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US Deporting More Long-Term Residents

Human Rights Watch - 2 hours 22 min ago


A man, who was deported from the U.S. seven months ago, touches the fingertips of his nephew across a fence separating Mexico and US, as photographed from Tijuana, Mexico, March 4, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Since Donald Trump became president of the United States, immigrants who have lived longer in the United States and established deep roots have increasingly become targets for deportation.

Over the month of March, four in ten deportation cases filed in immigration court involved people who had been in the US for two years or more, and fully two in ten involved people who had been in the US for five years or more, according to new data released by the research center TRAC. By contrast, only one deportation case filed in ten involved new arrivals. Most people apprehended outside of the border region have the right to see an immigration judge, as opposed to those deported from the border.

Since people apprehended in the interior of the country are more likely to be living in the United States, these numbers are consistent with a previously-reported 40 percent increase in interior arrests in 2017. They show a big change from as recently as the month of December 2016 – the last month of the Obama administration -- when three-quarters of defendants in deportation proceedings then being filed were new arrivals to the US. Only six percent had been living in the US for two years or more. TRAC’s calculations show a sharp uptick in the average length of stay of people being brought before deportation court starting with the implementation of President Trump’s immigration executive orders in early 2017.

Deporting more immigrants who have lived for years in the US means ripping more people away from US-citizen spouses and children, homes, and jobs. Because US law fails to systematically consider these ties, US deportations, as we’ve documented, regularly run roughshod over the right to non-interference with home and family.  

To meet US human rights obligations, US law should be changed to ensure that an immigrants’ family and other ties to the United States are weighed in the balance against the government’s interest in deporting that person., .

Currently, there is virtually no avenue under US law to allow even deeply rooted unauthorized immigrants to avoid deportation and gain legal status. Deeply-rooted legal immigrants who comiitted even very minor crimes decades ago can be subject to automatic detention and deportation away from their lives and families. People facing deportation are often unable to effectively present arguments against their deportation, because they often cannot afford lawyers or access reliable legal advice, a problem the Trump administration is poised to compound with cuts to detention center legal assistance programs.

The Trump administration’s increasing focus on long-term noncitizen residents – both authorized and unauthorized – casts a harsh light not only on the Administration itself, but also on the broken and abusive nature of US immigration law.






US Congress Should Back Bill Supporting Women’s Economic Empowerment

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 20, 2018

Esther Mambwe and her family were evicted from Kalengo section by a commercial farmer in 2016. “We didn’t know anything about this [commercial] farm until one day we saw a muzungu [white man] carrying something and he said he was making a boundary,” Mambwe said.

© 2017 Samer Muscati for Human Rights Watch

Earlier this week, the House Foreign Affairs committee approved a new bipartisan bill addressing women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment. It’s not comprehensive legislation on women’s economic empowerment – it doesn’t address family planning, for example. But it does address certain barriers women face in the economy. The bill, if adopted, would require that United States development assistance be used to reduce those barriers, a welcome step in the promotion of gender equality.

While the bill, H.R. 5480, doesn’t reverse restrictive measures put in place by the Trump administration on women’s access to reproductive health services and information, it does stand in stark contrast to the many harmful steps backward the US has taken in its global health assistance.

For example, if enacted, the bill would make it US policy to support activities to help secure women’s land and property rights, whether through legal reform and enforcement, or programs to help women claim their rights. It would also amend the US’s foreign assistance act to authorize assistance for the purpose of expanding property rights and promoting the economic empowerment of women, including through improving property and inheritance rights.

Land is a vital asset around the world. But in many countries, laws and social norms put women at a severe disadvantage when it comes to land inheritance, ownership, and control. Equal land and property rights help reduce poverty and promote women’s autonomy and safety, economic growth, and agricultural productivity and food security. Evidence from Human Rights Watch work on Zimbabwe and Zambia shows just how vital such measures are.

USAID has long supported efforts to promote women’s equal land and property rights. This bill can help ensure that those efforts continue by mandating that all US government programs overseas include goals in their monitoring systems on a gender basis, including improvements on property and land rights. It would also make it a legislative requirement that USAID report on the extent to which its assistance is targeting women and the very poor, including what is known about how such development assistance benefits women.

More certainly needs to be done in realizing gender equality not just in terms of land and property rights, but for the full spectrum of women’s rights. But a good place to start would be for the House to pass H.R. 5480.

Displaced Congolese Face Being Returned to Harm’s Way

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 20, 2018

A woman walks at an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Bunia, Ituri province, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, April 12, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

Since mid-December, unidentified assailants have killed more than 260 people and burned thousands of homes in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s northeastern Djugu territory in Ituri province. The atrocities we have documented include massacres, rapes, and decapitation. More than 200,000 people have fled their homes, many to neighboring Uganda.

The surge of deadly violence seems to have erupted out of nowhere, tearing through a once-embattled area that had been largely peaceful in recent years.

Last Sunday, the provincial governor, Jefferson Abdallah Penembaka, called on tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in two makeshift camps in Bunia, the provincial capital, to return home, assuring them there were no longer “any concerns.” The Congolese army’s chief of staff, Gen. Didier Etumba proclaimed that “the security conditions [have] returned to normal” in Djugu. Several displaced people at one camp told us that visiting provincial officials warned them yesterday that “the site must be empty by next week.”

But civilians now in Djugu tell a very different story. “I am in Drodro [village], and we cannot go further than the parish for fear of being killed,” one man/woman who just returned home said yesterday. “Even if the military and police are here with us, we continue to fear for our safety.”

Just in the past few weeks, at least 12 people were reportedly killed and 43 houses burned in Djugu territory.

Even before the government began urging displaced people to go home, the abysmal conditions in the camps had compelled many to leave. “We have nothing to eat and there’s no hope left,” one camp representative said. “Those who leave don’t do it because they want to, but because they have no other choice.”

Local authorities announced on Wednesday that 20,000 IDPs had already left the camps, but camp representatives told us that most have refused to leave the capital. Many fear that the government might demolish the camps by force, as it has done in North Kivu province over the past several years.

Instead of proclaiming all concerns to be over and forcing displaced people to return home, government officials should ensure that the basic needs of IDPs are met in the camps, while working to secure Djugu territory and bring those responsible for the atrocities to justice.

“No Comment” in Burundi

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 20, 2018

The Burundian government desperately wants an overwhelming win in next month’s constitutional referendum that will enable the president to extend his term in office. To do this, it must present the image of unity in the country – and open debate and criticism are less than welcome.


Logo for Iwacu newspaper, "The voice of Burundi."

© Iwacu

As the referendum approaches, the government is brutally cracking down on suspected opponents and signaling clearly that those who do not register to vote in the referendum or who dare to vote “no” will face dire consequences. And that crackdown is widening. On April 11, Iwacu, a well-respected and widely read independent newspaper in Burundi, received a written decision from Burundi’s National Communication Council (CNC) announcing a three-month suspension of its online comments section for “violation of professional standards.”

The CNC is a national administrative authority responsible for overseeing the media and advising the government on communication. The president appoints its members.

Whereas criticism was once tolerated, albeit unhappily, any glimmer of hope that independent media and rights groups might operate freely in Burundi has vanished. The government has become increasingly intolerant of debate since a political crisis engulfed the country in 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his controversial bid for a third term.

Since then, independent national nongovernmental organizations have been banned, suspended, seen their bank accounts frozen and staff arrested. New restrictions have been placed on a once independent media, as several radio stations have been taken off the air. A journalist for Iwacu has been missing since July 2016.

Against this broader repression, Iwacu has managed to continue publishing, and it remains a source for independent news in Burundi and beyond, despite its thousands of readers now being unable to post their comments. In a statement, Iwacu said that its comments section was a “democratic space open to all opinions,” something clearly intolerable to an increasingly repressive government.

Ecuador: Political Interference in the Judiciary

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 20, 2018

A general view of the main room in Ecuador's National Court, February 15, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters.

(Washington, DC) – Ecuadorean authorities should conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into credible allegations of political interference in the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today. Evidence indicates that high-level officials of former President Rafael Correa’s administration and the Council of the Judiciary have interfered in the resolution of cases that touched on government interests, as well as in the appointment and removal of judges.

A constitutional referendum approved in February 2018 gave a Transition Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control, an official body that does not in theory report to any branch of government, the authority to evaluate the performance of key government institutions. On April 4, the new Transition Council opened an investigation that could lead to the removal of the president of the Judiciary Council, a body charged with appointing and removing judges.

“Under Correa, officials pressured and intimidated judges, and fired some who stood up to them,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “President Lenín Moreno has insisted he respects judicial independence, but to correct the abusive practices of the past, he should restructure the machinery that allowed for political interference in the judiciary.”

After taking office in May 2017, Moreno said that judges would be free to “make decisions without any pressure whatsoever” and vowed “never to call a judge to influence him.” However, he has also issued a blanket statement of support for Gustavo Jalkh, the Judiciary Council president who took office in 2013 during the previous administration.

Human Rights Watch conducted research in Ecuador in November 2017 to assess levels of judicial independence in the country, as follow-up to a 2014 report documenting how judicial independence had been seriously undermined during Gustavo Jalkh’s tenure, who remains in office. Human Rights Watch interviewed high-level Judiciary Council authorities, current and former judges, Public Defenders’ Office and congressional staff, lawyers, academics, and nongovernmental groups working on these issues.

Human Rights Watch documented a dozen cases in which a judge or a prosecutor said that representatives of the council or the Justice Ministry or Correa’s advisers directly or indirectly suggested how the judge should rule in specific cases. When these judges failed to follow their instructions, the council opened administrative proceedings against them, and in most cases the judges were later suspended or removed. Ecuadorean nongovernmental groups, journalists, and lawmakers have reported dozens of other similar cases.

Other evidence strongly suggesting political interference with the judiciary under Correa includes leaked emails from high-level officials and a 2013 memo from the presidency, ordering judges to reject suits against the government (copy available below).

Ecuador’s Organic Code of the Judicial Function allows the Judiciary Council to suspend or remove justice officials, including judges, for acting with “criminal intent, evident negligence or inexcusable error.” Between 2013 and August 2017, 145 judges were suspended or removed for committing “inexcusable errors,” according to the council.

These laws that allow the removal of judges for legal errors , expose them to political pressure and undermine judicial independence. The correct way to address legal errors is through the appeals process, and never by firing judges. Ecuador should repeal or amend this provision to eliminate the possibility of political interference, Human Rights Watch said.

The arbitrary suspension and removal of judges has not only affected sanctioned judges; it has also had a chilling effect on others, several judges told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Attorney General’s Office on March 20 asking about any investigations regarding the many allegations of undue interference in the justice system, but has received no response. Human Rights Watch found no evidence of any meaningful efforts by the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the allegations of political interference with the judiciary.

Human Rights Watch will share its findings with the Transition Council and with the Attorney General’s Office.

“The Transition Council needs to carefully analyze all evidence of undue political interference in the judiciary,” Vivanco said. “Meanwhile, the Moreno administration should ensure that any current or former official who abused their power to interfere with the independent functioning of the courts is held accountable, and commit itself to preventing this from happening again.”

For detailed findings, please see below.

Human Rights Watch’s Findings

Political Pressure and Politically Motivated Removal of Judges
Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 people – a prosecutor, a judge, and 10 former judges – who provided accounts of political interference in politically sensitive cases during the Correa administration. In some cases, Human Rights Watch has not identified them by their real names for their protection.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed documentation from several sources – including press accounts and a report by the Ecuadorian human rights groups Observatory of Rights and Justice, Mil Hojas Foundation, Platform for Human Rights, and the Geneva-based organization, International Network for Human Rights – that strongly suggest a pattern of government efforts to pressure or coerce the judiciary in its handling of important or politically sensitive cases during the Correa administration.

Justice officials told Human Rights Watch that they received repeated calls from the Judiciary Council or other government representatives and that, as one said, “If you wanted to keep your job, you had to be obedient.” Those who would act independently and refuse to follow the government’s instructions suffered reprisals, including in several cases being fired. For example:

  • In 2012, Judiciary Council officials visited Judge Carlos Navarro (pseudonym) asking him to rule in favor of the government in a controversial case, Navarro said. Navarro, who was a temporary judge, did not respond to that request and was removed from his post before ruling on the case. He was later appointed to another court but, he said, representatives from the Justice Ministry and the council told him in 2014 that ruling against the government would be “inconvenient” and “would [have] consequences.”
  • José Suing Nagua, of the National Court of Justice, said that an adviser to Jalkh visited him twice in May 2013 to tell him that the government was “interested” in the decision in a case brought by an oil company against the Ecuadorean tax authority that was pending before his chamber. When the chamber ruled in favor of the company, the tax authority’s director publicly accused the judges of depleting the Ecuadorean state’s revenues, and filed a complaint against them before the Judiciary Council. In December 2013, the council removed Suing and the other judge who had signed the ruling, saying that they had not adequately substantiated their ruling and had committed an “inexcusable error” by putting forward arguments that had not been presented by the oil company. The third judge, who dissented, was not removed.
  • In 2016, Judge Juan Machado (pseudonym) was assigned a case via lottery to evaluate allegations of mismanagement by the Judiciary Council. Machado said that a council official told him that they had to meet to discuss the case. When he declined, the council took him off the case and assigned it via lottery to a different judge.

Several former judges also gave detailed accounts of retaliation after they declined to follow the council’s instructions in sensitive cases, including suddenly being assigned an overwhelming workload or deprived of staff or other resources, then fired later for negligence. For example:

  • In October 2015, the Judiciary Council removed Judge Fidel Fernando Rojas Rojas who, as a labor judge, had been assigned a case against a mayor from the ruling party, Rojas said. Before his removal, he said, a council adviser called him and said that the case could undermine “the political image of the revolution.” After he continued gathering evidence on the case, the council limited his staff and access to office supplies, he said. It later opened an investigation against him, contending that he had not been diligent in deciding pending cases, and removed him, he said. Rojas received several documents from the council firing him – one linked to each of the pending cases. On April 9, 2018, he submitted a complaint against Jalkh before the Transition Council.

Human Rights Watch has no perspective on the speed or competence with which any of these judges executed their duties. However, in all these cases and others documented by Human Rights Watch or reported by other credible sources, there is a clear and troubling pattern. When dealing with cases with political connotations, Judiciary Council or government officials have repeatedly approached judges and instructed them to rule in particular ways. When judges refused and ruled independently, they were often removed from their jobs in apparent retaliation.

Two defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that council members and Interior Ministry representatives were present at judicial hearings on criminal cases brought against indigenous activists who participated in demonstrations against the Correa government. The criminal defense lawyers believe this was to initimidate judges to rule in the government’s favor. Human Rights Watch also interviewed two high profile indigenous activists who faced criminal charges and who felt that the presence of those officials compromised the fairness of their trial.

Evidence of Political Interference in the Judiciary
In August 2017, the website Elements of Power published leaked email exchanges between former President Correa and other high-ranking officials, including his legal secretary, Alexis Mera; Justice Minister Johana Pesántez; Carmen Simone, acting justice minister when Pesántez was away; Gabriela Rivadeneira, National Assembly president; Diego Guarderas, undersecretary of justice; and Jalkh, the Judiciary Council president. These emails, which have since been widely reported in the Ecuadorean media, strongly suggest that under Correa high-level officials attempted to interfere in approximately 20 court cases.

In an email in June 2013, Jalkh sent Correa a note from a personal email account telling him that he had suspended two judges who “were harming the interests of the state” in a case involving a constitutional writ, asserting that the judges’ handling of the case was costing the government US$3 million. Jalkh said that these judges, and another who had granted an habeas corpus request to Álvaro Noboa, an opposition politician, would be removed from office. The judge who ruled in favor of Noboa was removed three days after the leaked email’s date for alleged irregularities in the case, based on official documentation Human Rights Watch reviewed. The only “irregularity” Jalkh identified that the two removed judges had committed was that “through inadmissible constitutional writs they were harming the state in an amount of $3 million.”


Copy of 2013 memo from the Ecuadorian Presidency.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed a copy of what appears to be an official memo from Mera dated October 19, 2013, that orders constitutional and civil judges in Ecuador to reject “constitutional writs against the state,” which are suits brought by individuals contending that their constitutional rights have been violated. The memo also threatens the judges with removal if they do not comply, and says that if the judges do not reject such suits, their cases will be sent to the Judiciary Council, which is charged with reviewing “the judicial function.”

Other emails suggest political interference in the appointment of judges. For example, in October 2011, Simone sent Pesántez a list of candidates being considered, saying that the “majority of dangerous cases” had been “identified.” She attached a chart with the names and a brief political profile of each candidate, marking with red those she considered “dangerous” for not being aligned with Correa’s political party. She included descriptions such as “opposition,” “lawyer from the right,” or “[has made] public statements against the regime.” The Justice Ministry, to which both Simone and Pesantez belonged, had no official role whatsoever in the selection of judges. Nonetheless, these emails show they carried out background checks of candidates’ political positions, quite possibly intending to influence decisions about appointments.

Jalkh claimed that the emails lacked legal value because the accounts had been hacked and said that “the content of those emails can be subject to manipulation,” but he has not denied that he sent or received them. Regardless of whether they would be admissible in court, the emails serve as further proof of a pattern of abusive interference in the judicial system that merits a thorough investigation.

Inexcusable Error
The Judiciary Council has been removing judges applying a vaguely defined provision in the Organic Code of the Judicial Function that forbids judicial officials from acting with “criminal intent, evident negligence or inexcusable error.” Although the terms are not defined by law, council officials told Human Rights Watch that an inexcusable error is “the severe, gross and evident error, which is verifiable in an objective way with a simple comparison of legal rules…It is the notorious incompetence or carelessness at the time of applying justice.”

In October 2017, Jalkh and the National Court of Justice president submitted a proposal to the National Assembly to adopt a legal definition of inexcusable error and to include a public hearing in the process so that judges being investigated can defend themselves.

But this proposal does not resolve the problem, which is that legal errors should not be grounds for removing judges, but instead should be handled through the appeals process. As stated under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, judges should be subject to suspension or removal “only for reasons of incapacity or behavior that renders them unfit to discharge their duties.” The UN Human Rights Committee has correctly noted that provisions allowing removal of judges because of legal errors tend to “expose judges to political pressure and jeapordize their independence and neutrality.” This is precisely how this provision seems to have been used in Ecuador.

The absurdity of the current system is evident in cases in which the council has sanctioned judges for an alleged inexcusable error that has been or is later ratified on appeal. For example, the council removed Judge Madeline Pinargote in September 2015 after finding an inexcusable error in a judicial decision through which she lifted some precautionary measures imposed on the assets of a company. However, a year earlier, an appeals court had unanimously supported her decision, based on judicial documents Human Rights Watch reviewed.

In other cases, these broad powers have allowed the council to apply a harsher sentence to one member of a three-member tribunal, even if they had all adopted the same decision that the council believed was issued in “negligence,” or included an “inexcusable error.” In these cases, the council contended that the judge who drafted the ruling had greater responsibility than the others. For example, Judge María Jacome was fired in April 2017 after overturning a council decision to suspend a judge in Sucumbíos province. Jacome and the other judges ruled that the judge’s suspension violated his rights, but only Jacome was fired.

According to information provided by the council to Human Rights Watch, there has been a steady decline in the number of judges removed for “inexcusable error” between 2013, when 61 were removed, and August 2017, when 5 had been removed since the year began. A total of 145 were removed over this 5-year period.

Lack of Accountability
The Transition Council’s administrative investigation of the Judiciary Council is in its initial stages. The Transition Council has requested the Judiciary Council to suspend all appointments of judicial officials during the investigation.

An attempt by opposition legislators to impeach Jalkh did not succeed. On April 18, 2018, lawmakers from different political parties requested the National Assembly to initiate the investigation to impeach Jalkh and other members of the the Judiciary Council.

Through dozens of interviews and a thorough review of media coverage, Human Rights Watch found no evidence of any meaningful efforts by the Attorney General’s Office to investigate allegations of coercion and political interference such as those described above.

Dozens of judges who claim to have been arbitrarily removed from office have filed a case before the Attorney General’s Office, contending that council officials were responsible for influence peddling, which is defined in Ecuador’s Criminal Code as actions taken by public officials or people representing the State who “tak[e] advantage of their powers” to “influence another public official to obtain a resolution favorable to their interests or those of a third party.” The Attorney General’s Office closed the case stating that the alleged facts do not constitute crimes, media reports said.

A lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he and several other lawyers had brought a similar case against Jalkh before the Attorney General’s Office but was unaware of any meaningful steps taken in these investigations.

The Ecuadorean Constitution and Criminal Code empower prosecutors, when there is evidence that a crime was committed, to open investigations even if the victim does not file a formal complaint. In February, the Attorney General’s Office began gathering information on allegations involving Jalkh’s participation in cases of alleged political interference, but it later publicly clarified that such measures did not mean an investigation had been opened against him, according to official sources.

On March 20, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Attorney General’s Office requesting detailed information on existing investigations into allegations of political interference in the judiciary, including on the issues addressed in this publication, but received no response.

Ecuador’s Obligations Under International Law
Ecuador is party to several human rights treaties – including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the American Convention on Human Rights – that require it to safeguard the independence and impartiality of its judiciary. The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the ICCPR by state parties, has held that for a tribunal to be “independent and impartial,” the executive must not be able to control or direct the judiciary.

A range of authoritative principles – including the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, the Universal Charter of the Judge, and the Statute of the Ibero-American Judge – set forth key components of an independent and impartial judiciary. These criteria include that judges should be free from constraints, pressures, or orders imposed by other branches of government, and they should have security of tenure to avoid fear of being removed from their posts for their decisions. In addition, proper training and qualifications should be the basis of the appointments of judges, and they may only be suspended or removed “for reasons of incapacity or behaviour that renders them unfit to discharge their duties.”

Iraq: Officials Dispose of Potential War Crime Evidence

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 20, 2018

An incident on March 29, 2018, in which government workers removed about 80 bodies from a damaged house, raised suspicions of a cover-up of killings of possible Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects. Human Rights Watch observed the episode. Days later, the house had been burned. 

  (Erbil) – An incident on March 29, 2018, in which government workers removed about 80 bodies from a damaged house, raised suspicions of a cover-up of killings of possible Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch observed the episode. Days later, the house had been burned.   Iraqi authorities at the site said they were the remains of ISIS suspects. Heath Ministry and Interior Intelligence Ministry officials at the site said they were not permitted to share information about where the bodies were taken. There has been no indication that the deaths are being investigated.   “Given the serious abuses in the final weeks of the battle against ISIS in Mosul’s Old City, this site and the bodies should have been preserved as potential evidence for forensic investigators,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi promised to investigate these possible war crimes, but with no tangible results almost a year later, the actions of his own officials at this site speak louder than words.”   Iraqi forces retook Mosul’s Old City from ISIS in July 2017. Human Rights Watch documented Iraqi forces rounding up ISIS suspects, torturing and then executing them that month near that site. Some of these forces were from an Iraqi army division trained by the United States government. During the same period, four videos on Facebook allegedly filmed in west Mosul also appear to show Iraqi soldiers and federal police beating and extrajudicially killing detainees.   In September, al-Abadi’s office announced a special committee was being established to investigate abuse and subsequently, in September, said soldiers guilty of abuses in the context of the battle against ISIS were being held accountable. Despite multiple inquiries, however, Human Rights Watch has been unable to obtain information about the outcomes of the investigations and has found no evidence of any officers being held accountable for abuses in the Mosul operation.   Human Rights Watch researchers, alerted by a medical worker in the area on March 29, entered the damaged house and found a room full of human remains. Municipal officials, along with Health Ministry and Interior Intelligence Ministry officials, were at the site. Three people who told Human Rights Watch in July 2017 about seeing torture and executions in the Old City said after the March 29 episode that this house was very close to where they had seen Iraqi forces capture and hold ISIS suspects.   Expand

Burned out remains of a room in a damaged house in Mosul’s Old City, following the authorities’ removal of about 80 bodies, April 4, 2018. 

© 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch Health Ministry officials placing the corpses in body bags estimated that there had been 80 to 100 bodies in the room. A contractor with Mosul’s Municipality and the Health Ministry hired to clear rubble and bodies from the neighborhood said that Health Ministry staff had cleared 40 remains of what looked like adult men from the room on March 28 and an estimated 40 or so more on March 29.   The bodies were piled up and badly decomposed so researchers could not make out the cause of death without disturbing the site. At least one body appeared to have its legs bound. There were no ballistic markings on the walls or blood splatters, indicating that the bodies were placed there after death. There was nothing to suggest that Iraqi authorities were treating the site as a crime scene. No police or other investigators were there, and workers removing the bodies did not appear to be gathering evidence. Health Ministry officials were pulling out the remains and putting them into body bags for municipality staff to drive away.   Human Rights Watch wrote to the Human Rights Committee in the Prime Minister’s Office on April 17 asking whether there had been efforts to identify the dead and cause of death, whether an investigation had been opened, and where the corpses had been taken. There has been no response.   When Human Rights Watch asked a Health Ministry official at the site where the bodies were being taken and what they were going to do with them, the official responded aggressively and said authorities were forbidden to share that information. Researchers called a Mosul municipality engineer to ask the same question and he said that intelligence officers had told him and other staff not to provide that information. Officials at the site told Human Rights Watch they could not photograph the bodies.   On April 4, Human Rights Watch researchers returned the site to find that the remaining corpses had been removed and the room had been burned out, leaving no traces of the corpses. No one asked knew who burned the site.   An international forensics expert told Human Rights Watch that in some countries, he has seen burning used to rid areas with corpses of disease, particularly if people live nearby, or to symbolically cleanse a location. However, he did not know of any previous instances in Iraq.   On August 17, 2017 following the Human Rights Watch reports of abuses in the Mosul battle, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement that it had established a committee to investigate over 20 allegations of abuse during the Mosul operation. It stated that they had arrested several of the officers, who were facing trial.   On September 17, al-Abadi stated that initial investigations found that the abuses were by individuals, not “systematic.” He told the Associated Press that soldiers found guilty were being held accountable and “at the moment we are listening to all reports, to all claims, there is no indication that this is a systematic abuse of human rights.” He said the officers involved were largely being charged with “negligence,” unless they were found to have issued orders to commit abuses.   The authorities have not published any information regarding judicial proceedings against any soldiers or officers beyond general statements that investigations are underway and forces are being held accountable.   On April 4, researchers told the head of the Nineveh Appeals Court about the bodies, but he insisted that the men must have been killed during the fighting and indicated no concern over finding bodies of suspected ISIS members, even a in large number. He said that when bodies of suspected ISIS members are found, the court issues a death certificate, with no investigation into the cause of death.   Prime Minister al-Abadi should promptly make public the results of investigations his government has carried out into abuses during military operations against ISIS, including in Mosul, including details of the specific cases. He should order Mosul municipal officials to publicly release information about where the bodies seen on March 29 were taken and allow forensic experts to examine them.   He should also order a halt to body clearance elsewhere in the Old City until forensic examinations have been carried out in cases in which it appears a crime has been committed, and promise to make the results of these investigations public.   “If Abadi wants to signal a change in Iraq’s culture of impunity for forces committing the most horrific abuses, he should take concrete steps to protect possible evidence of war crimes, and bring in forensic experts to investigate before it is too late, in a transparent and public manner,” Fakih said. 

Lebanon: Mass Evictions of Syrian Refugees

Human Rights Watch - Friday, April 20, 2018


A clothesline in an informal tent settlement in Bar Elias, Bekaa Governorate, Lebanon. Refugees evicted from the Rayak air base area settled here in January 2018. The refugees say there was no procedure, no written notice, no opportunity to discuss or challenge their removal, and that it took place in extremely harsh conditions. 

© 2018 Sandra Abou Metri/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – At least 13 municipalities in Lebanon have forcibly evicted at least 3,664 Syrian refugees from their homes and expelled them from the municipalities, apparently because of their nationality or religion, while another 42,000 refugees remain at risk of eviction, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 57-page report, “‘Our Homes Are Not for Strangers’: Mass Evictions of Syrian Refugees by Lebanese Municipalities,” documents inconsistencies in the reasons municipalities have given for expelling Syrians and the failure of the central government to protect refugees’ rights. United Nations officials identified 3,664 such evictions from 2016 through the first quarter of 2018. While Lebanese municipal authorities make tepid claims that the evictions were based on housing regulation infractions, Human Rights Watch found the measures taken by these municipalities have been directed exclusively at Syrian nationals, and not Lebanese citizens or other foreign nationals.

April 20, 2018 Report “Our Homes Are Not for Strangers”

Mass Evictions of Syrian Refugees by Lebanese Municipalities

“Municipalities have no legitimate justification for forcibly evicting Syrian refugees if it amounts to nationality-based or religious discrimination,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author. “Any eviction of a Syrian refugee, as with anyone else, should be on an individual basis for transparent, lawful, and proportionate reasons following proper procedures.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 57 Syrian refugees affected by evictions, as well as municipal officials and legal experts. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees released figures on April 13 estimating that about 13,700 Syrians had been evicted in 2017. Those figures include not only the 3,664 municipal evictions, but also evictions for failure to pay rent and other disputes with landlords or landlord choices, as well as “safety and security” evictions. Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs also reported to Human Rights Watch that 7,524 Syrians were evicted from the vicinity of the Rayak air base in 2017 and another 15,126 still have pending eviction orders.

The municipal evictions have caused refugees to lose income and property. They have disrupted the refugees’ children’s education, in some cases causing children to miss months of schooling or to drop out. In some cases, Syrians said authorities used violence to evict them. The municipal authorities have not provided any opportunity to the refugees to challenge their evictions or other due process protections based on international standards.

Lebanon’s refugee-hosting fatigue has been exacerbated by a lack of international support. The UN appeal for more than US$2 billion in international aid to meet the humanitarian assistance needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon for 2017 was only 54 percent funded as of December 2017. The Friends of Syria Group meeting in Brussels on April 24-25, 2018, hosted by the European Union and the UN, should make protecting refugee rights and sharing responsibility for humanitarian needs their priorities.

Seven years into the crisis in Syria, Lebanon hosts 1 million registered Syrian refugees, the highest per capita number of any country. These municipal evictions are occurring as politicians and others are increasingly calling for refugees to return to Syria.

“Mahmoud,” 56, who had been living in the Zahle municipality since 2012, said that a group of municipal police kicked and banged on the door of his family home last August and demanded to see all their papers, including legal residency papers, a rental contract, and UN registration. Mahmoud said one of the police “gave us a paper to sign that said we had to leave our house, but what she said verbally was to leave Zahle and go back to Syria. I replied to her that I wished I could go back, but that I couldn’t.”

The mass evictions of Syrian refugees that occurred with increasing frequency in the last quarter of 2017 show no sign of being the result of a coherent national plan, but rather an ad hoc response that appears in some municipalities that – except for Tamnine al-Tahta – are predominantly Christian. All the Syrian refugees interviewed identified as Muslim, though humanitarian agencies have also documented the eviction of Syrian Christians. Most of those interviewed attributed their eviction, in part, to their religious identity.

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On February 21, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Lebanese Ministries of Interior and Municipalities, Social Affairs, Education and Higher Education, and the Displaced, with questions relating to the report’s findings. In a letter to Human Rights Watch received on April 12, the Ministry of Social Affairs said it is “the body authorized to manage cases of eviction,” but that “it does not provide cash assistance; its role is to secure approval for alternative spaces and to secure plots of land on which to set up alternative camps.” The plan the Ministry said it had agreed to in cooperation with UNHCR appeared to relate to large-scale relocations of refugees living in informal tented settlements, such as the relocation of refugees from the Rayak air base to a new camp in Bar Elias, but did not directly address the situation of Syrian refugees evicted from municipalities.

Relevant ministries of the Lebanese government, including the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, should intervene to prevent municipal-level mistreatment of Syrian refugees and to ensure that they are not left homeless and destitute as a result of unlawful actions, Human Rights Watch said.

“Countries gathered at the Friends of Syria meeting should increase support to Lebanon to enable it to meet its legal and humanitarian obligations toward the refugees,” Frelick said. “For their part, Lebanese leaders should curb rhetoric that encourages or condones forced evictions, expulsions, and other discriminatory and harassing treatment of refugees in Lebanon.”

Nepal: New Government Needs to Prioritize Rights

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 19, 2018

Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli signs the oath of office papers next to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari in Kathmandu, Nepal, February 15, 2018.

© 2018 Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

(New York) – Nepal’s newly elected government led by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli should take steps to address key human rights issues, Human Rights Watch said today. The rights organization sent a letter to the prime minister outlining major areas to address.

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“Twelve years after the conflict ended, victims of Nepal’s decade-long civil war are still waiting for justice, answers, and meaningful reparations,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The prime minister should seize the opportunity to set a regional example in post-conflict justice.”

To date, two transitional justice mechanisms have begun documenting cases and complaints, but they have been hampered by an inadequate law that does not meet international standards, as well as a severe lack of capacity and proper support from the government.

In a welcome development, the attorney general has recently pledged to amend the law setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and bring it into conformity with orders from the Supreme Court. However, for proper justice, there needs to be a robust mechanism for investigations and prosecutions, including ensuring the full cooperation of both parties to the conflict to establish command responsibility and identify perpetrators of abuses that include torture, killings, disappearances, and rape.

“Nepal’s civil war ended in 2006, but the victims continue to pin their hopes on a justice process through the transitional justice mechanisms,” Adams said.

The prime minister should seize the opportunity to set a regional example in post-conflict justice. Brad Adams

Asia Director

Human Rights Watch noted that there are victims of other tragedies similarly waiting for answers and relief. Earthquake victims from three years ago are yet to receive adequate support that was initially pledged, largely due to political wrangling over disbursement.

This has been a particular concern especially for those most vulnerable or marginalized. Victims of the violence which erupted in the Terai in 2015 are similarly without justice or reparations. A government-commissioned report looking into the violence has been delivered to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari, but it has not been made public and its findings are unknown. Human Rights Watch called on the government to make the report public and act on its recommendations.

Other rights issues remain to be tackled. There is urgent need for security sector reform to ensure accountability and rights protections. Women and girls in some areas continue to be subjected to the forbidden practice of chaupadi, the forced segregation of females during their menstrual cycle.

Nepal has a high rate of child marriage with 37 percent of girls marrying before the age of 18, and 10 percent before the age of 15. Flawed citizenship laws disproportionately affect the capacity of women and girls to access identification and other documentation.

“We recognize that all these human rights problems cannot be resolved overnight, but we call on the prime minister to make it clear to his government and Nepali citizens that addressing these rights abuses takes priority,” Adams said. “We welcome the positive initiatives taken so far, but they must translate into more than paperwork and promises.”

US Supreme Court Ends Vague Basis for Deportation

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 19, 2018

Police officers stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

The Supreme Court of the United States took a small step this week towards a fairer immigration system, eliminating one particularly troubling legal provision under which immigrants can be deported.

On Tuesday, the court struck down one part of the “aggravated felony” definition in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which was an vague catch-all basis for deportation of some immigrants on criminal grounds.

The provision struck down vaguely defines a “crime of violence” and is just one of 35 provisions that allow for deportations after conviction for an “aggravated felony.” That still leaves 34 types of crime that can trigger deportation including rape, murder, forgery, tax evasion, and trafficking in vehicles.

Tuesday's decision involved the deportation of James Dimaya, a Philippines native who legally immigrated to the US when he was 13. He was convicted of two charges of burglary in California, prompting the government to initiate deportation proceedings.

An immigrant being deported as an “aggravated felon” faces nearly mandatory deportation and cannot defend on the basis of being a legal permanent resident, strong family ties, or a lengthy residence in the US. As Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her opinion for the court, deportation is "a virtual certainty" for people convicted of aggravated felonies. Though this was not the basis for the Court’s decision, the mandatory nature of these deportations without regard to an immigrant’s connections to the US runs contrary to human rights law.

Following the ruling, President Trump tweeted that Congress must “pass a legislative fix to ensure violent criminal aliens can be removed from our society.” Neither President Trump nor a similar statement issued by DHS acknowledge the wide range of bases for deportation on criminal grounds that remain in place.

Human Rights Watch has long documented how the US immigration deportation system leads to arbitrary deportations often void of due process, and without weighing factors such as being the parent of a US citizen child. These deportations are especially harsh for long-term residents who are being removed and separated from their families after criminal convictions, including for relatively minor crimes.

While the Supreme Court’s ruling brings the US one small  step closer to a system that treats immigrants fairly, harmful deportations of deeply rooted immigrants will continue until Congress reforms laws that strike a better balance between  the often profound human rights impacts of removal , and the US government’s interest in deporting a person. 

Greece’s Highest Court Rules to Better Protect Asylum Seekers

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 19, 2018

Greece refugee in wheel chair

Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, ordered the government to end its policy of trapping asylum seekers on its islands and refusing to move them to safer conditions on the mainland.

This ruling, handed down on Tuesday, means new asylum seekers and migrants who arrive by sea via Turkey will now be allowed to move the mainland where they can access services and be humanely accommodated. However, the ruling does not apply to asylum seekers who are already contained on the islands, before the court’s decision.

By the latest government count, more than 15,400 asylum seekers are on the Greek islands, many of them in filthy and vastly overcrowded centers. Our research shows that people – including women and children are forced to sleep in flimsy tents or on the ground, even through the winter. There is little access to medical care, education, or other basic services.

Trapped: Asylum Seekers in Greece

In this special feature, Emina Ćerimović and photographer Zalmaï investigate the mental health crisis facing asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos.

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While conditions on the mainland need improvement, they are much better than on the islands. Facilities there are not too crowded, and people are protected from rain, wind, and extreme temperatures. They are also safer. People also have better access to services such as hospitals and specialized health care, and children can enroll in school.

Last December, 13 nongovernmental groups, including Human Rights Watch, launched the #OpenTheIslands campaign, calling on Greece to transfer asylum seekers to the mainland before winter. Since the launch, almost 9,000 asylum seekers have been transferred.

Greece, with the support of the European Union, justifies its “containment policy” keeping asylum seekers on the islands because of an EU-Turkey deal, designed to curb migration to mainland Europe by returning asylum seekers to Turkey. But Greek appeals courts have blocked most returns of asylum seekers to Turkey, which cannot be considered safe under EU asylum law.

With numbers of arrivals on the islands rising, some EU governments have expressed concern that mainland transfers could encourage greater numbers of people to make the journey. But the migration route onwards to Western Europe through the Western Balkans is largely closed, making Greece a less attractive transit destination.

The Council of State’s ruling is an important reminder that migration control concerns cannot justify trapping people in abusive conditions for months on end. As authorities implement the ruling, they should not forget the 15,000 or so who are already stuck on the islands. And Greece’s partners need to share responsibility for managing arrivals rather than pressing Greece to maintain abusive policies.

Britain Formally Pledges to Protect Schools in Wartime

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 19, 2018

Naxalite fighters exploded two bombs in Belhara High School, Jharkhand, on the evening of April 9, 2009. One bomb, on the school’s lower floor, blasted a hole in the wall between two classrooms, as well as the outside wall.

© 2009 Bede Sheppard/Human Rights Watch

Britain’s announcement today that it is backing the Safe Schools Declaration is as important as it is timely. The Declaration, in which governments pledge to not use schools for military purposes and to protect them during military operations, has now been signed by 74 countries, including the majority of NATO and EU member states.

Human Rights Watch and others have championed this declaration because in too many armed conflicts around the world, schools are attacked or used for military deployments. Rebel groups and government forces have bombed and shelled schools and universities. Many schools have also been turned into military bases or barracks. The presence of fighters puts students in the line of fire, makes them vulnerable to recruitment as child soldiers, and leaves girls at particular risk of sexual violence.

This phenomenon has had a hugely negative impact - deterring and preventing vast numbers of children, especially girls, from getting an education.

The Safe Schools movement sends the message that all schools – no matter what’s unfolding around them – should be a place of safety and sanctuary.

Britain’s decision to join the Declaration is the result of months of campaigning Human Rights Watch and other organizations. Signing the Declaration won’t affect British military operations overseas much, because the British military already has some of the world’s strongest regulations on protecting schools in wartime.

What joining the Declaration does do, however, is two key things. Firstly, it strengthens the growing global consensus that schools need to be safe places for all children to learn, develop and thrive. Secondly, it allows Britain to use its influence to support countries where attacks on schools are commonplace – such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic – and to encourage, persuade, and support these governments to get soldiers out of schools and get children into them.

Before signing the Declaration, Britain could not have done this without seeming hypocritical. But now it can lead by proud example.

Can A Jailed UAE Activist Become a Mascot for Manchester? 

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ahmed Mansoor speaks to Reuters in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 30, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

More than a year after he disappeared into the custody of United Arab Emirates security services, with almost no news of his whereabouts or wellbeing, the prominent UAE activist Ahmed Mansoor suddenly reappeared last week. 

Not, as his family might have hoped, to walk free after more than 365 days of arbitrary imprisonment. Instead it was to appear in an Abu Dhabi court to face charges of publishing “false information” on social media.

Until he was snatched from his family home in the UAE at dawn on March 20 last year, Mansoor was one of the country’s last outspoken critics. Despite being harassed for years by the Emirati state, he fought peacefully for the rights of others, including political prisoners, and won a prestigious award for his activism. His arrest and disappearance have effectively silenced him, but others are determined that Mansoor and his work should not be forgotten. 

Some 4,000 miles away in Manchester, a group of residents have launched a campaign to name a street after the jailed activist in a bid to highlight his plight and broader human rights abuses in the UAE. 

Why Manchester?

Because the UAE, through its deputy leader Sheikh Mansour, has invested billions of pounds into both the city and its eponymous football club that he owns, Manchester City. 

The UAE, and the many public relations firms it employs, likes to paint the Emirates as a modern, reform-oriented country – and Sheikh Mansour’s investments in Manchester and English football only reinforces this. But this is nothing more than a rosy fiction so long as the UAE continues to lock up activists, journalists, and critics. 

So it’s right and welcome that Manchester citizens are starting to ask why their city is being used to launder the UAE’s reputation.

And it’s a question that Ahmed Mansoor may well be asking himself as he enters his 14th month of illegal detention.

US: Don’t Transfer Detainee to Possible Torture

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 19, 2018

(Washington, DC) – The United States government should not transfer a US citizen detained abroad to the custody of any country where he faces a substantial risk of torture, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 17, 2018, the US filed notice in US federal court indicating it plans to transfer the detainee to another government’s custody, which media reports suggest is Saudi Arabia or Iraq. 

The US should either prosecute the detainee in US federal court if there is evidence he committed a crime, or release him, Human Rights Watch said.

“The US should not be transferring anyone to a country where they face a risk of torture or ill-treatment,” said Laura Pitter, senior US national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The detainee has the right to contest his transfer to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or any other country where he might face torture.”

The US government has been holding the prisoner, a dual US and Saudi citizen identified only as “John Doe” in court papers, at an undisclosed military prison in Iraq since he surrendered to US-allied forces in Syria in September 2017. According to media reports and court filings, the US suspects the detainee of being a low-level fighter with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). In court filings the detainee disputes this, asserting he travelled to Syria to report on the conflict but was kidnapped and imprisoned by ISIS and tried numerous times to escape. The US has not publicly charged him with a criminal offense. The April 17 notice was filed in US Federal Court for the District of Columbia indicating that it intended to transfer him to an undisclosed country within the next 72 hours. 

The US initially contested attempts to permit the detainee access to a lawyer but after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued, a US federal court ordered the government to permit the ACLU access. The ACLU challenged his detention in court ever since, as well as the government’s ability to transfer him to another country. On January 23, US District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ordered the US government to give the court 72 hours’ notice if it intended to transfer the prisoner, which would permit the ACLU to file an emergency motion to block the transfer, which it did on April 18

The United Nations Convention against Torture, which the US ratified in 1994, prohibits transferring anyone to the custody of another country where there are substantial grounds for believing that the individual would be in danger of being subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.  

In Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch has documented the use of torture in detention facilities. There have also been numerous cases in which criminal suspects alleged abuse in court. However, the courts, without investigating the claims, instead based convictions on allegedly coerced confessions. In Iraq, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of torture of captured extremist suspects, as well as sham trials followed by executions.

“It’s bad enough that the US has been detaining this individual for months, fighting his right to contest his detention and access to legal counsel,” Pitter said. “If the US now intends to transfer him to another country, it needs to make sure he won’t face a risk of torture and can challenge the transfer.”

Police in Armenia Detain Dozens of Demonstrators

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 19, 2018

Thousands of people continue to flood Armenia’s capital Yerevan, protesting the former president’s shift to the prime minister’s seat after his two terms as President finished. Opponents of Serzh Sargsyan see this as an attempt to hold onto power as the country moves to a new parliamentary system of governance. Sargsyan was officially approved as the new prime minister on Tuesday.


Protest against Armenia's ruling Republican party's nomination of former President Serzh Sarksyan as its candidate for prime minister, in Yerevan, Armenia April 13, 2018.

© 2018 Grigor Yeritsyan

The Yerevan demonstrations have been led by prominent opposition parliament member Nikol Pashinian. In acts of civil disobedience, the protesters have blocked government buildings in the city center and paralyzed major streets and bridges. The protests have been mostly peaceful, but brief clashes with police on April 16 left 46 people injured, including six policemen.

In recent days, police have rounded up scores of protesters throughout the city. Officials say they detained, and subsequently released, 87 demonstrators on April 18, 30 of whom face administrative charges. Of those not charged, it seems that police detained many of them not because of their own behavior but as witnesses in ongoing investigations into “holding rallies in violation of the established procedures,” or “participation in mass riots”. For example, a lawyer for 13 people held in Yerevan’s Erebuni police station told Human Rights Watch that her clients were detained around 11am on April 18, held for several hours, handed down summons and then questioned as witnesses in an ongoing investigation. Another lawyer shared a similar story of about 20 people being interrogated as witnesses in another precinct.

While police can detain protesters who commit wrongdoing, many of these detentions appear arbitrary, as the protesters seem to have done nothing but legitimately exercise their right to freedom of assembly. Under Armenian law, a witness can be detained for interrogation only if they fail to comply with summons to appear.  That was not the case for those detained at these protests. Armenian law also only allows detention for up to three hours before the detention has to be recorded or the person released, yet in some cases, police held detainees up to nine hours without doing so.

One should not underestimate the challenges Armenia’s police are facing in maintaining law and order, but the ongoing protests are no justification to arbitrarily detain people.

Iraq: ISIS Suspects’ Homes Confiscated

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, April 19, 2018
(Beirut) – Iraqi security officers are denying immediate relatives of suspected Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members security clearance to reclaim homes being occupied or to seek compensation, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces have also destroyed or confiscated some property. Such acts, based only on family relationships to ISIS suspects rather than individual security determinations, are a form of collective punishment.   Expand

Graffiti that reads "Daesh (ISIS)," marks the home of relatives of an ISIS member in a west Mosul neighborhood, Iraq. 

© 2018 Private   “These families deserve the same protections that Iraqi courts provide to all citizens,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Courts should be the guarantors against discrimination that will only further sectarian divisions in the country and delay needed reconciliation.”   Human Rights Watch has previously reported on the obstacles families of suspected ISIS members face in obtaining the civil documentation required to sue or to apply for compensation. The Ministry of Interior’s Intelligence and National Security Service (NSS) requires a security screening to get these documents, but families automatically fail if their relatives are on a list of people wanted for ISIS affiliation.   Hamid al-Zerjawi, deputy National Security Service chief, told Human Rights Watch on April 17, 2018 that families of suspects should not have trouble getting security clearance based on their relatives’ status, but did not deny that this may be happening at the local level.   Five lawyers, Mosul’s former police chief, and a senior Mosul court judge told Human Rights Watch that Iraqi security forces or other families have seized the property of relatives of suspected ISIS members since November 2016, when government forces began to retake the city from ISIS, although none were able to provide citywide statistics. The lawyers said they know of at least 16 instances in which federal and local security forces have occupied the homes of families of suspected ISIS members who temporarily fled during 2016 fighting, preventing the families from returning. In five other instances, security forces forced families out and occupied the homes. In two cases, families who had taken over homes later refused to move out or pay rent.   A community leader in the east Mosul neighbourhood of Hadba said in February that in April 2017 he had tried to help an old woman whose apartment had been occupied by displaced families from west Mosul to get them to pay rent. But NSS and local police intelligence officers intervened, telling her she could not ask for rent because her son had joined ISIS and warned her not to return. The community leader said he could not help her.   Nawfa Hadi Hussain, 54, who lives in a camp south of Mosul, said on March 8 that she owns a house in Somar neighborhood, in west Mosul, which her family had been renting out for years. But she said that in December, the tenants refused to pay, apparently believing they could get away with it because two of her sons had joined ISIS. She said she tried to go to court but was met by an intelligence officer who told her: “You are an ISIS family, you have no more rights. The judge said that if you don’t leave how, we should break your legs.” She didn’t believe that the judge said that, but was unable to enter the courthouse.   Human Rights Watch spoke with seven other people with information about house expropriations in Mosul. They cited cases in Zahra, Khadra, Tayaran, Wahda, and Hadba neighborhoods, where various forces engaged in the expropriations, including local police, Federal Police, and the Popular Mobilization Forces. Altogether, they said they knew about 16 expropriations of homes registered to ISIS suspects or their relatives. In each case, the owners or their relatives were unable to retake the property, even when they sought judicial redress.   Human Rights Watch also spoke to two families with relatives who joined ISIS who said when they returned home, all their possessions had been looted. Wathad Obeid, 42, from Tal Rumman neighborhood in west Mosul, returned in May 2017 after fleeing three months earlier when relatives told her the house was being looted. She said she found “Daesh” [another term for ISIS] written on the walls, and was told by a water deliveryman that he would only give her two gallons because her son had joined ISIS. “I left after a few days because I didn’t feel comfortable there,” she said, and the army refused to let her relatives move in to protect the house.   Um Nasir, 65, from Tanak neighborhood in west Mosul, said she fled her home to a camp in March 2017, but returned in June, after neighbors told her the house had been burned, with “Daesh” written on the wall. She lived with her daughter and granddaughter in a small side room that had not been destroyed. In September, Federal Police came to the home, she said, claiming that neighbors had complained about their presence, as an “ISIS family.”   “I said to them, it was only one of my son’s but my daughter, granddaughter, all the rest of us are clean,” she said. “They got angry when I said that and stormed in, and started destroying our water pipes, water tank, dishes, furniture, everything. I left early the next morning, and since then our relatives have told us we can’t come home.”   Abdulsattar al-Habu, Mosul’s Municipality Manager, admitted that some security forces were unlawfully occupying homes of families of ISIS members, but said that judges were able to address these cases. Their cases cannot go forward without the security clearance, however.   Article 23 of Iraq’s Constitution (2005) prohibits the expropriation of property, except for the public benefit and in return for just compensation. The 1951 Civil Code lays out the main legal mechanism for legal protections and actions to remove “adverse possessors” (Article 1150) and “usurpers” (Articles 192-201).   But Mosul’s former police chief, Wathiq al-Hamdani, told Human Rights Watch that if a home is registered in the name of the individual ISIS member, a judge can legally expropriate the home in the name of the state, and even give the house to another owner. He said he knew of cases in which property had been expropriated.   A judge at Nineveh’s Appeals Court said on April 4 that this was justified under the counterterrorism law, provision 6(2): “All funds, seized items, and accessories used in the criminal act or in preparation for its execution shall be confiscated.” The head judge of the court disagreed, saying it was stretching the meaning of the provision, but conceded that some forces in Mosul, including the police, were occupying homes illegally in this manner.   Law No. 20, Compensating the Victims of Military Operations, Military Mistakes and Terrorist Actions (2009) created governmental commissions to compensate Iraqis affected by terrorism, military operations, and military errors, including for an apartment, land, or financial support to build a house. Mosul’s compensation commission denied to Human Rights Watch on April 4 that families of ISIS members are barred from receiving compensation, saying they should be able to obtain the required NSS security clearance to do so.   But an aid worker and a lawyer experienced in seeking the security clearances said that all families of ISIS suspects are being denied clearance. As a result, every family interviewed with a relative who had joined ISIS said they saw no point in trying to file for compensation.   It is a basic rule under international law that punishment for crimes should only be imposed on people responsible for the crimes, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or entire communities is strictly forbidden and can itself be a crime, especially if it results in forced displacement. Iraqi authorities should also respect the basic human rights of everyone in the country including the right to respect property and the home, and to avoid forced evictions.   “The prime minister needs to show that his office takes a clear stand against this form of collective punishment and will combat it at its root,” Fakih said. “He should order the intelligence services to give these families security clearance and make clear that people who commit crimes should be fairly tried and punished, but not entire families.”

Pardons No Substitute for Reform in Myanmar

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Expand Police officers guard in front of Insein prison while prisoners walk out, who are part of the over 8,000 inmates released to mark Myanmar’s new year amnesty announced by Myanmar's President Win Myint, in Yangon, Myanmar on April 17, 2018.   © 2018 Reuters / Anna Wang The Myanmar government has ordered the release of three dozen political prisoners, a welcome step that still leaves scores in detention or on trial on politically motivated charges, according to local monitors. Real reform in Myanmar will require stripping away the architecture of repression and ending prosecutions of the government’s critics.

Yesterday, newly elected President Win Myint followed the tradition of releasing prisoners on the first day of the Myanmar New Year by announcing the release of more than 8,500 prisoners, including 36 political prisoners. These releases are commonly referred to as “amnesties” but are, in reality, pardons, which do not absolve those released of their crimes or the legal consequences.

Among those released were Lahpai Gam, an ethnic Kachin farmer, and two religious leaders from Kachin State, Dumdaw Nawng Latt and Langjaw Gam Seng. All of them faced a battery of charges, including under the Unlawful Associations Act, a broadly worded law that has been routinely used for decades to imprison those suspected of having any contact with opposition armed groups.

Among those not pardoned were Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are on trial for allegedly violating the Official Secrets Act, and face up to 14 years in prison. The men were arrested after meeting with two police officers as part of an investigation the journalists were conducting into the massacre of 10 ethnic Rohingya men in northern Rakhine State during last year’s military-led campaign of ethnic cleansing that drove nearly 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. Calls for their release by the United Nations secretary-general, donor governments, media, and human rights groups have gone unheeded.  

If Myanmar officials including President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and the plethora of former political prisoners who sit in parliament representing the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) want to empty the prisons of political prisoners, they should reform or repeal the many overbroad and vaguely worded laws that have been used to silence activists, journalists, and those simply exercising their rights to peaceful expression. The yearly ritual of pardons is no substitute for reform, nor does it absolve the NLD of its responsibility to end these injustices once and for all.

Theresa May ‘Deeply Regrets’ Colonial Anti-LGBT Laws

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May hosts a meeting with leaders and representatives of Caribbean countries, at 10 Downing Street in London April 17, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

Meeting Commonwealth leaders this week, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed regret for Britain’s role in criminalizing same-sex conduct in its former colonies. “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country,” she said. “They were wrong then and they are wrong now.” May added that the UK government would support reform of legislation that discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in former colonies.

It’s a welcome symbolic step towards justice for LGBT people affected by colonial-era “sodomy laws,” which had a wide-ranging impact and still exist in 36 of the 53 Commonwealth countries. The Human Rights Watch report, “This Alien Legacy”, shows how laws criminalizing consensual same-sex conduct were introduced across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific, and the Caribbean under British rule, contributing to a climate of hostility against LGBT people. Human Rights Watch has documented how they still contribute to violence and discrimination against LGBT people in the Eastern Caribbean, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Kenya, Burma, Nigeria, Uganda, and Jamaica.

December 17, 2008 Report This Alien Legacy

The Origins of "Sodomy" Laws in British Colonialism

Recognizing the weight of historical injustice is one step towards justice for LGBT people in the Commonwealth. Elsewhere, governments have created policies compensating victims of discriminatory laws, including Germany, where the Bundestag voted to compensate gay and bisexual men convicted and imprisoned for consensual same-sex conduct, and Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for state discrimination and created a US$100 million Canadian fund to compensate former government employees.

Activists in former British colonies have gained tremendous ground, including decriminalization of consensual same-sex acts in Belize and Trinidad and Tobago. In India and Kenya, courts have committed to hearing decriminalization cases.

May should urge heads of government at tomorrow’s executive session of Commonwealth leaders to reform these laws. The UK government should also support organizations that grapple with the alien legacy of criminalization, and support activists working at the grassroots to reform discriminatory laws. As colonial-era sodomy laws fall and organizations like the Commonwealth Equality Network challenge inequality based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Commonwealth leaders should take action to stop human rights abuses against LGBT people.

In recognizing the injustice inflicted by its colonial-era laws, the UK has an opportunity to make amends. The UK should work to return dignity and equality before the law to LGBT people in the Commonwealth.

Syria: Justice Needed for 7 Years of Abuse

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Catherine Marchi-Uhel, head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), attends a news conference on Syria crimes at the United Nations in Geneva, September 5, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

(New York) – UN member states should fully fund and cooperate with a new UN team to gather and preserve evidence of serious crimes in Syria for future prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 18, 2018, the head of the new team, Catherine Marchi-Uhel, will brief the General Assembly for the first time.

“With new atrocities every day and the Security Council in deadlock, the General Assembly has an urgent responsibility to champion justice for crimes in Syria,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “UN member states should support credible investigations into abuses in Syria to make clear that there will be a price for the atrocities there.”

The General Assembly created the team, formally the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), in an unprecedented December 2016 resolution in response to a stalemate on Syria at the UN Security Council, where Russia had used its veto six times since 2011 to block council action on the Syrian conflict. Since then, Russia has used its veto on six additional occasions to obstruct resolutions related to chemical weapons use in Syria. By establishing the IIIM, the General Assembly demonstrated the positive role it can play on issues when the Security Council is blocked, Human Rights Watch said.

The new team is tasked with gathering, preserving, and analyzing potential evidence for use in courts that may have a mandate over serious crimes in Syria now or in the future. Significantly, it will also prepare files on specific individuals to facilitate criminal proceedings. In its first report to the General Assembly, the IIIM provided an overview of its objectives, progress, and main challenges.

One key hurdle to the team’s work is raising the necessary funds to carry out its mandate. For now, it relies on voluntary contributions from individual countries, including to recruit professional staff and to set up vital security systems. To date, 38 countries around the world and the European Union have pledged support totaling about US$11 million, toward an estimated 2018 budget of US$14 million.

The top funders include the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Canada, and Finland, each of which has pledged over $1 million. Countries committed to justice for crimes on all sides of Syria’s conflict should similarly step forward to provide the team with the resources it needs to carry out its important work, Human Rights Watch said.

The reliance on voluntary contributions makes it difficult for the team to plan and organize its work over the long-term, Human Rights Watch said. To address this concern and following its decision to revisit the funding issue, the General Assembly asked the UN secretary-general in December 2017 to include the necessary funding in his next budget proposal. UN member states should reiterate their support to move the funding to the regular UN budget as soon as possible.

Other challenges the team faces include processing the large volume of material available on abuses in Syria, gaining access to Syrian territory for on-site investigations, building bridges with victims, collaborating with other documentation groups, and liaising with national judicial authorities that may be pursuing cases against those accused of serious crimes in Syria.

In the resolution that created the team, the General Assembly said that all countries, the UN system, and civil society should cooperate with it to facilitate its work. On April 3, 28 Syrian organizations concluded an agreement with the team to help guide their cooperation, including transferring data, protecting victims and witnesses, and outreach and communication.

The IIIM is likewise discussing a cooperation agreement with the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and is in touch with the UN Secretariat to access material from the now non-operational Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). States should also share relevant information and documentation that they have about crimes in Syria and amend national laws to enable any necessary cooperation with the team, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch and 46 other human rights and humanitarian organizations have appealed to the secretary-general to appoint a team of investigators to determine responsibility for the more than 85 chemical attacks that have taken place in Syria since August 2013. This is necessary since Russia has repeatedly vetoed extending the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons limits its investigations to determining whether a chemical attack has occurred, but not who was responsible. The results of an investigation aimed at determining responsibility could feed into the ongoing work of the IIIM.

The team, working in partnership with others, will undoubtedly contribute to ongoing and future domestic and international processes for justice, Human Rights Watch said. Criminal justice authorities in several countries, including Sweden, Germany, and France, are already investigating people alleged to have committed serious crimes in Syria, such as torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The new team can support these efforts by sharing its case files, where appropriate, to assist with prosecutions.

“The establishment of the IIIM was an important step forward on justice for grave abuses in Syria after years of unchecked atrocities,” Jarrah said. “The General Assembly’s decision to act in the face of blocked action at the UN Security Council is the beginning of a determined push to bring justice to victims in Syria.”


Northern Ireland Rape Trial Highlights Rough Deal for Victims

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A rally held in support of the woman at the centre of the Belfast rape trial in which all four defendants including Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of all charges, Belfast, March 31, 2018.

© Felix McHenry/Twitter

An unlikely source took a stance on respect for women: professional rugby. Two Northern Ireland players had their contracts revoked following their widely publicized rape prosecution.

Both players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were acquitted of rape of a woman in 2016 when she was 19, but the trial revealed several players’ text messages bragging about what they considered sexual conquests, while referring to the woman in degrading, nauseating terms. On Saturday, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and Ulster Rugby let the players go for failure to uphold “core values of the game,” including respect and integrity.

These sports bodies have taken an important – and sadly uncommon – step in doling out consequences for unacceptable behaviour, even if it was spurred by financial concerns.

But in the Belfast courtroom, the woman herself seemed to be on trial. She was subjected to eight days of cross-examination by four lawyers. They critiqued everything from her grammar to the fact she didn’t scream for help. She reportedly had to withstand jurors inspecting her underwear. And though a curtain shielded her from the accused, inside was a video camera broadcasting her face to the courtroom, which was open to the public. One reporter called it “rape trial tourism” as visitors came for the spectacle. Is it any wonder the victim’s identity – sexual assault victims are guaranteed anonymity in the media –  was revealed on social media?

For my work with Human Rights Watch, I document rape and other horrific rights abuses daily. Yet the Belfast rape trial brought me to tears, repeatedly.

Protests in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in the trial’s wake underscore the public’s concern about sexual violence and treatment of its victims. Leaders in Northern Ireland have promised to review and reform legal protections in sexual assault cases. But political deadlock stands in the way of forming a government and any legislative action.

When Northern Ireland has a government, it should prioritize these reforms, in line with international guidance. This includes closing the courtroom to the public and minimizing how often victims must recount their experiences. It should also grant sexual assault victims the right to legal representation.

Other professional sports organizations should follow the rugby teams’ lead and not excuse sexist, degrading conduct. But without legal reform, rape victims in Northern Ireland are likely to think even harder before they dare come forward to seek justice.

Folk Singer’s Arrest Shows India’s Free Speech Problem

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, April 17, 2018

S. Kovan in the video of one of his controversial songs.

© vinavu.com

Police in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state arrested well-known folk singer S. Kovan last week for singing a song at a protest meeting that criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The arrest was in response to a complaint filed by a supporter of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kovan, whose music video of the song went viral on YouTube, is currently out on bail, but is charged with promoting communal enmity and disturbing “public tranquility.”

With his controversial songs and provocative lyrics, Kovan, a member of the Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam, or People’s Art and Literary Association, is no stranger to the wrath of the authorities. In 2015, he was arrested for sedition for songs criticizing Tamil Nadu’s state government.

Such acts of government suppression have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

A 2016 Human Rights Watch report found that India’s laws on sedition, criminal defamation, hate speech, and public order are often used against journalists, activists, artists, writers, and cartoonists to crack down on speech that is critical of the authorities. Yet political and religious leaders in India continue to make hate-filled public comments that have incited violence without facing any consequences. Those publicly critical of Hindu nationalist ideology get labeled “anti-national,” and become vulnerable to both physical attack and prosecution under the sedition laws.

The authorities have also curbed free speech by submitting to demands made by mobs and interest groups. In January, for example, several BJP-led state governments relented after a militant Hindu group demanded a ban on a period drama movie that it claimed would upset some communities. And last November, district authorities in Lucknow city canceled a literature festival after protesters from BJP-affiliated groups disrupted it.

Misguided government efforts to control the proliferation of fake news have provoked outrage. Earlier this month, the Indian government was quickly forced to rescind a policy that would have penalized journalists for publishing undefined “fake news.”

Instead of arresting folk singers, India should work to protect freedom of expression and not empower the political leaders, pressure groups, and mobs who seek to restrict free speech for their own ends.