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Tunisia: Unfinished Rights Business

Human Rights Watch - Friday, February 28, 2020


A general view of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis, Tunisia, May 2016.

© 2016 Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

(Tunis) – Tunisia’s new government, approved by Parliament on February 27, 2020, should make human rights a priority, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should protect fundamental rights in eight key areas: ending criminal prosecutions for peaceful speech, arbitrary arrests by the police, abuses under the state of emergency, violence against women, the persecution of homosexuals, and achieving accountability for past human rights violations, reforming the judicial and security sectors, and allowing for the repatriation of the children of Tunisia’s ISIS fighters stranded abroad.

“Nine years after the uprising that toppled former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians are still waiting to see all of their rights enshrined in law,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new government should fix abusive outdated laws and make other essential changes to safeguard the democratic transition and uphold Tunisians' human rights.”

Following legislative and presidential elections on October 6 and 13, 2019, respectively, President Kais Saied tasked Habib Jemli with forming a government. The Ennahdha party, which came first in the legislative election with 52 of the 217 seats, nominated Jemli, who served as secretary of state for agriculture from 2011 to 2014, to be prime minister. Following parliament’s rejection of Jemli’s proposed government, President Saied designated a new prime minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, who served as minister of economy between 2012 and 2014. On February 27, Parliament approved the new government, which is composed of 32 ministers and secretaries of state, including 6 women.

Under the 2014 Constitution, the president and the prime minister (head of government) both exercise executive powers. The prime minister determines “the state’s general policy” and exercises general regulatory powers by issuing decrees.  

Tunisia has made important strides in protecting human rights since 2011. The authorities adopted a progressive new constitution, held free and fair legislative and presidential elections, adopted laws to improve the status of women, and improved legal protections for detainees.

Yet, serious rights violations and gaps in legal protections of rights persist. A lack of written guidelines on the circumstances in which security forces may arrest a person often result in arbitrary detentions. Despite progress on transitional justice through the establishment of specialized tribunals to try those accused of past human rights abuses, there has been no real justice since those accused effectively have boycotted most of these trials without suffering any consequences.

Prosecutors charge bloggers, journalists, and social media activists under penal code articles criminalizing free speech. Courts imprison men for consensual same-sex acts on the basis of anal tests that the police forces suspects to undergo. These exams have no scientific basis and are a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that can amount to torture. Since the declaration in November 2015 of a state of emergency, which is still in force, the authorities have arbitrarily restricted the movement of hundreds of Tunisians.

The government should:

  • Issue a moratorium on enforcing articles in the penal code criminalizing freedom of speech and same-sex conduct, pending parliament’s repeal of those articles;
  • Issue guidelines instructing the judicial police that pre-charge detention should be an exception, not the rule, and should never be applied when someone is suspected of committing an offense that would not entail a prison sentence;
  • Direct police forces, under penalty of disciplinary action, to execute court summonses for those accused of crimes and compel them to appear in court;
  • Ensure that all restrictions that the executive imposes on freedom of movement in the framework of counterterrorism efforts include a written reason, are for a finite time period, and are subject to meaningful judicial oversight and appeal;
  • Publish, in the Official Journal, the final report of the Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance Vérité et Dignité, IVD), Tunisia’s truth commission, which documents decades of human rights abuses, and carry out the commission’s key recommendations on security and judicial sector reforms;
  • Ensure that the law on combating violence against women is effectively carried out, and allocate sufficient budget for enforcement; and
  • Ensure the return of families of Tunisian ISIS fighters stranded in Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

End Prosecutions for Free Speech
Despite adopting a progressive press code in 2011 that removed criminal sentences for speech offenses, Tunisian authorities are still using repressive penal and telecommunications code articles to criminalize peaceful speech. They arrest, prosecute, and sometimes imprison bloggers, journalists, and social media activists merely for peacefully criticizing public officials.

The charges frequently include: accusing public officials of crimes related to their jobs without furnishing proof of guilt, under article 128 of the penal code, which provides for up to two years in prison; defamation and “calumny” punishable by up to six months and one year in prison, respectively under articles 245 and 247 of the penal code; “willfully or knowingly harm[ing] others or disturb[ing] them via public telecommunications networks,” under article 86 of the telecommunications code, with one to two years in prison; and “insulting” the head of state, under article 67 of the penal code, punishable by up to three years in prison.  

Human Rights Watch documented 21 cases of prosecutions of bloggers, journalists, and others since 2017. The justice minister, who supervises the prosecution office, should direct prosecutors not to use these laws to prosecute people for their commentary on matters of public interest.

Restrict Police Discretion on Arrests
Tunisian police forces have broad powers to stop and check individuals regardless of whether they suspect criminal activity. The Code of Criminal Procedures (CPP) allows judicial police officers to detain a person if they deem it necessary “for the requirement of the investigation,” without there being a level of suspicion that the suspect has committed a crime.

Tunisia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits arbitrary arrest or detention. The Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa mandate countries to ensure that no one is arbitrarily arrested or detained and that “arrest, detention or imprisonment shall only be carried out … pursuant to a warrant, on reasonable suspicion or for probable cause.” The prohibition against arbitrary arrest or detention means depriving the person of liberty on suspicion of a criminal act, even if provided for by law, must be necessary and reasonable, predictable, and proportional to the reasons for arrest.

The government should issue guidelines to the judicial police instructing them to refrain from arresting people unless they have a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed an offense. It should also issue a directive restricting the police from using pre-charge detention only to individual cases where is necessary, for example to prevent flight, and never for offenses that do not entail prison sentences.

All persons detained for any reason should be brought promptly (within 48 hours) before a judge who will rule on the legality and necessity of their continued detention.

Ensure that Accused Officers are Present for ‘Transitional Justice’ Trials
In December 2014, the authorities created 13 specialized chambers within the ordinary court system to try those responsible for committing gross human rights violations between 1955 and 2013, after the Truth and Dignity Commission referred the cases.

The Tunisian government should support the specialized chambers’ work, which has been undermined by numerous obstacles. These include an effective inability to compel the accused and witnesses to appear because police have failed to deliver people who refuse to answer a summons to court.

The first trial in these special courts opened in the city of Gabes on May 29, 2018. It concerned the forced disappearance of Kamel Matmati, an Islamist activist arrested in 1991. The 14 defendants have defied the summonses to appear, leading the Special Court of Gabes to postpone the trial seven times.

Other trials in the Special Courts in Nabeul, Gabes, Gafsa, Tunis, and Le Kef encountered the same obstacle. This situation has created frustration among the victims and survivors, who have long hoped to confront their abusers in a court of justice.

The new government should ensure that police carry out court summonses and discipline police agents who refuse to perform their duties as required by law.

End Abuses Under the State of Emergency
The state of emergency that late President Beji Caid Essebsi declared after a 2015 suicide attack on a bus killing 12 presidential guards was last renewed in December 2019. It is based on a 1978 decree that empowers the authorities to ban strikes or demonstrations deemed to threaten public order, and to prohibit gatherings “likely to provoke or sustain disorder.”

Under the decree, the authorities have, since 2016, placed hundreds of Tunisians under house arrest. The conditions were eased in 2018, but many who remained under house arrest were also placed under a travel ban procedure called “S17” which is applied on anyone the government suspects of posing a threat to state security, Interior Minister Hichem Fourati said during a hearing in Parliament. The procedure allows restrictions on movement both domestically and when trying to leave Tunisia. A person listed as under the S17 procedure risks lengthy questioning whenever they are stopped for a routine police check.

The Tunisian government should stop using house arrest or “S17” measures arbitrarily. If strictly necessary for security, these measures should be used only with strong safeguards. The Interior Ministry should deliver a written copy of the decision to the affected person, and make them subject to meaningful challenge and judicial review.

Publish Truth and Dignity Commission’s Report and Carry Out Recommendations
The new government should carry out the recommendations as stipulated by the Truth and Dignity Commission’s March 26, 2019 report. The report analyzes the institutional system that enabled successive Tunisian governments to carry out human rights abuses over five decades. The report, which is the result of five years of investigations carried out by the commitee, recommends judiciary and security force reforms to prevent authorities from recommitting systematic abuses.

The prime minister is mandated under the 2013 “Law on establishing and organizing transitional justice” to prepare, within a year after the final report is issued, a work plan and strategies to apply the recommendations. First and foremost, the new government should ensure the publication of the report in the Official Journal of the Tunisian Republic, as required by article 67 of the Transitional Justice law. The previous government failed to publish it, despite numerous calls from the commission and independent groups to comply with the law. Publication of the report would constitute a formal acknowledgment of its content.

The government should study the commission’s main recommendations on security sector reform. They include, for example, making internal disciplinary measures more transparent. It also recommends creating an independent complaint body to investigate abuses and misconduct by the security forces.

While recognizing that Tunisia has made important strides in adopting laws with stronger guarantees against ill-treatment, such as law no.5 of 2016 granting access to a lawyer from the onset of detention, the commission identified other important safeguards that are needed. These include placing more cameras in police stations to monitor police work and assigning supervision of the judicial police to the Justice, rather than the Interior, Ministry.

Enforce the Law on Eradicating Violence Against Women
On July 26, 2017, parliament adopted law 2017-58 on “Eradicating violence against women.” The law includes comprehensive measures to prevent and prosecute gender-based violence. The law introduces new criminal provisions and increases penalties for various forms of violence when committed within the family. It also criminalizes sexual harassment in public spaces.

The law includes requirements to assist domestic violence survivors, including providing legal, medical, and mental health support.

The law also calls for establishing family violence units within Tunisia’s Internal Security Forces to process domestic violence complaints, and assigning a public prosecutor in each governorate to handle such complaints.

The Tunisian government has taken some positive steps to carry out the law. It has, for example, created 128 specialized police units throughout the territory to investigate reported cases of violence against women.

Tunisian authorities should ensure that there is adequate funding and political will to put the law fully into effect. They should, for example, ensure availability of adequate shelter, and psychosocial – mental health, legal, and other services for survivors of domestic violence, including in rural areas.

Information about how the law is being carried out should be made public. The authorities should for example establish a public database on violence against women that includes the number of complaints received, investigations, prosecutions,convictions, and sentences.

Bring Back Children of ISIS Combatants Stranded Abroad
Tunisian authorities have allowed only nine Tunisian children held without charge in foreign camps and prisons for families of Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members to return home, all from Libya. About 200 children and 100 women claiming Tunisian nationality have been held abroad without charge for up to three years as ISIS family members, most in Syria and Libya, and fewer in Iraq. Many of the children are age 6 or younger. The government should ensure that all child nationals detained abroad solely because they are the sons and daughters of alleged or confirmed ISIS members are swiftly and safely brought home.

End Anal Tests and Direct Prosecutors Not to Use Article 230
Tunisian police frequently arrest people solely on the basis of perceived homosexuality under article 230 of the penal code criminalizing sodomy. While the Tunisian authorities in 2017 committed to ending anal tests as evidence in prosecutions for homosexuality, the prosecutors continue to order this practice, which has been shown to be unreliable as a form of evidence of consensual homosexual activity and, when involuntary, has been condemned by international experts as a form of torture.

Prosecutions for consensual sex in private and between adults violate the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Tunisia is a party.

Tunisia’s new government should order a prosecutorial moratorium on the enforcement of article 230 even before the repeal of this article by Parliament, and issue a directive ordering an immediate end to anal examinations to determine a person’s sexual behavior as part of police investigative procedures. The Interior Ministry should also investigate reports of the ill-treatment of people arrested based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.


US: Revisit Landmines Decision

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 27, 2020

An Afghan orthopedic technician makes artificial limbs in a workshop at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) hospital in Kabul. 

© 2019 Wakil Kohsar/AFP

(Washington, DC) – The United States should reverse its decision to allow the US to use landmines anywhere in the world in perpetuity, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch issued a question-and-answer document reviewing the landmine policy changes.

A January 31, 2020 memo by Defense Secretary Mark Esper reverses a 2014 ban on US production and acquisition of antipersonnel landmines, as well as their use outside of a future conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The policy decision nullifies years of steps by the US to align its policy and practice with the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel landmines.  Related Content

The US last used antipersonnel mines in 1991, has not exported them since 1992, has not produced them since 1997, and has destroyed millions of stockpiled mines.

“Nations that have banned landmines are understandably dismayed by the US decision to produce and use these indiscriminate weapons,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Continued vigilance is needed to defend the emerging norm against antipersonnel mines.”

The Mine Ban Treaty president, Ambassador Osman Abufatima Adam Mohammad of Sudan, criticized the new policy for going against the US government’s “long-standing commitment to work towards the eradication of the suffering” caused by antipersonnel landmines.

Mine Ban Treaty States Parties such as Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have expressed concern and disappointment over the new US policy, as has the European Union.

The Mine Ban Treaty, which entered into force on March 1, 1999, comprehensively prohibits antipersonnel mines and requires their clearance, destruction of stockpiles, and assistance to mine victims.

A total of 164 countries have joined the Mine Ban Treaty, including all other NATO members and the US allies Australia and Japan. The US participated in the 1996-1997 Ottawa Process to negotiate the treaty, but never adopted or signed it.

More than 50 US nongovernmental organizations that are part of or support the United States Campaign to Ban Landmines issued a joint statement on February 20 that condemns the US landmine policy changes and calls on Congress to block any US acquisition or production of antipersonnel mines.

Human Rights Watch co-founded and chairs the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the 1997 Nobel Peace Laureate.

“The US has used other means and methods to fight over the past 30 years without having to resort to using banned landmines,” Goose said. “Embracing such widely discredited weapons now will ultimately increase the risks faced by US service members.”

Cameroon: Civilians Massacred in Separatist Area

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Memorial ceremony held on February 21, 2020 at the Saint Theresia Cathedral l in Kumbo, North-West region, Cameroon, for victims of the Ngarbuh massacre.

© 2020 Private

(Nairobi) – Government forces and armed ethnic Fulani killed at least 21 civilians in Cameroon’s Ngarbuh village, including 13 children and 1 pregnant woman, on February 14, 2020. They also burned five homes, pillaged scores of other properties, and beat residents. Some of the bodies of the victims were found burned inside their homes. The government denies that its troops have deliberately committed crimes.

“The gruesome killings of civilians, including children, are egregious crimes that should be effectively and independently investigated, and those responsible should be brought to justice,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Denying that these crimes have occurred adds another layer of trauma to survivors and will only embolden government troops to commit more atrocities.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 people, including 3 witnesses to the killings and 7 relatives of victims, about these events that took place in Ngarbuh, Donga Mantung division, in the North-West region. This area has been severely affected by violence between government forces and armed groups seeking a separate state for the North-West and South-West anglophone regions. Ethnic Fulani also live in and around Ngarbuh. They are known as “Mbororo” and are mainly pastoralists.

Human Rights Watch also obtained lists of the victims’ names from five sources and spoke to people, including relatives of the victims and residents who carried out the burials, who independently confirmed the victims’ identities.

Witnesses said that between 10 and 15 soldiers, including members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion, the elite unit of the Cameroonian army, and at least 30 armed Fulani first entered Ngarbuh 1, a neighborhood in Ngarbuh, on foot at about 11 p.m. on February 13, looting scores of homes. Some of these forces then continued to the Ngarbuh 2 neighborhood, looting homes and beating civilians. At around 5 a.m. on February 14, a group of soldiers and armed Fulani attacked the Ngarbuh 3 neighborhood, killing 21 civilians in four homes, then burning the houses.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery taken before and after the attack in Ngarbuh 3. The post-attack image, taken at 10:24 a.m. Cameroon time on February 14, shows several homes in Ngarbuh with damage that is consistent with burning.

A 32-year-old man who witnessed the killing of his whole family, including seven children, said: “I heard gunshots and left immediately to hide beside my house. From there, I saw the military shooting my family members one by one as they attempted to escape. They shot our mother first. Then, they shot the children, whose bodies all fell on her. Then, they set my home on fire.”

Human Rights Watch made several attempts to contact a senior member of the government but did not receive a response. Cameroon’s defense minister issued two statements on February 17. He first announced that the government had opened an investigation and that its findings would be made public. In a second statement later that day, he stated that the investigation findings “could be published at an appropriate time.” Both statements asserted that armed “terrorists” attacked government security forces and that the fighting led to an explosion of fuel containers, which destroyed several homes and killed one woman and four children. This assertion was restated on February 18 in a news release from the communication minister.

However, witnesses and residents with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said that there was no confrontation between armed separatists and security forces, that they heard no explosions, and that the killings were deliberate.

Residents said the attack was to punish civilians suspected of harboring separatist fighters. Twelve witnesses said that, after the killings, the military addressed residents in Ngarbuh 2, warning that their village would be destroyed if they continued to shelter separatists.

During and after this speech, soldiers threatened people, admitting that they had killed children in Ngarbuh 3, and saying that they would do the same in Ngarbuh 2. “The military broke into my house,” a 45-year old woman said. “They said my children were Amba fighters [separatists] and they searched for guns. They found none, but they beat me and said: ‘We have already killed children in Ngarbuh 3, so we can kill you too.’”

On February 16, a joint team of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees attempted to carry out a humanitarian needs assessment in Ngarbuh, but Rapid Intervention Battalion soldiers blocked them in Ntumbaw, the village closest to Ngarbuh, where the UN teams had started interviewing those displaced by the attack. Witnesses said that the soldiers photographed those who were being interviewed and prevented the UN team from doing its work.

The UN secretary-general in a February 17 statement expressed concern over the killing of civilians in Ngarbuh and urged the government of Cameroon to open an investigation and hold those responsible accountable. The following day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson said that Cameroonian authorities should ensure that its security forces “abide by applicable international law norms standards during the conduct of their operations.” On February 21, four UN officials, including the special representative for children and armed conflict, the special representative on sexual violence in conflict, the special representative on violence against children, and the special adviser on the prevention of genocide, issued a joint statement expressing their deep concern about reports of increasing violence in the Anglophone regions, including the attack on Ngarbuh, and called on the Cameroon government to ensure full respect for human rights.

The United States called for the government to authorize an independent investigation and ensure safety for witnesses. The killings in Ngarbuh were also condemned by other countries, including France, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

This is not the first time that the Cameroonian authorities have denied that its troops killed civilians. In 2018, an investigation conducted by Amnesty International, the BBC, and investigative journalists showed that Cameroonian soldiers depicted in a video carried out extrajudicial executions of two women and two children in the Far North region. The communication minister initially dismissed the video footage as “fake news.” However, seven soldiers were later arrested in connection with the killings. The trial is ongoing.

“The government of Cameroon should allow an independent investigation, with participation from the UN, into the Ngarbuh massacre, and make its findings public,” said Allegrozzi. “To be certain that assistance is not facilitating the commission of atrocities, Cameroon’s partners should halt military cooperation pending the results of such an inquiry.”

Ethnic Fulani living in and around Ngarbuh are also known as “Mbororo” and are mainly pastoralists. Prior to the escalation of the crisis in the Anglophone regions, conflicts had occurred between the Fulani and local farmers over resources, including grazing land. This has been exacerbated since 2017, when violence erupted in the North-West and South-West regions. Armed separatists have targeted ethnic Fulani for their cattle in the North-West region and have accused them of joining vigilante groups sympathetic to the government. Armed Fulani groups have also attacked communities where armed separatists are known to operate.

Killings in Ngarbuh 3
Human Rights Watch research suggests that the killing of civilians in Ngarbuh 3 was deliberate. Witnesses and residents said that between 10 and 15 security force members acted jointly with a group of about 30 ethnic Fulani men who wore civilian clothes and were armed with machetes, clubs, and hunting guns. 

Three witnesses said that the attack in Ngarbuh 3 took place at around 5 a.m. on February 14, 2020. Soldiers and armed Fulani attacked four houses, fatally shooting some residents. They also set the houses on fire, burning the bodies.

In one house, soldiers killed seven people, including five children, all from the same family. A 45-year-old relative who rushed to the scene after the killing said that four of the children were younger than 12.

In a second house, soldiers and armed Fulani killed nine people, including seven children and two women.

A resident who was among the people who buried the bodies told Human Rights Watch: “When I arrived at the scene, I could not believe my eyes. It was horrific. Some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition. Survivors were shocked and in panic. But many fled into the bush fearing for their lives.”

In a third house, military and armed Fulani killed two people, including a pregnant woman.

In a fourth house, military and armed Fulani killed three people, including a child. A woman living in the house was severely wounded but survived. A relative of the victims said he found the sole survivor with machete wounds all over her body.

Looting and Beatings
Twelve witnesses described how security forces and armed Fulani pillaged homes in Ngarbuh 1 and in Ngarbuh 2, forced people outside, and beat them.

A 32-year-old woman said that soldiers threatened to kill her if she did not give them money. “They kept beating me with the back of their guns and asking for money,” she said.

Another resident of Ngarbuh 2, a pastor, said:

The military were with a group of armed Fulani. They broke into and pillaged all the homes in Ngarbuh 2. They pulled people out, including me, and gathered us together at the village square, near the market. Some people were tied up with ropes. We were forced to the ground on our bellies. We could not raise our heads. When you looked up, they would beat you with machetes…. We were eventually released.

‘Ntaganda’ in Colombia: Intra-Party Reproductive Violence at the Colombian Constitutional Court

Opinio Juris - Tuesday, February 25, 2020
[Ciara Laverty is a PhD candidate at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, Leiden University. Dieneke de Vos received her PhD in international criminal law from the European University Institute, Florence and currently works in the humanitarian sector on the prevention of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse.]   On 11 February 2020, Colombia’s Constitutional Court made public its full...

Iran: No Justice for Bloody Crackdown

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, February 25, 2020


Iranian protesters gather around a burning car during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019. 

© AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities have failed to hold security forces accountable for excessive and unlawful use of lethal force in confronting large-scale protests that began on November 15, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. Members of the United Nations Human Rights Council should take urgent action to address the brutal crackdown.

Over three months later, the government has failed to announce the total number of deaths and arrests during the protests, which spread to many parts of the country over a week. Interviews with victims and witnesses, a review of photos and videos from the protests, and satellite imagery analysis strongly suggest that security forces used unlawful lethal force on at least three occasions. The total number of such cases is most likely higher.

“Iranian authorities have systematically repressed dissent for decades, and they are now confronting popular protests with an astonishing level of violence,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Principled international voices should send an unequivocal message that Iran cannot get away with killing protesters.”  

The protests began over an abrupt fuel price increase, but they transformed into broader popular discontent with the government’s repression and perceived corruption. The government imposed a near-total internet shutdown from November 15 to 19.

Due to the internet shutdown and authorities’ threats against families of victims, documenting the full extent of the crackdown, including the total number of people killed, has been difficult. Amnesty International has estimated that at least 304 people were killed. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) has verified the identities of more 100 people killed. Media reports indicate that the death toll may be much higher. A member of parliament put the number at 170, while official media outlets have reported the deaths at least 5 members of the security forces during the protests. One parliament member said about 7,000 people were arrested.

Four informed sources told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have banned families from conducting interviews with media and threatened them with retaliation if they do. On December 23, the authorities arrested several members of the Bakhtiari family after they called for a public mourning to commemorate the 40th day of their son’s death. On January 22, the authorities released Bakhtiari’s father, pending trial.

After initially greenlighting the crackdown, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was later quoted as saying that families of people killed who had not been protesting should be compensated, and that detained protesters should be treated with what he called “Islamic mercy.” However, nothing in Khamenei’s response to the events suggests that the security forces will be investigated for their excessive and unlawful use of force. Moreover, according to several media outlets, prison authorities have beaten and abused detained protesters. There are also reports of Iran’s revolutionary courts sentencing at least 3 arrested protesters to death.

Human Rights Watch interviewed nine people, including witnesses, victims’ family members, and others with firsthand knowledge of the security forces’ violent response to protests in Khuzestan, Fars, Kermanshah and Alborz provinces. Human Rights Watch also reviewed videos and photos of incidents in which security forces apparently used unlawful and excessive lethal force, as well as satellite imagery of some protest locations. The evidence strongly suggests that on at least three occasions, security forces used unlawful lethal force while responding to protesters who were blocking roads, or in some cases throwing stones and attempting to take over public buildings.

Photos and videos of the protests circulating on social media and verified by Human Rights Watch indicate that the Special Forces under the supervision of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as the Special Forces belonging to the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran (NAJA), played major roles in the government’s violent crackdown.

People interviewed and videos on social media indicate that in at least three instances security forces shot people who were fleeing the scene of protests. One of these cases can be seen in a video posted online on November 17, 2019, recorded from Zeyn-Od-Din Highway overlooking Taleghani Street in Tehran. The video shows people on Taleghani Street starting a fire, while others throw what appear to be sticks and stones at security forces. About two dozen security force personnel are visible, dressed in black with a white stripe on their helmets. One of them opens fire at people on the street but it is unclear if anyone got hit.


Satellite image of Taleghani Street in Tehran taken on September 26, 2019 and stills from a video recorded at that location that was uploaded to social media on November 17. The video shows security forces gathered on a side street and one of them stepping onto Taleghani Street and opening fire on protesters.

Satellite image: September 26, 2019 © DigitalGlobe-Maxar Technologies 2020; Source: Google Earth

© Human Rights Watch

The black uniforms and black helmets with white stripes are worn both by forces of the IRGC, as well as by the Basij, a paramilitary force under the IRGC with responsibilities for internal security and a long track record of committing serious human rights violations.


Left: Security forces with white stripes on their helmets outside Tehran’s Amir Kabir University on January 11, 2020 (© Agence France-Presse). Right: A similar stripe on the helmets of security forces that opened fire on protesters in Tehran (from video posted to Twitter on November 30, 2019.) 


© Human Rights Watch

A person with close knowledge of a second case said that Borhan Mansournia, a 28-year-old veterinarian, told his family that on November 16, security forces shot him in Dolatabad, in Kermanshah province, while he was running away from security forces who were shooting at protesters.

Mansournia told his family while he was injured in the hospital that two other protesters were killed there. Mansournia was hospitalized with gunshot injuries and died on November 18. The authorities have refused to provide Mansournia’s family with information about the weapon and ammunition that killed him and threatened Mansournia’s family with arrest if they speak with the media.

Family members and people with close knowledge of four other cases of people killed said that in each case the victim died from gunshots to the head and/or chest. A family member of Pouya Bakhtiari, a 27-year-old electrical engineer, said that security forces fatally shot Bakhtiari in the head during a November 17 protest in Karaj, in Alborz province. A relative of a 15-year-old child, Mohammad Dastankhah, said that security forces shot him in the heart on November 16 as he was returning from school in the town of Sadra, the city of Shiraz, in Fars province.

Nearby and on the same day, Alireza Anjavi, a 27-year-old graduate of architecture studies, told his mother by phone that he was passing through a protest area. His family heard nothing more from him. A week later, a security agent called Anjavi’s mother to inform her that her son had been shot dead. Anjavi was shot in the forehead, a source with close knowledge of the case said. 

The area surrounding Bander-e-Mahshahr, a city in Khuzestan province, experienced some of the most violent repression. Two local residents said that on November 18, special units opened fire on protesters who had been blocking roads in the town of Chamran since November 16, as well as on those who were fleeing to a marsh close by. The security forces appeared to use live ammunition and heavy machine guns, the two residents said. Videos posted to social media show tanks being deployed in Taleghani town and a pickup truck equipped with an automatic weapon in Chamran. At least one member of the security forces was reportedly shot and killed during the clashes on November 18 in the Chamran area, and another law enforcement officer there died of his injuries a week later.

The video showing a vehicle with an automatic weapon in Chamran appeared online on December 3, 2019. The exact location of where the video was recorded was identified by France 24 as part of a detailed investigation it conducted into the protests and crackdown. 


Screenshot from a video posted to Twitter on December 3, 2019, showing an automatic weapon mounted on a pickup truck in Chamran.

HRANA reported that people wounded during protests in Karaj, Islamshahr, Bahbahan, and Sirjan avoided seeking treatment in hospitals for fear of being arrested. At least two people injured during these protests died from their wounds, HRANA reported.

Prisoners detained in Rajai Shahr and Evin prisons have reported that prison authorities beat arrested protesters. The Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that lawyers still have not been able to get information about the condition of people arrested as “leaders” of the protests.

“Iran should not use geopolitical turmoil to distract from holding perpetrators accountable,” Page added. “The families of those killed deserve a thorough and transparent investigation instead of authorities trying to threaten and coerce the families into silence.”

Lethal Force Against Protesters

According to the HRANA, protests took place in more than 104 cities. It appears that the majority of reported casualties and damage to public properties occurred between November 15 and November 19. Human Rights Watch investigated incidents of protesters’ deaths and security forces’ excessive use of force in three provinces. 

Khuzistan Province

Some of the worst violence took place in Khuzistan Province, where authorities responded to roadblocks set up by protesters in Bander-e-Mahshahr and nearby towns with heavy weapons and lethal force. The area is close to Iran’s major petrochemical facility and its Petrochemical Special Economic Zone (PETZONE). It is also home to Iran’s Arab minority.

Two residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch emphasized that the economic marginalization of people who live in small towns near one of the main sources of Iran’s national revenue has contributed to resentment against the authorities. Over the past few years, local authorities and journalists have reported problems in accessing clean drinking water in the area. Authorities have also reported waste management and health issues, including petrochemical waste that has contributed to water pollution in the area. In the past, various separatist groups have also been active in the area and have claimed responsibility for violent acts.

The two residents, who witnessed the events, said that protests in the town of Chamran started on November 15, when the authorities announced the abrupt fuel price increase. One resident said:

On Friday evening, when I tried to get gas at the station, protesters who had blocked the gas station close to the entrance of the town asked me not to use the gas station and to support them in their strike but they didn’t use any violence. When I tried to go to work on Saturday morning the roads were already closed.

By the morning of November 16, protesters had blocked Besat Square, which connects Chamran to Bander-e-Mahshahr and the special economic zone where the petrochemical facilities are located, preventing cars from leaving or entering the town. One of the local residents said

The protesters who had blocked the road did not have guns. They had used tires and had also bent two electricity poles to block the road. They weren’t allowing the cars to pass but my relatives were able to get back to the town through rural roads after negotiating with people who had closed it.”

Both local residents said that protesters covered their faces, but they appeared to be local youth. One of the residents said:

You could hardly find anyone above the age 30 among them. They were kids from the area. Local authorities tried to open the road for two days but had not succeeded. But I’m not aware of any clashes or shooting that took place during those two days. Some of the staff who had left early Saturday morning ended up staying at work for a few nights.”

On the morning of November 18, forces dressed in anti-riot special forces uniforms arrived with armed vehicles, apparently to open the closed road. The two local residents said the forces belonged to the IRGC.

One of the residents said that at around 9:30 a.m. local time on November 18, someone hiding in the marsh alongside the road between the entrance of Chamran and Besat Square shot at special forces deployed in the area. Security forces responded by opening fire with Dushka (DShK) machine guns at the protesters. Some protesters subsequently sought shelter in the marsh. The security forces then set fire to the entrance of the marsh area to make sure no one was hiding there, one of the residents said.

One of local residents said that at least 20 people were killed in the marsh, with 8 confirmed dead at the hospital. A security officer was among the wounded who was transferred to a nearby hospital and later died.

The Tasnim news agency, which is close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, quoted a witness who said that Reza Sayadi, a commander of the Iranian Counter Terrorism Police Forces (NOPO), was shot in the head during clashes around the marsh. An IRGC member, Akbar Moradi, was shot in the chest and abdominal area and died later, reported Fars News, an outlet close to the IRGC.

Later in the afternoon, authorities raided houses in the area and rounded up dozens more people, both residents said. Families do not know where their loved ones are detained, and the authorities have pressured the families not to speak to the media or hold public ceremonies.

The authorities have admitted that security forces opened fire on people but said that the protesters were armed. On December 3, Mohsen Biranvand, the governor of Mahshahr, told Fars News Agency that “When armed separatists came to the area, security forces stood in front of them with force to teach them a lesson.”

On December 12, Mahmoud Vaezi, the head of President Rouhani’s office, told reporters that “Armed individuals were shooting at shooting at the police and the people.” On the same day, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a parliament member from Mashhad, told students in a speech that “a high number of people have been killed in Mahshahr, but when they wanted to harm the major energy routes in the country, how would those responsible for security of those routes respond?”

Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images from November 19 and 21 that show debris and dark stains on the roads, especially on roundabouts, including Besat Square and intersections in the towns of Chamran and Bandar-e Mahshahr. An image from November 19 also shows a likely burn scar in the marsh south of Chamran, next to the main road, that is consistent with the reported burning of the marsh. The cause of the dark stains remains unclear.

Ahwaz Human Rights Organization has published the names of 16 people probably killed during the marsh shootings on November 18. HRANA confirmed the identity of at least three people killed in the marsh. The Ahwaz Human Rights Organization also reported that at least three security officers were injured in the clashes, and one was killed.

The Ahwaz Human Rights Group said that after the clashes broke out, three local people responded to security forces’ “indiscriminate firing” with shooting. The two local residents of Chamran that Human Rights Watch interviewed said that after security forces cleared area roads with lethal force in the afternoon, they heard security forces moving to the town of Taleghani (also known as Koureh-ha) town, 20 kilometers from Chamran. A video posted to social media shows a tank blocking the entrance of Taleghani.

The Ahwaz Human Rights Organization has published the names of three people allegedly killed during the shootings that took place in that area.

Satellite imagery recorded on the morning of November 16 shows at least eight distinct smoke plumes along streets in Bandar-e Mahshahr and Taleghani, consistent with the protesters burning tires or other materials.



Kermanshah Province

Security forces apparently shot Borhan Mansournia, a 28-year-old veterinarian, while he was fleeing attacks on protesters on the evening of November 16 in the town of Dolatabad in Kermanshah province. Mansournia died in Taleghani hospital in Kermanshah 34 hours later.

A source with direct knowledge of his death said that at around 5:30 p.m. on November 16, Mansournia told a family member in a phone call that protesters were climbing up the walls of police station number 25 in Dolatabad area. While people had assumed that the guards had left their posts, the police opened fire toward the first row of people climbing up the wall.

Mansournia was standing in the last row, the source said. When the police started shooting, he and other protesters fled in the opposite direction, but the special forces of Kermanshah had apparently gathered behind the protesters with anti-riot vehicles. When Mansournia realized that he was running toward them, he apparently turned around and began running back toward the police station when security forces shot him and two others, who reportedly died in the street. The bullet hit Mansournia above the waist close to his spine, leaving a hole three times as big as a pencil tip, and leaving two large holes in his abdomen, the source said.    

An ambulance took Mansournia to Farabi Hospital, the closest one, but hospital authorities refused to accept him, saying they did not have specialized equipment to treat such an injury, source said. After about 90 minutes, Mansournia was transferred to Taleghani Hospital, which specializes in traumatic injuries.

The hospital first refused to take him, saying it lacked capacity, but ultimately agreed, the source said. On the early morning of November 17, Mansournia underwent 4 to 5 hours of surgery, after which he had to stay in a bed in a hallway for 8 hours due to lack of space and was then was taken to the hospital general ward. He died there on November 18, the source said.

On the night of November 16, at least eight people died of gunshot wounds in Taleghani Hospital, the source said.

The authorities performed an autopsy on Mansournia and had weapons experts prepare a report on the bullet, but they have refused to provide the family with any information, the source said. The prosecutor in Kermanshah has only allowed the family to see part of the medical report, which said that Mansournia suffered from serious injuries to his kidneys, intestines, and liver. The authorities coerced the family to sign a pledge not to talk to the media and have been told not to hope for an investigation.

A person who observed the protests told Human Rights Watch that people had gathered close to Azadi Square in the city of Kermanshah to protest the fuel price increase, clapping and chanting slogans against the rising prices on the morning of November 16, when a fire department truck sprayed water toward them without warning. Within minutes, clashes broke out, the person said, with police special forces shooting tear gas and bullets, and people setting fires. “Within half an hour I thought I was in the middle of hell,” the witness said. “Later, with friends I went to other areas of town. The area was too tense to get out of the car, but we could see clashes in Dolatabad and Jafarabad towns.”

On November 18, 2019, in Javanrud, 90 kilometers from Kermanshah, security forces appear to have shot down at a square where protesters had gathered from the roof of the courthouse.

Two videos posted to Twitter, viewable here and here, both appear to show three members of the security forces on the roof firing single shots from assault rifles onto the square where people had gathered. It remains unclear whether anyone was wounded or killed.


Left: Satellite image of Javanrud city in Kermanshah Province, recorded on June 12, 2019, showing the location the courthouse. Right: Stills from two videos posted to Twitter on November 18, 2019 that show three gunmen firing down from the rooftop of the courthouse. 

Satellite image: June 12, 2019 © DigitalGlobe-Maxar Technologies 2020; Source: Google Earth

© Human Rights Watch

Fars Province

Human Rights Watch documented three deaths in Shiraz, in Fars province, and surrounding areas on November 16. Multiple videos circulated on social media show protests in Maliabad and Aledbad neighborhoods in Shiraz, as well as Sadra, a small town 40 kilometers north of Shiraz.

Dina Jafari told Human Rights Watch that her cousin, Bahman (Reza) Jafari, 28, left home in the Fargaz (Fatholmobin) neighborhood to go to work at about 8:30 a.m. on November 16 and was shot close to the Adel Abad (prison) intersection. At about 11:30 a.m., the family received a call from a person who did not identify themselves saying that Jafari had “an accident” and had been transferred to a local clinic, another source said.

When the family arrived at the clinic, they saw he had been shot. Medical staff told the family that they did not have the necessary equipment to treat Jafari, and that he needed to be transferred to Shiraz hospital immediately. Jafari died on the way to the hospital, two sources confirmed. His body was immediately transferred to the medical examiner’s office and the family was not allowed to see it, the source said.

Jafari was shot four times, including below his heart and under his arm, his cousin Dina said. She said that a doctor at the medical examiner’s office told his family that Jafari was shot at close range.

On November 25, the governor’s office in Shiraz asked Jafari’s father to sign a pledge not to speak with foreign media and to hold a “quiet” memorial service for his son. He agreed in order to get the papers required to remove his son’s body from the medical examiner’s office. The authorities did not allow the family to bury Jafari in the Darorahmeh cemetery in Shiraz, as the family wanted, but instead compelled them to bury him in a cemetery 40 kilometers from the city. The authorities also prevented the family from performing their traditional memorial rituals at their home. The family has filed a complaint. The authorities promised to follow up but have not gotten back to the family.

The governor’s office told the family that their son’s case is “open” and the authorities will determine if the family has to pay for the grave, one of sources said. The authorities have raised the possibility of calling Jafari a martyr and assisting the family financially, both of which the family rejected, insisting that they wanted to identify the person responsible for their son’s death. The authorities told the family that the investigation “will take a long time,” the same source said.

Human Rights Watch also spoke to two families whose loved ones were killed by gunshots during protests in the town of Sadra on November 16. The town was the scene of protests that day. The Friday prayer Imam of Sadra told Mashregh News on November 19 that during the protests “rioters” set his office, the mosque, and the adjacent registration office on fire.

Mohammad Dastankhah, a 15-year-old student who was wearing his school uniform, was shot dead with a bullet to his heart on Moulana Boulevard close to the mosque, his father said. When Dastankhah’s mother realized that his school had closed early, around 2:20 p.m., and he had not come home by 4:30 p.m., she went looking for him, Dastankhah’s father told Human Rights Watch.

The family decided to check the hospitals because people in the area told them that there had been shootings earlier. When Dastankhah’s mother arrived at Sadra hospital around 9:30 p.m., the staff informed her that her son’s body was there, and he had been dead on arrival.

Dastankhah’s father said:

Authorities finally allowed us to bury the body on November 20, and the medical report says a bullet in the heart is the cause of death. They have said they’re investigating what happened to Mohammad, but no one has since called or visited our family. The only thing we know is that our son was on his way back from the school. We don’t know how he was shot. We have filed a complaint to investigate his death and another complaint against school officials who didn’t properly communicate the school closure to parents and now claim Mohammad wasn’t in school on that day.”

Dastankhah’s sister told Radio Zamaneh on December 7 that there were seven other dead bodies in the hospital morgue of people who were shot during the protests.

A source with close knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that on November 16, Alireza Anjavi, a 27-year-old architecture graduate,  told his mother by phone that he was passing through the protests in the same area. When he did not come home that evening, his mother asked her brother-in-law who knew people in the police forces to help locate her son, the source added. He told her that according to his sources Anjavi had been detained.

A week later, the authorities from police station number 8 in Golkooh neighborhood in Shiraz called Anjavi’s mother  and asked her for information about his clothing, work, and ID, and ultimately told her to go to the medical examiner’s office in Shiraz. The authorities called her again in the evening to ask her why she had not visited the office yet. According to the source, Anjavi’s mother  provided her brother-in-law’s contact information to the authorities. Authorities showed him a photo of Anjavi and said he was dead. On November 25, the authorities called Anjavi’s family to retrieve his body and told them that they needed to bury him on the same day in one of the three cemeteries they had allocated for burial. There was a gunshot wound in Anjavi’s forehead, the source said.

A video circulated on IranWire, a news website, and verified by France 24, shows armed men shooting toward protesters from a base belonging to the Basij paramilitary forces in the area. France 24 identified the base as Shahid Tavana, which is in the vicinity where Dastankhah and Anjavi were shot dead.

A video circulated on IranWire, a news website, and verified by France 24, shows armed men shooting toward protesters from a base belonging to the Basij paramilitary forces in the area. France 24 identified the base as Shahid Tavana, which is in the vicinity where Dastankhah and Anjavi were shot dead.

Government and Lawmakers’ Statements

Several government officials have attempted to justify the security forces’ unlawful use of force by calling the protesters “rioters.” On November 18, Keyhan newspaper, which is close to the country’s security apparatus and Ayatollah Khamenei’s office, wrote that “there are reports that suggest judicial authorities are considering execution by hanging as the destiny for the rioters.”

President Hassan Rouhani, who promised during the 2016 re-election that people would enjoy greater human rights freedoms as part of his second term, also used the term “rioters.” On November 23, Rouhani said during a cabinet meeting that “a few of [the protesters] were rioters but they were organized, had plans and were armed and were directed by backward forces in the region, Zionists, and the US.” On December 4, Ayatollah Khamenei endorsed recommendations by the secretary of the National Security Council to consider ordinary citizens who died during the protests but did not participate in them “martyrs,” and to provide government support to their families. He also recommended treating those suspected of “villainy,” along with their families, with “Islamic mercy.”

On December 5, Etemad newspaper reported that President Rouhani had ordered the formation of a committee to “investigate the situation of people who were harmed during recent events and separate those who did not intend to riot from those creating terror and fear.”

Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, a parliament member, said that authorities arrested about 7,000 people during the protests. He also told media that an Intelligence Ministry representative told the parliamentary national security committee that most of those arrested were unemployed or held low-paying jobs and had lower levels of education. Prisoners detained in Rajai Shahr and Evin prisons have reported that prison authorities have beaten the arrested protesters.

On December 17, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a parliament member from Tehran, told Etemad that during a parliamentary briefing, a Karaj parliament member said that two people from his district were shot in the head and asked Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli why security forces did not attempt to just target “the lower part of the body.” He said Fazli did not deny that security forces shot protesters in the head, but instead responded that security forces “also targeted people in their feet as well.”

On January 2, Mosfata Kavakebian, a member of the parliamentary National Security Commission, said at a political party conference that “the commission was told that the total number of deaths [during the protests] is 170.”

Four sources told Human Rights Watch that authorities have banned families from conducting interviews with media and threatened them with retaliation. On December 23, authorities arrested several members of the Bakhtiari family after they called for a public mourning to commemorate the 40th day of their son’s death. On January 22, authorities ultimately released Bakhtiari’s father temporarily, pending trial. On January 22, Radio Zamaneh reported that authorities in Kermanshah were pressuring Mansournia’s family to accept their offer to designate Mansournia as a martyr and participate in a state media interview about it.

According to HRANA, people wounded during protests in Karaj, Islamshahr, Bahbahan, and Sirjan avoided seeking treatment in hospitals for fear of being arrested. At least two individuals injured during these protests died from their wounds, HRANA reported.

Legal Standards

Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party.

Under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, law enforcement officers may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. When using force, law enforcement officers should minimize damage and injury and respect and preserve human life. The deliberate use of lethal force is permissible only when it is strictly necessary to protect life.

The authorities are obliged to inform all families of the location of their detained relatives and ensure that detainees are informed promptly of any charges against them and have prompt access to legal counsel and family members. Enforced disappearances occur when the authorities detain someone and deny the detention or fail to provide information on their circumstances or whereabouts.

Under article 4 of Iran’s law on the use of weapons by officers of the armed forces, in urgent cases law enforcement officers may use their weapons upon the order of the commander of the operations to restore order and control illegal demonstrations, and to quell riots, revolts, and commotions that cannot be controlled without the use of weapons under the following conditions:

  • Other equipment has been used pursuant to regulations to no effect
  • Prior to using weapons, a warning and ultimatum has been given to the rioters and agitators regarding the use of weapons

Iran’s National Security Council ordered the shutdown of access to the global internet when protests broke out across the country. The authorities maintained a near-total internet shutdown for five days, after which they started connecting home internet in areas that did not experience widespread protests. They restored access to internet on mobile phones after 10 days.

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

UN Chief Should Lead by Example on Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 24, 2020

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, February 10, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has long needed to overhaul his approach to human rights. Hopefully his call to action announced in Geneva today is the start of something new.

Guterres’ low-key approach to human rights may have been calculated to avoid conflicts with big powers like the United States, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. But human rights groups and former senior UN officials have criticized it for being ineffectual.

The secretary-general’s new initiative contains some excellent ideas. The link he makes between human rights and the impacts of climate change is crucial, and those who fight to protect the environment are increasingly at risk.  Forest defenders in Brazil and elsewhere are threatened, attacked, and killed by those who seek to benefit from the forests’ destruction. And Guterres is right to highlight the risks posed by new technologies, whether it involves government surveillance, artificial intelligence, or fully autonomous weapons, so-called “killer robots.”

The test for any initiative is the implementation. No one is suggesting the secretary-general do everything alone. But he needs to lead by example.

That means publicly calling out rights abusers and advocating for victims. Human rights violations aren’t like natural disasters. They are frequently planned and executed by government officials or their agents – whether it’s the mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs in China, Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, indiscriminate Russian-Syrian bombing of civilians in Idlib, or the forced separation of children from their parents at the US border.

It also means using the authority of the secretary-general’s office to launch investigations and fact-finding missions when appropriate. That includes launching an inquiry into China’s massive rights violations in Xinjiang, and pressing for an international accountability mechanism on Sri Lanka. The secretary-general should order a follow-up inquiry into the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to help determine whether Saudi Arabia’s top leadership ordered his slaying. He should also publicly release the findings of his inquiry into attacks on hospitals and other protected facilities in Syria, likely carried out by the Russian-Syrian alliance.

None of this is to say Guterres should abandon “private diplomacy” with governments. But he should re-emphasize public diplomacy on human rights at the UN. Human rights advocacy shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and her office. The secretary-general should be the UN’s leading voice on human rights, not only working in the background. 

Secretary-General Guterres has issued a call to action on human rights. Now it’s up to him to act.

Algeria: One Year On, Activists Languish in Jail

Human Rights Watch - Monday, February 24, 2020


Algerians demonstrate to protest against the government, in Algiers Friday, Jan.3, 2020.

© AP Photo/Fateh Guidoum

(Beirut) – Dozens of protesters and activists remain in jail a year after pro-democracy protests began in Algeria, Human Rights Watch said today. Many are facing trial hearings in February and March 2020. Following presidential elections in December 2019, the authorities released many jailed activists but prominent leaders of the movement who had been imprisoned since September or October remain behind bars.

According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, created on August 26 by activists and lawyers who monitor the trials, at least 173 protesters are currently on trial on charges stemming from their peaceful participation in protests or for their activism.  On February 16, police in Algiers prohibited groups active in the Hirak movement from holding a news conference in a hotel in the capital.

“One year after the uprising, Algerians are still calling for democratic change and respect for their fundamental rights,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Algerian authorities are still resorting to their old repressive tactics, deepening the rift between rulers and people that is at the very heart of the uprising.”

On February 22, 2019 millions of Algerians took to the streets in Algiers to demand that then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down. Soon, the protest movement, known as the Hirak in Arabic, spread across the country. After his resignation in April, the movement continued to hold large demonstrations in several cities calling for more inclusive governance and a boycott of any presidential election not preceded by inclusive negotiations over the form it would take. The authorities held the presidential election in December 2019, which Abdelmadjid Tebboune won, without meeting the protesters’ demands.

After attempting to suppress the protests at the outset, the authorities shifted policy and largely tolerated them for some months. In June, the authorities started more aggressively arresting protesters and in September and October arrested more than 13 protest leaders. The ban on demonstrations in the capital imposed in 1991 remains in place, and the police have frequently resorted to arbitrary arrests to disperse gatherings. On February 14, security forces dispersed crowds in the Mohamed Belouizdad neighborhood in Algiers and arrested dozens of people.

Following his election, President Tebboune, who served as prime minister under Bouteflika, declared that he is open to a dialogue with the Hirak movement and announced that the government would “consolidate democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.”

Courts have released dozens of activists since January, some provisionally, others after their acquittal or because they had served their sentences. Despite the new president’s promises, though, courts continue to prosecute protesters for participation in peaceful protest, and refused requests for provisional release of prominent activists such as Abdelwahab Fersaoui, president of the Youth Action Rally, Karim Tabbou, a political leader, and Fodil Boumala, a journalist and activist, all of whom remain behind bars on charges arising from peaceful protest.

The most common charges the jailed protesters are facing are “participation in an illegal gathering,” under article 97 of the penal code, and “compromising the integrity of the national territory” under article 79.

Since the presidential elections, the authorities have responded unevenly to demonstrations. They tolerated large demonstrations in the capital and major cities, but police at times have tried to disperse smaller gatherings. On February 14, security forces surrounded a group of approximately 30 demonstrators in the Algiers neighborhood of Mohamed Belouizdad to march to the city center for the weekly Friday demonstration. They forced dozens into police vans and dispersed the crowd. On February 17, Algiers police dispersed hundreds of demonstrators, mostly students participating in the weekly students’ march.

In a particularly disturbing development, on February 10, the Justice Ministry ordered the apparently punitive transfer of a prosecutor, Mohamed Sid Ahmed Belhadi, to El Oued, 600 kilometers south of Algiers, after Belhadi had urged an Algiers court to acquit 16 protesters, saying they had been prosecuted solely for exercising their right to freedom of assembly. The National Union of Algerian Magistrates labelled the transfer as “political punishment and retaliation” for the prosecutor’s remarks.

The transfer appears to violate the principle of judicial independence enshrined in international and regional conventions, such as the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, adopted by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Those principles allow suspending or transferring judges only in exceptional circumstances and according to narrowly crafted objective criteria, or under a system of regular rotation or promotion, and prohibit “punitive transfers of judges.”

“Instead of repressing protests, imprisoning protest leaders, and punishing critics of the repression, the Algerian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release the peaceful activists and respect the rights to free speech and assembly of all Algerians,” Goldstein said.

Lengthy Detention of Prominent Activists for Peaceful Protest

Prominent activists detained in September and October  and still in pretrial detention include Abdelwahab Fersaoui, president of the Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ), arrested on October 10 in Algiers and charged with “compromising the integrity of the national territory,” and “hampering the transport of military material.” His lawyer has filed numerous requests for his provisional release in vain. His trial has not yet been scheduled.

Karim Tabbou, national coordinator of the unrecognized Democratic and Socialist Union party (Union démocratique et sociale, UDS) and former general secretary of the prominent opposition Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) party, was arrested on September 26 at his home in Douera, in Algiers province, and remains behind bars. The prosecutor of the Sidi M’hamed Court in Algiers ordered his detention on charges of “recruiting mercenaries on behalf of foreign powers in Algeria” and distributing flyers or other publications that could harm the national interest, under articles 76 and 96 of the penal code, respectively. On January 20, the investigative judge renewed Tabbou’s pretrial detention for four months. His trial date has not yet been set.

Police arrested Fodil Boumala, a journalist and political activist, on September 18 at his home in Algiers. A prosecutor of the First Instance Court of Dar El Beida in Algiers province charged him with “compromising the integrity of the national territory” and “distribution of documents harmful to the national interest.” His lawyer, Noureddine Ahmine, told Human Rights Watch that the investigative judge has referred Boumala’s case to the criminal chamber of the same court. Boumala’s trial, initially scheduled for February 9, was postponed to February 23.

Ongoing Trials of Activists

Several activists released provisionally in January and February still face trials or appeal rulings for their peaceful participation in protests. Kaddour Chouicha, president of the Oran section of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, was sentenced by the First Instance Tribunal in Oran in December to one year in prison on charges of “participation in a gathering of an unarmed nature” and “distributing documents harmful to the national interest.”  He was released on January 7 pending a ruling his appeal, expected on March 3.

Nine members of the Youth Action Rally  who were provisionally released in 2019 and 2020 face trial in February and March. Fouad Ouicher, interim secretary general, and Saida Deffeur, a member of the association’s branch in Tizi Ouzou, were arrested on November 22 during a Friday protest in Algiers and prosecuted under the charges of “compromising the integrity of the national territory” and “distributing publications harmful to the national interest.” Their trial is scheduled for March 19. 

Ahcene Kadi and Karim Boutata, arrested on September 26 and provisionally released on January 2, had their trial on February 13 at the Sidi M’hamed Court in Algiers. The prosecutor requested a two-year sentence for “calling for an illegal gathering.” The verdict is expected on March 12. Five other RAJ members, including its founder, Hakim Addad, who were arrested on October 4 and spent four months in prison before being provisionally released on January 2, will have a court hearing on February 27. All are charged with calling for an illegal gathering under article 97 of the penal code and harming the integrity of the national territory under article 76.

The novelist Anouar Rahmani who was interrogated by the Tipaza police in January over Facebook posts mocking President  Tebboune and high military commanders, appeared before the First Instance Court of Cherchel on February 17 charged with “harming state institutions” under article 146 of the penal code. The court postponed his trial to March 9.

Prohibition of a Hirak News Conference

On February 16, police in Algiers prevented a group of civil society figures from holding a news conference to announce a new initiative by several Hirak activists. Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH) and one of the organizers of the conference, told Human Rights Watch that they had booked a conference room in the Hotel El Biar in Algiers. Shortly before the news conference, he said, the hotel manager told them that the police had ordered him to cancel the event on the ground that the organizers had not requested authorization. The organizers held their news conference instead on the premises of the association SOS Disparus (SOS Disappeared) in downtown Algiers.

Under the Law Governing Public Meetings and Demonstrations, enacted in 1989 and amended in 1991, a group planning a public gathering must notify the governor three days in advance, who immediately provides a receipt. In practice the authorities often withhold delivering such a receipt and use the absence of a receipt as proof that the organizers had failed to comply with the law.  

New Arrests and Violence Against Protesters

Khaled Drarni, correspondent for French TV5 Monde, told Human Rights Watch that on February 14, he joined protesters on the main avenue in the Mohamed Belouizdad neighborhood in Algiers. At around 11 a.m., he said, they started marching toward downtown to join the weekly Friday march. Plain-clothes and uniformed police surrounded the crowd and attempted to disperse the protesters by pushing them to side streets, isolating groups of protesters, and arresting dozens, forcing them into police vans. He said he later received information that they were released the same day.

Zouheir Aberkane, a journalist from the Algerian daily Reporters, told Human Rights Watch that he covered the march of students in downtown Algiers on December 17. Groups of students in Algiers have organized weekly marches each Tuesday to protest the political system and call for governance reforms. He said the police did not intervene in the march, which remained peaceful, for an hour, but around noon they arrested a demonstrator who brandished the Amazigh flag near La Grande Poste. He said police then dispersed the crowds by isolating groups of protesters and pushing them away from the square.

Haj Ghermoul, a member of the LADDH in Mascara, is known for being the first opponent of a fifth term for Bouteflika to be detained by the authorities, on January 27, 2019. He was released from prison on July 20 after completing a six-month term for “offending public institutions.” On February 7, 2020, during a protest in Mascara, police arrested him again. He told Human Rights Watch that at 2 p.m. he joined protesters at the Amir Abdel Kader square, where he noticed a heavy police presence.

I shouted “Dawla Madaniya Machi Askariya” (“a civil state, not a military one”). At least seven police surrounded me. One policeman in uniform cursed me, cursed my mother and spat on me. Then he hit me in the head with his walkie-talkie. After that, they put me and other protesters - between 15 and 17 of us -- in the police van and took us to the police station.

He said he was released in the evening after refusing to sign the police report. He said he was bleeding from the injury in his head and went to the hospital, where he got five stitches.

Transfer of Prosecutor, Apparently for Defending Rights

On February 11, the Justice Ministry ordered the transfer of Mohamed Sid Ahmed Belhadi, prosecutor before the Sidi Mhamed court in Algiers, to a court in El Oued, hundreds of kilometers from Algiers. Two days earlier, Belhadi had recommended the acquittal of 16 Hirak members arrested on January 17 during peaceful protests.

Djamel Eddine Oulmane, one of the protesters on trial that day at the Sidi M’hamed Court, told Human Rights Watch that he was arrested at the end of the Friday demonstration on January 17. While he was standing in front of the downtown campus of the university in Algiers, four policemen in civilian clothes arrested him and forced him into a police van. They arrested others and took them to rue Cavaignac police station, where they spent two days in custody. On January 19, a prosecutor charged them with “illegal gathering” under article 76 of the penal code and referred them for trial the same day. The judge decided to grant them provisional release pending their trial, scheduled for February 9.

He said that he was surprised on February 9 to hear Belhadi call for their acquittal:

The judge called each one of us to the bench, and we had two minutes each to defend ourselves. Then she called the prosecutor Belhadi, a different one from the prosecutor who had charged us initially. I was very surprised to hear his speech, he was defending us as if he was our lawyer, and not like the prosecutors of the other trials I attended, who were espousing the authorities’ repressive stance.

He told the judge: “these defenders did nothing but exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful protest,” and he asked the judge to pronounce our acquittal. Belhadi also said that he refuses instructions and reports coming from above and that Algerians demand a new Algeria where the judiciary is totally independent. When he pronounced these words, the room, which was full, cheered in support.

The  Justice Ministry summoned Belhadi to a hearing on February 10 at the general inspectorate service, and ordered his transfer two days later to the first instance tribunal of El Oued, a town 600 kilometers south of Algiers, according to the February 12  news release from the National Union of Algerian Magistrates. The union denounced the transfer as “political punishment and retaliation” for the prosecutor’s pleading on February 9. The union said the transfer was based on a procedure under article 26 of the Law on the Statute of Judges, which grants the Justice Ministry the authority to transfer magistrates for “the necessity of service.”

If Algerian judicial authorities transferred Belhadi in reprisal for the position he took in this case, it would violate the principle of security of tenure, a cornerstone of judicial independence.  That principle is enshrined in several international and regional standards, such as the Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa, adopted by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

Those principles allow suspending or transferring judges only in exceptional circumstances and according to narrowly crafted objective criteria. The standards prohibit “punitive transfers of judges” and say that, except under a system of regular rotation or promotion, judges shall not be transferred from one jurisdiction or function to another without their consent. The guidelines on the role of prosecutors, adopted by the UN, requires governments to  “ensure that prosecutors are able to perform their functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, improper interference or unjustified exposure to civil, penal or other liability.”

Events and Announcements: 23 February 2020

Opinio Juris - Sunday, February 23, 2020
Events Call for Proposals – BIICL Conference on Teaching International Law: The British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL) is delighted to be convening a conference entitled ‘Teaching International Law’. The conference will take place at BIICL on 7-8 September 2020. The Organising Committee invites all those engaging with the teaching of international law from around the world to share...

The ICC Takes Time Limits Seriously! (If You’re Palestinian)

Opinio Juris - Saturday, February 22, 2020
Last Thursday, Pre-Trial Chamber I issued its decision concerning which states, individuals ,and organizations will be permitted to submit observations on the OTP’s request for a jurisdictional ruling in the Palestine situation. The PTC granted leave to 43 of the 45 potential amicus curiae. It denied one request (para. 52) because the individual who submitted it did so on behalf...

Tajikistan: Journalist Held on Baseless Charges

Human Rights Watch - Friday, February 21, 2020


Daler Sharipov. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrH1GEHu5dE. Accessed by Human Rights Watch on February 20, 2020.

© Youtube

(Berlin) – Tajik authorities have detained a prominent independent journalist, apparently for his writing, Human Rights Watch said today. Daler Sharipov, who has been detained since January 28, 2020 for “inciting religious discord,” faces up to five years in prison if convicted. He has often criticized the government and reported on sensitive topics.

Tajik authorities should take immediate steps to free Sharipov and in the meantime ensure that he is not mistreated in custody.

“Daler Sharipov is among a very small number of independent journalists in Tajikistan who continue to express their views freely,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tajik authorities should immediately drop these fabricated charges and release him.”

Human Rights Watch estimates that since mid-2015, as part of a major human rights crackdown, the Tajikistan government has imprisoned more than 150 people on politically motivated charges. Many received lengthy prison terms, including life in prison, merely for peacefully exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression.

After the State Committee for National Security detained Sharipov, law enforcement officials went to his house in Vahdat, 10 kilometers from Dushanbe, and confiscated some books from his library.

On January 30, 2020, the Ismoili Somoni District Court in Dushanbe opened a criminal case against Sharipov on charges of incitement of religious discord, under art. 189 of the Tajik Criminal Code, and placed him in pretrial detention. His lawyers managed to see Sharipov on the same day. They also had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, undermining their ability to provide adequate legal representation. On January 31, the Dushanbe City Court rejected the lawyers’ request to release Sharipov during the investigation.

Sharipov has in recent years published articles in various media outlets, including in the independent newspaper Ozodagon. His articles covered such topics as human rights violations and religious freedom. In 2019, Ozodagon closed after repeated harassment by the authorities.

The General Prosecutor’s Office on February 1, 2020 released a statement about Sharipov, saying that “in the period 2013-2019 he published more than 200 articles and notes of extremist content aimed at inciting religious hatred” and in June 2019, he illegally produced 100 copies of a dissertation in an underground printing house. The prosecutor’s office said that a religious expert allegedly found that the dissertation “was developed in the context of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.”

The independent news agency Asia-Plus reported that Sharipov’s dissertation quotes the Quran and explains that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, saying that Islam itself is against terrorism, extremism, and radicalism. He also urges journalists, scientists, and intellectuals not to use the phrases “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamic radicalism” and urges the authorities to protect the rights of believers.

Since 2006, the Tajikistan government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood movement and designated it an extremist and terrorist organization. Since the beginning of 2020, the authorities have detained more than 100 alleged members of the movement, including two foreigners, a municipal official, and more than 20 university professors. At the beginning of February, Fergana.news reported that 30 Brotherhood suspects had been released after 10 to 20 days in custody.

In 2012, Sharipov founded the movement “Kadam da kadam” (Step by Step) to unify youth and oppose localism and corruption. Since then, the State Committee for National Security, Tajikistan’s principal intelligence agency, has summoned him multiple times. In November 2012, a group of unidentified men beat him. He spent three days in the hospital. No one was charged for the attack.

There are serious concerns that Sharipov might be at risk of torture in pretrial detention. Human Rights Watch has in recent years documented numerous cases of torture and other ill-treatment in Tajik detention centers and prisons, including the beatings of Buzurgmehr Yorov, a human rights lawyer, and Mahmadali Hayit, a political activist and deputy head of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Zayd Saidov, a political opposition figure, was denied needed medical care.

On February 3, 2020, eight Tajik nongovernmental organizations and 37 journalists, lawyers, and bloggers signed a petition urging the Tajik authorities to place Sharipov under noncustodial restraint, and to ensure that the investigation met international free expression standards. Harlem Desir, the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, also wrote to Tajik authorities calling for Sharipov’s release.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee noted in its concluding observations about Tajikistan in August 2019 the “harassment of independent journalists and media workers for critically reporting on State policies and on other matters of public interest, including through […] prosecutions on allegedly trumped-up charges.” The committee recommended that Tajikistan “ensure the effective protection of independent journalists and media workers against any form of intimidation and refrain from using civil and criminal provisions, including the provisions on extremism, as well as other regulations, as a tool to suppress critical reporting on matters of public interest.”

In December 2017, Tajik authorities detained another respected independent journalist, Khayrullo Mirsaidov, and sentenced him in July 2018 to 12 years in prison on bogus charges of “embezzlement,” “forgery,” and “providing false testimony.” There was an international outcry about Mirsaidov’s case. In August 2018, the Sughd Regional Court upheld his conviction but released him, ordering him to pay a fine and do community service.

“Tajikistan’s broad definition of ‘extremism’ allows authorities to use this vague offense to silence critical voices in the country,” Williamson said. “The government should stop this practice and ensure that independent journalists are able to continue their work without risk of reprisal.”

Holding Egypt Accountable for the Death of Moustafa Kassem Under International Law

Opinio Juris - Friday, February 21, 2020
[Todd Carney is a student at Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He has also worked in digital media in New York City and Washington D.C.] Last month, a dual American and Egyptian citizen named Moustafa Kassem, who had been arrested in Egypt, died in an Egyptian prison. Kassem’s death occurred despite...

Australia: Don’t Cozy Up to Myanmar’s Army

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 20, 2020

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, left, talks with Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, right, during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry Office in Naypyitaw, Myanmar,  December 13, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

(Sydney) – Australia should avoid dealings with Myanmar that play down its military’s egregious rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne. Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to immediately end military ties with Myanmar.

A meeting on January 29, 2020 between Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar, Andrea Faulkner, and Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, overlooked the general’s responsibility for grave crimes committed against ethnic Rohingya Muslims since 2017. Min Aung Hlaing used the meeting to bolster his public image and to present a picture of normal relations between the Australian and Myanmar militaries that undercuts efforts by other governments to isolate a commander implicated in serious abuses. Related Content

“Australia should be sanctioning Min Aung Hlaing, not taking photos and exchanging gifts with someone who should be investigated for mass atrocities,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “In its meetings with Myanmar officials, Australia should never give the impression that it’s business-as-usual with no repercussions for Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya.”

In 2018, the United Nations-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar recommended that Myanmar’s top military generals should be investigated for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The UN report named six high-ranking military commanders, including Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Australia has already placed sanctions on five officials named in the UN fact-finding report, but not Min Aung Hlaing. The United States government has imposed sanctions on him. Given the voluminous evidence available of grave abuses by forces under his command, Australia and other countries should do the same.

Australia’s training for Myanmar’s military is limited to cooperation in non-combat areas, providing training in relation to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, English-language training, and peacekeeping by Myanmar’s security forces.

Because of the Myanmar military’s mass atrocities against the Rohingya, it would be inappropriate for any Myanmar soldiers to be deployed on UN peacekeeping missions. In 2019, the UN pulled the last Myanmar soldiers from the UN mission in South Sudan.

Instead of strengthening ties with Myanmar’s military, the Australian government should focus on pressuring the government and military to immediately carry out the provisional measures ordered by the International Court of Justice in January, hold those responsible for abuses to account, and create the conditions for the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

“If the UN isn’t accepting Myanmar soldiers as peacekeepers due to human rights concerns, Australia shouldn’t be training them to be peacekeepers,” Pearson said. “Instead of cozying up to Myanmar’s leaders, Australia should be suspending assistance to Myanmar’s military until there is genuine progress on rights protection and accountability.”


More Evidence of China’s Horrific Abuses in Xinjiang

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 20, 2020

Government social media post in April 2017 shows detainees in a political education camp in Lop County, Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang. 

© Xinjiang Bureau of Justice WeChat Account

“His wife wore veils.” “He has one more child than allowed by the family planning policy.” “He prayed after each meal.”

These are some of the reasons people in Karakax County in Xinjiang, northwestern China, are being detained in “political education” camps. Nothing done was illegal, but in Chinese authorities’ eyes, living the life of a Turkic Muslim is punishable. Their religious, linguistic, and cultural differences are deemed evidence of disloyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

On February 18, international media, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, and academic researcher Adrian Zenz published the “Karakax list,” a spreadsheet leaked by an unnamed Uyghur source that provides disturbing details on 331 people and their families caught in Xinjiang’s dragnet.

Much of the information is chillingly familiar. In 2018, Human Rights Watch described the Chinese government’s mass arbitrary detention, torture, forced political indoctrination, and mass surveillance of Xinjiang’s Muslims. We also documented the authorities’ mass involuntary collection of biometrics from DNA to voice samples, and their use of that data to track residents in the region.

But Chinese authorities continue to enjoy impunity for these systematic rights violations. Muslim-majority countries – including democracies like Malaysia and Indonesia – have largely remained silent. While some governments have pressed China to allow independent observers into the region, China has brushed these off; only the United States has imposed some sanctions on police and companies in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government’s recent claims to have released all of the one million arbitrarily detained Turkic Muslims ring hollow as evidence suggests that some are now subjected to forced labor instead. The mass surveillance systems also tightly control the movement of Xinjiang’s purportedly “free” residents. Some camp detainees have also disappeared into Xinjiang’s vast prison system. Many relatives of the detained living abroad have told us they still have no contact with family members in Xinjiang.

While Xinjiang’s abuses may have shifted shape, they have not disappeared. Concerned governments should take action at the United Nations Human Rights Council next week by supporting the call of the UN high commissioner for human rights on China to allow independent monitoring and reporting of rights violations in Xinjiang. Countries should on their own impose targeted sanctions on the senior officials responsible for abuses, such as Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.

Beijing needs to know that its repression in Xinjiang will no longer escape scrutiny.

Rwanda: Ensure Justice Over Kizito Mihigo Death

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 20, 2020

Kizito Mihigo.

© Kizito Mihigo/Facebook

The government of Rwanda should ensure a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into the death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo, a well-known singer and activist. Rwanda’s international partners should call for accountability for Mihigo’s death before and during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled to take place in Kigali in June 2020. His death adds to the list of disappearances, murders, and suspicious deaths of perceived critics and opponents of the Rwandan government, and the authorities’ failure to deliver justice in these cases sends a deliberately chilling message.

The Rwanda National Police announced on February 17, 2020 that Mihigo had been found dead at 5 a.m. in his cell at the Remera Police Station in Kigali, the capital, in an alleged suicide. He had recently told Human Rights Watch that he was being threatened to provide false testimony against political opponents and wanted to flee the country because he feared for his safety. In 2014, Mihigo was held incommunicado for nine days, during which he was beaten and forced to confess to crimes with which he was later charged in court.

“Whatever the cause of Kizito Mihigo’s death, Rwandan police were responsible for his life and safety in detention,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “When it comes to rule of law and respect for human rights, Rwanda’s partners and donors should not be silent. They should call for a credible investigation and an unequivocal commitment to deliver justice for this critical case.”

The Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) said Mihigo was handed over by “security organs” on February 13, 2020, near the border with Burundi in Nyaruguru District, and charged with attempting to illegally cross the border, joining “terrorist groups,” and corruption.

The Rwanda National Police did not provide further information in its February 17 statement to support its conclusion that Mihigo had committed suicide. Marie Michelle Umuhoza, the spokesperson for the investigation bureau, later told local media that Mihigo had used bedsheets to “strangle himself” and that his body has been taken to Kacyiru Hospital for a post-mortem examination.

An independent autopsy report should be commissioned, and judicial authorities should ensure that any investigation establishes Mihigo’s treatment in detention and examines the possibility that he could have been ill-treated or killed in custody, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international human rights law, Rwandan authorities have an obligation to conduct a thorough and independent investigation and to account for any death in custody. The investigation should identify anyone responsible if his death was due to negligence or unlawful action and should lead to their prosecution. Failure to investigate and prosecute anyone responsible would violate Rwanda’s obligations to protect people from arbitrary deprivation of life and to provide an effective remedy.

On April 6, 2014, Mihigo was arrested and detained in an unknown location until April 14, when he was presented to the media during a press conference. He was taken before a prosecutor the next day.

Before and during his incommunicado detention, senior government officials repeatedly questioned him about a song he had released the month before in which he prayed for victims of the country’s 1994 genocide as well as for victims of other violence. They also questioned him about his alleged links with the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an exiled opposition party with recently reported ties to armed groups.

Mihigo told Human Rights Watch that police officers beat him and forced him to confess to the offenses with which he was later charged in court. Mihigo and his co-accused – Cassien Ntamuhanga, a journalist, Agnès Niyibizi, and Jean-Paul Dukuzumuremyi, a demobilized soldier – were charged with, among other things, offenses against the state and complicity in terrorist acts for allegedly collaborating with groups considered by the government to be enemies of Rwanda. In November 2014, he confessed to all the charges, although he later told Human Rights Watch he did so under duress.

In February 2015, the High Court in Kigali sentenced Mihigo to 10 years in prison for alleged formation of a criminal gang, conspiracy to murder, and conspiracy against the established government or the president. Ntamuhanga was sentenced to 25 years in prison and Dukuzumuremyi to 30 years. Niyibizi, accused of carrying money to assist in the alleged offenses, was acquitted. Ntamuhanga reportedly escaped Nyanza prison on October 31, 2017, alongside two other convicts.

Mihigo was among the 2,000 prisoners released in September 2018 after a presidential pardon, which also included high-profile political opposition figure Victoire Ingabire. Since then, at least four opposition members and one journalist have either died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Rwanda. Although the investigation bureau said they opened investigations into these cases, Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine that any of the findings were made public or if anyone was prosecuted.

Mihigo is not the first detainee to die in police custody in Rwanda. In April 2018, 10 days after he was arrested, police said Donat Mutunzi, a lawyer, hanged himself in his cell at Ndera police station. According to reports, the autopsy revealed “severe wounds” on his face and temples. In February 2015, Emmanuel Gasakure, a cardiologist and former doctor to President Paul Kagame, was reportedly shot dead by police while in custody at Remera Police Station. A police spokesperson alleged in a statement to the media that Gasakure was attempting to disarm a guard when he was shot.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, prosecutions, killings, torture, enforced disappearances, threats, harassment, and intimidation against government opponents and critics in Rwanda. In addition to the repression of critical voices inside Rwanda, dissidents and real or perceived critics outside the country – in neighboring Uganda and Kenya, as well as farther afield in South Africa and Europe – have been attacked and threatened.

Rwanda is set to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will include discussions on governance and rule of law. The meeting is expected to bring together leaders of 53 Commonwealth countries in Kigali in June. The Commonwealth should publicly raise concerns about grave human rights violations in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch said.

“Ahead of the Commonwealth meeting, its members should demand accountability for Mihigo’s death,” Mudge said. “They should speak out strongly and in public, including in Kigali, if Rwanda continues to undercut the Commonwealth’s values.”

Sudan: Progress on Rights, Justice, Key to Transition

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 20, 2020

(Nairobi) – Sudan’s transitional government should accelerate legal and institutional reform and visible progress on domestic justice initiatives, Human Rights Watch said today, following its first official visit to the country in over 14 years. International donors should expedite assistance to support the transitional government’s reform agenda.

“Sudan’s leaders confirmed to us in our meetings that they are committed to ensuring genuine reforms and bringing to justice those responsible for the most serious violations,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Now is the time to implement these commitments and seize this extraordinary moment of opportunity to secure the democratic, rights-respecting reforms that so many Sudanese took to the streets at great risk to themselves to achieve.” Expand

Human Rights Watch delegation met with Sudan’s chair of the Sovereign Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Khartoum, February 11, 2020.

© HRW/Jehanne

On February 12, 2020, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chair of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok met with Roth and Mausi Segun, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director, and reaffirmed their commitment to hold rights abusers to account. They said that this included cooperating with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has warrants for the arrest of former president Omar al-Bashir and four other suspects for atrocities in Darfur.

Al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019 after months of protests in Sudan, which government security forces dispersed violently, killing hundreds of people after protests began in December 2018. A transitional military council took power until a transitional government was formed in August, following a power-sharing agreement between military and civilian groups. The transitional government is headed by an 11-member Sovereign Council for a period of 3 years, to be followed by elections.

At the ICC, al-Bashir faces five counts of crimes against humanity, two counts of war crimes, and three counts of genocide. These relate to allegations of murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, intentional attacks on the civilian population, pillage, and rape between 2003 and 2008 in Darfur. The transitional government should invite the ICC to Sudan to discuss the terms of engagement and moving forward with prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch acknowledged that transitional authorities have made important progress on rights reforms and accountability. That has included abolishing the criminal charge of apostacy and repressive morality laws, known as the public order regime, as well as criminalizing female genital mutilation and approving draft laws establishing commissions to work on human rights and transitional justice reforms. Human Rights Watch also heard concerns from nongovernmental organizations that there had not been adequate consultation with these groups on the new laws. Expand

Human Rights Watch delegation met with Sudan’s Minister of Justice, Nasredeen Abdelbari, Khartoum, February 10, 2020

© HRW/Jehanne

The authorities should carry out comprehensive justice system reforms to ensure that people’s rights will be protected at every stage of the justice process, ensure adequate public participation, and address gender discrimination by reviewing legal guardianship, marriage, and inheritance provisions, among others, Human Rights Watch said. Women’s rights groups also told Human Rights Watch that they have not been adequately or fairly represented in the transitional institutions and have been calling for equal representation in appointments for state governors and membership on the legislative council.

Human Rights Watch stressed the need for the government to ensure that reform efforts do not trample on human rights, particularly in efforts to “dismantle” the former government. In November 2019, the transitional government passed a law to dissolve the former ruling party, confiscate its assets, and bar its members from political activities for 10 years. More than 20 former ruling party leaders have been detained and are reportedly held at Kober prison. The authorities should ensure that those arrested are properly charged, have access to lawyers, and are prosecuted in timely, open, and fair trials.

The authorities should also make known the whereabouts of Musa Hilal, the Darfuri tribal leader and former government adviser whose role overseeing human rights abuses in Darfur is well-documented. Hilal has been detained since November 2017 and is standing trial in the military headquarters with other members of the Revolutionary Awakening Council, a political party he formed on January 2014, his family members reported.

Many reforms envisioned in the transitional government’s constitutional charter have yet to be carried out. The legislative council, which was to be formed within three months of the transitional government’s swearing-in, has not yet been formed, pending a peace agreement between the government and opposition armed groups. Most of the rights-focused commissions have also not been formed, delaying organized reform efforts. Such delays impede the government’s ability to debate key laws and policies that are critical for justice and accountability, Human Rights Watch said.

Institutional reforms, particularly relating to security, are urgently needed. Although the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) was renamed the General Intelligence Service (GIS) and no longer detains people, it is not clear that institutional reforms have been made within the organization, which has a record of rights abuses. The authorities have also not reformed any of the state’s other sprawling security institutions. Reforming these agencies is key to providing justice for past crimes and preventing abuses in Sudan in the future, Human Rights Watch said.

The committee set up to investigate the murderous June 3 crackdown by government forces on protesters outside the army headquarters has far from completed its work and, lacking critical resources, has not met international standards for investigations or protecting witnesses. Victims’ families and nongovernmental groups said they were frustrated at its slow pace and inaccessibility, especially for victims of gender-based violence. Government officials should ensure that this committee has the mandate, political backing, and necessary protection to investigate those responsible higher up the chain of command for planning and ordering the dispersal operation, particularly as a member of the Sovereign Council may be implicated.

The attorney-general’s office has set up various new committees to investigate past crimes, including the killings of protesters between December 2018 and al-Bashir’s ousting on April 11, abuses by the former government since 1989, corruption-related crimes, and crimes in Darfur. Investigations are ongoing, but legal immunities – which still exist under a patchwork of laws – remain an obstacle to prosecution, officials told Human Rights Watch.

In December, the authorities announced convictions and death sentences for 29 security personnel in the case of a teacher tortured to death in Kassala in February 2019. The prosecutions of security officers in a regular court, the first case of its kind, is a step toward accountability for a heinous crime, but the prosecutions should not be limited to low-ranking officers. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty under all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

Investigations and prosecutions of the full range of abuses by the NSIS are a critical part of a broader transitional justice program, but they will require resources and expertise. The government should seek assistance from international bodies and donors, who should promptly provide it on flexible terms both at the technical and policy levels.

“Sudan’s leaders say they want to turn the page with genuine reforms and a transition toward a rights-respecting, democratic government that is accountable to the Sudanese people. That will require addressing the past honestly and forthrightly, not trying to forget or bury it,” Roth said. “Making this democratic transition a success will require securing justice and accountability for past atrocities, including the violent dispersal of protesters on June 3, and accelerating the most critical human rights reforms.”

Turkey: Prominent Civic Leader Rearrested After Acquittal

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 20, 2020

(Istanbul) – An Istanbul court’s order on February 19, 2020 to detain a prominent civic leader, Osman Kavala, demonstrates the extent to which Turkey's government is abusing its justice system to target perceived critics, Human Rights Watch said today. The order for Kavala’s pretrial detention came the day after another court acquitted him in a separate case and ordered his release.  

The Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office requested Kavala’s arrest on the evening after he and eight other defendants were acquitted on trumped-up charges related to the mass protests in the city’s Gezi Park in 2013. On the following day, hours before the new court order, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strongly criticized Kavala’s acquittal in the Gezi trial.   

“The immediate re-arrest of Osman Kavala in another bogus investigation after his acquittal on trumped-up charges for the Gezi Park protests shows how Turkey’s criminal justice system is politically manipulated, with detention and prosecutions pursued at the political whim of the president,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Kavala has already been wrongfully imprisoned for 28 months. Extending his detention further is a travesty that should be promptly reversed.”

Kavala has been detained on the allegation that he attempted to “destroy the constitutional order” under Article 309 of the Turkish Penal Code through involvement in the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The court’s decision refers to his alleged contact with US academic Henri Barkey, who is a suspect in the investigation, but makes no reference to evidence that would support the suspicion of Kavala’s involvement in any criminal activity or conspiracy.

The investigation against Kavala in connection with the July 15 coup attempt dates back to his initial arrest on November 1, 2017. The court at the time detained him both on suspicion of organizing the Gezi protests and for his alleged connections with “Barkey and foreigners who were among the organizers of the coup attempt,” but his lawyers later discovered that he was treated as having been detained twice because of the investigation into the 2016 coup being a separate file. In October 2019, he was formally released from detention in connection with the coup investigation but remained in pretrial detention because of the Gezi case. That detention was repeatedly prolonged and he remained in Silivri Prison.

The chief prosecutor’s request for his re-arrest on February 18, 2020, the day the Istanbul court ruled for Kavala’s acquittal and release in the Gezi trial, was clearly aimed at preventing him leaving prison, Human Rights Watch said.    

In another extraordinary development, media reported that Turkey’s Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which is responsible for judicial appointments and administration, had given permission for an investigation into the judges of Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 30, which acquitted Kavala and the others in the Gezi case. The prosecutor in the case has appealed the acquittal decision.

Kavala is the founder of the nongovernmental group Anadolu Kültür A.Ş., which promotes human rights through the arts, and is a leading figure in Turkey’s civil society.

The others acquitted on February 18 are Yiğit Aksakoğlu, the Turkey representative of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, a Dutch philanthropic organization focusing on early child development projects; Mücella Yapıcı, board member of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects; Ali Hakan Altınay, director of the European School of Politics, Istanbul; Çiğdem Mater Utku, a film producer; Mine Özerden, a civil society and arts project coordinator; Serafettin Can Atalay, a lawyer; Tayfun Kahraman, an urban planner; and Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, deputy chair of Anadolu Kültür.

Seven other people indicted in the case, and for whom there are outstanding warrants for their arrest, have had their cases separated out. They are Handan Meltem Arıkan, a novelist and playwright; Hanzade Hikmet Germiyanoğlu, a humanitarian worker and education consultant; İnanç Ekmekçi; Gökçe Tüylüoğlu, former executive director of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey, which has ceased operations; Memet Ali Alabora, an actor and director; Ayşe Pınar Alabora, an actor; and Can Dündar, journalist and former editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper.  

The Gezi case revolves around a 657-page indictment that makes an implausible and unsupported claim that Kavala led a small group of people in conspiring to finance and organize the 2013 Gezi protests, which spread to cities across Turkey. The 16 accused include people working in the arts, education, and peaceful civic activism.

The indictment is largely incoherent, packed with wild conspiracy theories, described by Kavala in court as a “fantastical fiction.” The evidence consisted of vague accounts of protest movements in other countries at different times, quotations from published books, assertions about the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a mass of random intercepted phone calls made by the defendants, and speculative claims about their activities.

As the European Court of Human Rights found in its landmark ruling on December 10, 2019, none of what was presented credibly supports the charge that Kavala was involved in a conspiracy that attempted to overthrow the government or to prevent its functioning.

The court concluded that there had been no reasonable suspicion that Kavala had committed a crime either in connection with the Gezi protests or the July 15 coup attempt, and that he had been arbitrarily detained in Turkey since November 2017. The court said that his detention had been carried out and prolonged in bad faith for unlawful purposes, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and that he should be immediately released.

The court found violations of Article 5/1(c) of the European Convention, which sets out lawful grounds for detention; Article 5/4, which guarantees all detainees a right to a speedy review of the legality of their detention; and Article 18, which prohibits restricting rights under the European Convention­­ – in this case, to liberty – for ulterior motives. In calling for Kavala’s immediate release, the court stressed that “any continuation of the applicant’s pretrial detention in the present case will entail a prolongation of the violation of Article 5/1 and of Article 18.”

Kavala was first detained by police on October 18, 2017 at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport as he was returning from a visit with representatives of the Goethe Institute to Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, where he supported a project for Syrian refugees.

A court ordered him to be held in pretrial detention on November 1, 2017, allegedly on suspicion that he organized the Gezi Park protests and was involved in the attempted military coup. He and the 15 others were indicted in March 2019, and their trial began on June 24.

Kenya: No Letup in Killings by Nairobi Police

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 20, 2020
February 20, 2020 Video Kenya: No Letup in Killings by Nairobi Police

Evidence removed From Scenes; Failure to Investigate

(Nairobi) – Since December 25, 2019, police in Kenya have shot dead at least eight people in Nairobi’s Mathare, Kasarani, and Majengo settlements, Human Rights Watch said today. The police continue to kill crime suspects and protesters in cold blood despite persistent calls to end the killings and the use of excessive force.

The killings are the latest in a longstanding pattern of excessive force and unlawful killings in Nairobi’s low-income neighborhoods. Kenyan authorities should urgently investigate all alleged killings, many of which have been documented by Kenyan and international organizations, and ensure that all those responsible are held to account.

“Kenyan police are shooting young people dead in total disregard of the rules for the use of force,” said Otsieno Namwaya, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kenyan authorities should end these unlawful and unjustified killings of unarmed people and bring officers involved in the killings to justice.”

In January 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 people including witnesses, family members of victims, hospital mortuary staff, medical and social workers, activists, and police personnel. Human Rights Watch worked closely with partner organizations in Mathare, Majengo, and Kasarani to identify victims and families.

In 3 low-income neighborhoods, police killed at least 8 young men 3 weeks after Christmas, Human Rights Watch found. In Mathare, on December 25 at about 5:30 p.m., police shot dead Peter Irungu, 19, and Brian Mung’aru, 20. Both men were kneeling and pleading with police to spare their lives when they were shot, witnesses said.

On December 26, anti-riot police violently suppressed a protest over the young men’s killings, using live ammunition, tear gas, and beatings. The police beat protesters, injuring more than 10, and arrested many. Police blocked media outlets from accessing Mathare to cover the demonstrations, according to witnesses there.

During a protest on January 15 in the Kasarani settlement over poor road conditions, police fired live bullets at protesters and residents. In the process, they shot dead a 19-year-old transport worker, Stephen Machurusi. Witnesses saw him kneeling to plead with riot police, who had barricaded sections of the road, to allow him to pass through to go to work. A 30-year-old rights activist in Kasarani who witnessed the killing said

“On the way to work, he encountered youth running from police. He didn’t know there was a demonstration. He surrendered to police, raising his hands and said he was on his way to work but one officer just shot him at close range in the chest.”

In Majengo, on January 16, 2 police officers on patrol killed 24-year-old Ahmed Majid. Witnesses said the officers shot him when he tried to intervene as they dragged his friend, Yassin Athuman, 20, along the ground toward the police station. The officers had attempted to plant marijuana on Yassin, which he resisted, after he refused to give them a bribe, the witnesses said.

On January 17, the police killed another four people during street demonstrations by Majengo residents protesting Majid’s killing. A Majengo rights activist who documented the violence said “Police used a lot of force to suppress the demonstrations. They were using live bullets, in most cases just shooting inside people’s houses or aiming at people who were not part of the demonstrations.” Police told the media on January 18 that they have arrested the officer suspected of killing Majid.

The recent killings are the latest in a longstanding pattern of killings and excessive force in these neighborhoods. In July 2019, Human Rights Watch documented 21 cases of police killings of men and boys in Nairobi’s low-income areas of Mathare and Dandora, apparently with no justification, claiming they were criminals. On January 24, 2020, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) said it had recorded an increase in the number of abuses by police, including killings, to 3,200 in 2019 alone. On January 23, 2019, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i said government would stop reckless shootings and killing of suspects, which he attributed to rogue officers.

Kenyan media have frequently reported killings in low-income neighborhoods. In May 2018, the Standard newspaper reported that police in Nairobi’s Dandora low-income area had killed at least 10 people aged between 18 and 23 in just one week. In October 2018, the Daily Nation reported that police killed at least 101 people in Nairobi and more than 180 people across Kenya in a 9-month period. It was not clear from the media reports whether any of these killings could be considered justified.

Under Kenya’s National Police Service Act of 2011, lethal force is only justified when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Kenyan security forces should also abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which stipulate that law enforcement officials should use nonviolent means and resort to lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The basic principles also require governments to ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense.

The Police Service Act requires police officers who use lethal fire to report to their immediate superior, explaining the circumstances that necessitated the use of force. Police officers also are required to report for investigation any use of force that leads to death or serious injury to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), a civilian police accountability institution created in 2011 to investigate and prosecute officers implicated in abuses.

In all cases Human Rights Watch documented, the police did not report the killings or initiate the process for an inquest, as required by law. In some cases, the police did not allow victims and their family members to file reports. In at least one case, the police appear to have collected and hid bullet casings instead of waiting for investigators to arrive, as is proper procedure under Kenyan law.

IPOA opened investigations into the killing of the two young men in Mathare on December 25 and Majid’s killing in Majengo on January 16, an IPOA official told Human Rights Watch. There are no ongoing investigations into the other killings. The oversight agency faces many problems in carrying out its work, including lack of cooperation by the police, who often fail to prepare preliminary reports that would identify the officers involved. Despite its efforts, its investigations have only led to six convictions since 2013, when the agency became operational, and it currently has more than 2,000 cases under investigation.

The eight killings since December 25 that Human Rights Watch researchers documented in Nairobi’s low-income areas of Mathare, Majengo, and Kasarani point to a broader pattern of police using excessive, unlawful force in the name of maintaining law and order in Nairobi’s informal settlements.

“Police have an obligation to ensure that all officers comply with the law to investigate all killings and support accountability institutions such as IPOA to ensure those involved in the killings are held to account,” Namwaya said. “The government, starting with President Kenyatta, should ensure that the killings are halted and that those responsible for gunning down unarmed young men are speedily held to account.”

For additional details about the recent killings, please see below.


Mathare Killings

Witnesses in Mathare told Human Rights Watch that around 5:30 p.m. on December 25, four police officers on patrol in civilian clothing picked up four youths outside Good Samaritan Children’s home in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s low-income neighborhoods. A staff member at the home said that the children in the home had just finished Christmas celebrations when the officers picked the youths up outside. Mathare residents said they recognized the four officers as members of the Pangani Six squad. The Pangani Six squad has been implicated in numerous killings of boys and girls in the area, some of which Human Rights Watch documented in July 2019.

The witnesses said that the officers arrested the youths, did a body search, and found no weapons on them. One officer grabbed Brian Mung’aru and Peter Irungu by their shirt collars and led them away, while another three officers walked behind with the other two, Felix Ouma and Daniel Gitau, whom they slapped, punched, and kicked as they interrogated them before releasing them.

The officers took Mung’aru and Irungu to the Amana Petrol station terminus, about a kilometer and a half away from the children’s home, and shot both dead.

A witness, a transport worker working at the matatu (Kenya’s public minibuses) stop near the Amana petrol station, recalled that the officers first accused Irungu of being a criminal. Both men pleaded for their lives.

“The officer shot Irungu on his right arm,” the transport worker said. “Irungu fell into the drainage on the roadside. Mung’aru fainted at the sound of the gunshot.” He said Irungu tried to crawl into the culvert at the entrance to Amana station for safety, but the officer shot him several times in the back, killing him instantly. The officer then turned to Mung’aru, who appeared unconscious, kicked him into the roadside drainage ditch, and shot him several times.

Another witness said that the officers then collected all the bullets and spent cartridges at the scene and that a police vehicle collected the bodies within minutes. He believes this was an attempt to conceal evidence.

A postmortem report by the government pathologist show that Irungu had more than five bullet wounds – one in the stomach, another in the right hand, another in the left jaw, and the others in the back – and that Mung’aru had multiple gunshot wounds in the back, the pelvic area, and the right knee.

The police have not investigated the killings as required by Kenyan law. IPOA has begun an investigation, but the police have not cooperated, including failing to provide a report of preliminary investigations by station commanders.

The police have given a conflicting account of the killings. The Pangani police station records say the two were killed in a violent robbery incident in Mathare, but three days after the killings, the Nairobi county police commander described the incident as “a shootout between police officers and three thugs.”

Kasarani killings

On January 13, in Kasarani, residents and matatu operators commenced peaceful street demonstrations to protest the poor state of roads in the area. On January 15, anti-riot police deployed to the area to suppress the protests beat and kicked people on the streets and shot tear gas and live bullets randomly at protesters and into people’s houses.

A protester who saw the killing said that the police shot dead a 19-year-old transport worker, Stephen Muchurusi, on the street.

“Around 1 p.m., an officer who was firing his gun randomly aimed at Muchurusi, who was kneeling, and shot him in the chest.”

Neither the police nor IPOA have opened investigations into this killing or the police conduct during the demonstrations. Relatives and witnesses to the killing said no one had taken any statements from them.

Majengo killings

Human Rights Watch found that police shot and killed Ahmed Majid, 24, in Majengo at close range apparently because he asked them to either carry his friend Yassin Athuman to the police station or allow him to walk, instead of dragging him. The killing caused minor riots that day. On the day Majid was buried, January 17, there were large street protests, which anti-riot police tried to suppress by firing tear gas and live bullets at people and into houses.

A close friend of Majid who witnessed the killing said that minutes before midday on January 16, Majid ran into 2 police officers less than 10 meters from his house. The officers had arrested Yassin, a motorcycle taxi driver, who was waiting for passengers along a street in Majengo. The officers, said a man who saw the arrest, accused Yassin of being a marijuana smoker, which he denied. The officers then attempted to plant to rolls of marijuana on him. Majid’s relative, who witnessed the shooting, said the officers were dragging Yassin, handcuffed, along the ground.

A 23-year-old woman who witnessed the incident said that Majid tried to intervene but that an officer slapped him down and then shot him in the chest while he was on the ground.

Another witness said that the second officer panicked and uncuffed Yassin, and then both officers ran into a nearby Administration Police camp to escape a crowd that was growing agitated. Friends, including Yassin, rushed Majid to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

That afternoon residents held protests, which escalated around lunchtime the next day, after Majid’s burial. An activist in Majengo said “Police used a lot of force to suppress the demonstrations. They also used live bullets, which they were firing into people’s houses.”

The activist said that he documented at least 4 cases of people shot dead by police, 7 cases of people admitted to hospitals with bullet wounds, and 30 cases of people nursing injuries from police beatings. Human Rights Watch was able to confirm the 4 killings.

One of those killed that day was Samuel Chegero Barasa, 35, who, with his family, had locked himself in his house when they saw the police chasing young protesters, firing live bullets and tear gas. A single bullet ripped through the iron sheets that served as the walls of his house and blew his head off, said his wife, Alice Andeso. She told the media that she was with her 3-year-old son when she found her husband’s body lying in a pool of blood in the sitting room. “Where has my father’s head gone to?” she said her son asked. She said her son had not spoken for a week since the killing.

Witnesses who were around Riadha Mosque during the demonstrations described the killing of three other people whose identities were not immediately established. In one case, at about 3 p.m., police shot a street boy who was asleep at a place known as Toilet 34, just outside Riadha Mosque, then carried his body away and removed spent cartridges.

Human Rights Watch located his body at the city mortuary, where it was checked in as “unknown African male shot during violent demonstrations in Majengo.” Mortuary attendants said that the man had an identity card for Victor Omondi Wanyama, but police told the attendants they weren’t sure it belonged to the street boy.

Two men who were inside Riadha Mosque when they saw the killing said that shortly after the police killed the street boy, they killed another man sleeping on the street between Riadha Mosque and Mumbai Mall. The officers quickly carried the body away as others removed spent cartridges. At the city mortuary, the body was also checked in as an “unknown African male shot during violent demonstrations in Majengo.”

Human Rights Watch also saw in the mortuary the body of a fourth person shot during the demonstrations, also checked in as “unidentified African male shot during violent demonstrations in Majengo.” A witness in Majengo’s Rokongo base area said that “the man was running in the open field at Rokongo base when we saw him suddenly fall.” Those who saw him before police carried his body away said the man had been shot in the neck.

Kyrgyzstan: Free Ailing Rights Defender

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, February 20, 2020

(Berlin) – Kyrgyzstan authorities should release the ailing human rights defender Azimjon Askarov and quash his conviction after an unfair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The country’s Supreme Court will hear an appeal of his case on February 25, 2020.

The 68-year-old Askarov, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his alleged role in the inter-ethnic violence that rocked southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, suffers from deteriorating health and inadequate medical attention in prison. The Supreme Court hearing may be Askarov’s final opportunity to appeal his case, his lawyers say. The Kyrgyz government should accept a 2016 United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee finding that called for Askarov’s release and quash his case.

“Azimjon Askarov’s imprisonment is a serious stain on Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He should be released immediately, given access to needed medical care, and be allowed to reunite with his family after 10 years unjustly spent behind bars.”

The inter-ethnic violence of June 2010, which disproportionately affected ethnic Uzbeks, left hundreds of people dead and destroyed thousands of homes. These events were followed by numerous cases of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture, among them for Askarov. He was found guilty in September 2010 of participating in mass disturbances, inciting ethnic hatred, and abetting the murder of a police officer killed during the unrest.

Askarov’s detention and trial were marred by serious human rights violations, including credible allegations of torture. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee found that Askarov was arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured, and mistreated. These and restrictive conditions around the trial created “a general sense of fear, incompatible with the proper execution of the defense lawyer’s functions.” The committee urged Kyrgyzstan to immediately release Askarov and quash his conviction.

On the basis of the Human Rights Committee decision, a Kyrgyz court agreed to reconsider the case, but upheld his life sentence in January 2017. Askarov’s lawyers also petitioned for his release after changes to the Criminal Code went into effect in 2019, but a court upheld his life sentence again in July.

In March 2019, Askarov was transferred to Prison Colony No. 19 in the Chuy region. Askarov’s lawyers reported that their client’s health had significantly deteriorated over the previous year. They said that he had a dry cough, was unable to catch his breath, and that certain aspects of prison life, such as being required to stand for long periods of time during cell checks, had a further negative impact on his health.

In addition, news outlets reported that Askarov said he had been placed in solitary confinement and denied family visits as punishment for protesting restrictions on family visits to the colony.

Before his detention, Askarov had been the director of Air, a human rights organization in southern Kyrgyzstan focused on documenting prison conditions and police treatment of detainees. Askarov also documented violence and looting in the town of Bazar-Korgon during the June 2010 violence.

“The Kyrgyz government should act urgently to release Askarov and quash his conviction, particularly in light of his deteriorating health and inadequate prison conditions,” Williamson said. “Nearly a decade after his wrongful arrest, the Kyrgyz authorities are long overdue in delivering justice for Askarov and his loved ones.”

Philippines: Free Senator; End Attacks on Rights Defenders

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Jailed Senator Leila de Lima votes during the midterm elections in Paranaque, Philippines, May 13, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo

(Manila) – Philippine authorities should immediately release Senator Leila de Lima, who has been detained for three years, and drop the politically motivated charges against her, Amnesty International, FORUM-ASIA, and Human Rights Watch said today. The mistreatment of de Lima reflects broader attacks by the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte against human rights defenders, particularly women.

De Lima, who has been detained at the headquarters of the Philippine National Police since her arrest on February 24, 2017, has been one of the staunchest critics of the government’s abusive “war on drugs.” The authorities arrested her after she sought to investigate extrajudicial executions committed in the context of the anti-drug campaign.

“Every day that Senator de Lima remains detained is another day of injustice, not only against her but against all Filipinos whose rights – to life, liberty, health, and due process – have been trampled on by a violent and repressive government,” said Nicholas Bequelin, regional director for East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific at Amnesty International.

Since her detention, the authorities have made no substantial progress in court proceedings for the three drug-related cases eventually brought against her. These cases have been marked by undue delays after at least six judges decided to recuse themselves from hearing the cases or opted for early retirement.

Currently, the prosecution is presenting witnesses, most of whom have been convicted of drug-related charges. De Lima has been prevented from participating in hearings and proceedings at the Philippine Senate and faces restrictions on communications with outsiders.

De Lima’s mistreatment reflects the broader repressive conditions that human rights defenders face in the country, the organizations said.

“Under the Duterte administration, women human rights defenders have repeatedly faced state-sanctioned intimidation and reprisals,” said Mukunda Kattel, executive director of FORUM-ASIA. “We have also observed the intensification of gender-based attacks, such as sexual harassment and the use of dehumanizing and misogynist language to silence women human rights defenders who continue to push for greater accountability.”

A case in point is the prominent journalist Maria Ressa, editor and CEO of the news website Rappler, which has been publishing investigative reports about the “war on drugs.” She is facing numerous lawsuits. They include attempts to shut the website down for alleged tax evasion and violation of the country’s restrictions on foreign ownership. Each of the charges carries heavy fines and sentences of up to 10 years in prison, which could lead to her imprisonment for decades.

Vice President Leni Robredo, another critic of the government, was subjected to a smear campaign by President Duterte and other high-level government officials. She had called on the government, while briefly co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), to address the flaws of the anti-drug campaign, and recommended the adoption of a health-based approach.

Among the many other human rights defenders threatened and harassed for their human rights work have been Cristina Palabay, the secretary general of the human rights group Karapatan, and nuns of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines.

Human rights violations in the Philippines have come under increasing international scrutiny. At the United Nations Human Rights Council session in June 2020, the high commissioner for human rights is expected to present her report on the country’s human rights situation. The International Criminal Court confirmed in December 2019 that it would soon decide whether to open an investigation into crimes under international law committed in the context of the “war on drugs.”

In January, the United States Senate approved Senate Resolution 142, which calls for sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against government officials responsible for de Lima’s arrest and prolonged detention, as well as for the extrajudicial executions of alleged drug offenders. Shortly afterward, the US government imposed visa restrictions on Duterte administration figures who have been implicated in serious rights violations.

“The Philippines government has grossly mistreated Senator de Lima so that other whistleblowers and rights monitors will not dare expose the abuses and injustices of Duterte’s ‘drug war,’” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Human Rights Council at its June session should hold the Philippines government accountable for its abuses against the senator and other human rights defenders in the country.”