(Goma) – Congolese authorities have not arrested a rebel commander wanted for multiple crimes under a June 2019 warrant even as his forces have continued to carry out summary killings, rapes and sexual slavery, extortion, and forced recruitment of children.

Congolese judicial authorities on June 7, 2019 issued the warrant for the militia leader, Guidon Shimiray Mwissa (known as Guidon), for participating in an insurrection, recruiting child soldiers, and committing the crime against humanity of rape in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The authorities also have not provided survivors of sexual violence adequate assistance. Congolese authorities should enforce the arrest warrant and bring to justice Congolese army officers found to have assisted him.

“A 2019 arrest warrant has not stopped Guidon from committing horrific abuses against civilians in areas he controls,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “His backers within the Congolese army should be investigated and prosecuted for using an abusive group as a proxy force.”

Guidon commands a faction of the Nduma Defense of Congo-Rénové (NDC-R), which until it split in July 2020, controlled more territory than any other armed group in eastern Congo. It was effectively in administrative control of much of Walikale, Lubero, Masisi, and Rutshuru territories in North Kivu – an area roughly the size of neighboring Rwanda. Human Rights Watch has not been able to identify any attempt by Congolese authorities or United Nations peacekeepers to arrest Guidon. Instead, there is evidence that elements of the Congolese army have been collaborating with the NDC-R. However, since the group split into two factions in July, Congolese troops have carried out military operations against Guidon’s forces and say they are seeking to arrest him.

Between January 2016 and September 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 people, including victims and witnesses of attacks in all four territories, former child soldiers, Congolese security sources, UN staff, and local activists. Human Rights Watch also analyzed and authenticated a trove of footage filmed by local residents with undisclosed cameras showing abuses by NDC-R fighters and evidence of collaboration between the Congolese army and the NDC-R. Given the large scale of the abuses and the remoteness of the areas where the NDC-R has been operating, this research covers only a fraction of the abuses committed.

Since 2014, NDC-R forces have killed dozens of men, women, and children in those four territories, many of them hacked to death with machetes or shot. During attacks, fighters looted and burned houses, and tortured men and women with knives and machetes, said witnesses and victims, including former child soldiers.

In January, NDC-R fighters detained about 12 people at a banana plantation in Rutshuru territory. “[The fighters] made us sit together and started to cut us with machetes,” a 17-year-old boy said. At least two men were killed.

Congolese commanders have helped Guidon’s rebels control vast swathes of territory despite killing civilians, raping women and girls, and causing massive displacement. Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher

Human Rights Watch

NDC-R fighters have also committed widespread sexual violence against women and girls, including rapes and sexual slavery. Women and girls described being raped, in some instances while being beaten, stabbed with knives, or tied up. Some survivors said they were raped repeatedly, in some instances by several fighters.

Human Rights Watch documented 15 cases of rape, of 11 women and 4 girls, and heard reliable accounts of scores of other cases. A 14-year-old girl from Masisi territory described being raped by an NDC-R fighter while returning from the fields in early 2020: “He took me and pushed me on the ground. He said, ‘If you refuse, I will shoot you in the stomach.’”

NDC-R fighters have also forcibly recruited scores of young men and boys and imposed forced labor and illegal “taxes” on people living in areas under their control. People who did not comply or failed to pay were kidnapped, severely beaten, and ill-treated while detained in underground pits at NDC-R bases. Since the arrest warrant was issued, the Kivu Security Tracker – a joint project by Human Rights Watch and the New York University-based Congo Research Group – found that NDC-R forces killed about a hundred civilians.

Guidon, 40, is an ethnic Nyanga and former government soldier from Walikale territory who defected in 2007 to become a rebel fighter. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC) under Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka. In 2014, Guidon broke away from Sheka and established the NDC-R. Sheka surrendered to the authorities in 2017 and was charged with mass rape, murder, pillaging, recruiting child soldiers, and torture. His trial took place before a military court in Goma, which has yet to deliver its verdict. Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuses by Sheka’s forces.

In January 2018, the UN Security Council added Guidon to the UN sanctions list, freezing his assets and imposing a worldwide travel ban. Reports by the UN Group of Experts and the Congo Research Group, along with videos obtained by Human Rights Watch, have shown that Congolese army units have continued to support and collaborate with the NDC-R, from planning military operations to providing the group with arms and ammunition.

A Congolese army spokesman in North Kivu told Human Rights Watch by phone in October that government troops were “actively seeking to arrest Guidon.” “We want to get him alive so we can hand him over to face justice,” said Maj. Guillaume Njike Kaiko. “We have seen no evidence but if army officers were found to have collaborated with the [NDC-R] group, they will be handed over to the competent authorities because that would be against the army’s mission.”

The Congolese government should step up efforts to arrest Guidon and end his capacity to commit abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Congo’s international partners should publicly and privately urge the administration of President Felix Tshisekedi to act.

Under article 190 of Congo’s constitution, supporting non-state armed groups amounts to high treason. In February 2013, 11 African countries signed the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region in Addis Ababa, in which they agreed not to tolerate or provide support to armed groups. Congolese authorities should investigate the sources of support to the abusive NDC-R forces – whatever the faction – and act to stop it. Military commanders implicated should be suspended and appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.

“Congolese commanders have helped Guidon’s rebels control vast swathes of territory despite killing civilians, raping women and girls, and causing massive displacement,” Fessy said. “The Congolese authorities not only need to shut down Guidon, but also all those military officers who have kept him from justice.”

Abuses by Guidon’s Forces since 2018

Since the NDC-R was established in 2014, its leaders have promised to provide the Nyanga people greater access to land and mineral resources, to fight the armed group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR) and to improve their representation in public office and the army. With several thousand members, the NDC-R set up governance structures and a sophisticated system of illegal taxation, mainly on households and mining activities. Guidon’s NDC-R rapidly became a key partner for Congolese army units operating in the area.

Human Rights Watch documented widespread abuses by the NDC-R against civilians in parts of Masisi territory as well as in and around the town of Katsiru, in Rutshuru territory. The Kivu Security Tracker reported that the group killed more than 130 civilians, including children, since 2018.

On July 8, 2020, the NDC-R split in two, when deputy commanders broke away from Guidon. Both factions have since been fighting for control, forcing thousands of people out of their homes.

Killings near Katsiru

In December 2019, the NDC-R took control of Katsiru, a town with an estimated 33,000 people in western Rutshuru territory. In Katsiru, Guidon’s troops imposed taxes and forced labor, looted houses, and stole harvests from fields.

Following clashes with a rival armed group in early 2020, Guidon’s forces accused civilians of collaborating with the enemy, and on January 21 and 22 went on a rampage, killing at least 15 women, men, and children in nearby Kabweja, Mukaka, and Kinyamugezi.

On January 22, NDC-R fighters killed two loggers in Bulanda village. A man who managed to escape told Human Rights Watch: “[My friend] was on a log. I heard gunshots and saw him fall.” He recognized the attackers as NDC-R by their clothing and said that a second person was killed nearby. On the same day, NDC-R fighters ordered Katsiru residents to bury those the fighters had killed earlier. Witnesses said that some corpses were mutilated, with genitals and other organs cut off.

Killings in Masisi

Guidon’s troops also committed widespread abuses against civilians in Masisi territory, as the NDC-R expanded its reach in late 2018. In early January 2019, NDC-R fighters killed at least 15 civilians in the area of Shibu, near Ronga. A woman said she heard gunshots as she was walking back from the fields carrying her child on her back. On arriving home, she saw her 8 and 12-year-old boys lying dead in the yard. She tried to flee but she and her child were both struck by a bullet. That day, she said, the NDC-R killed nine other people in a single house: a mother who had given birth three days earlier, a nanny, and seven children. “The three-day-old baby died because he was abandoned,” she said. Four other men were also killed in the area that day.

In April 2019 in Ronga, the NDC-R detained a couple and their year-old baby because they had not paid the unofficial monthly tax. The man paid a fine for his release, but he was not able to pay more to free his wife and child. “A few days later, we heard that some detainees had been killed while trying to flee overnight,” he said. “I found my wife and child dead. She had been shot in the back and died with the baby strapped to her back.” The bodies of three other women who were held for the same reason were also found the same day, April 9. NDC-R fighters also fatally shot two shepherds in nearby Rugarambiro. Two witnesses said both bodies’ genitals had been cut off and taken away.

Human Rights Watch documented that NDC-R fighters killed seven more people, including two women, in July 2019, in two separate incidents. Witnesses said genitals also had been removed from most male corpses.

The NDC-R committed further abuses near Miandja, Bapfuna groupement, from August 2018 onwards after they pushed the Nyatura militia, mostly ethnic Hutu, out of the village. A man from this area prepared a list documenting the killings of 21 civilians by the NDC-R in Bapfuna and Bashali-Kaembe groupements between August 2018 and August 2019.

Sexual Violence in Masisi and Rutshuru

Human Rights Watch interviewed rape survivors and heard credible reports of dozens of other cases of sexual violence in the Katsiru area.

In January 2020, NDC-R fighters captured four women peeling bananas in a plantation and raped them. One woman who was seriously injured died on her way to Mweso hospital, near Katsiru, said one survivor.

In February, another rape survivor said: “Not one day goes by without a woman who has been raped going to the health center.... [The NDC-R fighters] tell us that the Nyatura [another armed group] are our children. ‘We must rape you,’ they say.”

Human Rights Watch also interviewed seven women and three girls from Masisi raped by NDC-R fighters. An 18-year-old woman said that Guidon’s troops stopped her on her way to Bibwe market in September 2019, accusing her of not paying the monthly tax. They stole her money and beat her severely. She said they put her in a small house where a fighter raped her at least twice. She was released after her mother gave them a goat.

In January 2020, a 14-year-old girl, displaced to Mpati, was walking on the road with two girlfriends when three NDC-R fighters stopped and raped them in the nearby bush. “When we resisted, they told us, ‘We’re going to kill you,’ so we couldn’t do anything,” she said. The three girls were taken to an NDC-R position but managed to escape overnight during an attack from the Nyatura.

Human Rights Watch also heard credible reports of girls being held as sex slaves for several days or weeks in the NDC-R camps. An activist described this situation in Katsiru in February:

When [NDC-R fighters] meet pretty underage girls, they forcibly take them to their camps.… They use them as wives for a while, then chase them away. They have to go home. It’s like taking turns; they take other pretty girls afterwards. That’s what happens. They are kept for several days before being chased away. The families of these girls don’t know how to protest – if they did, they could be killed.

A 45-year-old woman said NDC-R fighters abducted her 14-year-old daughter along with four other girls in March 2019. They were in a camp in Mpati where they had been displaced. She said the fighters took them to their position and several men repeatedly raped them. Her daughter was only able to escape two months later.

The woman said that in July 2019, four NDC-R fighters came to their house and forced her to lead them to her daughter, who had gone into hiding. They took them to their position, where they beat them and detained them in an underground pit – common in NDC-R positions – with their hands and feet tied. NDC-R fighters repeatedly raped both of them. The mother was released nine days later, and the daughter was freed eventually, following ransom payments. Fearing further retaliation, the daughter fled Mpati.

In June, the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo found that armed combatants, especially those from NDC-R and the Collectif des mouvements pour le changement/Forces de défense du people (CMC/FDP), a coalition of Nyatura militias, had “committed widespread conflict-related sexual violence amidst recurrent fighting in Masisi and Rutshuru territories from January 2019 to February 2020.... Those acts included rape, gang rape, some instances of sexual slavery and forced marriage” that “may amount to torture, may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The Group of Experts further noted that, “Some NDC-R and CMC/FDP commanders committed those acts, and commanders of both armed groups, who had effective control, failed to take the necessary measures to punish subordinates responsible for those acts, despite awareness thereof or owing to willful ignorance.”

Illegal ‘Taxation;’ Forced Labor

The NDC-R set up a sophisticated illegal tax system in areas under their control. Adults were forced to pay about 1,000 Congolese francs (US$0.60) per month for a security tax known as lala salama (“sleep in peace” in Swahili). Guidon’s group at times also imposed additional taxes on the population. Those unable to pay were often detained, beaten, raped, and forced to pay large sums in cash or in-kind to be released.

The NDC-R often forced adults and children to take part in “community labor,” or salongo in Swahili. Several people from Masisi said that men and boys were forced to work one or two days a week. This included heavy work, such as digging trenches or constructing shelters at NDC-R positions, building and cleaning roads, or clearing land.

Those who failed to comply with the salongo were beaten and forced to pay “fines.” For the work, the NDC-R gave them jetons, tokens which certified their attendance.

A teacher from Masisi territory said: “We keep the jetons jealously. If I lose it and they [NDC-R] stop me on the way, they can kill me. Even the students have to do this work.”

Congolese Army Support

The NDC-R rapidly benefited from the support of Congolese military officers who used the group as a proxy force in their fight against other militias. Several sources told Human Rights Watch that Guidon’s troops had consistently received material and operational support from the 3307th, 3410th, and 3411th regiments of Congo’s armed forces since at least early 2018. These regiments were all involved in operations dubbed “Sukola 2” (“clean-up” in Lingala) against FDLR rebels. Support was also channeled through the 34th Military Region in Goma.

The NDC-R actively took part in military operations against FDLR rebels and its offshoots throughout 2019, according to several sources, confirming its prominent role as a proxy force for the Congolese army. This collaboration appeared to be closely managed by certain networks within the Congolese military in exchange for access to resources where the NDC-R operated and controlled much of the business and trade of gold and minerals around mining sites.

Senior Congolese army officers have provided NDC-R troops with material support such as arms and ammunition. At least five sources said that Gen. Innocent Gahizi, former deputy commander in North Kivu, was among them.

At least four sources said that Col. Yves Kijenga, the former commander of the 3411th regiment in Kitchanga, met senior NDC-R commanders to arrange the delivery of military equipment several times and managed day-to-day operations with the group. At least two other sources also confirmed the involvement of Col. Claude Rusimbi, a commander from the same regiment.

Rusimbi denied the allegations when Human Rights Watch contacted him by phone in October. He said he had “not participated in any meetings” with the NDC-R and that he was “not aware of any army support” to the group. Human Rights Watch attempted but was not able to reach Gahizi and Kijenga.

In the town of Katsiru, for instance, residents said that the collaboration between government troops and the NDC-R was well known. “We see them together – they even drink beer together,” one resident said in February. “The Ndime Ndime [NDC-R] ‘arrest’ people, but soldiers don’t intervene.”

Two sources described a meeting they attended in Katsiru on December 23, 2019, with local authorities and an army commander in town – from the 3307th regiment in Nyanzale – who had asked the NDC-R to come to the city. “We were all there one morning and [an army commander] rang ‘General’ Guidon from his phone,” one of the two witnesses said. “[The army commander] told him, ‘Guidon, can you send troops to guard the town of Katsiru?’ At 2 p.m. that same day, [NDC-R] fighters were already there.” The same witness said that Guidon himself stayed overnight in town. He left the day after but came back to Katsiru about two weeks later.

Guidon’s forces held several positions near Katsiru with an estimated 200 fighters – some of whom were recruited locally – residents said. Only 17 government soldiers and 7 police officers were stationed in town.

Videos obtained by Human Rights Watch provide further evidence of this collaboration. In one of them, filmed in Masisi territory in 2019, an NDC-R fighter said:

We have no problems [with the Congolese army]. Yesterday, we came into Masisi town and we were with them. We work together and the collaboration is going very well. We also spent the night together.... When we need ammunition, it’s not really a problem. All we need is to make a phone call and an army convoy comes over. We aren’t rebels.

In another video, an NDC-R fighter said: “At the end of the day, we wanted to be integrated [into the army]… Our training is like that; we are the government’s children. Whenever we cross paths with government troops, we have a conversation.”

An NDC-R commander seen in a different sequence went even further: “When [Mapenzi Likuhe, Guidon’s then-deputy] arrives in Goma, he first goes to the [34th] military region’s headquarters. There, they assign police officers to guard his house.” Other sources confirmed the occasional presence of Mapenzi in Goma for meetings with army officers.

From late 2018, Guidon’s NDC-R increasingly became an asset for Congolese army units conducting operations against other armed groups. NDC-R fighters were often sent to the front line and they successively pushed fighters from the Conseil national pour le renouveau et la démocratie (CNRD) – a splinter group from the Rwandan FDLR – and their dependents out of Masisi from December 2018 through to January 2019, as well as the CMC.

In another video, an NDC-R fighter described the division of roles in combat. “We split in two groups. We would be out in the front and they [the Congolese army] would be out back,” he said. Or we would cover one side and they would cover the other, and we would regroup in a set location.”

In a video shot in 2019 in Masisi territory, two officers from the Congolese army’s 3410th regiment are seen discussing their collaboration with the NDC-R. “Our cohabitation has been very peaceful,” one said. The other, who is being called “commander,” said that the NDC-R fighters “can even sleep over at our position if they want … they really are tied to us, they are our children. They came to join in the operations against the FDLR.” He added, “Why would you call someone who is hanging out with us a ‘rebel’?”

Human Rights Watch also received reports alleging collaboration between Rwandan security forces and Guidon’s NDC-R. Such information should be investigated.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 20, 2020, 4:01 am
Click to expand Image Illustration of a North Korean pre-trial detention and investigation facility (kuryujang) based on former detainees’ testimonies told to Human Rights Watch and the illustrator's personal experience in detention. © 2020 Choi Seong Guk for Human Rights Watch

(Seoul) – The North Korean pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary and lacks any semblance of due process, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Former detainees described systematic torture, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and unpaid forced labor.

The 88-page report, “‘Worth Less Than an Animal’: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea,” provides a unique and detailed description of the country’s opaque criminal justice system. It highlights North Korea’s weak legal and institutional framework, and the political nature of the courts and law enforcement agencies under the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

“North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight former government officials who fled the country and 22 North Koreans – 15 women and 7 men – held in detention and interrogation facilities (kuryujang) since 2011, when the country’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, took power.

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had no way of knowing what would happen to them once they were arrested, had no access to an independent lawyer, and had no way of appealing to the authorities about torture or violations of the criminal procedure law. Once an individual faces an official investigation there is little chance of avoiding a sentence of short-term or long-term unpaid forced labor. Some female detainees reported sexual harassment and assault, including rape.

Former detainees said they were forced to sit still on the floor for days, kneeling or with their legs crossed, fists or hands on their laps, heads down, and with their eyes directed to the floor. If a detainee moved, guards punished the person or ordered collective punishment for all detainees.

Four former government officials said that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea considers detainees to be inferior human beings, and therefore unworthy of direct eye contact with law enforcement officers. They are referred to by a number instead of their names.

“If we moved, we were punished by standing and sitting, doing push-ups, abdominals, or holding onto the metal bars,” said a former soldier who left North Korea in 2017 after being detained multiple times for smuggling and trying to escape to South Korea. He added:

Some guards made us put our face between the bars or hit our fingers through the bars with a stick or with the gun. If they were really upset, they’d come into the cell and beat us. This happened every day, if not in our cell in the others, we could hear it, it was to maintain tension.… There were times I was almost about to give up on life.… While I was there, more than 50 detainees disappeared [into the political prison camp system].

October 19, 2020 “Worth Less Than an Animal”

The people interviewed described unhealthy and unhygienic detention conditions: very little food; overcrowded cells with insufficient floor space to sleep; little opportunity to bathe; and a lack of blankets, clothes, soap, and menstrual hygiene supplies. Former detainees and police officers described detainees being covered by lice, bedbugs, and fleas. Many detainees said guards or interrogators, often after demanding bribes, unofficially allowed family members or friends to provide food or other essentials after questioning ended.

The North Korean government should end endemic torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in pretrial detention and interrogation facilities, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also improve abysmal detention and prison conditions and ensure basic standards of hygiene, health care, nutrition, clean water, clothing, floor space, light, and heat.

In 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea found that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the North Korean government constituted crimes against humanity.

“Former government officials told Human Rights Watch that mistreatment and humiliation are considered a crucial part of the North Korean criminal justice system,” Adams said. “The North Korean authorities should bring the system out of the dark ages by asking for international assistance to create a professional police force and investigative system that relies on evidence instead of torture to solve crimes.”

Selected Accounts from the Report:

A former government worker who escaped in 2018 was detained by secret police at a detention and interrogation facility in a border city with China in 2011 and 2012 because someone reported he was a spy. He told Human Rights Watch that:

They put me in a waiting cell. It was small and I was alone. They searched my body. Afterwards, the head of the city’s secret police department, the party’s political affairs head, and the investigator came in. It was very serious, but I didn’t know why. They just beat me up for 30 minutes, they kicked me with their boots, and punched me with their fist, everywhere on my body.…

The next day they moved me to the next room, which was a detention and interrogation facility cell, and my preliminary examination started. But the questioning didn’t really have any protocols or procedures. They just beat me…. The preliminary examiner hit me violently first…. I asked, “Why? Why? Why?” but I didn’t get an answer…. As the questioning went on, I found out that I had been reported as a spy. Violent beatings and hitting were constant in the beginning of [the preliminary examination] questioning for one month. They kicked me with their boots, punched me with their fist or hit me with a thick stick, all over my body. After [when they had most of my confession ready], they were gentler.

It was winter, but there was no heating. There was only one small wood heater right in front of us, next to the guard. It was so cold … and nobody knew where we were, so we couldn’t get anything from outside. It was really cold, but it was worse because there were so many bedbugs and other bugs that bit you.

A former lumberjack who escaped in 2014 and was detained by the police twice, in 2010 for smuggling and in 2014 for not going to work at a government-sanctioned workplace, said:

Every single day was horrible, so painful and unbearable [from being immobilized].… Many times, if I or others moved [in the cell], the guards would order me or all the cellmates to extend our hands through the cell bars and would step on them repeatedly with their boots or hit our hands with their leather belts. Even then we weren’t allowed to move. If we responded and they didn’t like us, they’d beat us up.

A former trader who escaped in 2017 and was detained by police twice in Suncheon, South Pyongan province, in the early 2010s for selling banned products, and in 2016 for getting into a fight with a party member with better connections than hers, said that:

All toiletries came from the homes of the detainees. After detention, the police informed the families and the investigator in charge went over and brought things like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, or menstrual pads. [The guards] broke the body of the toothbrush and would only leave the head [to avoid it being used to commit suicide]. The people without family didn’t have toiletries and had to use the things of other detainees.

We were all in similar situations, so we women shared our things, but I heard that men didn’t, that the men that didn’t have relatives suffered more and were all covered by lice, but the other men didn’t care [and didn’t share]. [The first time I was detained,] family members could send [menstrual] pads. One detainee [who had no relatives] had to wash a sock and use it as a [menstrual] pad. In 2016, we could ask the police officer in charge for pads during our period and the officer would go to the store outside and buy them. We didn’t have to give money, they just bought them for us.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2020, 7:01 pm
Click to expand Image Screenshot from a video showing Ruhama Fernández.  © YouTube/Ruhama Fernández

Cuba’s government has a well-documented history of harassing dissidents, journalists, and opposition party members. Now it has a new target: social media influencers.

On October 14, police arrived at the homes of four Cuban YouTubers about to participate in an online forum discussing Cuban politics. Two—Jancel Moreno and Maykel Castillo—were detained, Iliana Hernández and others had their internet cut. One, 21-year-old Ruhama Fernández, had to hide to participate in the discussion by phone.

The incident was just the latest example of the type of harassment influencers have faced.

Take the case of Fernández, who started her YouTube channel just ten months ago.

In Fernández’s videos, which are often critical of the government, she discusses current events and interviews people about their daily lives or their views on politics.

Soon after she started making videos, her friends began receiving citations from the police, she told Human Rights Watch. Officers would appear outside their homes and their parents’ workplaces. “They wanted to know who I was, where I lived, if I had a boyfriend.”

People began stopping her brother on the street—sometimes police, but often people dressed as civilians. “They tell him I should stop doing what I’m doing, or I might disappear.”

In April, she received her first police citation. At the station an officer told her she should stop posting videos, or else they could prosecute her for “counter-revolutionary” activities.

In July, authorities forced her internet provider to cut the connection at her home. Fernández received internet access through an informal network run by one of her neighbors—a common practice in Cuba where internet access is extremely limited. The neighbor said that police threatened to shut down the entire connection if she continued supplying Fernández.

In August, authorities denied Fernández a passport to travel to the United States to visit her parents. An Interior Ministry official told her she could not leave the country for “reasons of public interest,” a justification measure frequently invoked to bar dissidents from traveling.  

In September, after being questioned a second time by police, she posted a video detailing her experience. Days later, she received a call from an unknown number threatening to “finish” her off if she left her house.

Like others, Fernández says she is undeterred. “Now that I’ve told the truth, there’s no turning back.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2020, 4:21 pm
Click to expand Image Demonstrators stopped by gendarmes and police in Bafang, West Cameroon, on September 22, 2020. © 2020 Private

(Nairobi) – Cameroonian security forces fired tear gas and water cannons and arrested hundreds of people, mainly opposition party members and supporters, to disperse peaceful protests across the country on September 22, 2020. Many peaceful protesters were beaten and mistreated while being arrested and in detention. Cameroon’s authorities should immediately release all those held for their political views or for exercising their right to peacefully assemble.

The African Union (AU), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Cameroon’s other regional and international partners should publicly denounce the crackdown on Cameroon’s political opposition and other dissenters. These groups should press the Cameroon government to hold to account those responsible for violations of the rights to assembly, to liberty, and to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment.

“African and regional bodies should call out Cameroon’s government for its repression and rampant abuses,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As the end of the AU’s 2020 theme, ‘Silencing the gun,’ approaches, it’s crucial for these institutions to send strong messages to President Paul Biya’s administration that flagrant violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties are unacceptable.” 

According to the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC), over 500 people were arrested on September 22, only 155 of whom have been released. Lawyers for the party say that 21 were taken before a civilian court on various charges, including rebellion and participating in an illegal demonstration; 107 have been taken before a military court on various charges including terrorism and insurrection; 63 others continue to be held without charge, while the situation of others still in custody is unclear. In a statement on October 14, Cameroon’s communications minister said that 294 people were arrested on September 22, of whom 176 have been released.

Human Rights Watch, between September 22 and October 10, interviewed ten leaders and members of the opposition party MRC, five lawyers, three journalists and four relatives of men who were arrested and beaten by the police on September 22. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs and video footage showing the September 22 demonstrations and the security force response.

In early September, Cameroon authorities banned demonstrations across the country after the MRC encouraged people to take to the streets over the government’s decision to call regional elections in December. The party has said the government should revise the electoral law and resolve the crisis in the Anglophone regions – where violence has been acute since late 2016, as separatists seek independence for the country’s minority Anglophone regions – before holding these elections.

The territorial administration minister then announced that anyone organizing or leading demonstrations would be arrested, claiming that protests would endanger lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. The communications minister warned political parties on September 15 that protests could be considered “insurrection” and that illegal demonstrations would be punished under the anti-terror law.

The wife of a 32-year-old MRC member who was arrested in Yaoundé, the capital, on September 22 told Human Rights Watch: “I went to the central police station where my husband is being held. His eyes were red and swollen. He told me that the police beat him up when they arrested him.” A party member who visited his 36-year-old friend at the Yaoundé central police station after his arrest, said: “Policemen beat him so savagely that his wrist is now dislocated. He’s being held in a small dirty cell with 20 other people with no light and a non-functioning toilet.”

At least eight journalists were among those arrested on September 22, and it appears that at least some were deliberately targeted. Radio France Internationale (RFI)’s correspondent in Yaoundé, Polycarpe Essomba, told Human Rights Watch: “I had finished covering the demonstrations, and I was in a hairdresser shop preparing my radio show when six policemen came in and pointed at me. One said: ‘That’s him whom we are looking for. That’s him who’s spoiling Cameroon’s image abroad.’ They put me in their truck and forced me to lay down. Then they kicked me, and one hit me with a truncheon.” The reporter, who was taken to the central police station in Yaoundé, was released three hours later. The other seven journalists were also released over the course of that day and the following day.

Maurice Kamto, the MRC leader, who had been arrested in January 2019 after countrywide peaceful protests and released following a presidential decree in October 2019, has been held under de facto house arrest since September 22. Dozens of police and gendarmes surround his residence in Yaoundé, refusing to allow him to leave. On October 5, his lawyers filed a request before the Yaoundé Court of First Instance seeking to free the leader, but the court rejected the request the following day “for lack of urgency.” On October 11, Kamto’s lawyers filed a complaint against the state of Cameroon, accusing the authorities of holding the leader under house arrest illegally. The first hearing, scheduled for October 15 before the Yaoundé Court of First Instance, was postponed until October 29.

Click to expand Image Security forces gather outside the residence of Maurice Kamto, leader of the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC) in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, on September 28, 2020. © 2020 Private

Two other prominent MRC leaders – its treasurer, Alain Fogue, and its spokesperson, Bibou Nissack – were also arrested, on September 21 and 22 respectively. They are being held at the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’Etat à la défense, SED) without charge. While their lawyers and family members can visit them, their lawyers say they cannot talk to their clients privately and that visits are only allowed for less than 10 minutes. Nissack is being held in solitary confinement and is not permitted to have reading material.

On October 1, following the announcement of a protest, policemen and gendarmes surrounded the headquarters of the opposition party Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) in Yaoundé and the residence of its president, Edith Kahbang Walla, known as Kah Walla. “Police initially informed me that I was under house arrest, but then backed down when I demanded to see the court judgment authorizing such an arrest,” Kah Walla said in an October 9 statement.

The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by Cameroon’s constitution and international human rights law. Arbitrary arrests, mistreatment in detention, and unnecessary use of force to disperse protesters violate those guarantees and Cameroon’s international obligations. Protesters should instead be protected by the authorities.

While the authorities used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to ban the demonstrations, detaining hundreds of people in cramped conditions poses serious risks to public health and could be considered a right-to-health violation. Human Rights Watch has urged governments around the world, including Cameroon, to reduce their jail and prison populations, given the heightened risk of Covid-19 for detainees and staff. For the same reason, authorities should only make custodial arrests when strictly necessary. Especially given that those arrested during the September 22 protests were not engaged in violence and presented no immediate threat to commit violence, there was no justification for custodial arrests.

Cameroonian authorities have arbitrarily arrested critics of the government and political opponents on multiple occasions, and security forces have used excessive and indiscriminate force to stifle other opposition-led demonstrations. In late January, Kamto, the MRC leader, and some of his closest allies were arrested alongside another 200 party members and supporters after they held countrywide protests.

In June 2019, security forces arrested at least 350 MRC members and supporters across the country as they tried to hold demonstrations. Some, including the party vice-president, Mamadou Mota, remain in detention on politically motivated charges.

“We feel as if there’s a normalization of repression,” a Cameroonian human rights lawyer, Michelle Ndoki, told Human Rights Watch. “The international community should know that the political space for opposition groups to express themselves freely is getting smaller every day.”

On October 12, 14 United Nations independent human rights experts called on Cameroon to release Kamto and others arrested during peaceful protests, and to stop the intimidation of political activists. On October 14, the communications minister said that the UN human rights experts’ statement is “partial and biased” and “based on false information.”

“As further opposition-led demonstrations are expected across Cameroon in the coming months, the AU and the ECCAS should press President Biya to end the wave of repression and promote respect for human rights,” Allegrozzi said. “African and regional bodies should not remain silent in the face of escalating repression and should rally support from within their institutions to hold Cameroonian authorities to their human rights obligations, including by calling for the immediate charge or release of all arrested demonstrators and political opponents.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2020, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image

(Beirut) – Mauritania’s government should drop charges of blasphemy and insulting Islam against eight political activists and release the five held in pretrial detention since February 26, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The Nouakchott West Criminal Court is due to hear the case on October 20.

The prosecution accused the eight defendants of “mocking God, his messenger and the Holy Book,” and “creating, recording and publishing messages using an information system that affects the values of Islam,” according to the charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch reviewed. They could face the death penalty if convicted.

“Posting a photo or text on social media, even something others might see as insulting religion, should not be a crime,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These charges should have never been brought in the first place, let alone been used to jail five people for eight months.”

The accusations for three of the men included collaboration with two foreign nationals who had been deported from Mauritania for allegedly proselytizing for Christianity.

The five defendants in detention since February 26 are Ahmed Mohamed Moctar, 38, Othman Mohamed Lahbib, 25, Mohamed Abdelrahman Mohamed, 58, Mohamed Ould Hida, 41, and Mohamed Fal Ishaq, 41. One other defendant was provisionally released and two are abroad.

Mauritanian authorities in February summoned the eight men for questioning after they attended a meeting organized by the newly founded group Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State (AREM). The group calls for reforming Mauritania’s public administration and health systems and rejects the country’s caste system.

On July 6, a specialized investigations unit dealing with terrorism and state security crimes at the General Prosecutor’s office referred the case to the Nouakchott West Criminal Court, charging the eight men with blasphemy and contempt of religion under article 306 of the Penal Code. The authorities also charged three of them with disseminating content that “undermines the values of Islam” under article 21 of the Cybercrime Law and article 20 of the Counterterrorism Law.

In July 2019, in an earlier case, authorities freed a blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who had been held in a blasphemy case for five and a half years. After a court sentenced Mkhaitir to death in December 2014, an appeals court converted the penalty to two years in prison, already served. But the authorities held him in solitary and arbitrary detention for another 21 months after that before they released him. Mkhaitir is in exile in France and heads the newly founded AREM.

Prosecutors have an arsenal of repressive legislation to punish critics for nonviolent speech, including harsh and overbroad laws on terrorism, cybercrime, apostasy, and criminal defamation used to jail human rights defenders, activists, and bloggers.

In 2018, the National Assembly passed a law on blasphemy that replaces article 306 of the Criminal Code and makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and “sacrilegious” acts. The law eliminates the possibility under article 306 of substituting prison terms for the death penalty for certain apostasy-related crimes if the offender promptly repents. The law also provides for a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 600,000 Ouguiyas (US$15,940) for “offending public indecency and Islamic values” and for “breaching Allah’s prohibitions” or assisting in their breach.

In December 2015, the National Assembly passed the cybercrime law, which established prison sentences and heavy fines for disseminating certain types of politically sensitive content over the internet.

Mauritania’s laws impose the death penalty for a range of offenses, including, under certain conditions, blasphemy, apostasy, adultery, and homosexuality, though a de facto moratorium on executions has been in effect since 1987. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and its irreversible and inhumane nature.

Article 19 (1) of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Mauritania in 2004, says, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference, and, everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” The Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, determined that, except in very limited circumstances, prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the covenant. It also said that “[T]he free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential.”

Article 9 (2) of the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which Mauritania ratified in 1986, states that “[E]very individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”

“The authorities should urgently prioritize decriminalizing peaceful speech, starting with the elimination of capital punishment for blasphemy,” Goldstein said.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 19, 2020, 8:00 am
Click to expand Image Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence Wednesday, September 16, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. © Carl Court/Pool Photo via AP

(Tokyo) – Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, should press the governments of Vietnam and Indonesia to improve their deteriorating human rights records during his visit to the two countries, Human Rights Watch said today. Suga will visit Vietnam and Indonesia on his first foreign trip as prime minister, scheduled for October 18-21, 2020.

Human Rights Watch, in an October 16 letter, urged Suga to publicly and privately raise concerns about Vietnam’s widespread violations of civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and movement. He should also criticize Indonesia’s clampdown on freedom of religion, press freedom, the rights to sexual orientation and gender identity, and the rights of Indigenous peoples.

“Japan should use its significant leverage as a major donor to the Vietnamese and Indonesian governments to press both to stop violating human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Prime Minister Suga should publicly and privately show that Japan is serious about its policy declarations to promote human rights abroad.”

People who criticize the Vietnamese government or the ruling Communist Party are subjected to police harassment, restricted movement, physical assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, and imprisonment. The police routinely detain political activists for months without access to legal counsel and subject them to bullying interrogation. Vietnamese authorities have also shut down access to politically independent websites and social media pages, while pressuring social media and telecommunication companies to remove content deemed critical of the government or the party.

Rights abuses under Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo include increasing violations of the rights to freedom of religion and belief. In 2020, at least 38 people have been arrested for blasphemy, including a man who was sentenced to three years in prison for tearing a Quran inside a mosque.

“Prime Minister Suga should make human rights a cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy in a way that his predecessors never did,” Robertson said. “Suga’s first foreign trip as head of the Japanese government is a great opportunity to urge the leaders of Vietnam and Indonesia to end abuses and protect the human rights of their people.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 18, 2020, 5:25 pm
Click to expand Image Pro-democracy demonstrators face water cannons during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, October 16, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

(Bangkok) – Thai police unnecessarily used water cannon against peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on October 16, 2020, in violation of international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities acted under state of emergency powers declared the previous day, which allows the security forces to commit abuses with impunity.

At about 6:30 p.m., police forcibly dispersed a demonstration organized by the pro-democracy People’s Movement in which thousands of people, including many students, took part. Human Rights Watch observed the police using water cannon laced with blue dye and an apparent teargas chemical to break up the protest in Bangkok’s Pathumwan shopping district. The police then charged in with batons and shields to disperse the protesters. Scores were arrested. The government has not yet provided details about people in police custody. After the crackdown, 12 protest leaders are being sought on arrest warrants.

“By sending in the police to violently disperse peaceful protesters, Thailand’s government is embarking on a wider crackdown to end the students’ protests,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Invoking the Emergency Decree gives the police the green light to commit rights abuses with impunity.”

Under the 2020 United Nations guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement, “Water cannon should only be used in situations of serious public disorder where there is a significant likelihood of loss of life, serious injury or the widespread destruction of property.” In addition, water cannon should “not target a jet of water at an individual or group of persons at short range owing to the risk of causing permanent blindness or secondary injuries if persons are propelled energetically by the water jet.”

Police arrested a Prachatai journalist, Kitti Pantapak, as he broadcast the police’s dispersal operation on Facebook Live. Kitti identified himself as a reporter and wore a press armband issued by the Thai Journalists Association. He faces possible charges under the Emergency Decree, which prohibits publishing and broadcasting information that threatens national security.

International news reporting on Thailand, such as by the BBC World Service, has been blocked on the country’s main cable TV network, True Visions. Thai authorities also pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV, a station widely known for its critical coverage of the government.

The Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation empowers Thai authorities to impose broad censorship in violation of the right to free expression and media freedom. On October 16, the police issued several warnings against news reports and social media commentary critical of the monarchy, the government, and political situation in the country. Livestreaming pro-democracy protests was declared illegal, as well as posting selfies at a protest site.

The decree also grants the authorities broad powers to arrest people without charge and detain them in informal detention sites, such as military camps. Officials carrying out the duties under the decree have legal immunity. The decree does not require access to legal counsel or visits by family members. Discussions about political issues in the parliament have also been suspended. Any public gathering of five or more people is now banned in Bangkok.

The crackdown occurred a day after Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on October 15, asserting that escalating protests by pro-democracy groups contravened the law and the constitution, threatened the monarchy institution, caused disturbances, harmed national security and public safety, and undermined measures to curtail Covid-19. Shortly after his announcement, the government sent in police to forcibly disperse protesters camped outside the Government House. The police arrested at least 22 people, including the protest leaders Arnon Nampha, Parit Chiwarak, Prasiddhi Grudharochana, and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul.

The government has shown increasing hostility toward pro-democracy protests, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. The protesters called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 85 protesters faced illegal assembly charges for holding peaceful protests in Bangkok and other provinces. Some protest leaders have also been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, for making demands regarding reforms of the monarchy institution.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. In addition, over the past five months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.

“Protesters in Thailand are peacefully demanding democracy, human rights, and reform,” Adams said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations should speak out publicly to demand an immediate end to political repression by the Prayuth administration.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 17, 2020, 10:32 pm
Click to expand Image Demonstrators protesting against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, on October 15, 2020. © 2020 Sunday Alamba/AP Photo

(Abuja) – Nigerian security forces have responded to overwhelmingly peaceful protests against police brutality with more violence and abuse.

Nationwide protests began on October 8, 2020, calling on the authorities to abolish an abusive police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). In response, the police have shot tear gas, water cannons, and live rounds at protesters, killing at least four people and wounding many others. Armed thugs have also disrupted protests and attacked protesters.

“People exercising their right to protest and calling for an end to police brutality are themselves being brutalized and harassed by those who should protect them,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This underscores the importance of the protesters’ demands and the culture of impunity across the policing system, which is in dire need of reform.”

The protests were sparked by a video that surfaced online on October 3, allegedly showing a SARS officer shooting a young man in Delta state. This generated an outcry on social media, especially Twitter, where the hashtag #EndSARS began trending globally, and led to protests across Nigeria and in other cities around the world.

Responding in part to the protesters’ demands, the government announced on October 11 that the SARS unit would be disbanded. Yet its members will be integrated into other police units following “psychological tests,” and SARS is to be replaced by a Special Weapons and Tactical Team that is to begin training next week. No steps have been taken to hold SARS officers to account for past abuses, or to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the recent crackdown on protesters.

SARS was formed in 1992 to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes. Yet since its inception, the unit has allegedly been implicated in widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, and extortion. Many Nigerians feel that the unit has deliberately profiled and targeted young people, especially those with tattoos, dreadlocks, and visible possessions such as phones and laptops. Over the years, Nigerian authorities have repeatedly promised to reform SARS and ensure accountability for abuses by its officers, but with few results.

Although the authorities have now agreed to abolish SARS and take measures to end police brutality, the protests led by young Nigerians have continued. Protesters are calling for more far-reaching reforms and critical action to address police brutality, especially in the wake of attacks against protesters.

On October 10, a young man, Jimoh Isiaka, was allegedly killed when police opened fire to disperse protesters in Ogbomosho, Oyo state, media reports and Amnesty International have said. At least two other people – a man and a teenage boy – were killed the following day in protests against Isiaka’s death, based on a Premium Times investigation that included a video purporting to show police officers dragging bodies into an armored personnel carrier after the shooting.

The Oyo state governor confirmed that three people were killed and at least six others injured during protests in the state. The police said in a statement that they only used tear gas to disperse the protesters and denied allegations of any shooting on October 10.

In Abuja, police dispersed protesters on October 11 with tear gas and water cannons. Human Rights Watch interviewed three people who participated in or were in the vicinity of the protests and were badly beaten by officers.

One, a 30-year-old woman, said that at least four police officers beat her with big sticks and batons soon after the police fired tear gas and water cannons on protesters.

“When we saw officers down the road from us had formed a line facing us, we stopped moving and we sat on the ground or knelt down to show them that we were not aggressive,” she said. “But before we knew it, tear gas started flying all over the place and a strong force of water followed for about 10 to 15 minutes nonstop. I had a mask on and with the water hitting my face, I found it very difficult to breathe. They soon started running in our direction. I didn’t run because I shouldn’t have to; I was not doing anything wrong.”

The woman said that one officer began beating her with a stick, and when she tried to ward him off, two others joined in, with a stick and baton. She lay flat on the ground as they continued beating her. Eventually someone who had been observing and filming on the other side of the road came by in his car and shouted at her to get in. As she tried to get in the car, another officer hit her back with a big stick. She said that the beating fractured her skull and she has had dizzy spells since. She has been hospitalized.

Another, a 28-year-old woman, said that she was on her way home from work on October 11 around the Federal Secretariat in Abuja when she saw a crowd of people running in her direction. She also started running but soon stopped to figure out where she was going.

“As soon as the police arrived there and saw me, one asked me what I was doing there, and when I replied that I was on my way back from work, he asked, ‘Which work?’” she said. “I didn’t even get a chance to explain or show identification before others came and started beating me with big sticks. About six officers gathered around me, beating me as I lay on the ground. One even threatened me with a knife; they emptied the contents of my bag all over the floor and smashed my phone before they let me go.”

On October 12, police officers in Surulere, Lagos, opened gunfire to disperse protesters, killing 55-year-old Ikechukwu Ilohamauzo, media reported. Human Rights Watch interviewed two protesters and one journalist at the scene. One protester said that the police arrived and opened fire to disperse the protesters when they were close to a police station around Western Avenue. As he and others were running, they realized that a man had been hit by a bullet and went back to where he was. The protesters watched and filmed as a medical team tried to give the man emergency care, but he died. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and has it on file.

Media reports said that Ilohamauzo was a driver stuck in traffic in the vicinity of the protests who came out of his vehicle to urinate when he was struck by a stray bullet.

Police in Surulere claim that Ilohamauzo was killed by a stray bullet from protesters who they say also shot and killed a police officer during an attack on the police station. They arrested three protesters whom they claim were responsible. Videos have since surfaced online, however, that purport to show that the officer fell to the ground after a burst of fire from his colleagues. The protesters were eventually released. Human Rights Watch has not seen any evidence indicating that protesters were armed or firing on the crowd.

The police arrested dozens of protesters, refused some of them access to their lawyers, and only released them following the intervention of senior government officials, including the state governors and the Senate President. There have been reports of police damaging and confiscating the cameras of protesters and journalists. Alleged pro-government thugs have also injured protesters and destroyed property, media reported.

On October 15, the Nigerian army warned “subversive elements and troublemakers” to desist and offered to “support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order.” The Nigerian army has also been implicated in human rights abuses, including the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters.

The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution and international human rights law. Unnecessary use of force to disperse protesters is unlawful. Protesters should instead be protected by the authorities.

Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses by the Nigerian police force for years. In a 2010 report, Human Rights Watch cautioned that the long-term failure of the authorities to address abuses by the police would reinforce impunity and lead to more systemic abuses.

“Nigerian authorities can no longer evade the need for serious reform and accountability in the police system,” Ewang said. “They should go beyond words and send a signal that it is no longer business as usual by investigating the attacks on protesters and taking immediate steps to hold officers and others accountable.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 16, 2020, 6:00 am
Click to expand Image Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testifies before Congress on the Coronavirus crisis, July 31, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington.  © 2020 Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP

The Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Robert Redfield, renewed an order this week that gives border agents the authority to summarily expel migrants, including asylum seekers, at US land borders. Although the order purports to be a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDC’s own doctors reportedly found the original decision to halt asylum processes to have no basis in public health.

So far more than 204,000 people have been expelled under the order, typically without being given any screening to ensure they are not returned to potential harm in their home countries. The expulsions have included 8,800 unaccompanied children for whom additional special protections are supposed to apply. Human Rights Watch research shows that the consequences of returning asylum seekers to danger can be catastrophic – resulting in sexual assault, torture, and death.

When Redfield first issued the order effectively closing US borders to vulnerable asylum seekers in March, we wrote to him explaining that asylum seekers have a legitimate reason to enter the United States, that safe detention alternatives exist, and that life or death stakes are involved in returning potential refugees to harm. But his reply failed to address our concerns.

Recent Associated Press reporting and our own discussions with a senior CDC official who asked to remain anonymous have made clear that the CDC’s order is not about public health, but rather a response to political pressure.

In a press conference held Wednesday, Mark Morgan, the senior official performing the duties of the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), repeated the now-disproved claim that the Title 42 expulsion order is “a public health directive that directed CBP from a public health perspective...” and refused to give any concrete information about when the order could be lifted. Morgan said the CDC would determine when it was time to end the expulsions.

Director Redfield should immediately rescind the Title 42 expulsion order before more damage is done to the credibility of the CDC and an even greater number of possible asylum seekers, including children, are returned to serious danger not only to their health, but their lives.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 10:17 pm
Click to expand Image Census Drive and voter registration booths at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, New York, September 22, 2020.  © 2020 2020 Lev Radin/Sipa via AP Images

The US Census Bureau will cease counting for the 2020 census at midnight, two weeks earlier than had previously been announced, a move that will likely leave many of the country’s most marginalized communities undercounted and could undermine rights for the decade to come.

The decision to stop counting comes after the Supreme Court approved the US Department of Commerce’s request to suspend a lower court order that extended counting through the end of October.

The goal of the census, conducted once every 10 years, is to produce an accurate count of all people residing in the country. With this data, the federal government reapportions political power in the form of seats in the US House of Representatives and the drawing of congressional districts. Among other uses, the count determines the distribution of nearly $1 trillion for federally funded programs, apportioned based on an area’s population, income, age, and other factors. The US government’s largest spending programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing loan vouchers and programs, and special education grants, are determined by the census. Additionally, state and local governments, local communities, and businesses use this data to guide decisions affecting schools, housing, healthcare services, and more.

This decision is the latest in a series of events – including the Covid-19 pandemic, funding slashes, and multiple administrative orders – that experts fear will result in the least accurate modern census count. The Supreme Court is set to discuss on Friday whether to hear oral arguments in December on the government’s attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census numbers for apportionment and appropriations.

An inaccurate count could have devastating effects for some of the country’s most marginalized communities and their ability to access basic education, health, and other services. Those most at risk for undercounting include low-income households, those who live in remote areas or who lack internet access, homeless people, Native Americans, Black people, Latinx people, and those who have fear and distrust of the government, including undocumented immigrants. But the incidental events and purposeful efforts to undercount the population in any state or community will have repercussions for all people, citizen or not, living within that community.

This decision, at a time of acute racial and economic disparities, puts the country’s most marginalized people, and the cities and states they live in, in even greater peril.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 5:58 pm
Click to expand Image Riot police march towards pro-democracy protesters near Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, October 15, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

(Bangkok) – The Thai government’s declaration of a state of emergency in Bangkok is a pretext for a crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said today. Since the declaration of a state of emergency on October 15, 2020, the police have arrested at least 22 activists, including several protest leaders, in front of Bangkok’s Government House.

“The Emergency Decree provides the Thai government with unchecked powers to suppress fundamental freedoms and ensures zero accountability for officials,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Thai authorities should not repress peaceful protests with draconian laws that violate freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”

At 4 a.m. on October 15, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. He asserted that the escalating protests by pro-democracy groups contravened the law and the constitution, caused disturbances, undermined measures to curtail Covid-19, and harmed national security and public safety. The government also accused protesters of disrupting the queen’s motorcade near Government House on October 14.

Shortly after Prayut’s announcement, thousands of riot police, armed with batons and shields, forcibly cleared protesters who had camped outside Government House. The police arrested at least 22 people, including the protest leaders Arnon Nampha, Parit Chiwarak, Prasiddhi Grudharochana, and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul.

The draconian Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation provides authorities with broad powers to arrest individuals without charge and detain them in informal places of detention. Officials carrying out the duties under the decree enjoy legal immunity. The decree does not require access to legal counsel or visits by family members.

Under Thailand’s emergency decree, authorities can impose broad censorship to curb freedom of expression and media freedom. International news reporting on Thailand, such as by the BBC World Service, has been blocked on the country’s main cable TV network, True Visions. Authorities have also pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV, a station widely known for its criticism of the government. Discussions about political issues in the parliament have also been suspended. Any public gathering of five or more people has been banned in Bangkok.

Thailand’s government has maintained its opposition to the youth-led democracy protests, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. The protesters have called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 85 protesters faced illegal assembly charges for holding peaceful protests in Bangkok and other provinces. Some protest leaders have also been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, for making demands regarding reforms of the monarchy institution.

“The Thai government has created its own human rights crisis,” Adams said. “Criminalizing peaceful protests and calls for political reform is a hallmark of authoritarian rule.”

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities routinely enforce censorship and gag public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the role of the monarchy in society. Since the military coup in 2014, the Thai government has prosecuted hundreds of activists and dissidents on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for peacefully expressing their views.

In addition, over the past five months, the authorities used emergency decree measures designed to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Thai government is threatening peaceful protesters with long prison terms simply for demanding reforms aimed at the creation of a rights-respecting democracy,” Adams said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations should publicly condemn this wave of political repression and urge the immediate and unconditional release of democracy activists.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 3:18 pm
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(Jakarta) – Indonesia’s government should revise a new jobs law to meet international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The omnibus bill on job creation, which the House of Representatives passed on October 5, 2020, restricts labor rights and dismantles environmental protections, including by threatening Indigenous people’s access to land and the country’s declining rainforests.

The new law significantly reduces protections for workers under the 2003 labor law, including on minimum wages, severance pay, vacation, maternity benefits, and health and child care, and abolishes legal protections in permanent employment contracts. The law also weakens existing environmental laws and legal protections for Indigenous groups, raising concerns about land grabbing. The roughly 1,000-page law was largely drafted by the business community, with little consultation from labor unions and other affected groups.

“Creating jobs and attracting investment are important goals, but they should not come at the expense of basic labor rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Indonesian government should review the hastily passed law, organize a proper public consultation, and revise all articles that violate rights.”

The omnibus bill was passed in the face of mounting opposition from labor unions, civil society organizations, scientists, and religious groups over its feared impact on the environment and labor rights. Street protests immediately broke out in more than three dozen cities, with police arresting hundreds of protesters, mostly in Jakarta and Surabaya. Some protests turned violent, with several bus stops destroyed in Jakarta, while the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation said that police used excessive force against protesters.

The Alliance of Independent Journalists reported that police physically assaulted or destroyed the equipment of at least 28 journalists, mostly photographers, working during the protests in Bandung, Jakarta, Palu, Samarinda, Semarang, Surabaya, and Tanjung Pinang. On October 8, police arrested 6 journalists in Jakarta. They were released without charge 24 hours later.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo first proposed an “omnibus law” to boost Indonesia’s regional competitiveness in October 2019. He said he wanted to simplify the application process for business licenses across all business sectors, including land acquisition permits, to create more jobs, boost infrastructure development, and attract foreign investment.

In November, Economic Affairs Coordinating Minister Airlangga Hartarto asked the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kamar Dagang dan Ekonomi Indonesia, Kadin) to help set up a task force to draft the bill. The members included prominent businessmen, but no members of trade unions or environmental groups. Hartarto submitted the bill to parliament on February 8, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the House of Representatives only began deliberations in April.

Public consultation was lacking, and it was difficult for the public to obtain an official version of the draft bill, which contains about 185 articles in 15 chapters. The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation and many other groups protested the lack of transparency. In August, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) called on the government to “halt their deliberations because the process is rife with irregularities and constitutes a violation of the country’s laws on the legislative process.”

Environmental groups have warned that less stringent requirements for environment impact assessments and other measures weakening environmental protections under the omnibus law will worsen deforestation.

Indonesia’s Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago stated that the omnibus law provisions starkly contradict a bill to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights and simplify the process of recognizing customary lands that has been debated in parliament since 2009 without being adopted.

September 22, 2019 “When We Lost the Forest, We Lost Everything”

The omnibus law also appears to contradict the 2013 Constitutional Court ruling that Indigenous peoples should have control of customary forest and that the government should demarcate and exclude customary forests from government control.

A 2019 Human Rights Watch report examined how a patchwork of weak laws, exacerbated by poor government oversight, and the failure of mostly oil palm plantation companies to fulfill their human rights responsibilities have adversely affected Indigenous peoples’ rights to their forests, livelihood, food, water, and culture.

“The biggest content of the law is about investment, and it gives almost nothing to protect Indigenous people’s customary lands,” said Rukka Sombolinggi, the chairwoman of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago. “This law will make it easier for companies to grab land.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 3:06 pm

(Los Angeles) – Californians should vote No on Proposition 22, a ballot measure that would eviscerate minimum wage and other labor rights protections for the state’s grocery app workers, Human Rights Watch said in a video released today. By rejecting Prop 22, voters can help ensure that grocery shopping and delivery apps – a fast-growing segment of the gig economy – comply with a 2019 law that protects workers’ rights to a decent living, as well as safe, healthy working conditions.

Workers for Instacart and Shipt are struggling to make ends meet without basic labor protections, Human Rights Watch found. Both companies use opaque pay algorithms, which workers say are driving their earnings below the local minimum wage, leaving them struggling to buy food and pay rent. The lack of other safeguards, such as paid sick leave and compensation for work-related injury or illness, also endangers workers’ health and safety.

Click to expand Image An Instacart worker loads groceries into her car for home delivery in San Leandro, California, July 1, 2020. © 2020 Ben Margot/AP Photo

“Prop 22 would leave grocery app workers at the mercy of mysterious pay algorithms that deny them a minimum wage,” said Amos Toh, senior artificial intelligence and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Voting No on Prop 22 is a critical step toward undoing the exploitation of gig workers, who are entitled to make a decent living like the rest of us.”

Between May and August 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 Instacart and Shipt workers both in and outside California. Human Rights Watch also spoke with labor law and technology experts, labor organizers, and economists, and reviewed studies of workers’ earnings, companies’ policies and practices, and court filings.  

Proposition 22 would strip app-based delivery workers of state employment protections, including minimum wage. Although it would require companies to pay workers 120 percent of the applicable minimum wage while they are fulfilling orders, this formula fails to compensate workers for their time waiting for order requests.

There is no publicly available data on average wait times for Instacart and Shipt workers, but a study of ride-sharing apps indicates that drivers spend about 33 percent of their time waiting. Philippa Mayall, a Shipt shopper, told Human Rights Watch that some days were “so slow” that she would only get “one order every other hour.”

Prop 22 would inadequately compensate workers for work-related expenses, reimbursing them only 30 cents for each mile traveled to complete delivery. According to the National Employment Law Project, this reimbursement rate is far from enough to cover expenses, which range from gas and mobile data to cleaning supplies.

The proposition stands in stark contrast to Assembly Bill 5, a law California passed in September 2019 requiring gig companies to reclassify their workers as employees instead of independent contractors. In addition to providing them the local minimum wage, this reclassification entitles them to other employee protections such as state unemployment insurance, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, and paid sick leave. Prop 22 would reverse this reclassification, eliminating these protections for grocery app workers.  

The lack of minimum wage protections has made it possible for Instacart and Shipt to introduce inscrutable and ever-changing algorithms that create enormous pay volatility and financial insecurity. “Without any notification, Instacart can change our pay,” said Ginger Anne Farr, an Instacart shopper. “At one point they took our pay and cut it, to the point where I had to go on financial assistance and get help in getting food while working full-time for them.”
Problems with tips also drive down workers’ earnings. Instacart has resisted calls from shoppers to change the default tip option from 5 percent to 10 percent, even though shoppers rely heavily on tips. Shipt has acknowledged errors in its tipping system and said it would address them.

“Glitches in the [Shipt] app and other problems make tips even more unreliable,” said Willy Solis, a Shipt shopper and lead organizer for the Gig Workers Collective. “It is causing a huge fluctuation in our pay.”

According to California Secretary of State records, Instacart and four other gig companies have spent over $185 million to pass Prop 22 – the most expensive ballot initiative campaign in the state’s history. Instacart did not respond to a request for comment.

Shipt has not commented on Prop 22. A Shipt spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that its updated pay model accounts for shoppers’ “effort,” and that they “strongly” disputed that this model lacks transparency. But Shipt said that its pay model is “proprietary,” and would not disclose how the model weighs factors like delivery time, the number and weight of items ordered, and distance traveled.

Shipt also claims that, in September 2020, it paid an average of “$21.97 per shop” nationwide. But it is impossible to assess whether this figure satisfies the hourly minimum wage standard without additional information. Shipt does not specify the average shopping time, which can vary widely based on the number of items ordered, traffic, and distance. The figure Shipt cites includes one-off bonuses known as “promo pay,” which are at the company’s discretion, as well as tips, which are not part of the minimum wage calculation in California. Shipt’s figure also does not account for the expenses and additional payroll taxes for independent contractors.  

“The Yes on Prop 22 campaign that these large gig companies are financing threatens to create a class of workers scraping to get by,” said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To make sure that workers don’t get stripped of their most basic rights, California voters should vote No on Proposition 22.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 2:00 pm
Click to expand Image A voter wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus lines up at Riverside High School for the Wisconsin primary election on April 7, 2020, in Milwaukee. © 2020 AP Photo/Morry Gash

(Washington, DC) – Local, state, and federal officials in the United States should follow 10 fundamental principles to promote safe and credible elections on November 3, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

The principles, drawn from international human rights law, provide a roadmap for rights protections by election officials, law enforcement, and other authorities at all levels of government. Officials and social media companies have human rights responsibilities to prevent and mitigate incitement to violence and discrimination on their platforms.

“Election officials at all levels in the US should approach their jobs with laser-focus and not be distracted by rhetoric, spin, and frivolous lawsuits,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Voting is a fundamental right, and officials have a duty to let every voter vote and to count every ballot cast.”

Some measures that election officials adopted to address the Covid-19 pandemic during primaries earlier this year impeded the right to vote or had racially discriminatory effects, Human Rights Watch said. Officials should ensure that all mandated voting methods, whether in-person or by mail, are accessible to all voters.

Recent threats and violence by extremist groups have highlighted the need for authorities to take steps to protect the rights of voters and protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

“Officials in the US are obligated to protect everyone from threats, harassment, and violence,” Austin-Hillery said. “State and federal authorities should actively work to prevent and investigate violence by white supremacist and other groups, and alleged collusion by police or other security forces.”

Human Rights Watch, together with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on October 7, sent a letter signed by 58 groups to Attorney General William Barr and Federal Bureau of Investigations Director Christopher Wray, calling on them to take action to protect against white supremacist violence during the election period.

Human Rights Watch has documented recent abuses by law enforcement at protests in the United States, and has urged the federal government not to deploy to protests agencies that lack meaningful crowd control training or have a record of human rights abuses. Law enforcement officers are obligated to uphold the right to peaceful assembly and not engage in excessive use of force or arbitrary arrests.

Internet intermediaries, like social media platforms, also have a responsibility to respect human rights and mitigate harm – such as incitement to violence – resulting from their business practices. The principles that should guide local, state, and federal officials, as well as social media companies where relevant, are as follows:

Ensure that all eligible voters are able to exercise their right to vote by effectively communicating about voting procedures, making various voting options readily available and accessible, and adopting additional measures as needed. Ensure the right to vote without discrimination or discriminatory effects. Protect the right to health while voting and during election-related activities. Provide prompt review, appeal, and remedy for voting rights violations. Allow unfettered monitoring by impartial, non-partisan election observers. Keep the right to vote and the “will of the people” at the center of ballot counting. Prevent voter intimidation and violence by extremist and other groups before, during, and after the elections. Ensure access to accurate electoral information; act to prevent or mitigate rights abuses. Ensure the right of peaceful assembly. Minimize arrests and use of force in responding to protests.

Concerned countries and international human rights bodies, including the United Nations, Human Rights Council, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, should monitor the rights situation in the United States during the election period and be prepared to speak out in support of basic rights. They should not prematurely endorse an election result, which could have political ramifications.

“The roadmap to safe and credible US elections can be found in respecting human rights,” Austin-Hillery said. “Local, state, and national authorities as well as social media companies have important roles to play in protecting the fundamental rights of US voters and others. The international community should be monitoring these concerns closely.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 10:00 am

The Syrian and Russian armed forces’ repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure in Idlib in northwest Syria were apparent war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Dozens of unlawful air and ground strikes on hospitals, schools, and markets from April 2019 to March 2020 killed hundreds of civilians. The attacks seriously impaired the rights to health, education, food, water, and shelter, triggering mass displacement.

October 15, 2020 "Targeting Life in Idlib"

The 167-page report, “‘Targeting Life in Idlib’: Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure,” details abuses by Syrian and Russian armed forces during the 11-month military campaign to retake Idlib governorate and surrounding areas, among the last held by anti-government armed groups. The report examines the abusive military strategy in which the Syrian-Russian alliance repeatedly violated the laws of war against the 3 million civilians there, many displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country. It names 10 senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who may be implicated in war crimes as a matter of command responsibility: they knew or should have known about the abuses and took no effective steps to stop them or punish those responsible.

“The Syrian-Russian alliance strikes on Idlib’s hospitals, schools, and markets showed callous disregard for civilian life,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The repeated unlawful attacks appear part of a deliberate military strategy to destroy civilian infrastructure and force out the population, making it easier for the Syrian government to retake control.”

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Human Rights Watch documented 46 air and ground attacks, including the use of cluster munitions, that directly hit or damaged civilian objects and infrastructure in Idlib in violation of the laws of war. The strikes killed at least 224 civilians and wounded 561. These were only a fraction of the total attacks during that time in Idlib and surrounding areas. The offensive displaced 1.4 million people, most in the final months of the operation.

Proving Patterns of Cruelty from Afar

How five researchers exposed the abusive military strategy behind repeated attacks on civilians in northern Syria — without ever visiting the sites. Explore a new interactive feature and learn how we reached the truth. 


Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 victims and witnesses of the 46 attacks, as well as healthcare and rescue workers, teachers, local authorities, and experts on the Syrian and Russian militaries. Human Rights Watch also examined dozens of satellite images and over 550 photographs and videos taken at the attack sites, as well as logs of flight spotters. Human Rights Watch provided a summary of its findings and questions to the Syrian and Russian governments but has not received a response.

The documented strikes, most in and around four urban areas – Ariha, Idlib City, Jisr al-Shughour, and Maarat al-Nu’man – damaged 12 healthcare facilities and 10 schools, forcing them to shut down, in some cases permanently. The attacks also damaged at least 5 markets, 4 displaced people’s camps, 4 residential neighborhoods, 2 commercial areas, and a prison, church, stadium, and nongovernmental organization office.

Human Rights Watch found no evidence of military objectives, including personnel or materiel, in the vicinity at the time of any of the attacks, and no residents interviewed knew of any advance warning. The overwhelming majority of attacks were far from active fighting between Syrian government forces and anti-government armed groups.

The repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure in populated areas in which there was no apparent military objective suggests that these unlawful attacks were deliberate. The attacks appear intended to deprive civilians of the means to sustain themselves and to force them to flee, or to instill terror in the population, Human Rights Watch said.

A resident of Idlib City, Ayman Assad, described the impact of the airstrikes: “We are terrified. I don’t feel safe at my place of work, and at the same time I am constantly worried about my family, especially my two children who are going to school every day. Schools, markets, homes, hospitals, everything is a target. They are targeting life in Idlib.”

Most of the attacks documented appeared to involve explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. The use of such weapons in populated areas can indiscriminately kill and wound large numbers of civilians, and damage and destroy civilian objects and infrastructure. They also have reverberating effects – disrupting essential services, such as health care, education, and access to food and shelter. Long-term impacts include serious psychological harm to the people affected. Warring parties should avoid the use of these weapons in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said.

Prior to a ceasefire in March, government forces regained control of nearly half the territory in and around Idlib, including hundreds of depopulated towns and villages. Since then, some people have returned to areas still controlled by anti-government armed groups, where they found a decimated infrastructure and limited access to food, water, shelter, health care, and education. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed the area’s destroyed healthcare system under immense strain, further imperiling civilians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron played a key role in getting Turkey, Russia, and Syria to agree to a ceasefire.

Any resumption of fighting would expose civilians to renewed attacks from explosive weapons and the added risk of Covid-19, possibly triggering mass displacement with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Displaced people could seek to cross Syria’s northern border, where Turkish forces have previously pushed back, shot, and forcibly returned asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, requires all warring parties to direct attacks on military objectives, avoid harming civilians or civilian objects, and not carry out attacks that cause indiscriminate or disproportionate civilian harm. Populations also remain protected by international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which protects the rights to health, education, and an adequate standard of living.

Given the deadlock within the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly should adopt a resolution or statement calling on its member states to impose targeted sanctions on those civilian and military commanders credibly implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other serious violations committed. Concerned governments should pursue criminal cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction and impose unilateral targeted sanctions against commanders and officials implicated in war crimes, including as a matter of command responsibility.

To address the humanitarian situation, particularly in light of the pandemic, the Security Council should reauthorize cross-border aid deliveries across all three previously authorized border crossings in the northwest and northeast. If the Security Council proves unable to reauthorize cross-border deliveries due to the threat of veto by Russia, the General Assembly should pass a resolution to support the UN continuing cross-border deliveries to areas not under the Syrian government’s control.

“Concerted international efforts are needed to demonstrate that there are consequences for unlawful attacks, to deter future atrocities, and to show that no one can elude accountability for grave crimes because of their rank or position,” Roth said. “As long as impunity reigns, so too will the specter of renewed unlawful attacks and their devastating human toll.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 7:00 am
Click to expand Image 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

Ziad Itani, a well-known Lebanese actor, will be questioned by an investigative judge today in relation to a criminal defamation complaint filed against him by two State Security officials. Itani has accused Lebanon’s State Security of forcibly disappearing and torturing him in November 2017 after he was detained on false charges of spying for Israel. He was later exonerated. The defamation complaint reportedly follows Itani’s public criticism of State Security after a video of his interrogation was leaked to the media in August 2020.

Lebanon’s latest attempt to intimidate and silence an alleged torture victim reveals three worrying indicators about freedoms in Lebanon:

Authorities continue to rely on Lebanon’s criminal defamation laws, which authorize imprisonment up to three years, to retaliate against individuals criticizing them. Human Rights Watch has documented a significant increase in the use of these laws in recent years, particularly in the wake of 2019’s October Uprising. People interrogated described physical and psychological tactics they believe were intended to humiliate, punish, and deter them from publishing content deemed insulting to or critical of powerful people. Most of those interrogated were made to sign pledges promising not to publish defamatory content about the complainant without first appearing before a court, violating fundamental rights and freedoms. Impunity for torture remains rampant. Itani described to Human Rights Watch in harrowing detail his forced disappearance and torture at the hands of State Security in November 2017. He filed a torture complaint on November 20, 2018, but criminal justice authorities have yet to take any serious action to investigate his allegations or other credible reports of torture. Criminal justice authorities can lack the power or will to challenge powerful people. Not only have criminal justice authorities failed to investigate Itani’s torture allegations, they have also not launched a serious investigation into how Itani’s interrogation videos were leaked to the media, which constitutes several crimes. Instead, judges were quick to summon Itani for interrogation after State Security officials filed a defamation complaint against him.

There is no excuse for Lebanon’s failure to combat torture. Instead of silencing Itani, criminal justice authorities, including investigating judges, should investigate both his serious torture claims and how confidential information was leaked to the media. They should also ensure freedom of speech is protected and critics are not punished for speaking out.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 5:00 am
Click to expand Image An Algerian demonstrator holds the Algerian national flag as he stage a protest against the government in Algiers, Algeria, Friday, Nov.29, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Toufik Doudou

(Beirut) – An Algerian court on September 3, 2020 sentenced 2 men to prison terms and 42 others to suspended terms after mass arrests at what the police alleged was a “gay wedding,” Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should void the charges and release them immediately.

On July 24, 2020, police raided a private residence and arrested the 44 – 9 women and 35 men, most of them university students – in el-Kharoub, a district in Constantine Province, northeastern Algeria, after neighbors complained. An Algerian lawyer involved in the case told Human Rights Watch that the court used police reports describing the decorations, flowers, and sweets indicative of a wedding celebration, and the men’s supposedly gay appearance, as evidence of guilt.

“Algerian authorities’ attack on personal freedoms is nothing new, but arresting dozens of students based on their perceived sexual orientation is a flagrant infringement on their basic rights,” said Rasha Younes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should immediately release from prison the two men who would be free today were it not for Algeria’s regressive anti-homosexuality laws.”

The court convicted the 44 of “same-sex relations,” “public indecency,” and “subjecting others to harm by breaking Covid-19-related quarantine measures.” Two men were sentenced to three years in prison and a fine, and the others to a one-year suspended sentence.

These convictions contradict the right to privacy under international human rights law. This right is also reflected in Algeria’s constitution, which provides for the protection of a person’s “honor” and private life, including the privacy of their home, communication, and correspondence. The convictions of the 44 for “same-sex relations” indicate that Algerian authorities are discriminating against them based on their perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, Human Rights Watch said. The appeal of their convictions has not yet been scheduled.

In Algeria, same-sex relations are punishable under article 338 of the penal code by up to two years in prison. Additionally, article 333 increases the penalty for public indecency to six months to three years in prison and a fine if it involves “acts against nature with a member of the same sex,” whether between men or women.

Arrests for “moral” offenses that involve consensual adult activities in private settings violate international human rights law, including the right to privacy, nondiscrimination, and bodily autonomy protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Algeria is a state party. Algeria has ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), which affirms the rights to nondiscrimination, and has joined the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. However, Algerian law does not extend antidiscrimination protections to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Additionally, Algeria has a law that prohibits the registration of organizations in Algeria whose aims are deemed inconsistent with “public morals,” and that imposes criminal penalties for members of unregistered organizations. This law poses risks to those who want to form or become active in LGBT groups, as well as to human rights organizations that otherwise might support such activities. According to a 2019 analysis by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA), laws regulating nongovernmental organizations in Algeria make it virtually impossible for organizations working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity to legally register.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the risk of outbreaks in detention sites, Human Rights Watch recommended that governments refrain from custodial arrests for minor offenses that do not involve the infliction or threat of infliction of serious bodily injury or sexual assault or a known likelihood of physical harm. Officials should also release anyone held pretrial, unless they pose a specific and known risk of harm to others that cannot be managed through measures other than detention.

Since March, Algerian authorities have imposed a ban on all social gatherings to slow the spread of Covid-19. Breaking quarantine and social distancing measures to attend a social gathering does not justify arbitrary arrests and prolonged pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said.

“While people in Algeria continue to demand their basic rights to protest, the authorities are dedicating their time and resources to crack down on students and stockpile discriminatory charges against them,” Younes said. “Instead of policing its citizens’ private lives, the Algerian government should carry out reforms, including decriminalizing same-sex conduct.”


Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 15, 2020, 4:00 am
Click to expand Image A man leaves the Department of Immigration and Border Protection offices in Sydney, Thursday, April 20, 2017.   © 2020 AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Australians could be barred from permanently settling their partners in the country if they do not try to learn English under new rules proposed by the government. If approved by parliament, a new “English language test” will be a compulsory immigration requirement for potential partner visas starting mid-2021.

Applicants will not be expected to pass the English test before arriving in Australia but, according to news reports, will need to demonstrate functional English or show they have made reasonable attempts to learn before applying for a permanent visa, with 500 hours of free English classes to be offered to new migrants.

The government claims the move will “enhance social cohesion” and lead to better employment opportunities for migrants. Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to defend the new immigration rule by claiming that “English is Australia’s first language” – ignoring that more than 250 Indigenous languages were spoken in Australia prior to British invasion and colonization.

A former deputy secretary of the Department of Immigration told the ABC that encouraging migrants to learn English should not be part of a visa requirement, saying it sends a message to racists and white supremacy groups “that the government doesn’t really like migrants from the wrong places.”

Dozens of Australians took to Twitter to criticize the policy, highlighting their own migration stories and saying their initial lack of English did not impede their success and development in Australia.

The Australian government should reconsider this new policy. It will disproportionately affect families from certain nationalities – predominantly non-Western, non-English speaking countries – and those who find learning a new language difficult.

Encouraging new migrants to integrate into Australian society is a legitimate objective, and the Australian government’s offer of free English language classes serves a useful purpose. But if someone’s partner fails to pass a language test or are deemed not to have tried to learn, it should not deprive them of living together as a family.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 14, 2020, 8:52 pm

(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally drop the charges and release an opposition activist arrested in Pursat province, Human Rights Watch said today.

Click to expand Image Chum Sarath, in a photograph posted to former CNRP parliamentarian Kong Saphea’s Facebook page, October 6, 2020. Source: Kong Saphea/Facebook

On October 6, 2020, police arrested Chum Sarath, a former elected commune councilor from dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Anlong Reap commune, Pursat province. The charges date back to a land dispute in 2014 between affected villagers and the timber tycoon Try Pheap’s M.D.S. Import Export Co. company. At that time, M.D.S. lodged a complaint against Chum Sarath, alleging that he had cleared forest using a machete. The case had been dormant.

“Digging up old cases of dubious wrongdoing to silence critics is a longtime tactic of the Cambodian government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately drop the case against Chum Sarath and other activists unjustly held.”

Chum Sarath, 66, was elected as a local commune councilor during the nationwide commune council elections in 2017, but was removed from office when the ruling party-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017. Since then, the authorities had repeatedly harassed Sarath, and local police and unidentified persons carried out surveillance of his home in Pursat. In the revived case, the Pursat provincial court charged Sarath with illegal occupation of property and use of violence against a possessor of land (articles 248 and 253 of Cambodia’s Land Law) and ordered him held in pretrial detention at the Pursat provincial prison.

In December 2019, the United States Treasury Department brought Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against tycoon Try Pheap after finding him to be involved in widespread corruption, including “misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.” The US Office of Foreign Assets Control added 11 companies owned or controlled by Try Pheap, including M.D.S. Import Export Co., to its sanctions list.

In another recent case, on September 22, the Tbong Khmum provincial court convicted seven opposition activists – Sim Seangleng, Mean La, Yem Vanneth, Chok Hour, Kong Sam An, Van Sophat, and Choem Vannak – of conspiracy (article 453 of Cambodia’s penal code). The case was based on charges stemming from Facebook comments they posted between 2018 and 2019 in support of a leading political opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, and his planned return to Cambodia in November 2019. The court imposed prison sentences of up to seven years against the seven activists. Kong Sam An was the only defendant in the courtroom; the other defendants, who are in hiding or abroad, were convicted in absentia.

On October 7, Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a speech in Kandal province in which he alluded to political opposition and activist figures who speak out or engage in other activities, declaring that “if one emerges, one gets hit; if two emerge, then two get hit.” In the speech, he said there would be further arrests of opposition activists.

The Cambodian government has ramped up its crackdown on dissent during the Covid-19 pandemic by adopting repressive laws. A state of emergency law has been enacted, but not yet put into effect. The government is currently drafting legislation that, it is feared, will drastically limit internet freedom and online expression. As of October, there are 55 political prisoners – including opposition activists, environmental and youth activists, and journalists – who are arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, Human Rights Watch said.

“The social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped Prime Minister Hun Sen from trying to crush any and all perceived opponents,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments, the United Nations, and donors should call out Hun Sen for his unrelenting human rights abuses.”

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 14, 2020, 8:14 pm
Click to expand Image Participants in a rally in Khabarovsk, in Russia's Far East, Saturday, to support the former region's governor Sergei Furgal on Oct. 10, 2020. Police detained several dozen protesters in the first crackdown since such rallies started three months ago. © 2020 AP Photo/Igor Volkov

(Moscow) – Police in Khabarovsk, in Russia’s Far East, on October 10, 2020 beat peaceful protesters and arbitrarily detained over 20 people, Human Rights Watch said today. Alexander Prikhodko, born in 1977, who was among those arrested, is under investigation for repeatedly violating public assembly regulations, a criminal offense under Russian law punishable by up to five years in prison.

“Russian authorities should immediately drop the case against Prikhodko,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They should also rescind the law permitting criminal prosecution of peaceful activists.”

The protests in Khabarovsk have been ongoing since the unexpected arrest of the popular regional governor, Sergei Furgal, in mid-July. Furgal is in a Moscow jail pending trial for several murders dating back 15 years. Furgal denies the allegations, and his supporters are convinced his prosecution is politically motivated.

Furgal won an election for his seat in 2018 in a contest against a candidate from the country’s ruling party, United Russia. President Vladimir Putin removed Furgal from his position following his arrest due to “loss of trust.” The city’s residents rallied in support of Furgal, demanding his release and the transfer of the investigation from the capital back to Khabarovsk. They were soon joined by residents in other cities in the region.

Authorities in Russia routinely break up peaceful demonstrations, using excessive force and detaining participants of so called “unsanctioned gatherings.” However, the Khabarovk rallies, which often attracted tens of thousands of participants, took place with little police interference, until October 10.

Prikhodko was taking part in the protest on October 10 at about 12:30 p.m. in Khabarovsk’s Lenin Square when police officers surrounded them. His lawyer, Andrei Bityutsky, whom Prikhodko authorized to speak about the case publicly, told Human Rights Watch that three or four officers threw themselves at his client, despite the fact that he did not engage in any violent actions, and roughly dragged him to a police van. “While forcing him into the van, the police broke his nose, which started bleeding heavily,” the lawyer said.

At the local precinct No. 5, where Prikhodko and eight other detainees were taken, police charged him with participation in an “unsanctioned” public gathering and informed him that because it was his third administrative offense of that type in less than six months they would look into opening a criminal case against him.

Under draconian legislation adopted in 2014, people found by a court to have violated public gathering regulations more than twice in a six-month period, can be subjected to criminal prosecution. Despite the fact that Russia’s Constitutional Court twice ruled that people should not be criminally prosecuted unless they pose a public threat, Russian authorities continue using the charge to silence peaceful protestors.

Konstantin Kotov, a civic activist in Moscow, is serving a prison sentence on this charge. A pro-democracy Moscow politician, Yulia Galyamina, is facing trial over organizing and participating in unauthorized but peaceful demonstrations.

The police kept Prikhodko at the station until 6 p.m., his lawyer said. He was finally allowed to go to a hospital for treatment because his nose continued to bleed.

The next day, the authorities opened a criminal case against Prikhodko over his repeated participation in unsanctioned demonstrations. In addition to the October 10 gathering, they cited two unsanctioned rallies in support of Furgal in August and September respectively, for which he had been fined. Prikhodko had to sign a statement undertaking to immediately respond to the investigators’ summons. A group of five investigators was formed to work on the case and they interrogated Prikhodko for the first time on October 13.

A spokesperson from OVID-Info, a leading Russian independent group that documents detentions and provides legal aid to detainees, said that at least three participants in the peaceful protest in Khabarovsk, who were detained on the same day as Prikhodko, are also facing criminal charges on allegations of low-grade violence against police, which can lead to sentences of up to five years in prison. Other protesters detained were charged with administrative offenses for taking part in an “unsanctioned gathering,” which are likely to result in fines or short-term imprisonment.

“People in Russia should be able to enjoy their right to free peaceful assembly, guaranteed by the country’s constitution and international human rights law, without fear of ending up in court, or worse, behind bars,” Williamson said. “Russia should urgently change its legislation and end the abusive practices that are denying people these rights.”

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Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: October 14, 2020, 4:15 pm