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Florida Should Expand Syringe Exchange Statewide

16 hours 9 min ago

Julia Negron’s house in Venice, Florida is home to her busy family of kids and grandkids. It’s also on the front lines of the state’s overdose epidemic.

Julia, a former heroin user who lost her daughter-in-law to an overdose, started Suncoast Harm Reduction Project to provide overdose prevention and other essential services to people who use drugs in her community. Working beside her are other moms like Jan Spring, whose son Derek died of overdose just two weeks after his 18th birthday. Julia and Jan are working hard, but they know they could be doing much more, and are looking to Florida lawmakers for help.

In 2016, more than 6,000 Floridians died of an opioid overdose, a 35 percent increase from the year before. Governor Rick Scott has declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, and is promoting numerous bills designed to tighten restrictions on prescription opioids. But overdose deaths from non-prescription opioids are increasing at alarming rates – in Florida, deaths from fentanyl increased 97 percent in 2016.

The Governor should support the one bill that gets to the heart of the public health crisis – SB800/H579, the Infectious Disease Elimination Pilot Programs Act (IDEA) – that would permit Florida counties to establish syringe exchange pilot programs for people who use drugs in their communities.

Syringe exchange programs have a proven record of reducing HIV and Hepatitis C infection, preventing overdose, and bringing people into treatment without raising rates of drug use or crime. One year into its operations, Florida’s only current program, in Miami, has enrolled more than 600 clients, removed 100,000 dirty needles from the streets, conducted hundreds of tests for HIV and Hepatitis C, and linked more than 80 people to treatment. These are frontline public health services desperately needed in many other counties throughout the state.

In a video released today, Julia, Jan, and other advocates say they are ready to go to work saving lives by providing the array of health services offered by syringe exchange programs. By passing the IDEA bill, the legislature can give them the green light to get started.

Philippine Government Targets ‘Rappler’ for Closure

Monday, January 15, 2018
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Journalists work at the Rappler office in Metro Manila, Philippines, January 15, 2018.

© 2018 Dondi Tawatao/Reuters

The Philippine government has ratcheted up its attack on media freedom, threatening the closure of Rappler.com. Rappler is a start-up media platform founded in 2012 that has published numerous investigative stories, including many pieces critical of the Duterte administration.

The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) today announced the revocation of Rappler’s Certificate of Incorporation, or operating license. Although there is an appeal process for SEC decisions, the agency has the power to immediately enforce closure of Rappler’s premises and operations if it so chooses. The SEC ruled that a 2015 investment in Rappler by United States-based Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, was a “deceptive scheme” that violated both the Philippine constitution as well as SEC regulations that forbid foreign ownership and management of mass media. The SEC also voided the Omidyar Network investment, describing it as a “fraudulent transaction.” (Full disclosure: The Omidyar family has been a longtime donor to Human Rights Watch.)

If Duterte succeeds in silencing Rappler, it will have a profound chilling effect on Philippine media at a time when free press is more urgently needed than ever.

This decision was not wholly unexpected. Six months ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte publicly attacked Rappler by falsely alleging it was “fully owned by Americans.” Rappler’s management dismissed the SEC’s move as “pure and simple harassment.” Rappler insists that Omidyar Network’s investment through the purchase of Philippine Depositary Receipts does “not indicate ownership,” and intends to appeal the SEC ruling.

The revocation of Rappler’s operating license follows months of withering criticism and harassment of the media outlet by the Duterte government and his supporters. That criticism has centered on Rappler’s investigative reporting on issues ranging from the deployment of pro-Duterte paid internet trolls and bots to sow misinformation on social media, to an ongoing feature series about the Duterte government’s murderous “war on drugs.” Duterte and his supporters have also targeted the news channel ABS-CBN as well as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, both known for their in-depth investigative reporting.

The government’s move to shutter Rappler suggests a sinister use of state regulatory processes to stifle critical media voices. The Philippine media is just the latest in a growing list of institutions and individuals – including United Nations officials – who have been vilified by Duterte for seeking accountability for human rights violations. Duterte has sought to quash any meaningful inquiries into alleged crimes committed by police and their agents in the “war on drugs” that has killed thousands – a campaign the president has openly endorsed.

If Duterte succeeds in silencing Rappler, it will have a profound chilling effect on Philippine media freedom, encouraging self-censorship by reporters and media outlets fearful of government reprisals for critical reporting at a time when the watchdog role of a free press is more urgently needed than ever. 

Macron’s Calais Visit Should Lead to Change for Migrants

Monday, January 15, 2018

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A migrant walks past the slogans which read "refugees welcome" written on a wall near the former "Jungle" in Calais, France, August 23, 2017. 

© 2018 Reuters Shortly after he become president of France last year, Emmanuel Macron had a hopeful vision for humanely addressing the country’s asylum crisis. “By the end of the year, I do not want to have men and women on the streets, in the woods. I want emergency accommodation everywhere.”

None of this has happened.

Tomorrow, Macron visits Calais, northern France. More than a year after the closure of the “Jungle” camp in the town, 600-700 asylum seekers and migrants, including 100-150 unaccompanied children, still live outdoors in increasingly desperate conditions. They face police harassment and violence, and are at risk from the cold. This reality sits starkly at odds with Macron’s commitments to a humane approach.

Last summer, Human Rights Watch found that police in Calais used excessive force toward asylum seekers and migrants, routinely using irritant gas, confiscating their sleeping bags, blankets, and clothing, disrupting aid delivery, and harassing aid workers.

The Ministry of the Interior and the prefect have denied any abuse from the police. But in October, the French administration and security forces’ internal investigations departments found convincing evidence that police used excessive force and committed other abuses, and they made a series of recommendations for this to change. These include ensuring officers are correctly using of aerosol sprays, wear visible identification at all times, and use cameras during operations and identity checks.

Despite those recommendations, abuses continue. In December, more than 30 asylum seekers and migrants, as well as aid workers, told me police are still destroying and confiscating tents, shelters, and belongings – coinciding with winter’s arrival. As Kuma (not his real name), 17, told me, “When [the police] come, they beat us. They take our sleeping bags, our jackets, every time. They hit me sometimes. They use gas, all over my face. They say, ‘Don’t sleep. Go!’”

True, water and sanitation for migrants in Calais has improved. But emergency accommodation for winter is only opened when the weather is particularly severe, and there are not enough places for everyone.

France can do better.

Macron should call for the abusive policing practices to stop immediately, and for authorities to implement the October report’s other recommendations. Emergency accommodation should always be opened for those who would otherwise be homeless this winter.

The authorities should also commit to ensure migrants have full access to information and asylum procedures without undue delays. Macron’s rhetoric should become reality, and it should start now in Calais.

 

 

Somalia: Al-Shabab Demanding Children

Sunday, January 14, 2018
Expand Children learning to read the Quran at the Gaabow Islamic school in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, August 2013. Parents and teachers told Human Rights Watch that Al-Shabab militants threatened and on occasion abducted teachers and children from schools in rural areas of Bay region in September 2017. ©2013 REUTERS/Ismail Taxta

(Nairobi) – The Islamist armed group Al-Shabab has threatened and abducted civilians in Somalia’s Bay region to force communities to hand over their children for indoctrination and military training in recent months.

Since late September 2017, Al-Shabab has ordered elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and communities in rural areas to provide hundreds of children as young as 8 or face attack. The armed group’s increasingly aggressive child recruitment campaign started in mid-2017 with reprisals against communities that refused. In recent months, hundreds of children, many unaccompanied, have fled their homes to escape forced recruitment.

“Al-Shabab’s ruthless recruitment campaign is taking rural children from their parents so they can serve this militant armed group,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To escape that cruel fate, many children have fled school or their homes.”

Over the past decade, Al-Shabab has recruited thousands of children for indoctrination and to become frontline fighters. Since 2015, the armed group has opened several large Islamic religious schools in areas under their control, strengthened indoctrination methods including by bringing in younger children, and pressured teachers to retrain and teach Al-Shabab’s curriculum in schools.

On a recent trip to Baidoa, the capital of Bay region, Human Rights Watch spoke to 15 residents from three districts in Bay region largely under Al-Shabab control – Berdale, Baidoa, and Burhakaba districts – as well as child protection advocates and United Nations officials. The findings match similar trends in other parts of the country since mid-2017.

Village elders said that in September Al-Shabab ordered them to go to Al-Shabab-controlled Bulo Fulay and to hand over dozens of children ages 9 to 15. A resident of Berdale district said: “They said we needed to support their fight. They spoke to us in a very threatening manner. They also said they wanted the keys to our boreholes [watering points]. They kept us for three days. We said we needed to consult with our community. They gave us 10 days.” Two other community residents said that they received threatening calls, including death threats, after the 10 days ran out, but as of late 2017 they had not handed over the children.

Three residents said that in September Al-Shabab fighters forcibly took at least 50 boys and girls from two schools in Burhakaba district and transported them to Bulo Fulay, which witnesses say hosts a number of religious schools and a major training facility. Two weeks later, a large group of armed Al-Shabab fighters with their faces covered returned to the village, entered another local school, and threatened and beat the teacher to hand over children.

“They wanted 25 children ages 8 to 15,” said the teacher, who resisted the order. “They didn’t say why, but we know that it’s because they want to indoctrinate them and then recruit them. After they hit me, some of the children started crying and tried to run out of the classroom. But the fighters were all around. They caned a 7-year-old boy who tried to escape.”

The fighters gave the community 10 days to hand over the children.
Launch Map Expand Share

© 2012 United Nations
Residents from Berdale district said that in at least four villages, Al-Shabab abducted elders who refused to hand over children. In one village, three elders were released only after they agreed to hand over eight boys from their village.

In May, Al-Shabab pressured elders and other residents in villages in central Somalia’s Mudug and Galgadud regions – from which Ethiopian military forces had recently withdrawn – to hand over children ages 7 to 15. A boy who fled Middle Shabelle region without his parents said: “Our school wasn’t controlled by Al-Shabab. Six weeks ago [late June], they came to our school, took down our names, and took two boys. The teacher managed to escape. They threatened that next time they would come back for us.”

A woman in Burhakaba district said that her four children had witnessed 25 of their classmates being abducted from their school: “The four of them are now so worried about going to school. But if they don’t go to school, and get the fundamentals of the religion, they will go to waste.” Some local religious schools in Bay region are closing fearing further attacks, or because the teachers have fled or been abducted.

Some residents said that their only option to protect their children was to send them, often unaccompanied, to areas outside of Al-Shabab control – a difficult and dangerous journey given the threat of Al-Shabab abduction along the way. Community elders and local monitors said the recruitment campaign has forced approximately 500 people as of October, often unaccompanied children, to flee their homes to Baidoa.

“I heard that children were being captured in neighboring villages and so got very scared,” said a 15-year-old who fled by foot with his 9-year-old brother to the nearest town. “My parents gave me money to come to Baidoa. My brother and I were very scared of being captured along the way, since we went through the bush.”

In August, an official from Adale in Middle Shabelle told the media that his community was hosting approximately 500 children ages 10 to 15 who had fled forced recruitment in Galgudud, Hiran and Middle Shabelle districts. Some children have fled to towns where they have relatives, others end up in dire conditions in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Local groups estimate that over half of the children recently displaced to Baidoa now live in IDP settlements. But unaccompanied children, especially those in informal camps, are unlikely to find security or schooling and may be forced to work to survive.

“The government with UN agency assistance should ensure that displaced children, including those without adult guardians, receive protection and appropriate schooling,” Bader said. “Children should not flee one danger zone for a new one.”

The UN Security Council’s Somalia Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) reported that in June, Al-Shabab detained 45 elders in El Bur who refused to provide them with 150 children and only released them on the condition that the children would be handed over. The SEMG found that 300 children were abducted from the area during this period and taken to an Al-Shabab school.

In April Al-Shabab announced over its radio station that it was introducing a new curriculum for primary and secondary schools and warned teachers and schools against “foreign teachings.” A Bay region resident said that Al-Shabab took a dozen teachers for “retraining” around April, and they were only released after paying about US$300 per person. In certain areas, Al-Shabab ordered schools to shut down and communities to send their teachers to Al-Shabab curriculum training seminars, SEMG reported.

Human Rights Watch did not find clear evidence that children abducted in recent drives were taken directly for military training, but interviewees repeatedly raised the concern. The UN monitoring group reported that some of the schools set up by Al-Shabab were linked to military training facilities. Child abductions, notably from schools, and children’s use as fighters by Al-Shabab significantly increased in the second quarter of 2017, the UN monitoring group said. Boys who had been associated with Al-Shabab since late 2015 said that the religious schools and teachers were often used to recruit boys as fighters. These boys said their military training included a mixture of rudimentary weapons training and ideological indoctrination.

The Somali government has taken some steps to protect schools and students, Human Rights Watch said. In 2016 it endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an international commitment by countries to do more to ensure that schools are safe places for children, even during war. Somalia has signed but not yet ratified the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on children in armed conflict, which states that armed groups “should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.”

The government, with the help of international donors, should wherever possible identify Al-Shabab recruitment drives, including their location, scale, and use of educational institutions, that could inform protective measures, Human Rights Watch said. Doing so would also help efforts to assist displaced children, such as addressing their health, shelter, and security needs and providing them free primary education and access to secondary education, as well as appropriate psychosocial support.

“Al-Shabab’s campaign only adds to the horrors of Somalia’s long conflict, both for the children and their families,” said Bader. “The group should immediately stop abducting children and release all children in their ranks. The Somali government should ensure these children are not sent into harm’s way.”

Human Rights Weekend Amsterdam: ‘Where Do I Stand?’

Sunday, January 14, 2018

(Amsterdam) – “Where Do I Stand?” is the theme of the sixth edition of the Human Rights Weekend in De Balie, Amsterdam, from February 2 to 4, 2018. Human Rights Watch, De Balie and partners invite participants to reflect on these questions: What is your opinion on important human rights issues of our time? How are you (indirectly) involved in human rights violations elsewhere? What can you do to defend human rights?


“I am proud to invite everyone to the Human Rights Weekend in Amsterdam featuring documentary, films and debates about human rights,” said Tammy Parrish, associate Netherlands director at Human Rights Watch. “Together we will explore the reality of human rights conditions across the globe, through premieres of human rights films, a photo exhibition, and various interactive programs.”

This year’s #HRWeekend consists of several provocative human rights films – including six Dutch premieres, master classes, and panel discussions with film directors, Human Rights Watch researchers, journalists, activists, and others. A photo exhibition curated by World Press Photo will also be featured.

Topics include abuses in the smartphone industry, restrictions on freedom of expression, limitations to shelter for refugees, and obstacles to same-sex marriage. The event covers a wide range of countries, from Russia to Burma and from Mexico to Liberia.

Human Rights Watch offers four themes for those interested in particular topics: refugees; equality; business, environment and human rights; and freedom of expression.

Partners and sponsors for the Human Rights Weekend are: De Balie, PAX, vfonds, De Groene Amsterdammer, VICE, World Press Photo, OUTtv and IWPR.

 

Israeli Prosecutors Throw Book at Palestinian Child Protestor

Sunday, January 14, 2018
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Palestinian teen Ahed Tamimi (R) enters a military courtroom escorted by Israeli Prison Service personnel at Ofer Prison, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 1, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

On Monday, an Israeli military court will decide whether to release 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi on bail or keep her in jail until the end of her trial. She has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, and some Israeli politicians have called for her to be harshly punished. But the military court should base its decision on one criterion: whether the further detention of Ahed Tamimi, a child, is necessary as a measure of last resort, the standard international law requires.

It all began on December 15, 2017, at a protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh against US President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. During the protest, a soldier fired a rubber-coated bullet that severely injured Ahed’s 15-year-old cousin; when Ahed learned of the boy’s shooting she began to push and slap two soldiers who had entered her yard. A video showing the incident went viral. Border police arrested Ahed on December 19 – in the middle of the night, the usual means by which the military arrests Palestinian children.

The reasons to grant bail are straightforward. Ahed has never been indicted before, and hardly poses a serious security or flight risk. A military judge has already released from detention her 20-year-old cousin, Noor, who was also present during the altercation and is seen pushing the soldiers, and was also charged with aggravated assault. Displaying appropriate restraint, the two soldiers in the video did not arrest or even use much force to stop them. The civil courts deny bail to Israeli children in only 18 percent of cases.

But Israeli officials and politicians seem to want to make an example of Ahed, Nour, and Ahed’s mother, Nariman, who also faces charges. “They should finish their lives in prison,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for “severe” punishment of Ahed and her family, “to serve as a deterrent,” and banned 20 members of her family from visiting her in detention in Israel, where she was unlawfully transferred from occupied territory.

Unlike the leniency often shown to settlers – even those who slap Israeli soldiers – the prosecution is throwing the book at the girl, whose indictment includes a dozen counts of assault, incitement, interference with soldiers, and stone-throwing in incidents since April 1, 2016.

And unlike Israeli civilian courts’ treatment of Israelis, military courts in the West Bank deny bail in 70 percent of cases involving Palestinian children. A 2013 UNICEF report found that almost all children plead guilty to reduce the length of pretrial detention, because doing so, “is the quickest way to be released,” from a system that typically denies children access to a lawyer or the presence of their parent during coercive interrogations and, “does not allow children to defend themselves.” Considering that the military prosecutor plans to summon 18 witnesses, mostly soldiers, Ahed’s trial could take months.

Issuing a well-reasoned decision on bail won’t fix the discrimination and ill-treatment of children in Israel’s military justice system. But it will at least demonstrate a willingness to abide by the law that should govern one part of that system.

Vietnam: Drop Charges Against Nguyen Van Oai

Saturday, January 13, 2018

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Nguyen Van Oai

© Private
(New York) – Vietnam should drop charges of violating probation against the veteran human rights activist Nguyen Van Oai and allow him to go home, Human Rights Watch said today. The People’s Court of Nghe An province will hear his appeal on January 15, 2018.

Nguyen Van Oai was sentenced in September 2017 to five years in prison for violating the terms of his probation, under article 304 of the penal code, and resisting a person on public duty, under article 257 of the penal code. His probation, which required him to report to a People’s Committee regularly and restricted his movements, was based on an improper prosecution and conviction for his association with a disfavored political organization, in violation of his rights to freedom of association and expression.

Nguyen Van Oai, who maintains that his underlying conviction was unlawful, refused on release from prison to report on his activities and thoughts to a People’s Committee and participated in protests during this time. When plain-clothes officers, who did not produce credentials, approached his house to discuss his alleged probation violation, Nguyen Van Oai chased them away with a gardening stake.

“The government’s pursuit of Nguyen Van Oai is vindictive and unwarranted,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “He never should have been sentenced in the first place, and the terms of his probation amount to a direct effort to control his thoughts and freedom to criticize and protest. This is the latest extension of the government’s unrestrained crackdown against dissidents.” International donors and trade partners should pressure Vietnam to end its long abusive rights record. Brad Adams

Asia Director

Nguyen Van Oai, 36, has long participated in anti-China protests and protests against the imprisonment of other activists. He was also involved in mobilizing support for the prominent lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu at the time of his 2011 trial. Nguyen Van Oai also participated in labor rights activities in Binh Duong province.

Police arrested him in August 2011 at Tan Son Nhat airport after a trip abroad for affiliation with the outlawed political party Viet Tan. The police charged him with “carrying out activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the penal code. In January 2013, the People’s Court of Nghe An put him and 13 other Catholic and Protestant activists on trial, sentencing Nguyen Van Oai to four years in prison. Launch Interactive View All Share

In Vietnam, more than 100 political prisoners are currently locked up simply for exercising their basic rights. Rights bloggers and activists face police harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and interrogation on a daily basis. Activists face long stints of pre-trial detention, without access to lawyers or family in a one-party police state that brooks no dissent.

In August 2015, Nguyen Van Oai completed his prison sentence. Upon release, he told BBC Vietnamese that he planned to “work with organizations that care about human rights in Vietnam so that the country will soon have a real democracy.” He participated in multiple protests against the Taiwanese steel company Formosa, which had caused a massive marine disaster by dumping toxic waste along the central coast of Vietnam in April 2016.

More than 100 activists are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for exercising their basic freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion. Vietnam should unconditionally release them and repeal all laws that criminalize peaceful expression.

“Nguyen Van Oai and many other brave Vietnamese risk their personal safety and freedom to advocate for democracy and human rights,” Adams said. “International donors and trade partners should pressure Vietnam to end its long abusive rights record.”

India: Identification Project Threatens Rights

Saturday, January 13, 2018

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A villager goes through the process of a fingerprint scanner for the Unique Identification (UID) database system at an enrollment center at Merta district in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan on February 22, 2013.

© 2013 Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters
(New York) – The Indian government’s mandatory biometric identification project, Aadhaar, could lead to millions of people being denied access to essential services and benefits in violation of their human rights, Amnesty International India and Human Rights Watch said today. The large-scale collection of personal and biometric data, and linking it to a range of services, also raises serious concerns about violations of the right to privacy.

The government should order an independent investigation of the concerns raised about Aadhaar, and cease targeting journalists and researchers who expose vulnerabilities in security, privacy, and protection of data, the organizations said.

“Making an Aadhaar card a prerequisite to access essential services and benefits can obstruct access to several constitutional rights, including the rights of people to food, healthcare, education and social security,” said Aakar Patel, executive director at Amnesty International India. “The government has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that nobody is denied their rights simply because they don’t have an Aadhaar card.”

The Aadhaar project is run by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a statutory body of the Indian government set up in 2009. It collects personal and biometric data such as fingerprints, facial photographs, and iris scans, and issues 12-digit individualized identity numbers. Aadhaar was initially meant to be voluntary, aimed at eliminating fraud in government welfare programs and giving people a form of identification.

However, the Aadhaar Act of 2016 and subsequent notifications and licensing agreements dramatically increased the scope of the project, making Aadhaar enrollment mandatory for people to access a range of essential services and benefits including government subsidies, pensions, and scholarships. It has also been linked to services such as banking, insurance, telephone, and the internet.

Shops providing subsidized food grains as part of the government’s public distribution system to people living in poverty have denied supplies to eligible families because they did not have an Aadhaar number, or because they had not linked it to their ration cards – which confirm their eligibility, or because the authentication of their biometrics such as fingerprints failed. Local human rights groups and media have reported some cases in which people starved to death as a result. Poor internet connectivity, machine malfunction, and worn out fingerprints such as those of older people or manual laborers have further exacerbated the problem of biometric authentication.

According to activists in Rajasthan state, between September 2016 and June 2017, after the Aadhaar authentication was made mandatory, at least 2.5 million families were unable to get food rations. In October 2017, the central government instructed states not to deny subsidized food grains to eligible families merely because they did not have an Aadhaar number, or had not linked their ration cards to it. However, reports of denied benefits continue.

In some states, children without Aadhaar cards have been denied free meals in government schools, while others have been denied enrollment in government schools despite the Right to Education Act guaranteeing free and compulsory education to all children ages 6 to 14. Students are also increasingly finding it difficult to receive government scholarships without Aadhaar numbers. Hospitals in Haryana state insist on newborn babies being enrolled in Aadhaar before giving them birth certificates. Aadhaar numbers are also demanded to issue death certificates. In some cases, people living with HIV/AIDS have decided to stop getting medical treatment or medicines when forced to submit Aadhaar numbers to get healthcare benefits because they fear their identities will be disclosed. Many persons with disabilities have been denied benefits because they were unable to obtain Aadhaar numbers.

The government’s expansion of the Aadhaar project and efforts to make it mandatory for essential services directly violate Supreme Court orders. In August 2015, the Supreme Court, in an interim order, said that Aadhaar enrollment was “not mandatory” and should not be a condition to obtain any benefits otherwise due to a citizen, and also restricted its use to a few government programs. A five-judge bench will start hearing the final arguments on the legality of Aadhaar on January 17.

Right to Privacy

In August 2017, the Supreme Court stated that the right to privacy was part of the constitutional right to life and personal liberty, in response to government arguments in Aadhaar-related petitions that privacy was not a fundamental right. The right to privacy is also protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a party.

Several reports have shown that the Aadhaar system is vulnerable to data breaches and leaks. In January 2018, the Tribune newspaper reported that unrestricted access to the personal details of people enrolled in Aadhaar could be purchased for less than US$10 from racketeers. The UIDAI responded by filing a criminal complaint, naming the reporter and the newspaper, prompting widespread condemnation by civil society groups.

In 2017, millions of Aadhaar numbers, along with people’s personal information, including bank accounts, were published by government websites. The government has repeatedly dismissed reports of such leaks saying “mere display of demographic information cannot be misused without biometrics,” emphasizing that biometric information is safe. However, experts say companies could store biometric data at the time of enrollment or authentication for a transaction, and biometric data once stolen is compromised forever.

These fears proved real in February 2017, when UIDAI filed a criminal complaint against three companies alleging illegal transactions using stored biometric data. However, a month later, the UIDAI sought to downplay the breach and when an entrepreneur wrote an article illustrating how stored biometric information under Aadhaar could be misused, UIDAI filed a criminal complaint against him.

Following the Tribune story in January 2018, the government said it would address concerns about privacy rights violations by introducing temporary “virtual IDs” for Aadhaar holders to use in certain situations without revealing their Aadhaar numbers. However, the strategy does not effectively address data protection concerns.

The government claims to have issued 1.1 billion Aadhaar numbers to residents in India, not limited to citizens, making it one of the biggest biometric databases in the world. The government’s push for mandatory enrollment and its efforts to link the Aadhaar number to a wide range of services raises grave concerns that it could disproportionately interfere with the right to privacy for millions of people. It has also prompted fears of increased state surveillance, with the convergence of various databases making it easier for the government to track all information about specific individuals, and to target dissent. These fears are heightened by the absence of laws to protect privacy and data protection in India, and the lack of adequate judicial or parliamentary oversight over the activities of intelligence agencies.

Transparency and Accountability

Certain provisions of the Aadhaar Act and subsequent regulations also raise concerns regarding transparency and accountability. The law prevents anyone other than the UIDAI from approaching the courts in case of a breach or violation of the law. It also fails to set up an adequate or effective grievance redressal system. The ICCPR requires countries to ensure that anyone whose rights or freedoms are violated has an effective remedy.

Aadhaar regulations allow the government to deactivate an Aadhaar number for various reasons including for “any other case requiring deactivation as deemed appropriate” by the UIDAI, leaving the broad wording open to misuse. Also, the government is not required to give any prior notice before deactivating an Aadhaar number, which could violate natural justice principles and also put access to essential services at risk. Between 2010 and 2016, the government deactivated 8.5 million Aadhaar numbers, saying it was for reasons provided for under the law.

Aadhaar does not allow anyone enrolled under it to opt out or withdraw. Aadhaar regulations do not require the authorities to inform an Aadhaar number holder if their information has been shared or used without their knowledge or consent.

“It is ironic that a 12-digit number aimed to end corruption and help the poor has become the very reason many have been deprived of fundamental rights,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There are legitimate concerns about privacy, surveillance, or just misuse of personal information, and the government should address these problems instead of coercing people to enroll and link existing services to Aadhaar.”

Can an EU Country Forbid You from Being with Your Spouse?

Saturday, January 13, 2018
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People walk behind the European Union's flag during the annual gay parade in Budapest July 5, 2008. The European Union Court of Justice's ruling on the case from Romania could be felt by same-sex couples throught the EU.

© 2008 Reuters

For most married European citizens it is simple: the European Union generally allows non-EU spouses of citizens to live and work anywhere in its jurisdiction if they accompany their EU citizen partner.

All you need to do is register your marriage, and the wheels of bureaucracy should start turning. But one couple is only seeing hope after knocking on doors for five years.

It all started with a refusal by the Romanian embassy in Brussels, Belgium, to register a marriage. Adrian Coman, a Romanian citizen, married Clai Hamilton, a US citizen, in Belgium in 2010 after being in a relationship for eight years. Two years later, they considered settling in Adrian’s home country.

That is when they ran into the first obstacle at the Romanian embassy. What was the problem? Romanian marriage law only recognizes a marriage between a man and a woman. Hence, it curtailed Adrian and Clai’s right to freedom of movement within the EU – a right that would automatically apply if Adrian married a woman.

The couple, together with the Romanian LGBT rights organization ACCEPT, decided to challenge the refusal. Adrian believes that the embassy’s non-recognition of his marriage was not only a logistical hurdle to be overcome, but also an affront to dignity and equality under EU law.

His experience at the Romanian embassy remains vivid: “I remember the clerks talked privately about the matter, then a few minutes later they told me they could not transcribe my marriage certificate. In that moment all I felt was sad and humiliated. I left the consulate holding a sheet of paper saying my family was not recognized by the Romanian authorities.”

After long delays and uncertainty about which court had the competency to hear the case, it reached the Romanian Constitutional Court in 2016. The Romanian court then referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union, seeking clarification of the scope of EU free movement law.

This week, the EU Court’s Advocate General issued an opinion that EU countries should allow a same-sex spouse to live and work within their borders – even if their national law does not allow same-sex marriages. The EU Court of Justice still must rule on the case, but the advice of the Advocate General will carry significant weight.

EU law should not allow discrimination against same-sex couples based on member states’ domestic marriage laws being out of step with human rights norms.

Indonesia’s ‘Anti-Communism’ Law Used Against Environmental Activist

Friday, January 12, 2018

Indonesian prosecutors are seeking a seven-year prison sentence for an environmental activist for allegedly raising pro-communist banners while peacefully protesting pollution linked to a local gold mine.

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An illegal miner leaves a cave after mining for gold in the mountain of Tumpang Pitu in Banyuwangi, East Java on November 21, 2009.

© 2009 Sigit Pamungkas / Reuters Prosecutors in Banyuwangi, East Java, argued in court on Monday that Heri Budiawan, a leader of the grassroots environmental organization Banyuwangi People’s Forum, displayed eight banners bearing the communist hammer-and-sickle symbol during an April 4, 2017 protest against the Tampung Pitu gold mine. Under Indonesia’s draconian anti-communism laws, anyone convicted of publicly supporting communism can be imprisoned for up to 12 years.

Budiawan’s prosecution is just the latest effort by local authorities to effectively criminalize protests against the mine. In 2016, after facing nearly a decade of protests, the Indonesian government declared the mine to be a “strategic national project,” making it harder to oppose.

At the trial the prosecutors failed to present evidence of any protest banners that bore the hammer-and-sickle symbol. Budiawan denies the allegations

Beyond this one case is the lingering peril posed by dangerously ambiguous laws, Dutch colonial legacies appropriated during the three-decade Suharto dictatorship, which give prosecutors wide latitude to prosecute public expressions of support for communism and display of communist symbols.

Budiawan’s prosecution for alleged communist sympathies coincides with a recent surge in efforts by elements of the Indonesian security forces to stoke “anti-communist” paranoia. This is a response to calls for accountability for the 1965-66 massacres, in which between 500,000 to one million people were killed by the military, paramilitary groups, and Muslim militias. Those targeted were suspected members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and ethnic Chinese, as well as trade unionists, teachers, activists, and artists.

This past September, paramilitaries and Islamist groups led a violent “anti-communist” demonstration in Jakarta. Days later, the Indonesian military launched a propaganda offensive aimed at reinforcing the official narrative that the killings were a justified response to an attempted communist coup.

Budiawan’s prosecution is an ominous signal that environmental activists are now vulnerable to prosecution as “communists” if they dare challenge corporations implicated in pollution. As long as laws that facilitate such prosecutions stay on the books, the rights of peaceful protesters – including those seeking to defend the right to a healthy environment – will remain in doubt.

 

Pakistan Needs to Protect Children from Sexual Abuse

Friday, January 12, 2018
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People chant slogans and hold signs to condemn the rape and killing of 7-year-old girl Zainab Ansari in Kasur, during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan January 11, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Yesterday, Pakistani news anchor Kiran Naz went on the air with her young daughter to protest on camera the rape and killing of Zainab Ansari, a 7-year-old girl, whose body was dumped in a pile of garbage.

“It is true when they say that the smallest coffins are the heaviest,” Naz said, her daughter sitting on her lap. “And all of Pakistan is burdened by the weight of her coffin.”

Zainab went missing on January 4 and her brutalized corpse was discovered five days later, leading to widespread protests in Pakistan.

The cruel indifference of some crimes can shake a nation. But too often, incidents of child sex abuse remain hidden.

According to the Islamabad-based nongovernmental organization Sahil, an average of 11 cases of child sexual abuse are reported daily across Pakistan. Zainab was among the dozen children to be murdered in Kasur district in Punjab province in the past year. In 2015, police identified a gang of child sex abusers in the same district.

It’s not just Pakistan – sexual violence against girls and women is commonplace in South Asia. In India, the crime that awoke the nation to this cruel reality happened in 2012, when a 23-year-old student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was gang-raped and left fatally injured on the road. Indians erupted in rage, demanding that the government take action to end sexual violence.

Although much remains to be done, the Indian parliament eventually did respond, unanimously adopting reforms to prosecute sexual violence and initiating new policies. Yet even before the Pandey attack, the Indian government had enacted a law to protect children from sexual abuse.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch published Breaking the Silence, which included detailed recommendations to the Indian authorities on protecting children from sexual abuse. Similar steps are needed in Pakistan. These include believing children who report abuse, ensuring victims receive respectful care from health providers, and making sure police respond in a way that protects victims instead of harming them further.

Child sex abuse is not inevitable. A strong public and government response can mean the difference between life and death for little ones who deserve our protection. The heavy burden of little coffins needs to end. 

Burma: Privacy Law Used to Prosecute Critics

Friday, January 12, 2018

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Burma's President Htin Kyaw arrives for a dinner reception in Naypyitaw, Burma on March 30, 2016.

© 2016 Ye Aung Thu/Po / Reuters
(Bangkok) – Burmese authorities should not pursue a criminal complaint brought under Burma’s privacy law against a Facebook user for posts critical of a state chief minister, Human Rights Watch said today.

Parliament should promptly amend the privacy law, enacted in March 2017, to eliminate the provision criminalizing harm to reputation.

“It’s totally absurd that Burma is using a law protecting privacy as a club to punish criticism of a government official's job performance,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The police should decline to proceed with this case and parliament should amend the law to prevent such cases in the future.”

Earlier this month, Aung Ko Ko Lwin, from Thaton town in Mon State, posted a video clip of the Mon State chief minister, Dr. Aye Zaw, urging residents of Thaton township to “eat only a dish of curry” at mealtime to bring down food prices. He also posted comments criticizing the minister for failing to respond to requests for an electrical transformer for the town’s central market and for LED safety signals at a railway crossing that is the site of frequent accidents. It’s totally absurd that Burma is using a law protecting privacy as a club to punish criticism of a government official's job performance. Phil Robertson

Deputy Director

A member of the Mon State ethnic affairs committee, Saw Kyaw Moe, filed a complaint against Aung Ko Ko Lwin under section 8(f) of the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (“Privacy Law”), alleging that the comments “spoil the image of the town.”

Section 8(f) of the Privacy Law states that “no one shall unlawfully interfere with a citizen’s personal or family matters or act in any way to slander or harm their reputation.” Violation of the law carries a penalty of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 1.5 million kyat (US$1,100). The provision is, in effect, Burma’s fourth criminal defamation law. Burma already provides penalties for harm to reputation in the penal code, in the controversial section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, and in the Media Law. Section 66(d), in particular, has been repeatedly used to punish those who speak critically of the government or government officials.

Since the National League for Democracy-led government took office in January 2016, at least 95 people have faced criminal defamation complaints under section 66(d), according to a recent study by the group Free Expression Myanmar. In most cases, the complainant has been a government official. While parliament amended the Telecommunications Law in August 2017, the defamation provision was left intact and at least nine new complaints have been filed since then. The amendment did, however, limit those who could file complaints to those allegedly defamed, meaning that Saw Kyaw Moe could not bring his complaint under section 66(d).

The use of criminal defamation laws runs counter to increasing international recognition that imposing criminal penalties for defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of speech. All criminal defamation laws should be abolished and, where necessary, replaced with civil defamation laws. Defamation cases involving public figures are particularly problematic, allowing those in power to penalize their critics or those who seek to expose official wrongdoing.

“Criticizing the performance of government officials is an essential element of a rights-respecting democracy, and should not be the basis of criminal prosecution,” Robertson said. “Burma’s privacy law is a disaster for freedom of expression, and the parliament should move quickly to amend it to bring it in line with international human rights standards.”

Leading Environmentalists Violently Attacked in Russia

Friday, January 12, 2018
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Andrei Rudomakha in the hospital the day after the attack, Krasnodar, Russia, December 29, 2017.

© 2017 Environmental Watch on North Caucasus

This week, Russia’s Ministry of Justice removed Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus from the list of “foreign agents” because it no longer receives foreign funding. Andrei Rudomakha, the head of this prominent Russian environmental group, heard the news while in a hospital bed – three weeks earlier he had been severely injured in a vicious attack while investigating suspicions of illegal logging in South Russia.

On December 28, Rudomakha and three other environmental activists – Viktor Chirikov, Vera Kholodnaya, and Aleksandr Savelyev – were in a state forest in Krasnodar region, in southern Russia. They took pictures at a site where a private company, allegedly affiliated with high-ranking government officials, is carrying out logging and construction, which the environmentalists believe is illegal.

Late that evening, the activists drove to Krasnodar. Around 10 p.m., they stopped by a colleague’s home. Savelyev went to open the gate to the house, and the other three were standing by the car when unidentified assailants jumped them.

Three men attacked Rudomakha, spewing pepper spray in his face. They knocked him to the ground, and one of the assailants kicked him. They left Rudomakha unconscious and bleeding, pepper-sprayed Chirikov and Kholodnaya, and punched Chirikov in the stomach. Before fleeing, the assailants rifled through the car, taking cameras, tablets, Rudomakha’s identity documents, and some valuables.

The activists immediately called an ambulance and the police, and paramedics took Rudomakha to the hospital. He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, multiple facial fractures, brain contusion, as well as a chemical eye burn. Chirikov and Kholodnaya received medical assistance for minor injuries.

Footage from an outdoor surveillance camera recorded the assailants arriving a few hours before the activists. “I’m convinced the attack happened because of our inspection,” said Rudomakha. On December 29, police opened a criminal investigation into robbery, but the assailants have not yet been found.

Last year was Russia’s official Year of Ecology, but conditions for local environmentalists have gone from bad to worse. Since the adoption of the “foreign agents” law in 2012, at least 14 environmental organizations have stopped operating. Many activists suffered harassment. But the attack on Rudomakha and his colleagues stands out for its sheer brutality. The assailants should be held to account. Impunity for this horrid crime cannot but embolden the perpetrators.

US May Ax Regulations and Allow Kids to Work with Pesticides

Friday, January 12, 2018

Expand © 2009 Romano

I thought I had grown accustomed to being blindsided by bad news – headlines detailing how the United States government is chipping away at human rights. But yesterday morning, I was newly shocked and outraged when I heard that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may roll back federal standards that ban children under 18 from working with toxic pesticides.

This move may just be another one of the Trump administration’s sweeping attempts to undo regulations enacted under former President Barack Obama. But undoing or weakening these safeguards could leave many children in the US vulnerable to pesticide exposure.

Children younger than 18, who are in a critical stage of growth and development, are especially susceptible to toxic pesticides. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has said there’s a clear link between childhood exposure to pesticides and “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.” Child health experts, including the AAP and the Children’s Environment Health Network, have supported a minimum age of 18 for children to handle pesticides. 

I’ve interviewed more than 100 child farmworkers in the US while researching child labor in agriculture. Far too many of them described being exposed to pesticides and getting sick while they worked. One 16-year-old boy said he used a backpack sprayer to apply an insecticide on a tobacco farm in Virginia, adding that, “I got home and felt dizzy and started puking.”

The EPA announced that it is considering changing the standards in two notices published in the federal register in late December. One of the safeguards on the chopping block, a revision to the Worker Protection Standard enacted in 2015, bans children under 18 from handling pesticides on farms, forests, nurseries, and greenhouses where they work and from re-entering fields where pesticides have recently been sprayed. The second rule bans kids under 18 from handling or applying high-risk pesticides – known as restricted use pesticides, or RUPs – in, on, or around schools, homes, farms, and other workplaces like golf courses.

These are common sense measures to protect children’s health, based on solid research. Yet even so, it took decades of fighting by advocates to get these protections passed, and they were only adopted after the EPA extensively reviewed the literature and analyzed public comments.

The EPA should advance its mission of protecting human health and the environment and drop this callous and harmful proposal.

Mozambique: No Justice for Abuses Before Ceasefire

Friday, January 12, 2018

Mozambique’s government has failed to hold anyone to account for serious abuses by both state security forces and the opposition Renamo in the year prior to a December 2016 ceasefire.

(Maputo) – Mozambique’s government has failed to hold anyone to account for serious abuses by both state security forces and the opposition Renamo in the year prior to a December 2016 ceasefire, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 65-page report, “‘The Next One to Die’: State Security Force and Renamo Abuses in Mozambique,” documents violent abuses in the country’s central provinces between November 2015 and December 2016. These include enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and the destruction of private property by government forces, and political killings, attacks on public transport, and looting of health clinics by the Renamo political party’s armed group.

January 12, 2018 Report “The Next One to Die”

State Security Force and Renamo Abuses in Mozambique

“More than a year since the ceasefire was declared, the Mozambican government has not held anyone from its security forces or Renamo accountable for serious crimes,” said Iain Levine, deputy executive director for program at Human Rights Watch. “The government should investigate abuses by both sides and bring those responsible to justice.”

The report is based on over 70 interviews, including with victims of abuses and their relatives, as well as with police officers, soldiers, politicians, activists, and journalists. Human Rights Watch submitted detailed questions to both the government and Renamo, and their replies are included as appendices to the report.

The governing party, Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front), and Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance) fought a bloody 16-year war that ended in 1992, with Renamo allowed to keep a small armed force. Tension between the two escalated over the ensuing years as Renamo did not accept the results of various elections.

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The wife and daughter of the regulo (traditional chief) of Muxungue, Makotori José Mafussi, show a photo of Mafussi (seated) and two relatives. Apparent Renamo fighters killed Mafussi at his home on July 21, 2016. 

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

In February 2015, the government began an operation to disarm Renamo’s armed group by force. Renamo resisted, resulting in frequent clashes and a host of human rights violations in the central provinces of Manica, Sofala, Tete, and Zambezia.

Government security forces committed enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and other ill-treatment in detention, plus the destruction of private property, Human Rights Watch found.

Human Rights Watch documented seven cases of enforced disappearance and heard credible reports of many more cases. In one case, two brothers, José and Manuel Munera, were summoned to a police station in Gorongosa village on April 16, 2016.

“At 4 p.m., they called to inform us that they had arrived at the police station,” José Munera’s wife told Human Rights Watch. “At 6 p.m. I called him and the phone went unanswered.” Neither man has been seen or heard from since.

In its reply to Human Rights Watch, the Office of President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi denied that government security forces had committed any abuses and rejected allegations of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and property destruction.

Human Rights Watch also documented serious abuses by Renamo’s armed group, commanded by party leader Afonso Dhlakama, including the kidnapping and killing of political figures who worked with the government or Frelimo.

A community leader in the town of Muxungue, Makotori José Mafussi, for example, was shot and killed on July 21, 2016. His daughter told Human Rights Watch that her father had received threats after he was accused of helping government forces identify Renamo activists in the region.

“That day he was killed, he met a Renamo member named [name withheld] in the market,” Mafussi’s daughter said. “When he came home, he told us that the man had warned him that he would be the next one to die.” That evening, a man stormed into the family compound and shot Mafussi in the head.

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A bullet hole in the windshield of a bus that Renamo fighters attacked while it traveled in the Gorongosa area on the N1 road, the main north-south artery.  

2016 John Wessels /AFP/Getty Images

Renamo forces also ambushed and carried out sniper attacks against public transport, mainly on the N1 road in Manica and Sofala provinces. In July and August 2016, Renamo armed men raided at least five hospitals or medical clinics to loot medicine and supplies, restricting access to health care for thousands of people in remote areas of Zambezia, Tete, and Niassa provinces.

Party leader Dhlakama has admitted ordering attacks on public buses that he claimed were secretly transporting soldiers. The party has rejected the allegations of political assassinations as ruling party “propaganda.”

Since the ceasefire was declared, fighting and related human rights abuses have mostly ceased. But the government has not brought anyone to justice for serious crimes, including those Human Rights Watch documented. The lack of accountability follows a pattern of impunity dating back to the conflict that began in 1977, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities have failed, for example, to properly investigate 10 high-profile killings across the country since March 2015 that appear to be politically motivated. It has likewise failed to investigate thoroughly a possible mass grave in Gorongosa district reported in April 2016, and the discovery of at least 15 bodies under a nearby bridge.

The government should meet its obligations under international human rights law and impartially and thoroughly investigate allegations of serious abuse, whether by government forces or Renamo, and bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also establish a national database of missing persons to help identify and locate those who have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, or killed.

Mozambique’s international partners should press the government to investigate the human rights abuses committed by both government and Renamo forces since late 2015.

“Impunity for grave abuses, long prevalent in Mozambique, encourages future abuse,” Levine said. “Justice for both government and Renamo forces is crucial for the ceasefire to become an enduring peace.”

Secret Evidence and the Threat of More Warrantless Surveillance

Thursday, January 11, 2018
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A man is seen near cyber code and the U.S. National Security Agency logo in this photo illustration taken in Sarajevo March 11, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

Today, the US House of Representatives advanced a bill renewing and even expanding a highly controversial law that grants vast powers to the National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The law, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows warrantless telephone and internet monitoring of non-US citizens abroad – itself a human rights problem – and the capture of potentially enormous amounts of communications of people in the United States.

In theory, if the government were using this surveillance data to investigate and imprison people in the US, defense attorneys would be able to find out and judges able to evaluate whether the surveillance was constitutional. That transparency would mean the public and Congress would be informed about the impact of this monitoring on people facing something as serious as the loss of their liberty.

In reality, this is not the case. As suggested by Human Rights Watch’s new report on secret evidence in US criminal cases, the government may be concealing its use of Section 702 surveillance by deliberately creating an alternative explanation for how it gathered evidence – a practice known as “parallel construction.”

Despite having run massive programs under Section 702 for years, the government has apparently notified fewer than a dozen defendants that it drew on this surveillance during the investigations in their cases. Due to the practice of parallel construction, the public and its elected representatives can’t be confident these are the only cases in which people have faced prison time after warrantless, intrusive Section 702 activities were used by investigators.

This is part of a bigger picture: as Senator Ron Wyden emphasized this week, the NSA and FBI have never provided essential details about how many communications of people in the US they have vacuumed up and searched as a result of Section 702 programs.

Human Rights Watch has called for an end to both Section 702 monitoring and parallel construction. As debates about the renewal of Section 702 move on to the Senate, everyone in the US should be keeping a close watch on whether their representatives are fighting for their right to be free from abusive surveillance, including in the criminal justice context. People in a rights-respecting democracy are entitled to nothing less.

Russia: Rights Defender Arbitrarily Arrested in Chechnya

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

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Oyub Titiev stands in front of a portrait of his murdered colleague, Natalia Estemirova, in Memorial's Grozny office, Grozny, Chechnya, Russia. 

© 2011 Maria Chichtchenkova (January 11, 2018) – Police in Chechnya have arbitrarily arrested Oyub Titiev, head of the local office of Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights organization, on bogus drug possession charges, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and International Partnership for Human Rights said today. Authorities should immediately free Titiev, drop the charges against him, and stop hindering the work of human rights advocates in Chechnya, the international human rights groups said.

“Titiev’s arrest is a clear signal that authorities in Chechnya are trying to force Memorial out of Chechnya, which is an affront to everyone there who needs protection from human rights abuses,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Titiev should not be in custody, where we fear his health and safety are at risk.”

Police arrested Titiev, 60, at approximately 10:30 a.m. on January 9, 2018, near Kurchaloi, a town 30 miles from Grozny, the Chechen capital. One of Titiev’s friends told Memorial that he saw Titiev standing by his car on a local road near the Khumyk river bridge, surrounded by five or six police officers. The same witness said that when he later went to the Kurchaloi police department to look for Titiev, he saw his friend’s car parked outside.

A lawyer sent by Memorial went to the police station in the early afternoon, but police officials did not acknowledge Titiev was in custody and did not let him in. In the early evening, Chechnya’s deputy interior minister informed Russia’s federal ombudsperson, in response to her inquiry, that Kurchaloi police had detained Titiev. The lawyer was then admitted to the station.

Russian law provides that authorities can hold a person for up to three hours before formally placing them in custody, but the detainee is entitled to access to a lawyer as soon as they are detained. Titiev had access to his lawyer only after almost seven hours, and when the authorities issued the official report registering his detention, they listed the time of detention as 8.10 p.m., approximately 10 hours after he was first in their custody.

“The detaining authorities refused to provide any information about his whereabouts and fate for close to seven hours, in violation of international due process standards, raising a real concern that they may have been trying to forcibly disappear him,” said Andrew Anderson, director at Front Line Defenders.

“Russia has an obligation under international human rights law to immediately register and acknowledge all detentions, and allow detainees access to their lawyers, a fundamental safeguard against ill treatment and enforced disappearances,” said Denis Krivosheev, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office at Amnesty International.

The police told the lawyer they had allegedly found 180 grams of a marijuana-like substance in a bag in Titiev’s car and that Titiev was under investigation for possession of an illegal drug. Titiev denied the allegations and insisted the bag had been planted by police. If convicted, Titiev faces a maximum 10-year prison sentence. The human rights advisor to Russia’s president, Mikhail Fedotov told the press, that Titiev’s case may constitute a fabrication and the investigation authorities should look into the issue.

The rights groups called on Moscow to ensure that Titiev is immediately released, that there are no further threats to his security, and that human rights groups can carry out their work in Chechnya safely. Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement expressing concern about Titiev’s arrest, questioning the “dubious charges that lack credibility” and calling on Russian authorities to immediately ensure his release.

Russia’s international partners should follow Muižnieks’ example and publicly express their objection to this attempt to silence Memorial and urge the Kremlin to secure Titiev’s immediate release and continued safety.

“Bogus drug-related charges and planted evidence are a regular tactic that Chechen authorities have used to punish and discredit their critics,” said FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

In the summer of 2014, a court in Chechnya sentenced local activist Ruslan Kutaev to four years in prison on fabricated, politically motivated drug charges after he criticized and disobeyed an order by Chechnya’s leader, President Ramzan Kadyrov. Kutaev was paroled in December 2017. In 2016, another Chechen court sentenced journalist Zhalaudi Geriev to three years in prison on similarly fabricated drug charges. Geriev reported for Caucasian Knot, an online outlet that reports extensively on Chechnya and that has criticized Chechnya’s leadership.

Memorial has monitored abuses in Chechnya for more than 25 years, reporting extensively first on abuses by federal forces during the two Chechen wars, and then on violations carried out by local authorities with the Kremlin’s tacit blessing.During the past 10 years of Kadyrov’s rule in Chechnya, Memorial has published hard-hitting exposés on collective punishment practices, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, punitive house burnings, and extrajudicial killing by local security officials. They have consistently described contemporary Chechnya as a totalitarian enclave within Russia, noting Kadyrov’s interference in virtually all aspects of social life, including politics, religion, academic discourse, and family matters.

Titiev has led Memorial’s work in Chechnya since 2009, after the kidnapping and murder of his colleague Natalia Estemirova. His arrest follows years of threats and smear campaigns by Chechnya’s authorities against Memorial and other human rights groups. Kadyrov and other Chechen public officials routinely vilify human rights defenders as “puppets of the West” and “enemies of Russia” bent on destabilizing Chechnya. Some activists also suffered attacks and harassment by local security officials or pro-government thugs.

The most recent smear came in December 2017 from Magomed Daudov, speaker of Chechnya’s parliament and Kadyrov’s right hand man, after Kadyrov was included as a target for US sanctions under the US Magnitsky Act and his Instagram account was blocked. Daudov accused human rights defenders of “running to their boss across the ocean and pouring rivers of lies” and said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were involved in other subversion aimed at weakening our state….I think it’s time to send our enemies, those who don’t like a strong Russia, [out of the country] to their foreign bosses or to isolate them from polite society. …If only Russia hadn’t had a moratorium [on the death penalty], we could’ve just bid these enemies of the people ‘salaam alekum’ and be done with them.”

“The fact that Chechen authorities have so blatantly invented drug accusations against Titiev is not surprising, in light of the vicious way they persistently target people brave enough to try to speak up about human rights abuses,” said Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “The question is,what will Russia’s federal authorities do about it and whether Russia’s international partners will do their utmost to ensure Moscow does the right thing?”

The Tragic Irony of Unlawful Attacks on Civilians in Syria’s De-Escalation Zones

Wednesday, January 10, 2018
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Syria Civil Defence members search for survivors after an airstrike in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 9, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

As the world was getting ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve, a video was posted on social media of a man carrying his young son in Idlib, Syria, while a woman desperately tries to shake the boy awake. The child was reportedly killed by one of the dozens of Syrian government-Russian airstrikes that have hit parts of Idlib and Hama since late December.

After seven years of conflict, the death of a child in Syria is no longer a surprise. Civilians die in indiscriminate attacks almost daily. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this conflict is the little done to protect civilians.

Take Idlib. Despite being a “de-escalation zone” where a ceasefire should be in place, the recent offensive is not the first time Idlib governorate – which is controlled by extremist group Hay’et Tahrir Al-Sham – has been subject to relentless attacks. The world however has remained largely silent, about the risk to civilians there, conveniently forgetting that an estimated 2.65 million people are trapped in North-western Syria. Close to half these people have been displaced, according to the UN, and now thousands are stuck at the Turkish border, unable to escape what residents tell me is “certain death.”

In a second “de-escalation zone,” Eastern Ghouta, civilian deathss from indiscriminate attacks are also the norm. The besieged Damascus suburb is held by anti-government groups and was the site of the worst chemical attack in the conflict. There too, the Syrian government and Russia are regularly bombing schools, hospitals, and homes while refusing to allow much-needed aid in. Last weekend, residents reported five children dead in a strike that killed 17 civilians.

A spike in attacks on hospitals in both Eastern Ghouta and Idlib has heightened people’s suffering.

In the fight against the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the US and US-led coalition have also killed civilians instead of just fighters, and drastically undercounted civilian death rates from these attacks reflect a rush to defeat extremists.

With the defeat of ISIS, people are saying the Syria conflict is “winding down,” calling the de-escalation zones a “success.” The reality in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta could not be more different. These indiscriminate airstrikes, chemical weapon use, and other atrocities have battered both the population and the guiding principle that civilians are to be protected during war. Unless protecting civilians is prioritized, the “winding down” of the conflict will bring rampant destruction and devastating human loss.

Human Rights Defender Arrested in Chechnya

Tuesday, January 9, 2018
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Oyub Titiev, photo provided by Memorial Human Rights Center.

This morning, Chechen authorities arrested activist Oyub Titiev, who works as the Chechnya office director at a leading Russian rights group, Memorial Human Rights Center.

Titiev, born 1957, took over for Memorial in Chechnya after the kidnapping and murder of his colleague, Natalia Estemirova in 2009. In recent years, he received many threats aimed at making him quit human rights work. Now, his life and safety are in jeopardy. Seven hours after his arrest, Chechnya’s interior ministry confirmed they took him into custody, allegedly on suspicion of a drug-related crime.

At about 10:30 a.m. a witness saw five to six police officials stop and search Titiev’s car by the Khumyk river bridge, not far from the town of Kurchaloi. The officials then took Titiev to the Kurchaloi district police department. When a lawyer from Memorial arrived at the police department that afternoon, an officer refused to let him in, claiming Titiev wasn’t on the premises. Another police officer, however, admitted off the record that they had Titiev in custody. At about 5 p.m., Chechnya’s deputy interior minister informed Russia’s federal ombudsperson, in response to her inquiry, that Kurchaoi police had detained Titiev. Around that time, Titiev’s lawyer was admitted to the station, and local police told him his client was being charged with unlawful drug possession.

Framing people for drug crimes has become an increasingly frequent tactic used by Chechnya’s authorities to punish and discredit their critics in the eyes of conservative Chechen society. In summer 2014, a court in Chechnya sentenced local activist Ruslan Kutaev to four years in jail on fabricated, politically motivated drug charges after he criticized and disobeyed an order by Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. In fall 2016, another Chechen court sentenced journalist Zhalaudi Geriev to three years in prison on similarly fraudulent drug charges. Geriev worked for the Caucasian Knot, a Russian media portal which was critical of Chechnya’s leadership and had covered Kutaev’s case. Both men were tortured in police custody. Kutaev was released on parole at the end of 2017. Geriev remains behind bars.

In recent years, Kadyrov has often publicly smeared and threatened rights activists, and some of those activists also suffered attacks and harassment by local security officials or pro-government thugs. There’s no doubt that Titiev’s arrest is an attempt to finally push Memorial – which has been extensively reporting on collective punishment practices, enforced disappearances, torture, punitive house burnings, and other abuses by local authorities – out of Chechnya.

Russia’s international partners should publicly express their indignation over this disgraceful attempt at silencing Memorial Moscow and urge the Kremlin to ensure Titiev’s immediate release and continued safety and security.

UN Security Council Action Over Syria Chemical Attacks Overdue

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

New evidence supports the conclusion that Syrian government forces have used nerve agents on at least four occasions in recent months: on April 4, 2017, in a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 90 people, and on three other occasions in December 2016 and March 2017. 

When the UN Security Council meets this week to discuss chemical weapons use in Syria, its 15 members should send a strong message to the Syrian government that those responsible for dozens of chemical weapon attacks will be held accountable and may face future prosecution. It should do so first by imposing sanctions on people suspected of involvement in the illegal use of toxic agents, which have killed hundreds of Syrians and seriously injured many more.

By failing to hold those responsible for these appalling crimes accountable, the Security Council has effectively given perpetrators a green light to deploy sarin and other nerve agents, as well as mustard or chlorine gas against men, women and children.

May 1, 2017 Report Death by Chemicals

The Syrian Government’s Widespread and Systematic Use of Chemical Weapons

Russia has used its Security Council veto 11 times to shield its allies in Damascus from condemnation, sanctions or referral to the International Criminal Court. Most recently, Russia vetoed renewing a joint investigation of the UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), whose job it was to identify the culprits behind chemical attacks.

The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) had accused both the Syrian government and Islamic State (also known as ISIS) of repeatedly using illegal chemical agents. In October, the JIM found the Syrian government responsible for the April 2017 sarin gas attack at Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens, mostly women and children. This echoed Human Rights Watch’s findings.

Russia has in the past taken positive steps urging Syria to change. In 2013, Russia helped pressure Syria to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and begin dismantling its chemical weapons program, and Moscow played a key role in establishing the JIM in 2015. But this time around, Moscow has helped Syria’s government evade responsibility for Khan Sheikhoun, alleging that armed groups carried out the attack themselves but offering little evidence to support this claim.

The Russian government should change course, and support UN Security Council in holding those responsible for chemical attacks accountable. Even if it does not, UN members should continue to fund other UN investigative teams established to investigate crimes in Syria and ferret out those responsible for the chemical attacks.

If perpetrators know that evidence of their crimes is being gathered for future prosecution, that may make them think twice before launching another bomb filled with sarin.  

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