IHRP external news feeds

Thailand: Drop Bogus Charges Against Thai Studies Academics

Human Rights Watch - 0 sec ago

Expand

Thai authorities charge Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti and four participants of the 2017 International Conference on Thai Studies at Chiang Mai University with violating the junta's ban on public assembly. 

© 2017 Private
(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately drop charges against a prominent academic and four conference participants for violating the military junta’s ban on public assembly at a conference at Chiang Mai University in July 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The International Conference on Thai Studies included discussions and other activities that the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta deemed critical of military rule.

Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, who faces up to one year in prison if convicted, is scheduled to report to police in Chiang Mai province on August 23. Four conference attendees – Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai, and Thiramon Bua-ngam – have been charged for the same offense for holding posters saying “An academic forum is not a military barrack” to protest the military’s surveillance of participants during the July 15-18 conference. None are currently in custody.

“Government censorship and military surveillance have no place at an academic conference,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “By prosecuting a conference organizer and participants, the Thai junta is showing the world its utter contempt for academic freedom and other liberties.”
By prosecuting a conference organizer and participants, the Thai junta is showing the world its utter contempt for academic freedom and other liberties. Brad Adams

Asia Director


Since taking power after the May 2014 coup, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha has asserted that the airing of differences in political opinions could undermine social stability. Thai authorities have frequently forced the cancellation of community meetings, academic panels, issue seminars, and public forums on political matters, and especially issues related to dissent towards NCPO policies or the state of human rights in Thailand.

Frequently, these repressive interventions are based on the NCPO’s ban on public gatherings of more than five people, and orders outlawing public criticisms of any aspect of military rule. The junta views people who repeatedly express dissenting views and opinions, or show support for the deposed civilian government, as posing a threat to national security, and frequently arrests and prosecutes them under various laws.

Over the past three years, thousands of activists, politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders have been arrested and taken to military camps across Thailand for hostile interrogation aimed at stamping out dissident views and compelling a change in their political attitudes. Many of these cases took place in Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand, the hometown of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Most of those released from these interrogations, which the NCPO calls “attitude adjustment” programs, are forced to sign a written agreement that state they will cease making political comments, stop their involvement in political activities, or not undertake any actions to oppose military rule. Failure to comply with these written agreements can result in being detained again, or charged with the crime of disobeying the NCPO’s orders, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. The UN committee that oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Thailand has also ratified, has advised governments that academic freedom, as an element of the right to education, includes: “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.”

“Academics worldwide should call for the trumped-up charges against Professor Chayan and the four conference attendees to be dropped immediately,” Adams said. “Thailand faces a dim future if speech is censored, academic criticism is punished, and political discussions are banned even inside a university.”

Libya: Videos Capture Summary Executions

Human Rights Watch - 8 hours 10 min ago

(Beirut) – Forces loyal to the Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya appear to have executed captured fighters in Benghazi and desecrated corpses, Human Rights Watch said today. Video recordings posted online since January 2017 seem to show LNA fighters carrying out seven distinct unlawful executions of “extremists.”

The most recent video, which appeared on social media on July 24, 2017, shows the apparent summary execution on July 17 of 20 blindfolded men with their hands tied behind their backs in orange jumpsuits, whom the commander in charge accuses of “terrorism.” The executioners appear to be members of a special forces unit headed by Mahmoud al-Werfalli. The Army Special Forces in Benghazi, under the command of Wanis Bukhamada, are linked to the LNA, which is commanded by Gen. Khalifa Hiftar. The LNA is allied with the Interim Government, one of the three governments vying for legitimacy, international recognition, and control of territory in Libya.

Expand

The above image is a screenshot from a video posted on July 24, 2017 showing the apparent summary execution by LNA fighters of 20 prisoners, whom the commander, believed to be ICC suspect Mahmoud Al-Werfalli (wearing cap),  accuses of “terrorism.”

 

On August 15, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for al-Werfalli for the war crime of murder. He is wanted by the court for his alleged role in the killing of 33 people in seven incidents that took place in and around Benghazi between June 2016 and July 2017. The Interim Government should take immediate steps to facilitate the surrender of al-Werfalli to the ICC, Human Rights Watch said.

“The posted videos suggest that LNA-linked forces committed a series of grave war crimes over many months,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The ICC warrant for al-Werfalli is a wake-up call to other abusive commanders in Libya that one day their serious crimes could land them in a prison cell in The Hague.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed seven videos and several still images that appear to show distinct incidents of LNA-affiliated soldiers executing prisoners in their custody. Some of these videos and images show fighters desecrating the bodies of supposed fighters who opposed the LNA, including the burning and kicking of a corpse and posing for photographs with another corpse that had a leash tied around its neck.

In the video that was posted on social media on July 24, al-Werfalli and LNA soldiers are seen wearing the insignia of the Army Special Forces. Al-Werfalli reads out the execution judgment, identifies the unit, the date of July 17, and the capital offenses attributed to those in custody. He is the main executioner or supervisor of executions in six more video recordings of apparent summary executions of people accused of “terrorism” and committing crimes against the LNA.

The summary execution of fighters who have been captured or who have surrendered is a war crime.

Despite a commitment to investigate alleged crimes by its forces, the LNA has yet to announce the findings of any investigations or sanctions it has imposed on any of its members found to have committed violations. In a July 20 statement, the LNA rejected allegations made by the United Nations on July 18 that soldiers under al-Werfalli’s command were responsible for summary executions and that captured fighters in Benghazi were at “imminent risk of torture and even summary execution.”

The LNA said in its response that there was no evidence to substantiate the accusations of torture and executions and that any conclusions of the LNA’s investigative commission to uncover abuses in “unverified videos” would be made public.

Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the date when the videos and photos were taken, or the location where they were recorded. However, an analysis of the imagery revealed no indications that they had been doctored or were otherwise inauthentic. Human Rights Watch sought comment from the LNA spokesman but was unable to reach him. On August 8, Human Rights Watch emailed the LNA for comment on the videos and photographs that appear to show al-Werfalli presiding over or carrying out the execution of prisoners. Human Rights Watch did not receive a response.

Three of the seven videos appear to show al-Werfalli himself executing captured and unarmed men, individually or in groups. In three other videos, he appears to give orders to men in military uniform to execute unarmed detainees. In the seventh and most recent video to surface, a commander, who appears to be al-Werfalli, both gives orders and participates in the execution of the 20 unarmed, blindfolded prisoners in orange jumpsuits with their hands tied behind their backs.

The video starts by showing several incidents of crimes the captured men allegedly committed. The commander, who is dressed in fatigues, a black t-shirt, and black cap, then reads out the judgment of execution by firing squad against 18 of the men kneeling in four rows. The commander refers to the men as “terrorists” and says that a “field court” has found them guilty of “kidnapping, torturing, killing, bombing, slaying, and torturing the sons of the military establishment in particular and the Libyan people in general.”

The commander does not name any of the captured men or cite their affiliations. He says the date is July 17. Once the reading of the judgment is over, he orders armed men in military uniforms to execute the captured detainees row by row. The recording shows them doing so. Two more individuals are executed in the same way at the end of the video.

In another video recording posted on social media in June, a man who appears to be al-Werfalli is seen reciting religious texts and then ordering four men in fatigues, black t-shirts, and face-masks to shoot in the head four men kneeling in an open field. The captives are hooded and appear to have their hands bound behind their backs. Al-Werfalli does not name the victims but accuses them of crimes, including assassinations, and calls them Kharijites – a term for Muslims who rebelled against the Caliphate in the early ages of Islam. Al-Werfalli says that it is the month of Ramadan, which would mean June 2017.

Another undated video appears to show al-Werfalli reciting religious verses in a room while a man kneels on the floor with his arms behind his head. Other soldiers can be seen and heard in the background. Al-Werfalli accuses the man of being a member of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and then pulls out a handgun and shoots him in the back of the head, apparently killing him. Another undated video shows the apparent interrogation of this same man, who says he is Algerian.

On May 22, an undated video appeared online showing the apparent execution of two men: Emad Eddin al-Jazawi, a fighter with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, a coalition of fighters including extremists who oppose the LNA, and the son of a minister of the National Salvation Government, another of the rival governments. The video begins with al-Jazawi being interrogated and later shows him in a cage with another man, Haitham Jomaa al-Kafrawi, identified in the video as an Egyptian member of Al-Qaeda, who is also being interrogated. The recording ends with al-Jazawi and al-Kafrawi kneeling on the ground, backs to the camera, as al-Werfalli gives two soldiers an order to execute them. A photo bubble appears above the heads of the victims, showing photos of both men.

On May 15, al-Werfalli announced his resignation from the special forces, after he and his forces were accused of abuses, including looting and burning homes, as well as attacking a rescue division linked with the Interior Ministry in Benghazi that resulted in the killing of an officer. Al-Werfalli denied responsibility for those acts. However, the next day, the commander of the Special Forces, Wanis Bukhamada, rejected al-Werfalli’s resignation due to the “many sacrifices al-Werfalli” had made, and kept him in his position.

Armed conflict, insecurity, and political divisions have plagued Libya since May 2014, when General Hiftar announced a war to root out “terrorism” in Benghazi. As a result of armed conflicts in both the east and west, central authority collapsed and the three competing governments emerged, including the Interim Government, which the House of Representatives supports. Key institutions, most notably law enforcement and the judiciary, are dysfunctional in most parts of the country. On July 5, General Hiftar announced the complete “liberation” of Benghazi from armed groups opposing the LNA, including extremists, but pockets of resistance remain.

The ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has a mandate to investigate crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed in Libya since February 15, 2011. Human Rights Watch’s research in Libya since 2011 has found rampant violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including mass long-term arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, forced displacement, and unlawful killings. In the face of mounting atrocities, Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC prosecutor to urgently pursue an investigation into ongoing grave crimes by all sides, including possible crimes against humanity.

In May, Bensouda said her office was committed to making the Libya situation a priority in 2017. Given the serious crimes committed in Libya and the challenges facing the authorities, the ICC’s mandate remains crucial to ending impunity in Libya, Human Rights Watch said.
 

Groundbreaking Mercury Treaty Takes Effect

Human Rights Watch - 9 hours 9 min ago

(Geneva) – The United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury, which went into effect on August 16, 2017, could benefit millions of people affected by toxic mercury, Human Rights Watch said today. Under the treaty, governments are obligated to protect their citizens from the harmful effects of mercury and to put in place controls in polluting industries, such as artisanal and small-scale gold mining and coal-fired power plants. 

Mercury, a shiny liquid metal, attacks the central nervous system, can result in lifelong disability, and is very harmful to children. It can be lethal in higher doses.

The United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury, which went into effect on August 16, 2017, could benefit millions of people affected by toxic mercury.

“Millions of children and adults around the world are exposed to mercury on a daily basis,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Minamata Convention strengthens governments’ obligations to protect people’s rights to health and to a healthy environment from this toxic substance.”

Expand

Pure mercury in a wooden pan used to process gold. 

© 2014 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

The Minamata Convention was adopted in 2013 in Japan. It is named after the Japanese fishing town of Minamata, where mercury was discharged into the bay by a large chemical company from 1932 until 1968. Japan officially recognized that more than 2,955 people suffered mercury poisoning as a result, but subsequently compensated about 60,000 people. The actual number of victims is thought to be even higher.

Human Rights Watch has documented exposure to mercury by children and adults working in artisanal and small-scale gold mines in Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. Mercury is mixed into the ore to attract the gold particles. The resulting gold-mercury amalgam is then held over a fire, where the mercury is burned off, leaving raw gold behind.

Although mercury is particularly harmful to children, some children work regularly with mercury from young ages, unaware of the health risks. Children are also exposed to mercury fumes when their parents or older siblings burn the amalgam in their homes. Fifteen-year-old “Michelle” from the Philippines told Human Rights Watch that she had started processing gold with mercury at age 8, and started to suffer spasms – a typical symptom of mercury poisoning – a year later. She had never sought medical care or received a diagnosis.

The Minamata Convention obligates member countries to promote mercury-free gold processing methods; take special measures to protect vulnerable populations, including children and women of child-bearing age from exposure; and put an end to particularly harmful practices in gold processing, such as burning the mercury-gold amalgam in residential areas. Member countries commit to improving health care services for populations affected by exposure to mercury. The treaty also regulates other important industries, such as mercury use in products and manufacturing processes, and emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Expand

Mercury-contaminated water flows into the Bosigon River in Malaya, Camarines Norte.
 

© 2014 Mark Z. Saludes for Human Rights Watch

Currently, 74 countries are parties to the Minamata Convention, including important gold mining and donor countries – among them Peru, Brazil, Ghana, Canada, the United States, and Switzerland. On May 18, the European Union and seven EU member countries ratified the convention, bringing the total number of ratifications more than 50, triggering the entry into force on August 16. The first Conference of the Parties will take place from September 24 to September 29 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Global Environmental Facility, a multi-donor trust fund, has been designated in the treaty to provide financial support to governments from developing countries that seek to take action on mercury and has already started funding programs.

“Now that the Mercury Convention is in effect, governments have to walk the walk and put the treaty into practice,” Kippenberg said. “People suffering from mercury poisoning need swift protection and treatment.”

 

Hong Kong: Quash Convictions of Student Leaders

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Expand

Pro-democracy leaders Nathan Law (C), Joshua Wong (R), and Alex Chow meet journalists outside a court in Hong Kong, on September 21, 2016.

© 2016 Bobby Yip/Reuters

(New York, August 16, 2017) – The Hong Kong government should quash the 2016 convictions of three student leaders for their roles in a peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 17, 2017, the Court of Appeal of the High Court of Hong Kong is due to rule on the Hong Kong Department of Justice’s request that Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong be given prison sentences.

Under Hong Kong ordinances, anyone sentenced to more than three months in prison is barred from running for the Legislative Council and for the District Council for five years.

“Hong Kong authorities should never have prosecuted these three student leaders for peaceful protests in the first place,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The justice department’s outlandish application seeking jail time is not about public order but is instead a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests.”

On July 21, 2016, a Hong Kong court convicted Chow and Wong of unlawful assembly, and Law of incitement, offenses under the Public Order Ordinance. Chow was given a three-week sentence with a one-year suspension. Wong and Law were given community service orders of 80 hours and 120 hours, respectively, and have since fulfilled their obligations.

The justice department’s outlandish application seeking jail time is not about public order but is instead a craven political move to keep the trio out of the Legislative Council, as well as deter future protests. Sophie Richardson

China Director

In October, the Hong Kong Department of Justice filed an application for a review of the sentences, an uncommon step, and now seeks prison terms for the three. The prosecutors claim that “the nature of the crime in this case is extremely serious,” and that “as the accused do not feel true remorse, awarding a sentence of community service is wrong on principle and clearly not enough.”

In an unrelated but similar case, the appeals court imposed a heavier penalty on 13 defendants who had been convicted of unlawful assembly for another anti-government protest in 2014. The 13, who had previously been sentenced to community service, were given prison terms between 8 and 13 months after the justice department sought a review of their sentences.

The charges against the three student leaders stem from their leadership of a peaceful sit-in that triggered the 79-day pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. At that time, Hong Kong authorities characterized the demonstrations as illegal, invoking the Public Order Ordinance, which has been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee for possibly “facilitat[ing] excessive restrictions” to basic rights. The law, which requires that processions involving more than 30 people and assemblies with more than 50 must apply for and receive a “letter of no objection” from the government in advance, is incompatible with article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which applies to Hong Kong.

Human Rights Watch has long urged Hong Kong authorities to revise the ordinance to comply with the ICCPR.

Imposing new punishments on Wong and Law, who had already completed their sentences of community service, may violate article 14(7) of the ICCPR, which enunciates the principle of “double jeopardy” that no one shall be “punished again” for the same offense.

In November 2016 and July 2017, Hong Kong courts disqualified a total of six elected pro-democratic legislators. The court decisions were based on a November 2016 judicial interpretation issued by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, changing Hong Kong’s functional constitution during legal proceedings. As a result, pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature lost their limited power to reject motions and bill amendments raised by other legislators. The Hong Kong government is expected to organize a by-election for the six vacated seats. At least two of the three student leaders had expressed interest in running for these seats.

Human Rights Watch has documented the surge in politically motivated prosecutions against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders since the Umbrella Movement protests culminated in December 2014. Most were charged with participating in or leading peaceful protests. Human Rights Watch has also documented other forms of official harassment against opposition politicians, such as delays and rejections in registering political parties on political grounds. There were also increased reports of suspected mainland security police following, intimidating, and assaulting democracy advocates, particularly during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hong Kong from June 29 to July 1, 2017.

“People are increasingly losing confidence in the neutrality of Hong Kong’s justice system,” Richardson said. “Hong Kong authorities should quash the convictions of peaceful protesters that have raised serious concerns about the long-term prospect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong.”

US: Visited a Major Trump Protest Website?

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Expand

Protesters at an entry point before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, DC, U.S., January 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

United States activists are raising alarms about a new report that the Justice Department has obtained a search warrant for information about visitors to a website that coordinated protests at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The warrant was issued as a part of an investigation into alleged criminal activities by certain people during the protests. DreamHost, the website host, has said the warrant would require it to disclose more than 1.3 million IP addresses that the government could use to identify people who visited the site.

DreamHost has correctly raised the alarm that this demand could discourage people from exercising their rights to free expression online. Human Rights Watch is concerned not only about this immediate impact on free speech, but also about a risk that if the authorities obtain this information, there may be insufficient protections to prevent them from storing and searching the data for the long-term. If the government takes an expansive view of its powers in that respect – as it has tried to do in at least one previous case – it may even be able to enter the data into databases that could later be used to create profiles of, or map relationships between, people for whom there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.

As DreamHost has pointed out in a legal filing, the warrant does not provide, “any assurance that the government will return or destroy the large portion of the information irrelevant to the government’s criminal case or cases.” Recent media reports have described troubling aspects of government databases – some furnished by the Palo Alto-based company Palantir – that may enable government entities to store and data mine large collections of law enforcement and other information. While we don’t yet know how the authorities intend to treat the data they gather from DreamHost, storing and mining data that is unrelated or unnecessary to an actual criminal investigation would raise serious potential human rights concerns, particularly when the collection appears to be centered on lawful expression, and organizing around political protest.

At a minimum, judges should consider these possible long-term effects when deciding whether to issue a warrant for large sets of user data. And companies that receive similar overreaching warrants should follow DreamHost’s example and challenge them on behalf of their users. The rights of everyone – from the politically active to the merely curious – are too important to sacrifice automatically to a blanket demand.

Door Opens to Achieving Marriage Equality in Czech Republic

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

If it was up to the thousands who participated in last week’s Prague Pride, it’s clear the Czech Republic would be joining the growing list of countries legalizing same-sex marriage.

Expand

Campaigners for same-sex marriage during Prague Pride, Czech Republic, August 12, 2017.

© 2017 Boris Dittrich/Human Rights Watch

Marriage equality was a major theme during Prague Pride Week, which prominently featured a lesbian couple in wedding dresses riding in a carriage in the parade. While there was no doubt where the estimated 35,000 participants in the parade stood on the issue, public opinion still remains split with a May Czech opinion poll showing a slight majority of 52 percent in favour of same-sex marriage.

After years of effort, the door may be opening for activists to achieve marriage equality. On October 20 and 21, national parliamentary elections will be held in the Czech Republic and same-sex marriage is on the agenda.

After joining the European Union (EU) in 2004, the Czech Republic introduced civil unions in 2006. In the run-up to the October elections, a coalition of five Czech non-governmental organizations started a campaign called Jsme fér! (We are fair) to achieve marriage equality during the next four year parliamentary period. The chair of the campaign and the advocacy director joined me in my meetings with Czech politicians to discuss marriage equality. On Thursday, August 10, we met in the Czech parliament building with Zbynek Stanjura, chairman of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which is a conservative opposition party. Inspired by the sudden adoption of marriage equality legislation in Germany through a vote of conscience, Stanjura, who is personally not in favour of marriage equality, suggested that his party could agree on a free vote in parliament – that is without any party whip. He predicted several of his colleagues would vote in favour of marriage equality. The next day we met with the former Prime Minister and former EU Commissioner Vladimir Spidla, who is now the chief advisor of the current Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka. He predicted his party, the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), currently the biggest political party in government with two coalition partners, would be in favour of marriage equality.

The Equal Marriage campaigners will now ask all 200 candidates for the Chamber of Deputies if they would vote in favour of marriage equality should they be elected. The campaigners will urge the public to support those candidates who commit to marriage equality. Now is the time to vote for full equality.

Iran: Raising the Death Penalty Bar

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

(Beirut) — The Iranian parliament on August 13, 2017 approved a long-awaited amendment to the country’s drug law that significantly raises the bar for a mandatory death sentence, Human Rights Watch said today. The amendment, which the parliamentary judiciary commission revised four times, is a step in the right direction despite being more limited than a December 2016 draft amendment that sought to outlaw the death penalty for most non-violent drug related offenses.

Iran has one of the highest rates of documented executions in the world. According to Amnesty International, in 2016 alone, Iran executed at least 567 individuals, including at least two who were children when they allegedly committed their crimes. When submitting the new draft law to the parliament, Hassan Noroozi, the spokesperson for the parliamentary judicial committee, stated that 5,000 people are currently on death row for drug offenses in Iran, the majority between the ages of 20 and 30.

Expand

A view of the Iranian parliament in Tehran September 2, 2009. 

© 2009 Raheb Homavandi/Reuters

“If the amendment becomes law, it could save hundreds of people from execution who never should have been on death row in the first place,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Even Iranian officials admit the ineffectiveness of capital punishment for combating drugs, and the parliament should next outlaw capital punishment for all drug offenders, and then end all executions.” 

For the bill to become law, the Guardian Council, a body of 12 Islamic jurists, must approve it, agreeing that the bill is in accordance with Iran’s constitution and their interpretation of sharia law.

Under Iran’s current drug law, nonviolent offenses, including possession of as little as 30 grams of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines, as well as trafficking, possession, or trade of more than five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin carries a mandatory death sentence.

The approved amendment changes the punishment for drug offenses that previously carried the death penalty or life in prison to a prison term of up to 30 years. However, it still mandates the death penalty if the accused or one of the participants in the crime used or carried weapons and intended to use them against law enforcement agencies. The death penalty would still apply to a leader of a drug trafficking cartel, anyone who used a child in some way to traffic drugs, or anyone facing new drug-related charges who had previously been sentenced to execution or 15 years to life for drug-related offenses.

After facing pushback from Iran’s judiciary and the Interior Ministry’s drug control headquarters, parliament altered the amendment to maintain the death penalty for nonviolent charges of “production, distribution, trafficking, and selling” drugs. However, the amendment raises the amounts of drugs involved to more than 50 kilograms of “traditional” drugs such as opium or two kilograms of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines. It also restores the death penalty for possession, purchase, or concealing more than three kilograms of “synthetic drugs.”

Despite the prospect of reform, the authorities have continued executing people on drug-related offenses. On July 20, Human Rights Watch called on Iranian authorities to immediately halt these executions while the amendments await final approval.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented serious violations of due process, torture, and other violations of the rights of people accused of drug offenses, including in Ghezel Hesar prison in Karaj. Prisoners have told Human Rights Watch that authorities routinely blindfold and beat detainees and force them to sign confessions. Prisoners also said that court-appointed lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogations or to meet privately with their clients, and that they are allowed only to submit written statements in their clients’ defense.

Under article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran has ratified, in countries that still retain capital punishment, the death penalty may be applied only for the “most serious crimes.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that drug offenses are not among the “most serious crimes,” and that the use of the death penalty for such crimes violates international law. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because it is inherently irreversible and inhumane.

“The Guardian Council shouldn’t wait a moment longer to approve reforms and take a first step to curbing Iran’s execution epidemic,” Whitson said. 

Uzbekistan: UN Staffer Free After 11 Years

Human Rights Watch - Monday, August 14, 2017
Expand

Erkin Musaev, year unknown © Association for Human Rights in Central Asia

Erkin Musaev was a former Uzbek government official and UN staffer who arrested and imprisoned in 2006 on politically-motivated charges of espionage, among others. 

(Bishkek) – Erkin Musaev, a United Nations employee and former government official, tortured and unjustly jailed for 11 years in Uzbekistan, was finally freed on August 11, 2017, according to his family, Human Rights Watch said today. Musaev had been imprisoned since 2006 and was granted early release on orders of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the family said.

Mirziyoyev should release all those imprisoned on politically motivated charges and ensure effective investigations into the torture of detainees, including Musaev, Human Rights Watch said.

“Erkin Musaev’s release is a joyous occasion for him and his family, but Musaev’s 11-year ordeal won’t end until those who tortured him are brought to justice,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Mirziyoyev should see to it that all torture of detainees finally ends and all victims get a remedy.”

Musaev is the fifth political prisoner released since Mirziyoyev became acting president in September 2016, following the death of the long-time authoritarian leader Islam Karimov in August. During his campaign, Mirziyoyev promised increased accountability to citizens, and acknowledged the lack of reform in key aspects of Uzbekistan’s society, including the economy and the criminal justice system.

Since assuming office in December, Mirziyoyev has taken modest steps to loosen some restrictions on free expression, and openly criticized prosecutors for abuse of power in certain cases. He also announced plans to abolish exit visas, which improperly restrict the right of citizens to leave the country. But Mirziyoyev has taken few steps to free prisoners held on politically motivated charges.

Mirziyoyev should direct the relevant authorities to effectively investigate allegations that Musaev was tortured, and that his conviction and sentence were based on proceedings that violated basic fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said. The Uzbek government should also immediately and unconditionally release the other peaceful activists and human rights defenders who remain in prison following politically motivated and unfair trials.

Musaev, now 50, was a UN employee and a former Uzbek government official in the Defense Ministry’s foreign trade department. He was involved in international cooperation programs with Western governments, including the US and the EU, for which authorities later accused him of espionage.

Musaev participated in a US government-sponsored exchange program in the mid-1990s, and in the late-1990s worked as a diplomat for the Uzbek government in Brussels. He later worked in Uzbekistan as a project manager for the UN Development Program’s “Border Management in Central Asia” project.

On January 31, 2006, border guards arrested Musaev at Tashkent airport, after allegedly uncovering a disk among his belongings containing “state secrets.” Musaev wrote to his father that officials had planted the evidence during the search. In its 2007 Human Rights report on Uzbekistan, the US State Department reported that Musaev was tortured in detention, which included severe beatings to his head, chest, and feet, and held for two months without access to a lawyer or any visitors.

A joint letter from the UN special rapporteur on torture and the head of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to then-President Karimov said that one beating by prison officials broke Musaev’s jaw. Authorities also coerced him to sign a confession that he had engaged in espionage for the US, the UK, and the UN.

Authorities initially charged Musaev with high treason and sharing government secrets. On June 13, 2006, a Tashkent military court sentenced him to 15 years in prison. The day after his conviction, he was also charged with abuse of power and neglect of duty, and another year was added to his sentence. In the ensuing years, Musaev’s relatives reported to journalists and US embassy officials that Uzbek authorities continued to periodically torture him, including one episode in which he was beaten so badly after refusing to provide false testimony that he was hospitalized as a result of significant blood loss. A court later tried and convicted him in another case in which he had been originally called as a witness, adding four years to his sentence.

In May 2008, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention held that Musaev’s imprisonment was “arbitrary”, and in contravention of several international treaties to which Uzbekistan is a party. By February 2011, authorities had transferred Musaev to a high security prison in Navoi province and his body showed signs of burns and other wounds.

In June 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee issued its decision that the Uzbek government had tortured and otherwise ill-treated Musaev and violated his rights to liberty, security, and fair trial under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (articles 7, 9 and 14 respectively). The committee called on Uzbekistan to provide him with an effective remedy for the violations. But Uzbek authorities ignored the ruling, and Musaev remained in prison.

“Musaev suffered harrowing torture at the hands of Uzbek authorities, and his story is just one of thousands of victims of arbitrary imprisonment and ill-treatment,” Swerdlow said. “Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the US and the EU, should use every means of influence at their disposal to reiterate their calls to President Mirziyoyev to release everyone being held unlawfully and arbitrarily under international standards.”
 

Authorities in Southern Russia Scared of Feminism

Human Rights Watch - Monday, August 14, 2017

Add another category to the long list of people deemed a security threat to the Russian state: feminists.

Early this morning, a group of men broke into a tiny cottage near Dzhubga, a village in Russia’s southern Black Sea region of Krasnodar. The cottage was rented by five women who had traveled to the region for a feminist gathering.

Expand

Activists hoping to attend a gathering on feminism, instead harassed and brought to the Dzhugba police station in Krasnodar region, Russia, August 14, 2017.

© 2017 Private

One of the men identified himself as a police officer and told the women they were being brought to the Dzhugba police station for questioning about an alleged breach of public order. At the precinct, the women were forced to turn off their phones, searched, and required to file written statements explaining the purpose of their trip. When releasing the women without charge four hours later, officers wanted them to sign documents warning them against carrying out any “extremist activity.” The women refused.

The women – Lolita Agamalova, Lada Garina, Elena Ivanova, Taisia Simonova, and Oksana Vasyakina – had planned to spend a week in a small camp by the Black Sea to learn more about feminism and exchange best practices in a friendly environment free of “sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and any sort of xenophobia.” But a few days before the camp’s launch, Simonova and several others received hate messages on social networks from supposed Cossacks threatening to attack the camp because allegedly feminism runs contrary to “traditional values.” On August 12, another “Cossack” threatened Simonova, one of the organizers, on her cellphone. The organizers decided to cancel the camp for security reasons, but by that time, some of the participants were already on their way.

Cossacks, who identify themselves as a separate ethnic group in Russia, are known to maintain militia groups, especially in the south of the country, allegedly to help protect public order. They often harass and even physically attack civil society activists, at times appearing to act in collusion with local police authorities.

Once released from the Dzhugba police station, four of the women headed for a camping site near the town of Gelendzhik, where other feminist friends were staying. In the afternoon, a group of Cossacks confronted them and demanded to see their documents. Eventually, police showed up and suggested the women come with them. Fearing for their safety, the activists agreed. But once they arrived at the Divnomorskoe police station, the officers began treating them as suspects, asking intrusive questions about their trip and even trying to have them fingerprinted. Then, police brought in some of the women’s friends from the camping site and questioned them in turn. Instead of protecting the women from the Cossacks, the police played alongside them, seemingly also hoping to prevent feminists from gathering. The women and their friends were released well after dark. Each of them had to sign a paper saying she had been warned not to engage in “extremist activities.” 

Egypt: Detained Journalist’s Health Deteriorating

Human Rights Watch - Monday, August 14, 2017

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should immediately provide appropriate health care to the imprisoned journalist Hisham Gaafar, whose health, including his eyesight, is deteriorating in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. If prison authorities are unable to provide him necessary health care, they should allow him to seek care in private health facilities.

Expand

Egyptian journalist Hisham Gaafar before his detention in October 2015.

© Private

The Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency arrested Gaafar, director of the Mada Foundation for Media Development, a private media company, at his office in October 2015. Prosecutors have ordered Gaafar detained pending investigation on charges that include membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and illegally receiving foreign funds for his foundation, his lawyers told Human Rights Watch.

“Egypt’s Interior Ministry has shown contempt for Hisham Gaafar’s health and well-being,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the Interior Ministry refuses to provide him his rightful care is a sad testament to Egyptian authorities’ disregard for detainees’ most basic rights.”

Gaafar, 53, has an eye condition – optic nerve atrophy – that requires ongoing specialist care or he may risk losing his sight altogether. He also suffers from a years-long prostate enlargement condition and risks complications if he does not receive the proper treatment. His eyesight is deteriorating and his health has worsened during his time in detention, in poor conditions, his family said.

Immediately following his arrest, police took Gaafar to his home, where officers seized his personal publications, work papers, computers, and phones, including those belonging to his wife and children. They detained his family inside the home for 17 hours. Security officers confiscated all his medical documents and reports and have not returned them to his family, despite their requests.

National Security officers then took Gaafar to an undisclosed location and held him for two days without access to his family or lawyers. His family heard of his whereabouts when a lawyer saw him by coincidence in the Supreme State Security Prosecution office in Cairo. Prosecutors have kept him in pretrial detention since then.

Under Egyptian law, prosecutors have broad power to hold those suspected of committing major offenses, including political and national security crimes, in pretrial detention for up to five months without regular judicial review, and judges can extend the detention for up to two years without requiring any substantive justification from prosecutors.

A judge should immediately review the necessity and legality of Gaafar’s detention and either send him to trial without further delays or release him, Human Rights Watch said.

During Gaafar’s time in detention, most of it spent in the maximum security Scorpion Prison in Cairo, the Interior Ministry’s Prisons Authority has not provided needed medicine but has intermittently allowed Gaafar to receive the eye vitamins and prostate medicine he required, after completely banning such supplies for the first two months of his detention. During those two months, his wife, Manar, told Human Right Watch, prison authorities kept Gaafar alone in a cell that, in his words, resembled a “tomb” without sunlight.

Later, they allowed his family very short and irregular visits, with no chance to verify whether he had received the medicine they had given to prison guards for him. Since March 2017, prison authorities have again denied him visits from relatives and his lawyer.

Before he was detained, Gaafar used special optic tools to read and glasses for everyday life. He also needed some assistance in his daily routine, his wife said. Prison authorities allowed his wife to deliver the glasses several months after his detention, but when they reached him, they were broken. The way the glasses were broken suggested it had been deliberate, his wife said. She delivered new ones, but he has not had a new eye examination. His wife said that he recently told her he was not seeing as well as before, even with the glasses, suggesting his eyesight may have deteriorated.

Gaafar has had optic nerve atrophy in both eyes since he was a teenager, according to his wife. Medical documents and reports from 2012, which she provided to Human Rights Watch after she retrieved them from a hospital, stated that at the time he had only 10 percent of his vision remaining in his left eye. Optic nerve atrophy has no cure, but it can be slowed by exposure to sunlight, medicine, and a healthy diet, his wife said doctors had told them. These are not available in adequate amounts to inmates at Scorpion Prison and many other Egyptian detention facilities.

A Human Rights Watch report on Scorpion Prison, published in 2016, documented cruel and inhuman treatment by officers of the Interior Ministry’s Prisons Authority that probably amounted to torture, including preventing food and medicine deliveries and other interference in medical care that may have contributed to prisoners’ deaths.

Expand

Hisham Gaafar sits on his bed in detention. His health has rapidly worsened while in detention, including marked weight loss, deteriorating eyesight, and a chronic prostate condition. 

© Private

Gaafar’s wife said he appeared weak and to have lost significant weight during her March 2017 visit. She said she saw bite marks all over his body, which he said were from insects that had infested his cell due to a sewage leak. He told her he had suffered pain for weeks because he was sleeping on the concrete floor without a mattress. Human Rights Watch previously documented that Scorpion Prison authorities deny inmates a wide variety of basic necessities for hygiene and comfort, including beds, pillows, and mattresses. 

In late February 2016, after a public outcry and growing criticism from the Journalists’ Syndicate, human rights organizations, and public figures, the authorities transferred Gaafar to the Tora Prison Hospital after he began suffering from urinary retention – the inability to fully empty his bladder. Prison authorities then transferred him to al-Manial University Hospital, which is affiliated with Cairo University. Doctors who examined him there on March 4, and again on March 10, 2016, asked prison officials to allow him to be kept at Cairo University hospitals to prepare for more tests, including diagnostic surgery on his enlarged prostate, the apparent cause of the urinary retention.

Gaafar spent five months at the prisoners’ ward at Qasr al-Aini Hospital, where ill inmates who are hospitalized are usually held, but the authorities repeatedly failed to give Gaafar timely permission to go for needed tests. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that prison authorities pressure hospitals not to admit inmates or to return them without necessary treatment.

Gaafar told his wife that he received very little medical care there. In August 2016, the authorities sent Gaafar back to Scorpion Prison before he had undergone the examinations that he was told he needed. Prison authorities and Cairo University hospitals have not allowed Gaafar’s family to read or obtain a copy of the medical reports issued during his detention, his wife said.

The family managed to obtain the hospital discharge report through unofficial means, however, and provided a copy to Human Rights Watch. The report contained no detailed information on any tests Gaafar may have undergone or treatment received but stated that he suffers from “mild prostate enlargement that needed no surgery.” The report did not state what caused the enlargement or whether it was benign or cancerous – a primary concern for the family. 

A couple of days after returning to prison, Gaafar found blood in his urine, and officers transferred him again to Tora Prison Hospital. But the facilities there lack a urology specialist, his wife said, and the prison authorities have refused to arrange for Gaafar to be seen by one. He appeared before a court in August 2016 carrying a urinary catheter, his lawyers said.

His wife said that after filing several complaints, a National Security officer visited Gaafar in detention in November 2016, and told him, “don’t worry, we will treat you.” But Gaafar’s request to seek treatment in a private health facility was ignored.

One of his lawyers and his wife both told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors never allowed them to obtain a copy of the official charges against him or the rest of his case file. However, Hossam al-Sayed, another Mada Foundation journalist who was arrested with Gaafar on the same day, was released without bail in March 2016, said the lawyer Karim Abd al-Rady.

Under an amendment to the penal code decreed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in September 2014, Gaafar could face a 25-year sentence if convicted of receiving foreign funds illegally.

Prisoners have the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1982.

The Committee Against Torture, the monitoring body of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – ratified by Egypt in 1986 – has found that failure to provide adequate medical care can violate the treaty’s prohibition of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

“It is deeply concerning that Egypt’s judiciary has become complicit in human rights violations by cruelly detaining people like Gaafar for years without justification, exposing them to serious abuse and harm,” Whitson said.

Saudi Arabia: Security Forces Seal Off Eastern Town

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, August 13, 2017

(Beirut) – Saudi security forces have surrounded and sealed off the predominantly Shia town of Awamiya in July 2017 as they confronted an armed group hiding in a historic neighborhood slated for demolition, Human Rights Watch said today.

The violence in the Eastern province, which began in May, has resulted in deaths and injuries among the residents, local activists said, and caused significant damage to the town, based on an assessment of satellite imagery. Residents and activists say that most residents have fled Awamiya, and those who remain lack essential services such as medical care. The town remains sealed off.
View All Share

Satellite imagery © CNES 2017 - Airbus DS 2017

Before: Satellite imagery © CNES 2017 - Airbus DS 2017 After: Satellite imagery © CNES 2017 - Airbus DS 2017
“Saudi security forces should provide essential services to trapped Awamiya residents and make sure they can move in and out of the town safely,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi authorities should also immediately and credibly investigate whether its forces used excessive force in Awamiya.”

Saudi Arabia announced plans to demolish and redevelop the al-Musawara neighborhood of Awamiya, Qatif governorate, in 2016, citing health and safety reasons. Demolition began on May 10, after al-Musawara residents were evacuated, but met with armed resistance. Awamiya residents told Human Rights Watch that security forces have fired into populated areas far from al-Musawara, killing residents, occupied a public school, closed clinics and pharmacies, and prevented essential services such as ambulances from reaching the area.

Expand

Vehicles belonging to Saudi forces are seen in the eastern town of Awamiya, following a security campaign against Shi'ite Muslim gunmen, August 9, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Security forces engaged in shoot-outs with an unknown number of armed men inside al-Musawara, and on July 26 brought in additional armored vehicles and sealed the town’s entrances and exits, residents and activists said.

Awamiya has a longstanding reputation of opposition to Saudi rule and has been the site of protests about government discrimination against Saudi Shia. It is the hometown of a prominent cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in January 2016 over his encouragement of protests in 2011 and 2012. The execution sparked a series of events leading to a breakdown of diplomatic relations with Iran and heightened sectarian tensions across the Gulf region.

On July 28, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland stated that she was “deeply concerned” about photos purporting to show Saudi security forces using Canadian-made Terradyne Gurkha RPV-model armored vehicles. She ordered an investigation into how Saudi forces are using the vehicles. Saudi forces have also deployed another type of armored vehicle manufactured by the South African company F & R Catai to Awamiya. The automatic cannon in this vehicle’s turret can penetrate and cause considerable damage to buildings and other infrastructure.

Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery that shows extensive damage to the neighborhood and the town’s main commercial street bordering it. While much of the damage is due to the demolition, the images also show buildings and areas damaged by the violence.

Activists and residents said the armed men are on most-wanted lists authorities have issued since 2012 for protest-related crimes in the area.

Saudi Arabia announced on August 10 that security forces had forced nearly all “terrorists and criminal elements” out of al-Musawara, and authorities took international journalists on a tour of the neighborhood on August 9.

Saudi activists said the violence has killed more than a dozen people, both Saudis and foreigners, in addition to at least five armed militants. A Saudi Interior Ministry official told Reuters that eight members of the police and four members of the special forces had been killed. The Saudi authorities have not released information on resident casualties. Reuters reported that a 3-year-old boy died on August 9 from injuries suffered when an armored vehicle fired on his family’s car in June.

Expand

Remains of cars and buildings are seen following a security campaign against Shi'ite Muslim gunmen in the town of Awamiya, in the eastern governorate of Qatif, August 9, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Saudi authorities should immediately investigate the circumstances of all casualties related to the use of force by police and security forces and hold security forces accountable if it is shown that they fired at residents unlawfully, Human Rights Watch said.

Five residents interviewed said that Saudi security forces have put people in Awamiya at risk, arbitrarily shooting at or arresting those who emerged from their houses. The residents said that to their knowledge Saudi authorities never issued an order for people to leave Awamiya, and their only chance to leave safely has been for short periods allowed by security forces since July 26.

The residents said that local volunteers and activists coordinated the evacuation without assistance from Saudi authorities. They said that security forces turn away anyone who attempts to return to Awamiya to check on relatives or recover property or possessions.

Local residents said that people have been fired at and injured in areas such as al-Shukrallah, al-Jumaymah, and al-Rif neighborhoods, which are west of security forces who are stationed between these neighborhoods and al-Musawara to the east. The residents said they had not seen any armed militants in these areas.

The five Awamiya residents and three activists close to the situation said that a majority of the town’s inhabitants fled after security forces escalated the situation on July 26. They said that most fled between July 27 and 28 when the town’s electricity was cut off for more than 24 hours, leaving people exposed to temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) without air conditioning. Residents and activists said that the electricity grid had been damaged by gunfire, but did not know who was responsible.

The residents said that security forces closed all of Awamiya’s clinics and pharmacies in May, which they believed was to ensure that militants could not seek medical treatment. Since July 26, they said, security forces had not allowed emergency services to reach the wounded or taken steps to provide humanitarian assistance to people who remain there, though all the shops in the area were closed.

They also said that security forces had occupied a boys’ secondary school, which borders al-Musawara, and circulated a video that they said showed government forces firing a rocket-propelled grenade from the roof into al-Musawara. Human Rights Watch independently verified the video location by matching landmarks and rooftop features visible in the video to corresponding locations in satellite imagery recorded during the fighting. Human Rights Watch also determined that the rocket-propelled grenade was fired into al-Musawara in the general direction of the Ahmed bin Mahmoud mosque.

The United Nations experts on cultural rights, adequate housing and extreme poverty condemned Saudi Arabia’s destruction of al-Musawara on May 24, noting that the operation had forced “residents out of their homes and of the neighborhood, fleeing for their lives.” They stated that the destruction of al-Musawara would “erase the traces of … historic and lived cultural heritage.”

The Saudi government should publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

The Basic Principles further provide that, “[i]n cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.” The findings of the investigation should be public and result in appropriate disciplinary action or prosecution.

Saudi Arabian security forces should also refrain from using schools, which can cause damage or destruction to important educational infrastructure and interfere with children’s right to an education in safety.

“Saudi Shia in Awamiya face discrimination every day, and for the last three months have been caught in the crossfire,” Whitson said. “Saudi authorities should take immediate steps to allow people to safely return home, allow business and clinics to reopen, and compensate residents for property damage and destruction caused by security forces.”

Accounts from Al-Musawara Residents

One resident, “Sami,” whose name, as with others interviewed, has been changed for his protection, said he had not worked since the fighting started because his shop is on the main street near al-Musawara, in the area where security forces had sporadically opened fire on shops and homes. “My shop is covered in bullet holes,” he said. “I am certain that security forces are responsible because the size of the bullets are medium and large, which only security forces possess.”

Sami said he came under fire on June 11 while driving on a street where security forces were stationed, far from the fighting around al-Musawara: “I was out shopping with a friend for a Suhur [Ramadan early morning] meal when we started hearing gunshots. I was in my car ... driving back home when bullets started hitting the ground on the road where I was driving. I quickly turned off the lights of my car and drove toward narrow streets to hide in neighborhoods where apartment buildings could protect me from gunshots.”

“Ali,” a Awamiya resident who fled on July 30, said: “The security situation in Awamiya has been terrible for the past 80 days. While I was still in Awamiya, the town was constantly bombarded by shelling and security forces were going around shooting in residential neighborhoods at random. We were too scared to leave our homes and most of the shops were shut down or burned. Anything that moved became a target.”

Another resident, “Ahmed,” said that he came under fire driving in al-Shukrallah on July 29: “I am from the al-Jumaymah neighborhood. I went in the morning to help my mom and dad. When I left I went toward al-Shukrallah to try to leave Awamiya via a back road through farms. I was driving between houses when someone fired at me and the bullet hit the house next to my car. I saw an armored vehicle at the end of the street … I never saw any armed militants in this area.”

“Hadi,” a Awamiya resident who works on an informal committee assisting those fleeing Awamiya find places to stay, said that another member of the group, Mohammad al-Rheimani, was shot on August 3 while helping residents leave Awamiya at an area west of security forces’ positions, in the opposite direction from al-Musawara.

Hadi said that he believes that 20,000 to 25,000 of the towns’ 30,000 residents had fled, most since July 26. He said that Saudi authorities had housed a small number of them in private apartments in nearby Dammam, but that the vast majority were staying with relatives or renting apartment across the Eastern Province.

 

Kenya: Police Restraint Critical

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, August 12, 2017
Expand

Policemen chase protesters in Kisumu, Kenya August 11, 2017.

© 2017 Baz Ratner /Reuters

(Nairobi) – Kenyan security forces should exercise restraint in the face of protests that take place in response to election results, Human Rights Watch said today. In any situations where security force personnel use force, they should take care to ensure that it is proportionate.

Late in the evening of August 11, 2017, Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of the presidency in the August 8 election. The announcement prompted reports of protests in some opposition strongholds, particularly Kisumu, parts of Nairobi, and Mombasa. 

“With growing reports of demonstrations and heavy gunfire in some areas, it is important for security forces to work to deescalate – not escalate – the violence,” said Otsieno Namwaya, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The police should not use teargas or live ammunition simply because they consider a gathering unlawful.”

Three of Kenya’s previous four general elections were marred by violence, including the 2007-2008 election, when 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 displaced. 

As a riot-control method, teargas should be used only when necessary as a proportionate response to quell violence. It should not be used in a confined space, and canisters should not be fired directly at anyone. International guidelines, such as the United Nations Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, stipulate that the police are expected to use discretion in crowd control tactics to ensure a proportionate response to any threat of violence, and to avoid exacerbating the situation.

Philippines: Mandatory College Drug Tests Imperil Students

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 11, 2017

Expand

Philippine men detained on drugs charges lie on the floor of a police station in Quezon City Police District in Manila, Philippines April 3, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Andrew RC Marshall
(Manila) – The Philippine government’s plan for mandatory drug testing for all college students and applicants seriously threatens their safety and right to education, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 2, 2017, the official Commission on Higher Education, which produces “plans, policies and strategies” for higher education under the office of the president, approved a memorandum order to be implemented at the start of school next year.

The college drug testing plan is a dangerous outgrowth of the Duterte administration’s abusive “war on drugs.” The order permits local governments, the police and other law enforcement agency to “carry out any drug-related operation within the school premises” with the approval of school administrators. This will effectively allow the police to extend their “anti-drug” operations to college and university campuses, placing students at grave risk.
Mandatory drug testing of students puts them in the crosshairs of Duterte’s abusive drug war, risking the creation of a school-to-cemetery track for students testing positive for drugs. Phelim Kine

Deputy Asia Director


“Imposing mandatory drug testing of students when Philippine police are committing rampant summary killings of alleged drug users puts countless children in danger for failing a drug test,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Education officials should be protecting students, not putting them in harm’s way through mandatory drug tests.”

Since President Rodrigo Duterte launched his abusive “war on drugs” on June 30, 2016, more than 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers have been killed by Philippine National Police officers or unknown gunmen. Human Rights Watch research found that the police have routinely committed extrajudicial executions of drug suspects and then covered up their crimes by planting drugs and guns at the scene. The police often target individuals whose names appeared on neighborhood “drug watch lists” drawn up by local officials in collusion with the police.

The higher education commission order does not require, but “strongly encourages,” schools of higher education to impose random mandatory drug testing of students and applicants. It follows the Department of Education’s announcement in May that it will launch random drug tests of primary, elementary, and high school students later this year.

Sanctions imposed on students could make them more vulnerable to police abuse. Although the order requires that educational authorities keep confidential the results of students who test positive for drug use, schools are empowered to impose sanctions on those students or school applicants, including expulsion or admission denial. The order also allows schools to penalize students or applicants who refuse drug tests “subject to the relevant sanctions as provided in the [higher education] student handbook,” without elaborating.

The order justifies mandatory drug tests as a means to identify drug users for the purpose of rehabilitation. However, Philippine drug rehabilitation programs are overwhelmingly coercive and detention-oriented, contrary to international standards. Human Rights Watch has long called on the Philippine government and its multilateral donors to ensure that its drug-dependence treatment programs are voluntary, community-based, and comport with international standards and human rights principles.

The mandatory testing of children for drug use raises human rights concerns. Taking a child’s bodily fluids, whether blood or urine, without their consent, may violate the right to bodily integrity and constitute arbitrary interference with their privacy and dignity. Depending on the manner in which such testing occurs, it could also constitute degrading treatment, and may deter children from attending school or college for reasons unrelated to any potential drug use, depriving them of their right to an education. In many situations, excluding a student from studies due to a positive drug test may also be a disproportionate limitation on a child’s right to education.

“Mandatory drug testing of students puts them in the crosshairs of Duterte’s abusive drug war, risking the creation of a school-to-cemetery track for students testing positive for drugs,” Kine said. “The Philippine government should educate students about the health hazards of illegal drugs—not make them targets for unlawful killings by police and their agents.”

Time for Action on Malaysia’s Death Penalty

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 11, 2017
Expand

Malaysia's national flag flies in front of the Federal Court on a hazy day in Putrajaya, Malaysia, October 6, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

When the Malaysian Cabinet announced plans this week to amend legislation to eliminate the mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses, many cheered. But history shows that the cheering may be premature. Malaysian authorities have been talking about removing the mandatory death penalty since at least 2015, but so far haven’t done so. It is time for the government to stop talking and act.

Judges in Malaysia are currently required to impose the death penalty on anyone convicted of “trafficking” in drugs – presumed for anyone possessing more than minimal amounts. In November 2015, Nancy Shukri, then the de facto law minister, said she hoped to introduce legislation to abolish the mandatory death penalty as early as March 2016. Nothing happened.

This March, Azalina Othman, who replaced Shukri in a cabinet reshuffle, announced the cabinet would “review” the mandatory death penalty. She further stated that she had directed the solicitor general to come up with draft amendments “quickly” so they could be presented to Parliament. Again, nothing happened. This week, the House of Representatives sat in Kuala Lumpur, but the government introduced no legislation to change the death penalty. Instead, in response to a question in Parliament, Othman announced the cabinet “had agreed” that the mandatory death penalty should be removed for some drug offenses. So why hasn’t it? What is taking so long?

The proposed change would simply amend section 39B of the Dangerous Drugs Act to allow judges to exercise discretion in sentencing in some cases. This amendment is still far short of the change needed, but it certainly would be a step in the right direction, and provide a significant contrast to the worsening, rights-violating responses to drugs elsewhere in Southeast Asia, namely the Philippines and Indonesia.

The Malaysian government should stop playing games, and firmly commit now to introduce legislation in the next sitting of Parliament to eliminate the mandatory death penalty for all drug offenses – not just some drug offenses. And while it is making changes to its policies on the death penalty, the government should also impose a moratorium on executions, and move swiftly to full abolition of the death penalty. Talk is cheap. It is time for action.

Another Flawed Extremism Verdict in Russia

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 11, 2017
Expand

Screenshot from video depicting, from left to right, Kirill Barabash, Alexander Sokolov, and Valery Parfenov in the courtroom, Moscow, August 10, 2017.

© 2017 RFE/RL

This week, a Moscow court found four members of the group For Responsible Government guilty of operating an “extremist organization” and handed down prison sentences ranging from three-and-a-half to four years.

One of them, Alexander Sokolov, is a journalist who covers current affairs and corruption for a major Russian media holding, RBC. He is the only one of those prosecuted not among the group’s leaders. Sokolov’s last investigative piece, published several weeks before his arrest, was about massive embezzlement of government funds in the construction of Vostochny Cosmodrome, a space launch facility, in Russia’s far east. RBC and Reporters Without Borders both linked his prosecution to his journalism and advocated for his release.

Police arrested Sokolov, Yuri Mukhin, and Valery Parfenov in July 2015, and arrested Kirill Barabash in December 2015. All except Mukhin have been in custody since their arrest. All four will appeal the verdict.   

For Responsible Government sought to organize a dubious country-wide referendum, proposing to include a provision in the constitution that would hold Russia’s president and parliament accountable for the deterioration of living standards. The controversial aspect was the suggestion, among other things, that ordinary citizens could en masse punish those responsible by execution. The prosecution argued that For Responsible Government used the “specious excuse” of conducting a referendum to carry out “extremist activity” and disseminate “extremist materials.” A leaflet popular with the group, “You elected [them], you get to try [them],” is among the more than 4,000 items on Russia’s Federal List of Extremist Materials.

Provocative and distasteful their campaign may have been, but extremist, criminal activity worthy of years of imprisonment? No. Indeed, the group is a small, marginal group, with a minor following. Alexander Verkhovsky, head of SOVA Center, a prominent Russian think-tank, told Human Rights Watch that while a system that allows citizens to sentence public officials to death would be unacceptable, “there is nothing in either domestic or international law that prohibits … advocating for constitutional amendments, even if they’re radical.” Verkhovsky also pointed out that while the group had engaged in offensive “nationalist and Stalinist ideology” and “xenophobic propaganda,” it has not been involved in violence. SOVA Center considers the verdict unjustifiable, and one of Russia’s leading human rights groups, Memorial, listed the four men as political prisoners.

Russian authorities increasingly conflate criticism of government with extremism and use the country’s excessively broad and vague anti-extremist legislation to silence political opponents and quash free speech. Russia, including its courts, needs to uphold its human rights obligations and accept that information or ideas that offend, shock, or disturb are covered by free speech protections and respond through robust democratic debate, not prosecutions.  

Philippine Journalist Killings Demand State Action

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 11, 2017
Expand

Filipino journalists escort the coffin of slain news reporter Alex Balcoba during his funeral in metro Manila, Philippines June 1, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

It’s not just suspected drug users and dealers at risk of targeted killing in the Philippines. The murders last week of two radio journalists, and the attack on a newspaper columnist Thursday, highlight the need for the Duterte administration to deliver on promises to apprehend those responsible for the killings of journalists.

On August 6, two assailants on a motorcycle shot dead Rudy Alicaway while he was on his way home in Molave town, Zamboanga del Sur province, on the southern island of Mindanao. Alicaway, 46, a radio host on local DXPD, survived the first volley of gunfire, but the gunmen reportedly got off their motorcycle, followed him as he tried to crawl to safety, and fatally shot him. Police say they don’t yet know the motive for the killing of Alicaway, who was also a local councilman.

The next day, two gunmen killed Leodoro Diaz in President Quirino town in Sultan Kudarat, also in Mindanao. Diaz, 60, was a long-time columnist for a local weekly and a reporter for Radio Mindanao Network. He had told his colleagues earlier in the day that he was going to file a report on illegal drugs, but it is unclear whether his reporting was the motive for his killing.

On August 10, a gunman in Batangas City shot in the back Crisenciano Ibon, 65, a columnist for the tabloid Police Files Tonight, and seriously wounded his driver. Ibon survived the attack, which police speculate may have been in retaliation for his columns criticizing illegal gambling.

The deaths of Alicaway and Diaz brought to four the number of journalists killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016. Journalist Larry Que was killed on December 19 and Joaquin Briones on March 13.

On October 11, Duterte signed an administrative order creating a task force on media killings. Since then there is little evidence that the task force has actively pursued attacks on journalists. In Que’s case, his widow filed a criminal complaint against the provincial governor, a policeman and three others for her husband’s death.

Since 1986, 177 journalists and media workers have been killed in the Philippines, making the country one of the most dangerous countries to practice journalism, according to the Committee to Project Journalists. Previous administrations launched similar task forces on media killings, but all failed to end impunity for those deaths. Despite its assurances that journalists are “safer” now, Duterte’s task force will suffer the same fate so long as the administration actively endorses extrajudicial killings. Without accountability for killings of journalists, media freedom in the Philippines will remain under threat. 

Medicine Shortages in Venezuela: Dying in Agony

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 10, 2017
Expand

A woman walks past empty shelves at a drugstore in Caracas, February 23, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Yelitza López’s greatest fear is to face a grave illness without pain relief. That fear is very real to her – López’s mother, Divisay, has advanced cancer and suffers from bouts of severe pain.

“I cannot watch her suffer,” she told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview in July. “When we run out, I’ll have to see if I can get any more… I am worried.”

Her worry is warranted. As Venezuela’s crisis has deepened, morphine and other opioid analgesics, like many other essential medicines, have mostly disappeared from pharmacy shelves. “The finance ministry refuses to release the funds needed to buy more morphine for the public healthcare system,” says Dr. Patricia Bonilla, the founder of the Venezuelan Society of Palliative Medicine and Divisay Lopez’s doctor. “We have run out.”

López still has a small amount of painkillers left thanks to Bonilla, who has been collecting leftover medications from families after loved ones died. But when she runs out, she does not know how she will help her mother when the pain attacks. “The pain leaves her completely incapacitated: unable to sit, stand, or eat.” 

Thousands of other families in Venezuela are in a similar situation. In fact, many are probably worse of and have no access to morphine at all. More than 23,000 Venezuelans die of cancer every year; about 80 percent develop moderate to severe pain in the last few months of life. Many others have cancers that may be treatable but cause significant pain nonetheless.

Without adequate treatment, pain can ruin the quality of life of both patients and their loved ones. Human Rights Watch has interviewed patients with pain from a dozen countries who describe their suffering in a similar way to torture victims: the pain is unbearable and they would do anything to stop it. Many say that they see death as their only way out; some said they had become suicidal and a few actually tried to commit suicide.

Before the current crisis, Venezuela’s healthcare system boasted relatively strong palliative care services where morphine was readily available. With today’s acute shortages, however, Bonilla says her life has turned into a constant hunt for medication so her patients do not have to suffer. She says she is endlessly trying to come up with new, creative ways to get her patients morphine. Apart from collecting medications from patients who have died, she advises families to go to Colombia or other countries in the region or even to buy them on the black market – a risky proposition as one has no way of knowing whether the medication is real. She also actively tries to arrange for donations from palliative care physicians in Spain and elsewhere. “But you cannot just mail these medicines [as they are controlled substances]. Someone has to physically bring them across the border in their luggage.”

The extraordinary efforts of Bonilla and some of her colleagues have helped mitigate the plight of some patients. But thousands of others are not that lucky. The Venezuelan government should urgently step in and ensure morphine becomes available again so that the country’s cancer patients do not have to die in agony.

A New Low for Russian Authorities in Crimea

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 10, 2017
Expand

Server Karametov, 76 year old Crimean Tatar, after his arbitrary arrest in August 2017.

© 2017 Private

Just when you think the situation cannot get any worse for Crimean Tatars in Crimea, it does.

Yesterday, a court in Simferopol sentenced Server Karametov, a 76-year old Crimean Tatar, to 10 days in jail for “disobeying police orders” while holding a peaceful, single-person picket.

On August 8, 2017, Karametov, determined but in frail health, stood in front of the Crimea Supreme Court building in Simferopol, holding a sign: “Putin, our children are not terrorists.” He was protesting the ongoing trial of Akhtem Chiygoz, a Crimean Tatar leader prosecuted on bogus charges related to a public protest in 2014, during the initial weeks of Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Three police officers approached Karametov and ordered him to follow them. When he insisted on remaining, they grabbed him and forcibly led him away. Emil Kurbedinov, Karametov’s lawyer, said he has been diagnosed with advanced Parkinson’s disease, which can be accompanied by such symptoms as tremors and involuntary movements. These uncontrolled movements may have been misunderstood by the police, Kurbedinov said. But on August 9, a judge refused to order a medical exam for Karametov and swiftly sentenced this older man with a disability to prison.

In a separate hearing the day before, the court fined Karametov for violating the rules for organizing a public gathering. Russian law allows single-person pickets, but the authorities regularly punish protesters participating in “unsanctioned” one-person pickets.

Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, Russian authorities have created a pervasive climate of fear and repression in Crimea. They have imprisoned, attacked, forcibly disappeared, intimidated, or exiled people who have peacefully opposed or criticized their actions, targeting  Crimean Tatars in particular. Authorities banned their leaders from Crimea, harassed and ultimately banned their representative body, Mejlis, imprisoned Crimean Tatar activists on trumped up charges and shut down Crimean Tatar media outlets.

Server Karametov’s arbitrary arrest for the peaceful exercise of basic rights and his unjustified jailing are yet another step in this ruthless harassment campaign – a campaign that Russia needs to end.

Defend Net Neutrality and Access to Information in US

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 10, 2017
Expand

Should your cat pictures load slower than corporate online content? Tell the FCC to keep net neutrality.

© Human Rights Watch

You are reading this on the internet, and – for now at least – no one forced you into the slow lane to get here.

But that might all be about to change – unless you raise your voice in protest.

The United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a proposal by its chair, Ajit Pai, that would gut net neutrality, the principle that internet providers must treat all traffic equally.

Treating internet traffic equally means that you can access Human Rights Watch’s website at the same speed as you access the New York Times, or Google, or your favorite cat blog – and all for the same price. Pai’s proposal would take away the FCC’s power to enforce this principle which would gut net neutrality, allow internet service providers to monetize prioritized traffic through deals with companies, and ultimately limit your human rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

Since the FCC comment period on Pai’s proposal began, there has been an outpouring of support for the 2015 Open Internet Rules, culminating on July 12 of this year, when internet users came together for a day of action to save net neutrality. Last week, Democratic lawmakers joined the staggering 18 million comments submitted, and also requested an extension of the comment period deadline.

Now the public comment period is coming to an end, and you need to do two things by August 16 if you want to protect the open internet. The first is to head over to TV host John Oliver’s http://gofccyourself.com/, where you can tell the FCC to uphold the existing net neutrality rules as well as the necessary legal classification, known as Title II, to enforce them. The second is to call your Congressional representatives and tell them to hold the FCC accountable to the public demand for net neutrality.

Suggested script for calls to representatives:

“Dear Member of Congress: The American public, and your constituents (including me) demand that the proposal by Ajit Pai to eliminate net neutrality be rejected. Chairman Pai shows no sign of responsiveness – which is why we need our Congressional leaders to insist to the FCC that the public voice be heard and the open, equal internet be defended. I am counting on you to send the message loud and clear to the FCC that net neutrality is a cornerstone of human rights and the economy and must be protected by the government of this nation.”

A Step in the Right Direction on Menstrual Stigma in Nepal

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 10, 2017

In July, 18-year-old Tulasi Shahi died after a snake bit her while she slept in a shed where she had been banished – because she was menstruating. The shed, unlike her home, was open to snakes and other animals.

Expand

A chaupadi hut, in a family's yard, where female members of the family are obliged to sleep during their menstrual periods. Kailali district, western Nepal.

© Heather Barr/Human Rights Watch

Her death was yet another from chaupadi, a Nepali practice banishing menstruating women and girls from their homes, stigmatizing and isolating them, pushing them out of education, and sometimes costing their lives.

On August 9, Nepal lawmakers made it a crime to force a woman or girl out of the house during menstruation. Those convicted could face three months imprisonment plus a fine.

Chaupadi is practiced by up to 95 percent of families in some parts of western and mid-western Nepal, fuelled by the mistaken belief that menstruating women and girls are “unclean.” They are forbidden from touching or mingling with other people, and have to stay outside the family home, usually in a hut or shed of the type in which Tulasi was bitten. 

Deaths from chaupadi occur from fire and smoke inhalation, as women struggle to stay warm in the huts during Nepal’s harsh winters, and from animal attacks. But other destructive consequences of chaupadi are far more widespread. The stigma discourages girls from attending school during menstruation. Many schools also lack proper toilets to allow them to manage hygiene. 

When Human Rights Watch researched child marriage in Nepal, we heard from girls who missed school during menstruation. Girls fell behind, sometimes leaving school as a result. In Nepal, where 37 percent of girls marry before age 18, leaving school often leads to marriage.

The new law is a positive sign. But in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled the practice was illegal, and yet it continues.

For real change, the government should educate communities, debunk myths about menstruating women, and help develop social norms that stigmatize continued practice of chaupadi. The government’s network of village-based health volunteers is an excellent resource for this task.

The government should also do more to ensure that people have access to water and toilets. Thirty-eight percent of Nepalis are without a toilet, and 15 percent are without a water supply. This week’s new law is a start, but the Nepal government should do much more.

Pages