by-case extradition arrangement to mainland China. They would also remove the Legislative Council’s role in reviewing these individual executive requests, a crucial layer of governmental and public oversight.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies in Hong Kong, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Hong Kong is bound, as well as customary international law, prohibit returning people to places where there is a real risk of torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials, and other serious human rights violations.

“These amendments would heighten the risk for human rights activists and others critical of China being extradited to the mainland for trial on fabricated charges,” Richardson said. “This is a devastating blow to the freedoms promised Hong Kong upon its handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Ziad Itani, a Lebanese actor, who was exonerated of spying for Israel, is carried after he was released by Lebanese authorities. Itani has accused security officials of torturing him and has called on authorities to investigate.

© 2018 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

(Beirut) – Lebanon’s Council of Ministers on March 7, 2019 appointed the five members of the country’s National Preventative Mechanism against Torture, Human Rights Watch said today.

Lebanon’s parliament passed a law establishing the NPM, a body within the National Human Rights Institute (NHRI), on October 19, 2016. The NHRI is mandated to monitor the human rights situation in the country by reviewing laws, decrees, and administrative decisions and by investigating complaints of human rights violations and issuing periodic reports of its findings.

“Lebanon has taken a positive, if overdue, step toward eradicating the use of torture in the country through appointing the members of the National Preventative Mechanism against Torture,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now, the government should allocate a sufficient budget so that the members can get to work.”

The five-member body will oversee the implementation of the anti-torture law adopted in September 2017. It will have the authority to conduct regular unannounced visits to all places of detention, investigate the use of torture, and issue recommendations to improve the treatment of detainees. The members will be able to interview detainees privately and outside the presence of guards. Lebanese authorities are legally obligated to cooperate with the unit and facilitate its work.

The appointments were mandated by Lebanon’s October 2016 law establishing the unit that also brought Lebanon one step closer to complying with its obligation under the international Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which it ratified on December 22, 2008. The protocol requires Lebanon to create an independent national mechanism to prevent torture, including through regular visits to the country’s detention centers to examine the treatment of detainees.

The cabinet should submit a sufficient budget for both the National Human Rights Institute and the National Preventive Mechanism, and parliament should ratify the budget and related financial decrees to allow those bodies to fulfill their mandates, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has routinely documented credible reports of torture in Lebanon. However, authorities have failed to properly investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment by security services, and justice for torture in detention remains illusive. Ziad Itani, a well-known actor exonerated of spying for Israel, has described in detail his forced disappearance and torture in detention at the hands of State Security in November 2017.

Human Rights Watch wrote to State Security and the office of the public prosecutor, raising these allegations and urging them to conduct a thorough investigation into the case. It has not received a substantive response.

Itani told Human Rights Watch that he filed a civil lawsuit against the individuals involved in his torture in November 2018. However, he said that the public prosecutor referred the case to the military prosecutor and that there has been no movement on his case. Under international law, torture cases should be heard by regular judicial courts, not military courts. While the preamble in Lebanon’s new torture law specifies that torture cases should be heard by regular judicial courts, this is not reflected in its operational text, leaving open the possibility that Lebanon’s military courts will continue to hear some cases.

In July 2017, at least four Syrians died in military custody within days of their arrest, amid evidence of torture. Although local media reported that the military concluded an investigation into the deaths on July 24, the military has not published the results.

Following Lebanon’s first appearance in 2017 before the Committee Against Torture, the international body charged with overseeing implementation of the convention, the committee noted in its concluding observations that it remained:

concerned at various consistent reports that security forces and military personnel continue to routinely use torture against suspects in custody, including children, who are often held incommunicado, primarily to extract confessions that are to be used in criminal proceedings or as a form of punishment for acts that the victim is believed to have committed.

Lebanon’s 2017 anti-torture law precludes any excuse or justification for the use of torture, prohibits the use of testimony extracted under torture as evidence except against a person accused of committing torture, and provides special procedures for investigating allegations of torture and witness protection.

The need to combat torture and ill-treatment lies at the heart of several international conventions, treaties, and declarations that Lebanon is obligated to uphold under international law and is bound to by the preamble of its constitution. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the optional protocol.

Lebanon should accept the pending request of the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit Lebanon, submitted on February 13, 2017. It should also make publicly available the last and only report issued by the Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture in 2010, as well as the state’s response submitted in 2012.

“Despite improvements in Lebanon’s anti-torture framework, we have yet to see concrete progress in holding those response for torture to account,” Fakih said. “Lebanon’s authorities should ensure that the institutions they set up to end torture have the resources they need to effect real change.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliation. The prosecutions are often based on dubious accusations and forced confessions obtained through torture. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Egyptian policemen secure Egypt’s national police academy. 

© 2015 AP Photo/Amr Nabil

(Beirut) – The Egyptian authorities’ failure to end or impartially investigate torture and mistreatment in detention facilities reinforces an urgent need for an independent international inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today. As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Egypt should also allow the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other relevant UN experts to visit the country, including detention sites.

On January 30, 2019, the Prosecutor General’s Office said that a Cairo prosecution official had led an investigation into several cases of abuse and torture that Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 but concluded that the findings were “untrue.”

“The prosecutor’s statement follows Egyptian authorities’ same old formula of denying abuses, ignoring victims’ pain, and voiding justice,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecutors who are not independent, and who sometimes cover up abuses, can’t carry out credible and impartial investigations.”

In September 2017, Human Rights Watch published  a report about 20 cases of torture between 2014 and 2016. Human Rights Watch concluded that under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, the Interior Ministry’s regular police and its National Security Agency (NSA) have been involved in systematic, widespread enforced disappearances and torture that most likely amount to crimes against humanity.

Torture is carried out in police stations and unofficial security agency detention sites, and detainees are most vulnerable when lawyers and relatives are unable to find out their whereabouts. It involves beatings, stress positions, suspending people by their limbs, electric shocks, and sometimes rape or rape threats.

The statement from the Prosecutor General’s Office said that east Cairo prosecutors had interrogated several of the victims cited by Human Rights Watch who had “denied giving interviews for anyone working for Human Rights Watch” and “having been subject to torture or ill-treatment.” The statement did not mention other necessary elements of an investigation, such as interviewing security officers who might have participated in these abuses. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have documented that in many torture incidents, police officers and prosecutors have intimidated  the victims, warning them  not to complain or talk about their torture.

Human Rights Watch had sent its findings to the Prosecutor General and the Interior Ministry four months before it published the report, but received no response. The prosecutor’s investigation, which allegedly began in late 2017, remained largely secretive and did not involve the government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights, independent legal experts, or human rights defenders.

Egypt does not allow any independent supervision of prisons and detention sites and has repeatedly refused to allow visits of regional and international entities that investigate torture claims, including the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Egypt is also the only country to be the subject of two public inquiries by the UN Committee Against Torture. The committee wrote in June 2017, its most recent report, that the facts it gathered “lead to the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt.”

Torture has been endemic in Egypt for decades. But since the military unseated President Mohammed Morsy in July 2013, the authorities have cracked down on dissent, rounding up tens of thousands of opponents, many of whom were arbitrarily arrested. Local and international human rights organizations have documented hundreds of cases of enforced disappearance and torture under al-Sisi’s rule. Security forces have also killed hundreds of peaceful protesters and have probably extrajudicially executed detainees in several incidents.

Egypt needs to swiftly establish national independent torture prevention systems, including allowing independent organizations to inspect detention sites and prisons, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch found that the Interior Ministry has developed an “assembly line” of serious abuse to collect information about suspected dissidents and prepare often fabricated cases against them. Prosecutors often pressure suspects to confirm confessions obtained through torture and almost never investigate allegations of abuse. Few torture cases are referred to courts, and even fewer result in guilty verdicts.

Egypt, which has been elected as chair of the African Union in 2019, should also allow visits by the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) units such as the Working Group on the Prevention of Torture in Africa, and the special rapporteur on prisons, conditions of detention and policing in Africa.

On January 24, the African Commission wrote a Letter of Urgent appeal “concerning alleged arrest of a human rights defender for documenting the abusive use of force in military trials and the violation of the rights of detainees awaiting trial” in Egypt.

In modern Egypt’s history, it appears that no officer of the National Security Agency, formerly known as State Security, which appears to be responsible for the most flagrant abuses, has received a final guilty verdict for any abuse. In a recent example, in May 2018, a criminal court acquitted two National Security Agency officers, following their retrial, who were charged in the torture and murder of  Karim Hamdy, a lawyer, in Cairo’s Matariya Police Station in 2015. The officers were free for most of their trial after a brief initial detention despite the risk that they could abuse their authority to interfere with the evidence.

In October, Human Rights Watch documented the disappearance and alleged torture of Khaled Hassan, an Egyptian-American citizen whom authorities had recently referred to a criminal court. The government denied any wrongdoing.

Neither prosecutors nor the judge took any serious action when his lawyers requested an official investigation and forensic examination of his wounds.

In its 2017 annual report, the Committee Against Torture said that in Egypt “perpetrators of torture almost universally enjoy impunity.” It said the impunity was “facilitated by the absence of an independent investigating authority for complaints of torture,” and “a lack of regular independent monitoring of places of detention.”

In its 2017 report, Human Rights Watch said the Egyptian government should establish an inquiry “consistent with the national mechanism provided in the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture” to investigate, prosecute, and maintain a public record of torture cases.

Egyptian laws that facilitate abuse through the lack of proper definition and prohibition of torture and enforced disappearance should be amended, Human Rights Watch said. In recent years, authorities have arrested, prosecuted, or intimidated several lawyers and activists who fight torture and enforced disappearance. The government prosecuted a prominent human rights lawyer and disciplined two judges who proposed an anti-torture law, and shut down the al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, the most prominent anti-torture clinic in the country.

Egypt should allow UN and AU mechanisms such as the special rapporteurs concerned with torture, enforced disappearance, and detention conditions to visit the country and amend its laws to meet Egypt’s international obligations including under the African Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“If Egyptian authorities want to rebuild their shredded credibility after decades spent covering up and denying heinous abuse of detainees, they should immediately end torture and welcome independent, international investigators from the AU and the UN rather than denying them access to the country,” Page said.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

The European Union’s ties with Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy, are getting closer. Both parties are negotiating an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, an upgraded, comprehensive agreement that covers the scope of their bilateral relationship. But the European Parliament is not ready to give it the green light just yet.

In a resolution adopted on 15 January, it called on the EU to “ensure a firm engagement from both sides to respect and advance democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law,” and listed key human rights issues that Kyrgyzstan still needs to address.

The human rights concerns the European Parliament highlighted include press freedom, torture, bans on certain journalists and human rights workers from entering Kyrgyzstan, and the need to uphold human rights in the country’s efforts to deal with terrorism and extremism.

Azimjan Askarov in an undated photograph before his imprisonment.

But most urgently, the European Parliament expressed “dissatisfaction…with the upholding of the life sentence handed down to human rights activist Azimjon Askarov,” and requested his “immediate release,” as well as quashing his conviction, rehabilitating him and providing him with reparations. Askarov is one of the country’s most courageous human rights activists, who was unfairly sentenced to life in prison over eight years ago.

The European Parliament resolution echoes the March 2016 UN Human Rights Committee decision on Askarov’s case, which found that he had been arbitrarily detained, tortured in custody and denied a fair trial.

Yet, Askarov – now a frail 68-year-old – remains wrongfully and unjustly serving a life sentence.

He was arrested in June 2010 following an outbreak of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan that led to the killing of hundreds of people and the destruction of close to 2,000 homes. Askarov - who documented and wrote about police abuse - was arrested for allegedly participating in the killing of a police officer in the village of Bazar Kurgan. His trial was marred by procedural violations and violence. The court refused to investigate his credible allegations of torture in detention, before convicting him and imposing the longest possible sentence.

Many EU officials consider Kyrgyzstan the country in Central Asia with the greatest human rights potential. While it boasts a very active and engaged civil society, Askarov’s imprisonment, and the government’s abject failure to act on the UN Human Rights Committee’s decision in his case, along with other pressing rights issues the European Parliament noted in its resolution, should give EU officials considerable pause.

The text adopted on 15 January is the European Parliament’s response to the EU Commission’s negotiations on a stronger partnership deal with Kyrgyzstan. Since December 2017, when the EU and Kyrgyzstan began negotiating an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU has said that negotiations are “based on the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and good governance.” Yet it cannot be lost on EU officials that Kyrgyzstan flouts the very values the EU claims to share with Kyrgyzstan by keeping Askarov arbitrarily locked up, despite the UN Human Rights Committee ruling.

The European Parliament’s resolution should serve to renew the EU’s commitment to see Askarov free. The EU’s top diplomats, including Federica Mogherini, should make it clear that this needs to happen before any new deal is finalized. Kyrgyzstan should have no doubt that in order to demonstrate that its commitment to human rights values is meaningful and not for show, it has to end Azimjon Askarov’s unjust and unlawful imprisonment.

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

New fighters of the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by Syrian government forces on northern Idlib province and the surrounding countryside, August 14, 2018.

© 2018 Omar Haj Kadour/Getty Images

(Beirut) – An armed group with links to al-Qaeda has in recent months arbitrarily arrested scores of residents in areas under their control in Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch documented 11 cases in which the group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, detained Idlib residents, apparently because of their peaceful work documenting abuses or protesting the group’s rule. Six of those detained were apparently tortured. Syrian rights groups have documented hundreds of other cases of detention by the group in Aleppo and Idlib governorates, including at least 184 in the last three months, according to one organization.

“Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s crackdown on perceived opposition to their rule mirrors some of the same oppressive tactics used by the Syrian government,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “There is no legitimate excuse for rounding up opponents and arbitrarily detaining and torturing them.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed seven former detainees and relatives of four other men who are still detained by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, or whose whereabouts remain unknown. Eight of the men were detained between December 2017 and October 2018, while three others were arrested earlier, including a 16-year-old boy. Former detainees described being taken from their homes, at checkpoints, or at their workplace by men who identified themselves as members of or affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham or who were recognized as members. They said they were taken to locations that served as detention facilities, where they were interrogated, and six of them, including the boy, were tortured.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should immediately release all unlawfully held prisoners and stop arbitrarily arresting people and torturing and mistreating detainees, Human Rights Watch said. Turkey should use its leverage with the group to stop its abusive practices.

On September 17, 2018, Russia and Turkey brokered a cautious ceasefire. The agreement covered Idlib governorate and parts of Western Aleppo and Hama governorates still held by the anti-government groups. Following a ceasefire agreement between the anti-government armed groups on January 10, 2019, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham consolidated its control over the areas that remained outside its control in the governorate and surrounding areas. As Idlib remains under threat of attack by the Syrian-Russian military alliance, the presence of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should not be used as pretext to conduct an offensive on the estimated 3 million other people under the group’s control, Human Rights Watch said.

On December 9, citing sources close to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, news media reported that journalist Amjad al-Maleh had been sentenced to death for collaborating with enemies, including Israel and the US-led coalition, to disclose locations of several armed groups. Al-Maleh had been displaced to Idlib from his home in Madaya and was detained by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham in December 2017.

On December 20, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and the civilian government affiliated with it, the Salvation Government, requesting a response to the claims made in this report and calling on the group to immediately halt plans to execute al-Maleh. On January 11, a representative of the group responded to Human Rights Watch on behalf of the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham judicial committee. He denied that Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had used the torture methods that Human Rights Watch documented and said that al-Maleh, whose whereabouts remain unknown, had not been sentenced to death.

The representative also shared a draft law on prisoners and detainees with Human Rights Watch.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and the Salvation Government should reform detention and judicial processes to ensure that detainees are not mistreated and are guaranteed all rights essential to a fair trial, including that they can obtain legal representation and appeal their sentences in a timely manner, if the reason for their arrest is valid.

When committed in the context of an armed conflict, cruel treatment, torture, and humiliating or degrading treatment of detainees are war crimes. Under international law, non-state armed actors with de facto control must refrain from torture and mistreatment of detainees and must allow them due process. Authorities should bring a suspect before a judge within 48 hours of arrest to review the legality and necessity of the continued detention and to ensure that the detainee’s rights are respected. There should be a clear legal basis for all detentions, and detainees should promptly be taken before a judge to rule on the legality of their detention.

Under the laws of armed conflict and human rights law, no one may be convicted or sentenced except after a fair trial providing all essential judicial guarantees. These include that the courts should be independent, impartial, and “regularly constituted” according to the laws and procedures in force in the country.

“Solidifying power by spreading terror is never the answer,” Fakih said. “Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham should cease the panic-induced frenzy of arrests, and instead prioritize protecting civilians in areas under their control.”

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham

Formed in January 2017, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham is a coalition of Islamist Sunni anti-government armed groups, led by the group previously known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra. In March 2017, the group claimed a twin bombing in Damascus that killed at least 40 people, the majority of them Iraqi Shia pilgrims. The US and Turkey in 2018 designated the group a foreign terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, while the United Nations sanctioned it the same year. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has denied affiliation with al-Qaeda.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham is widely acknowledged to be the main anti-government group operating in northwest Syria. The group defeated the other major anti-government group, Ahrar al-Sham, in July 2017, and thus cemented its territorial and military control over most of those parts of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates that had been under anti-government control. In January 2019, it established control over most remaining anti-government areas.

As of October 2018, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had a fighting force of 12,000 to 15,000, one-third of them non-Syrian, according to the CSIS Transnational Threats Project. The group is led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, a Syrian who played a leading role in the creation and leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham apparently funds its activities primarily through taxes and tariffs on residents in areas under its control. It has also applied tariffs on incoming arms and other weaponry provided to other non-state armed actors, according to the Counter Extremism Project. The project also reported that the group receives donations from private individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, and has received millions of dollars for releasing prisoners through Qatar-mediated negotiations.

Turkey has engaged with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham on stabilizing the northwestern part of Syria. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has accepted observation points set up by Turkey near areas the group controls.

In addition to its militant front, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has attempted to create several civilian bodies, including the Syrian Salvation Government, a governance body formed in November 2017 that is responsible for its civilian functions. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham also has an extensive prison system and has created its own court system.

By October 2017, in parallel with its military successes, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had taken control of all other courts in the region. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s court system applies Sharia law. The judges who operate these courts do not have formal legal training, and in some cases may not even be trained in the application of Sharia law.

Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s Response to Human Rights Watch’s Letter

In the response to Human Rights Watch’s letter, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s representative said that no one is sentenced without evidence, and that the security services and the Interior Ministry are not allowed to sentence prisoners, but instead are required to transfer them to the Justice Ministry. If there is no evidence of a crime, then the individual is acquitted, the representative said. If a judge issues a sentence, then that sentence is verified and confirmed by a committee of experts in law and Sharia.

The draft law that Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham provided to Human Rights Watch prohibits arrests without a judicial warrant, except where “a suspect is almost certainly guilty and there is no time to retrieve an arrest warrant.” It also requires taking a suspect before a judge within 48 hours of arrest, prohibits torture and mistreatment, and asserts that all prisoners should have access to health care, sufficient food, and family visits. It does not provide a prisoner with a right to legal representation nor does it refer to a right of appeal. It does not provide any special consideration or treatment for individuals under the age of 18. The draft law is based on Islamic law, according to the text.

Accounts by Detainees and Their Families

According to the detainees Human Rights Watch spoke to, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham is known to control five or six detention facilities, including Okab, Harem, Idlib Central, Sinjar, and Aleppo. Media reports and activists say that there are several other unofficial detention facilities.

Of the detainees Human Rights Watch spoke to, four spent time in Okab prison, a notorious facility where detainees described worse conditions and more aggressive torture or mistreatment than elsewhere. Three of the detainees were in Idlib central prison, and two in Harem prison. Investigators were either Syrian or Tunisian, three of the detainees said.

None of the detainees were able to see or consult a lawyer, and only two saw a sharia judge in one of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s courts. It is unlikely that these courts meet the test required under humanitarian law that no one should be convicted or sentenced except after a fair trial before courts that are “regularly constituted” by the laws in the country. All but one of the detainees interviewed said that prison officials had beaten, or otherwise physically mistreated them. In many cases the abuse amounted to torture.

One man described being hung from a pole upside down for hours during interrogation. Another described being taken into a very tight coffin-like, steel room for three hours. A third said that the interrogators would squeeze his entire body through a tire and beat him incessantly, a torture method called dulab, which Syrian security services have also used:

At night, they would begin beating me. They used dulab. These torture moments, I remember them in detail, every day. I have a hatred towards them and want to expose what they did. People died in front of my eyes. The maximum you can do is move your shoulders a bit. And scream for help. But on several occasions, they stuffed things in my mouth so I can’t scream, like a ball. This happened six or seven times. Two or three days of rest in between. I used to lose my consciousness a lot.

A video shared on social media showed a man being tortured, reportedly in Harem prison, a detention facility under the control of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham near the city of Harem, in Idlib governorate. While Human Rights Watch was unable to verify whether the video was taken in Harem prison, the torture practices shown, and information from activists, who said they could identify the man being tortured, matched statements from the people interviewed about of torture methods used by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib.

Three of those released said that their families or the public had to apply pressure or use a connection close to Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham to get them released. In four cases, the detainees had to sign or record declarations promising that they would not film or report on Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham or in their area anymore. Of the 11 cases investigated, four remain missing or in detention.

Analysts have stated that parts of the population have resisted several attempts by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham to translate its military dominance in parts of Idlib governorate and surrounding areas into political and governance power over the 3 million people living there. Former detainees and Syria analysts say that this is primarily due to the abusive tactics it has employed in silencing dissent, including arbitrary detention, abduction, and in some cases, assassinations. Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has also restricted humanitarian aid and access to civilians living in areas it controls.

Accusations Leveled by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham

Most of the eight former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they believed from the accusations their interrogators leveled at them that they were arrested due to their criticism of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s rule. Seven of the eight were media activists or journalists who had participated in or covered protests or were working with foreign media outlets.

They said Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham appeared to equate criticism of their rule with collaboration with the Syrian government, the Turkish government, the US-led coalition, or other Syrian non-state armed actors such as Ahrar al-Sham or the National Liberation Front. All except one denied any affiliation to such entities.

All those interviewed said detainees were accused of multiple crimes during interrogation, including adultery, drinking alcohol, being members of the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS), being double-agents for the Syrian government, and working for “apostate” countries.

One detainee said Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham accessed his phone and found out he was a journalist: “I couldn’t deny it – so they started asking me questions: ‘Who is pushing you to cover us? Who are you providing information to? If they didn’t like the answer, they would beat me. At one point, they accused me of using a drone for Turkish intelligence.”

Another said Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham accused him of being with the FBI: “I kept telling them, you have the initials wrong, it is AFP (Agence France Press) not FBI (the US Federal Bureau of Investigations) [in Arabic, the initials are interchangeable].”

Detainee Accounts

All detainees’ names have been changed for their protection. All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, including their right to stop the interview at any point, and gave informed consent to be interviewed.

Samy S.

Samy S. told Human Rights Watch he was arrested by seven armed men whom he later found out were affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham. He is a journalist and a peaceful activist, who moved to Idlib after the government re-took his hometown. He said he had no other choice.

In Idlib, he resumed his work as a journalist. A few months after he arrived, while filming with a friend, a group of armed men ambushed him. They took him to Idlib Central Prison, which he said is under the control of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham.

His arrest came as part of a wave of arrests at that time.

He said he spent six months in detention and that investigators affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham interrogated him over 10 times. At first the interrogations were about his camera and his phone. The interrogator, a Syrian, told him there was nothing on him and that he would be released in a few days, Samy S. said.

Three months into his captivity, the interrogator changed, and the captors’ behavior toward Samy S. changed: “They beat me. They would place me upside down for hours, beat me, and interrogate me. It became tougher – physically and emotionally.”

Samy S. said he thought from the accent that the new investigator was Tunisian. Six months after he was detained, the prison authorities forced him to write a statement that he would not return to his work as a journalist. They also required a friend of his to guarantee that he would not return to work. If he did, both would be arrested.

“I am still under surveillance,” Samy S. said. “I tried to leave to Turkey twice already since I was released, but no luck. This is not my country anymore.”

Jamil J.

Jamil J., a journalist, said he was detained by four masked men on April 27, 2018, in Jisr al-Shugour, Idlib. He said he was with a friend, filming a water spring in the area for a report on nature in Idlib governorate.

He said the four masked men cuffed them and covered their heads, telling them that they would take them to inspect the footage. The men confiscated his phone and found out he was a reporter.

While the masked men never indicated who they were, Jamil J. said he knew they were from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham once they took him to Harem Prison, which is under their control. He said that in the 40 days he was detained, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham transferred him from Harem to Okab prison, where they interrogated him, placed him in solitary confinement, and beat him with a water pipe. He said the interrogator told him that the main accusation against him was that he covered a protest in Ma'ret al-Nu'man, a town in Idlib.

He said that his parents were not allowed to visit, but that he was allowed to let them know where he was:

We spoke with the warden begging him to let us inform our parents, send them a message just so they are relieved. We told him we’ll just tell them you’re investigating us. As much as it was dangerous to end up with them [HTS], it was better for our parents to know, given all the assassinations and all the kidnappings taking place in the area. We just wanted to reassure our parents. And he let us.

Jamil J. said he was released after his parents used their connections to get him out.

“Most people in their prisons were detained arbitrarily. I got to know people who were there for two or three, even six months, without being questioned,” he said. “When you end up in their prison, it’s as if you’re forgotten.”

Mounir M.

His friends and relatives said that Mounir M., a media activist, was arrested in October 2018. On the day of his arrest, his friend said, he and Mounir M. were attending one of the many anti-Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham protests, in a town under the control of another anti-government group in Aleppo governorate. His friend said that there was shelling, and the day before, two members of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham had been killed “so tensions were high.”

Four hours later, the friend said Mounir M. and his uncle were taken from their home by a group of armed men in vehicles. His parents, the friend said, recognized a few of the men as being affiliated with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham. Both Mounir’s friends and his relatives believe that the reason for his arrest was a perceived association with the National Liberation Front because his cousins were members, but said that they did not believe he was a member. Mounir remains detained, and his family does not know his whereabouts.

Yahya Y.

Yahya Y. said he was taken from his home in Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib, in front of his parents by a group of masked men at dawn in January 2016. He was 16 at the time and working as a freelance reporter. Yahya said the men who arrested him did not identify themselves but said that he was transported to a detention facility where the interrogator told him he was in Okab prison. For a week after that, Yahya said, no one spoke to him:

They used to pull me out [of the cell], beat me, and return me. No one asked me a single question. No one asked me what my name was. 

Yahya said he was detained for 100 days. He said Jabhat al-Nusra, which had operated the facility at first, and then Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham tortured him using a number of techniques. They included shabah (hung upside down from his feet, then beaten and sprayed with water), the “steel bed” (tied to a freezing metal bed with cold water thrown on him), dulab, or “tire” (body squeezed into a tire and then beaten), and beit al-kalb, or “dog house” (forced to spend hours inside a 1-by-1-by-1.5-meter cell).

He also described torture methods he saw or heard used against the foreigners inside the prison, including electric shocks and al-tabout, or “coffin,” in which the interrogators would put the detainee in an electronically-controlled, vertical steel coffin-shaped box and then press on their chests, causing some people to lose consciousness and in other cases breaking their bones.

Yahya said the main allegation Jabhat al-Nusra/Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham made against him was collaboration with foreign entities and that before they released him they forced him to read a pre-written false confession on video, admitting that he worked with the US-led coalition.

While Yahya said his family was not initially aware of his whereabouts, through personal connections and help from his friends, they managed to exert pressure to arrange a visit to see him and eventually to secure his release. “When I think about it today, I wonder how it happened that I was released,” he said. “I knew that whoever ends up in Okab, never leaves.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should immediately allow independent international monitors to enter Saudi Arabia and meet with detainees, including those who have alleged torture, Human Rights Watch said today. The detainees should include the prominent princes and business leaders held as part of a so-called corruption probe, and the prominent women’s rights advocates detained since May 2018.

Media outlets have reported that Saudi authorities opened two investigations into the torture allegations by women’s rights advocates, one by Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, a government agency, and one by Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor, which reports directly to the royal court. Neither agency has the independence necessary to conduct a credible, transparent investigation that would hold those responsible for torture accountable.

“Saudi Arabia’s internal investigations have little chance of getting at the truth of the treatment of detainees, including prominent citizens, or of holding anyone responsible for crimes accountable,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Saudi Arabia truly wants to get to the bottom of what happened and hold abusers accountable, it needs to allow independent access to these detainees.”

On January 2, 2019, a panel of British parliament members and international lawyers sent an official request to Saudi authorities for access to the country and to detained women’s rights advocates, but the request has not received a response.

On December 17, 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that members of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission had interviewed prominent women’s rights advocates in detention and recorded their allegations of torture, which included electric shocks, whippings, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. It is unclear whether the commission will issue a public report or recommendations based on these allegations, but informed sources told Human Rights Watch that a member of the Human Rights Commission told one of the detained women the commission could not help them.

On January 13, Bloomberg reported that Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor had opened an investigation into the torture allegations by the women’s rights advocates. The Saudi Public Prosecution was created in June 2018 and reports directly to the Saudi royal court.

The announcement of the investigation came after Saudi Arabia’s media ministry on November 23 denied evidence of torture published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In addition to the women’s rights advocates, independent monitors should also be allowed access to other detainees, including human rights activists and independent clerics held since September 2017, as well as prominent royal family members, businessmen, and current and former government officials held on suspicion of corruption since November 2017.

A March 12, 2018 New York Times report said that 17 detainees among these held at the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh required hospitalization for physical abuse. They included one who later died in custody, the report said, “with a neck that appeared twisted [and] a badly swollen body and other signs of abuse.”

The New York Times identified Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the Saudi Binladin Group, and Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former Riyadh governor and son of the late King Abdullah, as two of the men who remain in detention. It identified Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, an aide to Prince Turki, as the man who later died in detention. The report cited a person who saw the body, which had signs of physical abuse including a twisted neck and burns that appeared to be from electric shocks.

The report indicated that in addition to Prince Turki, the corruption probe targeted several other sons of the late King Abdullah. Another son, Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah, was reported to have been briefly detained after he complained privately about Qahtani’s treatment. On November 17, Middle East Eye reported that another son of the late king, Prince Miteb, the longtime head of the country’s National Guard, was one of the 17 people who required hospitalization.

The detention conditions and legal status of Prince Turki, former economy and planning minister Adel Fakieh, and others are unknown.

“Independent monitors can help confirm what has happened to people detained during these operations and find out about their current wellbeing,” Page said. “Without such scrutiny, there is every reason to believe that the Saudi authorities may still be treating them with unspeakable cruelty.” 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am