IHRP external news feeds

Symposium: Walking the Fine Line between Apology and Utopia: A Reply to Trahan, Helal, and Schabas on A Duty to Prevent Genocide–Due Diligence Obligations among the P5

Opinio Juris - 2 hours 14 min ago
[Dr. John Heieck is a criminal defense lawyer in the US and an independent researcher of genocide and human rights studies.]  I want to reiterate my thanks to Opinio Juris and the International Commission of Jurists for holding this thought-provoking symposium on my new monograph A Duty to Prevent Genocide: Due Diligence Obligations among the P5. I especially want to...

Australia: Vet Foreign Soldiers Receiving Training

Human Rights Watch - 4 hours 50 min ago


The Philippine Navy band welcomes the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessel Her Majesty's Australian Ship (HMAS) Adelaide (III) upon arrival for a goodwill visit as part of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Joint Task Group, Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017, at the Pier 15, south harbor in Metro Manila, Philippines on October 10, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Romeo Ranoco (Sydney) – The Australian government should require human rights vetting for all foreign military personnel who receive Australian training, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Defence Minister Christopher Pyne. The government should adopt a law or regulations that would prohibit training and other assistance to foreign military units and personnel who have been responsible for serious rights violations.

“Australia’s cooperation with often-abusive foreign armed forces means that human rights vetting is crucial for any training of foreign military officers and soldiers,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Foreign forces seeking Australian support should be compelled to deter abuses and hold violators to account.”

In October 2018, Australia’s Department of Defence acknowledged that it does not vet Myanmar military personnel taking part in its training activities, despite the Myanmar military’s long history of war crimes and other abuses.

A recent United Nations report detailed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and possible genocide by Myanmar’s security forces against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State. The report found that the actions of the Myanmar military “so seriously violated international law that any engagement in any form with the Tatmadaw [military], its current leadership, and its businesses, is indefensible.” Since the report, the Australian government has imposed targeted financial sanctions and travel bans against five Myanmar military officers for human rights violations committed by units under their command.

Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to examine the “Leahy Law,” as it is known, in the United States. The law prohibits the US government from using funds for assistance to units of foreign security forces if credible information implicates that unit in committing gross human rights violations.

Australia’s training for the Myanmar military is limited to cooperation in non-combat areas, providing training in relation to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping, and in the English language. However, any military training bestows legitimacy on those who receive it and the Australian government should avoid legitimizing forces involved in widespread and systematic human rights violations.

“Targeted sanctions are an important first step, but we know it’s not just the five Myanmar officers sanctioned by Australia who are responsible for atrocities against the Rohingya,” Pearson said. “Human rights training can only be effective if combined with a will to hold forces accountable. Soldiers who commit murder and rape know it’s wrong, but also know they can get away with it.”

7-Year-Old Migrant Girl Dies in US Border Patrol Custody

Human Rights Watch - 5 hours 15 min ago

The headline alone made my heart sink. “7-year-old migrant girl taken into Border Patrol custody dies of dehydration, exhaustion.” I felt a wave of deep sadness, but no surprise.


A girl stands in the lobby of the Adelanto immigration detention center, in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

The girl was reportedly taken into United States Border Patrol custody last week along with her father. More than eight hours later, she began having seizures. Emergency responders measured her temperature at 105.7 degrees, and according to the Border Patrol, she had not had anything to eat or drink for several days.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch reported how the US Border Patrol is harming children and families by detaining them in inhumane jail-like conditions. Migrant families commonly call the border jails hieleras, or freezers, for their frigid temperatures. These sometimes lack sufficient beds for families, leaving children to sleep on cold concrete floors.

None of this is new. In my five years at Human Rights Watch, I’ve spoken with countless migrants, including families, about their experiences in these abusive detention centers.  One asylum-seeking mother detained with her 18-month old told me this summer that she was worried her daughter was dehydrated. “I'm having a hard time making enough milk, because I'm not getting enough food,” she said. “And I don't want to ask for a doctor because I'm afraid it will hurt my case.”

Another mom from Guatemala I interviewed after she was released from Border Patrol custody in Arizona in 2014 had been detained with her 10-year-old US citizen son. She was bringing him to the US to seek medical care. Her son has a disability that makes it impossible for him to walk, talk, or chew and requires that he eat liquefied food. During their three days in CBP detention, Border Patrol provided no food that her son could eat. “He fainted twice,” the woman said. “I was very worried. I said I needed help and Border Patrol said I couldn’t get help.”

This brave mother put her finger on exactly the problem with US Border Patrol jails. They are built to punish – not to help – and that includes children like the 7-year-old who died last week. Authorities should urgently investigate her case, but more broadly, the US government should be asking itself why children are in these cells in the first place.

Hungary’s Latest Assault on the Judiciary

Human Rights Watch - 7 hours 16 min ago

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the supporters after the announcement of the partial results of parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary, April 8, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

This week, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling party Fidesz rammed a law through parliament that poses a new threat to the independence of the country’s judiciary.

The law creates a separate administrative court system that will handle cases directly affecting basic human rights, such as elections, right to asylum, right to assembly, and complaints of police violence.

Administrative court systems may be familiar to people in France, Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere. The problem in Hungary is that the courts will be at risk of significant political interference by the executive.

The minister of justice has wide-ranging powers under the new law. The minister will get to pick judges and court presidents and decide on promotions and court budgets without any effective judicial oversight, allowing the post enormous potential to control the workings of judges and the courts. The fact that a politician, who is part of the executive branch, will select all judges in a court system responsible for holding the administration and the executive to account makes a mockery of the separation of powers and rule of law.

The government rushed the law through parliament without waiting for the opinion of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body, on the law expected in January 2019. President Janos Ader, whose signature is needed for the law to enter into force, should send the bill back to parliament until the Venice Commission issues its opinion.

This is the latest in a series of assaults on the judiciary and rule of law in Hungary. In its eight years in power, the Orban government has packed the Constitutional Court with its preferred justices and forced 400 judges into retirement. The president of the National Judicial Office, responsible for the administration of the courts and overseeing judicial appointments, is Orban’s close friend’s wife.

Now more than ever, Orban’s counterparts across the European Union and his political allies in the European People’s Party should send the message to Hungarians that they won’t be complicit in Orban’s endeavour to destroy the independence of their judiciary.

France: Police Crowd Control Methods Maim People

Human Rights Watch - 13 hours 4 min ago


Riot police barricade, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, December 8, 2018.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch (Paris) – French police used crowd control and anti-riot tactics during demonstrations in Paris in November and December 2018 that caused physical harm to peaceful demonstrators, including high-school students, and journalists, Human Rights Watch said today. Law enforcement should exercise greater restraint in demonstrations planned to take place on December 15.

French authorities should investigate whether police tactics were necessary and proportional, and should hold officers to account for excessive use of force. Authorities should immediately ensure that in imminent demonstrations, law enforcement officials exercise the greatest possible restraint and resort to force only when strictly necessary, Human Rights Watch said.

“French police have a tough job policing large crowds of gilets jaunes and protests outside suburban schools, but that doesn’t give them carte blanche to use chemical sprays, tear gas grenades, and rubber projectiles,” said Kartik Raj, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tactics which may be legitimate for deterring violent demonstrations are not an appropriate response to people gathered peacefully, and can cause horrific injuries.”

Human Rights Watch documented cases of wounds (including head and neck injuries) caused by direct hits with rubber ball-shaped projectiles shot out of a specialized launcher (known colloquially as “flashballs” because of the trademark of one of the manufacturers); burns and physical injury to limbs from the use of supposedly less-than-lethal tear gas grenades which contain a small, secondary explosive charge; and questionable use of tear gas delivered as a spray.

Human Rights Watch observed riot police using “instant” tear gas grenades and so-called “stingball” grenades (riot control grenades that deliver small rubber balls which create a stinging effect, and can carry an additional payload of tear gas) in Paris on December 8, both in situations where they were confronted with violent protesters and when demonstrators were assembled peacefully and offered no imminent threat to the police or the public. Although their use was potentially justifiable when used to disperse protesters engaged in violence and damage to property, Human Rights Watch assessed that at times the police resorted to their use in a disproportionate and unnecessary manner.

Journalists covering the large gilets jaunes, or “yellow vest,” mobilizations, and students (some of whom were children) taking part in unrelated demonstrations outside high schools were among the victims of the police’s heavy-handed tactics.

From the start of December, students around the country have protested at high schools against proposed educational reforms to the baccalauréat, the final high-school exam, and the university system. Most of these demonstrations have been peaceful, but some have involved violence and damage to property. In some cases, students blockaded schools. Riot police deployed to clear high-school blockades have used heavy-handed tactics, including the use of tear gas and rubber projectiles in situations that did not pose a direct threat to police forces.

Since mid-November, hundreds of thousands of protesters, many wearing gilets jaunes, have taken to the streets every Saturday in mass demonstrations, primarily to show their opposition to the government’s tax policy and to highlight socioeconomic inequality. These have included largely peaceful marches in compliance with police directions, acts of civil disobedience, and some acts of violence including arson, looting, damage to property, and attacks on the police. Law enforcement authorities have dealt with these demonstrations with increasing police deployments and escalating riot control measures.

As of December 11, according to official figures, 1,407 demonstrators and bystanders had been wounded, 46 seriously, in the demonstrations. In addition, 717 law enforcement officers and emergency responders have been classed as “victims of violence.” Six people have died in incidents related to the protests, primarily in traffic accidents. The death of an 80-year-old woman in Marseille on December 1, reportedly after exposure to an “instant” tear gas grenade, is under investigation.

The national human rights institution, the Defender of Rights, and a body that previously carried out the Defender of Rights’ police oversight duties, the National Commission for Ethics in Security, have consistently raised serious concerns about the police use of rubber projectile launchers. In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on France to train law enforcement officials to stop them from using excessive force or nonlethal weapons in situations that do not warrant them. Since 2002, when the French police started to use rubber projectile launchers, their use has resulted in at least one documented death. Several people have been blinded by rubber projectiles, including a demonstrator hurt on December 8, according to media reports.

On December 6, lawyers acting for demonstrators lodged two formal legal complaints against as yet unknown persons for injuries caused by GLI-F4 “instant” tear gas grenades, which contain 25 grams of high-explosives, used by police in Paris on November 24. In December 2017, the Defender of Rights urged the government to provide improved guidance on the use of nonlethal force, including the GLI-F4 grenade. The lawyers have written to the prime minister calling for an end to this weapon for crowd control.

As of December 11, media reports indicated that the General Inspectorate of the National Police, the internal oversight body, had opened 22 investigations into alleged police misconduct following complaints from 15 gilets jaunes, 6 high-school students, and a journalist.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency’s guidance, and the French Police Code of Ethics all stipulate that the use of force, including the use of nonlethal weapons for the purposes of crowd control, is legitimate only when necessary and proportionate.

Authorities should consider stopping the use of tear gas grenades until the guidance around their use has been clarified and direct police to stop using rubber projectiles against peaceful protesters or bystanders or where there is risk of injury to children.

“Heavy-handed policing that harms peaceful protesters isn’t just wrong – it can actually escalate tension and worsen public order,” said Raj. “French authorities should investigate thoroughly all allegations of improper use of force and ‘nonlethal’ weapons, and review police crowd-control guidelines.”

For more detailed accounts, please see below.


Human Rights Watch interviewed six people and spoke or corresponded with lawyers for four other people who reported having suffered injury, and interviewed eight eyewitnesses to these injuries. Seven interviewees were children. A Human Rights Watch observer also monitored the policing of demonstrations across Paris (I, II, XIII, IX, and XI arrondissements) on December 8, 2018, some of which were entirely or largely peaceful, and some of which included demonstrators who engaged in violence and caused significant damage to property.

The names of all children, as well as any adults who requested it, have been anonymized to protect their privacy or ongoing legal proceedings. All interviews were conducted in French or English, without interpretation, in person, by telephone, and/or direct message exchanges. Human Rights Watch informed interviewees of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, and they verbally consented to be interviewed.

Journalists injured by police weapons in demonstrations

At least five journalists, two of whom claim they were wearing clear identifying armbands and/or helmets marked “press,” said they were injured by rubber projectiles fired by riot police during gilets jaunes demonstrations on December 8 (most in Paris, one in Tours). They used the trademark name “flashball” to refer to this kind of weapon, regardless of manufacturer.

Journalist unions and press freedom advocates have made public statements about these incidents and brought complaints to police oversight bodies. They also address other policing practices such as bag searches and confiscation of property which they believe infringe their rights to free expression and to seek, receive, and impart information freely. The French government has responded by saying it respects these rights, and called on journalists to always identify themselves clearly.

Boris Kharlamoff, an audio journalist for A2PRL, reported being hit in his torso outside 103 Champs Elysées Avenue on the afternoon of December 8. Kharlamoff wrote to Human Rights Watch:

On this occasion I took the necessary precautions to work safely: helmet, goggles, a mask and a PRESS armband…The tension was such that police in civilian clothing began to use flashballs against demonstrators. In trying to get myself out of this particularly dangerous situation, I was hit in the right side by a flashball. I fell to the floor, as it hurt terribly. Some demonstrators helped me to a place where I could receive care. I then went to see the emergency services to have the wound assessed. The assessment: a big old bruise, but nothing broken. I have to reiterate that when this happened, I had my PRESS armband clearly visible.

Yann Foreix, a reporter for Le Parisien, spoke with Human Rights Watch to confirm details of his account of a rubber projectile injury sustained on December 8 in Paris. In a written account, accompanied by a photograph of damage to his helmet, he said:

I’ve just taken a flashball shot to the neck. I was shot at from behind from about 2 meters away. At close range. I lost consciousness for a few seconds on the floor, and then I was helped back to my feet by several demonstrators, to whom I’m grateful. I thought it was a paving stone. I was evacuated to a hospital. I’ve had a lot of luck. I’ve been released from hospital in a neck brace. The shot didn’t hit any sensitive areas. A few centimeters to either side and I’m not sure it would have ended the same way.

Nigel Dickinson, an independent photographer, gave Human Rights Watch a detailed account of a rubber projectile injury sustained on December 8 in Paris. He says that although he wasn’t wearing a “press” armband, police should have known he was a journalist because he was wearing a helmet and goggles while standing and taking photographs, and police had confiscated such items from people without press credentials at search cordons around the Champs Elysees. He said:

It was a moment of calm. The nearest person was at least 4 or 5 meters away from me. I have no idea why I was hit. There was no tear gas around at the time. It was just a single shot. It was either aimed or mis-aimed at me in the belly, about five centimeters from my belly button. I’ve traveled around the world as a photographer. I’ve had a lot of injuries, car and motorbike accidents. But after this, the first few days I was in shock. I wasn’t adept at doing things, hesitant when crossing the road, going into the metro or even sticking a postage stamp. It was initially a very sharp stinging pain, and then a throbbing pain. It has stopped me from sleeping properly. It’s not as bad as a broken arm, but the pain has stopped me from having a normal life these last few days.

Dangerous use of ‘instant’ nonlethal grenades with explosive charges

One of the complaints lodged collectively before the High Court of Paris (the Tribunal de grande instance de Paris) by lawyers for several individuals injured by tear gas grenades on November 24, states the following:

Mr GX, FX and MX were at the Champs Elysees roundabout at 6 p.m. when they were impacted by an exploding grenade that appears to have all the characteristics of a GLI-F4 grenade.

Throwing this sort of grenade, given that it is known and established to be dangerous, particularly given the nature of the wounds caused to GX, is a positive act of violence. It is irrelevant that GX, FX and MX were not targeted specifically by the person carrying out the violent act, or that he did not intend to cause the harm…because he voluntarily used this type of weapon in a calm area, without following regulations.

Mr GX has a maimed hand and has suffered multiple skin wounds from grenade debris lodging itself particularly in his right leg and face. GX has been operated upon at Hospital X by Doctor X, working under Professor X, with a surgery of the hand and the upper limb and peripheral nerves aimed at reconstructing his hand…

G.X. was still in hospital on December 13. F.X. and M.X. both suffered multiple skin wounds requiring eight and five days of medical leave.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with the lawyer for U.Y., who in separate complaint lodged before the High Court of Paris alongside that of G.X., said that his client suffered a serious foot injury from a nearby tear gas grenade explosion.

Heavy-handed policing of schools

Human Rights Watch spoke with 10 high-school students, ages 15 to 18, who experienced or witnessed what appears to be disproportionate use by French police of nonlethal but injurious crown-control tactics in response to protests by high-school students in early December.

Lycée Simone de Beauvoir, Garges-lès-Gonesse (95th department, Val d’Oise, northern Parisian suburbs, December 4, 2018)

Human Rights Watch spoke with a 17-year-old high school student, I.W., injured by a rubber projectile fired by the police to his lower face during a blockade of his high school on December 5. During the blockade, some trash cans and a tree were set on fire and a mortier (an improvised firework bomb) had been thrown towards the police forces. I.W. was not posing a threat as the unrest had quieted down, according to a fellow student and a teacher who witnessed the scene. Firing a rubber projectile in that situation appears unjustified and not aimed at neutralizing a direct threat to the police forces.

I.W. was hit in the right cheek by a rubber projectile causing an injury that required an operation under full anesthesia and leaving a scar. He has not been back to school since but expects to return on December 17. He told Human Rights Watch:

I arrived at school at 8.30 a.m. to go to class, I didn’t know that school was going to be blocked. The atmosphere was hectic and people from the nearby housing estate were throwing pebbles and firecrackers. I was standing to one side, I did not feel threatened at all because I was there innocently, I did not do anything, so I thought they could not do anything to me. I was just there as a spectator. One person threw stones four meters in front of me, and that’s when the policeman fired the flashball. It was not justified at all anyway. These little stones wouldn’t have hurt the police, they were just pebbles, easy to dodge. They wear a lot of protection and they are trained to handle these things, so they could have solved the problem other than by firing the flashball. I really did not understand their reason for firing it. It’s total injustice, I did not do anything, and I was shot. I had a great feeling of helplessness in front of them. French justice can’t be like that.

A teacher, who witnessed the events, but preferred to remain anonymous because of ongoing legal proceedings, said:

At the beginning a trash can was set on fire, then a tree caught fire. The headmaster called firefighters and the police. While the firefighters dealt with the fire, the police put on their equipment. I heard them say they were equipping themselves to charge or attack…I went to see them to ask them to calm down. They didn’t listen. I returned to the crowd. The police officers began to point their flashballs from a distance... Then some pebbles, not many and small, were thrown. The tension grew. A police officer close to the firefighters began to act in a provoking way. Then from the “radical” side of the demonstration someone threw a homemade firework bomb. It landed quite far from the police, but it set off the intervention. It was done correctly until the police violently restrained and arrested [another student, whom Human Rights Watch also interviewed]. That took about 30 seconds, which were pretty violent, and then he was handcuffed. After that the police returned to their positions. The protesters went back too. Then there was a second exchange, which took place further away, which I did not see, near the bakery. At that time, the central part [outside the school gate] was calm. I.W. was speaking with other students. I was talking to the students. Then a flashball was shot into I.W.'s head. The group he was with wasn’t doing anything other than just being there. The shot was direct.

Lycée Louis Jouvet, Taverny (95), December 4, 2018

In another high school in Taverny, a suburb north of Paris, police forces used tear gas spray in a manner that appears unjustified. High-school students told Human Rights Watch that policemen used tear gas to direct the students into the school building and that students were not complying with the direction but were not being violent. Video footage confirms this account.

R.Q., a 15-year-old student, said:

On Tuesday, I arrived at school at 9 a.m. and went to class. At the 10 a.m. break, I went out in front of the school. Because some students started blocking the school, I wanted to go home. But the police started blocking students with their shields, they did not let people go home. The police wanted to force us back into high school, but they do not have the right to do that. I was in the crowd that the police officers were pushing when they sprayed us with gas. They sprayed us with gas for nothing...I inhaled a fair amount of the gas, it hurt me, it burned. Two girls near me fell, they fainted. Three people went to the hospital.

Bangladesh: Crackdown as Elections Loom

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 13, 2018

Police rush Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters at a protest on February 9, 2018, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

© 2018 Allison Joyce/Getty Images

(New York) – Bangladesh security forces have been arresting and intimidating opposition figures and threatening freedom of expression in advance of national elections on December 30, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations, European Union, United States, India, China, and others should press the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed to create conditions conducive to a free and fair vote and to prevent campaign violence.

Human Rights Watch research from October to early December found repeated instances of arbitrary security force arrest and detention of protesters and political opposition figures, and acts of violence and intimidation by members of the ruling party’s student and youth wings. The crackdown, and the broad and vaguely worded laws that facilitate it, are contributing to an environment of fear. Institutions including the judiciary and the national election commission do not appear to be fully prepared to independently and fairly resolve disputes around campaigns and elections, such as on registration, candidacies, and results.

“The Awami League government has been systematically cracking down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Members and supporters of the main opposition parties have been arrested, killed, even disappeared, creating an atmosphere of fear and repression that is not consistent with credible elections.”

The Bangladesh authorities should end the crackdown on the political opposition and on free expression ahead of the national elections to ensure Bangladeshis their internationally protected right to choose their government.

Serious problems with the electoral process include surveillance, intimidation, detention, and politically motivated prosecution of key opposition members including party polling agents. Other major concerns include a crackdown on independent media and repressive laws restricting speech, association, and assembly.

There is a blanket of fear spreading over this country and I don’t know when we are going to be freed.

The intensified crackdown began in September. According to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the authorities have brought more than 300,000 politically motivated criminal cases against its party members and supporters and thousands have been arrested. Supporters of the joint opposition group Oikya Front (United Front) have been targeted. Members of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party, which is disqualified from running for elections, have also been arrested. According to a Jamaat spokesperson, 1,858 of its members were arrested between November 1 and December 13.

Allegations against opposition leaders appear arbitrary. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir is facing 46 cases. A standing committee member, Mirza Abbas, faces 42 cases. And the BNP candidate Saiful Alam Nirob, who is running against the home minister, is facing 267 cases.

While Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda said he wanted to ensure “everyone follows the electoral code of conduct,” opposition parties accuse the commission of backing the ruling party. For instance, while only three ruling Awami League candidates were disqualified, 141 from the BNP were rejected.

Anticipating that there might arbitrary disqualifications, the BNP nominated multiple candidates in most constituencies. Lt. Gen. (ret.) Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the BNP standing committee, told the Daily Star, “We feared that the government would create many obstacles, like influencing the Election Commission to cancel nomination papers of our candidates to keep us away from the election.”

With candidates starting to campaign, scores of people have already been injured during political rallies in clashes between rival party supporters. All party leaders should call upon their supporters to refrain from violence. The government should order security forces to use proportionate measures to prevent the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to play an impartial role, and to promptly investigate all credible complaints of violations.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a party, states, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

“Governments concerned for Bangladesh’s future should denounce abuses leading up to the elections, which will deny voters their rights,” Adams said. “The Awami League, which came into office unchallenged five years ago, has since made a mockery of democratic rights, and now donors should make every effort to restore human rights protections.”

Barriers to Genuine Elections in Bangladesh in 2018

After boycotting the previous national elections of 2014, the main opposition parties of Bangladesh have said that they will participate in the December 30 elections, even though the government rejected their demand for a neutral authority to conduct elections, as in 2014. The primary opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is backing a civil society-led initiative to form a political coalition called the Oikya Front (United Front).

However, as Bangladesh waits to vote, repressive measures including widespread surveillance and a crackdown on speech have contributed to a widely described climate of fear, extending from prominent people to ordinary citizens. This and other actions by the ruling Awami League government have created conditions that will undermine the credibility of the elections.

Targeting Political Opposition

Thousands of cases, under a variety of laws, have been filed against leaders and supporters of opposition parties, especially the BNP. The authorities have similarly targeted several of those involved in an effort by civil society leaders to form the Oikya Front. Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamic political party, although disqualified from contesting, alleges that hundreds of its activists have been detained without reason.

The BNP has filed a lawsuit challenging the charges against its members, contending that accusations against many of them are identical, with little more than names, dates, and locations of the purported incidents changed in an otherwise fixed format. It alleges that likely candidates and the party’s polling place monitors are among those charged. According to a BNP leader, Gen. (ret.) Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, nearly 300,000 leaders and activists have been implicated in 3,000 such “false and fabricated” cases.

In many cases, the charges appear to be groundless. In fact, numerous cases have come to light in which accused people are either dead or were abroad or hospitalized at the time of the alleged offense. On October 17, a year to the day after he died, Zasim Uddin Chaudhary, a BNP supporter, was charged with throwing gasoline bombs in Chittagong. Nasrul Islam, who was indicted on September 5, had died five days earlier. Mintu Kumar Das, a Dhaka BNP leader charged with blocking a road on September 11, died in 2007.

Following reports of charges of “planning subversive activities” against people who are dead, abroad, or paralyzed, the inspector general of police, Mohammad Javed Patwary, ordered unit commanders to investigate how these mistakes had been made.

A number of opposition candidates have been attacked in recent days. On December 12, Afroza Khanam Rita, a BNP candidate from Manikganj-3, was attacked while visiting a shrine, allegedly by youth-wing members of the ruling Awami League. In Thakurgaon, the motorcade of BNP Secretary General Fakhrul was attacked on December 11, while he was campaigning. Vehicles accompanying another BNP candidate, Sharifuzzaman Sharif, were attacked on December 10.

Reports of campaign violence, mainly targeting opposition candidates and their supporters, are rapidly multiplying. In many cases the police reportedly denied any knowledge of the incidents.

Several of those arrested during the recent crackdown have said that they were physically abused in custody. In four of the six cases Human Rights Watch investigated, detainees said that they were beaten up after they had been taken to court and then sent back to police custody instead of jail. In the other two cases, the abuse occurred during illegal detention. The abuses described include beating with fists, plastic pipes, or sugar canes; crushing body parts against the floor; and partial drowning.

On March 6, Zakir Hossain Milon, the 38-year-old president of the BNP for the Tejgaon district in Dhaka, was arrested while returning from a “human chain” protest demanding fair elections outside the National Press Club, and later transferred to Shahbagh police station. When he was taken to court on March 11, he told relatives that he had been tortured “a lot,” and asked them to “take care of my [two] kids, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” He died in jail the following day. His family said that his body was covered with black marks and his fingernails had been removed.

Supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, including members of its student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir, have been arrested, and witnesses said that many have been held in secret detention and tortured. A member of Jamaat’s student wing told Human Rights Watch that while he was in the custody of the police Detective Branch earlier in 2018, his interrogators used a stapler on his ears, beat him severely with sticks including on the leg joints and hands, subjected him to simulated drowning, and told him he would be shot.

Denying Freedom of Expression and Association

The pre-election crackdown has been accompanied by suppression of dissent and criticism. A leading member of civil society told Human Rights Watch: “In terms of media space and civil society space, I don’t think we’ve ever had such a bad situation. Even under previous military regimes people had the right to speak up.”

The authorities have used a number of broadly worded laws arbitrarily to constrain journalists, restrict free speech of ordinary citizens, and target the government’s opponents and critics.

May 9, 2018 Report No Place for Criticism

Bangladesh Crackdown on Social Media Commentary

Prior to changes to the law in October, authorities used section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act to jail government critics. Targets of section 57 included Shahidul Alam, a prominent photographer and social activist who was arrested on August 5 and spent 107 days in jail for describing police violence against student protesters on Facebook. He said he was beaten in police custody. Maidul Islam, a Chittagong University professor, was jailed on September 24 for 37 days for his Facebook posts.

People have been arrested for criticizing the government on social media, or even for liking or sharing content. For instance, Nusrat Jahan Sonia, a 25-year-old primary school teacher, was arrested in August and accused of “spreading rumors” simply because she had shared a Facebook post about student protests. Although she was seven months pregnant, her detention was renewed twice before she was eventually released after more than two weeks in jail.

In October, section 57 of the ICT Act was replaced by the Digital Security Act (DSA), which provides even more broadly drawn restrictions on freedom of expression and draconian custodial sentences. Bangladesh’s Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, has said that the law effectively prohibits investigative journalism or publishing anything that could “irritate,” “humiliate,” “embarrass,” or “discredit” the subject of the reporting.

Journalists are under pressure to self-censor or risk arrest, charged under laws ranging from criminal defamation to sedition. A newspaper editor told Human Rights Watch that he currently publishes only “10 to 20 percent” of the news at his disposal. “You have a culture of fear, an environment of fear,” he said. Another newspaper editor estimated that about 50 percent of content is self-censored. A journalist told Human Rights Watch, “There is a blanket of fear spreading over this country and I don’t know when we are going to be freed.”

I don’t think we’ve ever had such a bad situation. Even under previous military regimes people had the right to speak up.

Human rights groups, already constrained by restrictive legislation, are under severe pressure. A human rights activist told Human Rights Watch that his organization is kept under surveillance and that he has had intimidating visits from intelligence agents. “They want to silence dissenting voices,” he said.

Professors describe a climate of fear, intimidation, and surveillance on university campuses. “My friends and family are fearing there will be more attacks,” said a person who was targeted by members of the Awami League. “It’s a state of fear. A few people still speak, but I don’t know for how long.”

On October 11, police lodged a complaint against Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, a well-known public health activist who is also involved in opposition politics, in connection with critical remarks he made about the army chief on a television talk show. The Detective Branch of the police is also investigating Chowdhury for treason.

Internet Surveillance and Violating Privacy

On October 9, the government announced that it had formed a nine-member monitoring cell to detect “rumors” on social media. This cell joins a proliferating number of units and agencies seeking to censor the internet, monitor online communications, and detain users accused of “spreading rumors” or “anti-state activity.” A media report said that “one hundred police teams” operating under the police headquarters’ cybercrime unit have been deployed around the country and “provided with necessary cyber monitoring tools” to monitor social media.

May 10, 2011 Report “Crossfire”

Continued Human Rights Abuses by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion

It is especially alarming that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a paramilitary force implicated in serious human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, has been tasked with monitoring social media for “anti-state propaganda, rumors, fake news, and provocations.” On November 23, members of RAB detained a PhD student, Enamul Haque Mony, as he attempted to fly from Dhaka to his university in South Korea. He was accused of spreading false and anti-government news on the internet.

Both the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission and the Home Ministry’s National Telecommunication Monitoring Center are seeking bids to set up so-called deep packet inspection facilities capable of surveillance and blocking internet activity in the country. On December 10, after 58 news websites were shut down for several hours, the Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu called it a “trial run.” “Similar shutdowns will continue against news portals that publish and circulate fake and baseless news reports,” he warned.

 “The intelligence [services], the police, they are taking full control,” a newspaper editor told Human Rights Watch.

Allegations of Election Commission Bias

In addition to BNP allegations of Election Commission bias and arbitrary disqualification of a number of its candidates, international funders have pulled their financial support for the commission.

In 2014, backers of a massive development program aimed at strengthening democracy in Bangladesh withdrew its financial assistance to the Election Commission due to concerns over its performance and commitment to a nonpartisan role. The program was financed by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and carried out in partnership the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and others.

An evaluation by the UK agency noted that “since 2013, the ECB [Election Commission of Bangladesh] has struggled to maintain its credibility,” and questioned whether the commission had “a clear agenda and proven will for reform.” The UK agency said that the commission had failed to undertake “electoral reforms that would create greater transparency; for example, audits of the voter registry, engagement on campaign financing issues or improving public knowledge on key election issues.”

A subsequent US$20 million project financed by the UK agency is not supporting the Election Commission. Program documents say that DIFD concluded that “the current Commissioners have not sustained the public perceptions of independence from political influence.”

Partisan Role of Security Forces, Institutions

Law enforcement authorities have illegally detained scores of opposition activists and others, holding some of them secretly without taking them before courts, as the law requires. In 2017, Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights organization, recorded 86 cases of enforced disappearance. As of November, it had recorded an additional 71 cases in 2018.

July 6, 2017 Report “We Don’t Have Him”

Secret Detentions and Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh

Sometimes the victims are later released or produced in court, but in some cases, they are later found dead.

Odhikar recorded 12 cases of enforced disappearance in November. On November 18, men claiming to be from the police Detective Branch detained Shohagh Bhuiyan, a member of the BNP student wing. On November 26, men claiming to be from the Detective Branch detained Mohammad Rabiul Awal Shohagh, an online activist, in Comilla district. The whereabouts of both men remain unknown.

The judiciary is also under political pressure and threat from security and intelligence agencies, independent Bangladeshi lawyers and activists have said. In a recent autobiography, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, who fell out with the government over judicial reforms, alleged crude attempts by military intelligence officers to influence the outcome of politically sensitive cases. A law professor told Human Rights Watch that “there is undue influence of the law secretary on the lower court judges,” and described cases in which judges have been transferred for ruling against the security agencies.

China: Repression of Christian Church Intensifies

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 13, 2018


Official seal notices are sticked on a backdoor entrance of the Zion church after it was shutdown by authorities in Beijing, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. 

© 2018 Andy Wong/ AP (New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately release the pastor and scores of members of an independent Protestant church in the southwestern city of Chengdu, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also return church properties and allow the members to resume worship services.

On December 9 and 10, 2018, police officers in Chengdu took into custody Pastor Wang Yi and more than 100 congregants of the Early Rain Covenant Church from the church premises or their homes. Early Rain is considered an “underground” church because it is not registered with the government.

“The shutdown of a Protestant church in Chengdu epitomizes the Xi Jinping government’s relentless assault on religious freedom in China,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “It makes a mockery of the government’s claim that it respects religious beliefs.”

Authorities also ransacked and sealed Early Rain Covenant Church’s properties, including its offices, a kindergarten, a seminary, and a bible college, and searched the homes of many congregants. The police forced church members to sign a pledge that they would not attend the church again and blocked them from going to the church schools. The church’s accounts on China’s social media platform WeChat were also removed.

Some church members, who were later released, said the police had beaten them. One said he was tied to a chair and deprived of water and food for 24 hours. Dozens of church members remained in police custody. While some families of detainees said they have received police detention notices, others have not been given information regarding the whereabouts or well-being of their loved ones. Police criminally detained Wang Yi on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power,” according to the notice Wang Yi’s mother received. The wife of church elder Li Yingqiang said police told her that Li was detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Wang Yi, a prominent member of China’s Christian community and a former legal scholar, is known for his impassioned sermons and outspoken criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Shortly before his arrest, Wang Yi had published an essay critical of the government’s tight control over religion, and calling on China’s Christians to carry out civil disobedience, such as resisting government orders not to preach outside of church premises or to prohibit children from attending church. Two days later, Wang Yi was taken into custody, and a statement he had drafted in anticipation of being detained was posted online. In it Wang Yi vowed to “use peaceful means… to resist every and all governmental and judicial measures that persecute the church and interfere with Christian belief.”

In recent years, police have frequently harassed Wang Yi and key members of the Early Rain Covenant Church, an independent evangelical church with about 500 congregants. Early in 2018, the church organized a petition to protest the newly amended Regulations on Religious Affairs. The regulations ban “unauthorized” religious teaching and participation in overseas religious training or meetings and expand the role of local authorities in controlling religious activities. The regulations tighten existing religious controls in China, which already restrict religious practice to five officially recognized religions in officially approved premises, among other restrictions.

Several church members believe that the petition, which drew signatures from over 400 pastors across China, might have prompted the mass arrests. In September, Chengdu authorities informed the church that its activities had violated the government’s religious policy.

Under President Xi, the government has further tightened control over Christianity in its broad efforts to “Sinicize” religion or “adopt Chinese characteristics” – in other words, to ensure that religious groups support the government and the Communist Party. Authorities have demolished hundreds of Christian churches or crosses on top of churches, evicted congregations, confiscated Bibles and other church materials, and installed surveillance cameras in the churches allowed to function. In April, the government banned online sales of the Bible. In September, Beijing authorities shut down the Zion Church, one of the city’s largest Protestant underground churches.

In March, Pastor John Sanqiang Cao was sentenced to seven years in prison for “organizing others to illegally cross the border” between China and Myanmar. Cao had been involved in educational projects for impoverished minority groups in Myanmar. In 2014, a court sentenced Pastor Zhang Shaojie to 12 years in prison for “fraud” and “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.”

In September, the Roman Catholic Church and China reached a deal designed to end a decades-long standoff over authority to appoint bishops in China. China’s estimated 12 million Roman Catholics are divided between an underground community that pledges allegiance to the pope and a government-run association with state-appointed bishops. Under the accord, Beijing will propose names for future bishops and the pope will have veto power. Many had hoped the new accord would bring the persecution of bishops of underground churches to an end. However, in November, authorities in Zhejiang province forcibly disappeared Bishop Shao Zhumin, his fifth disappearance in his two years as bishop. Shao’s current whereabouts are unclear.

The Chinese government has also ratcheted up restrictions over Buddhism in Tibetan areas and imposed unprecedented control over religious practices in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang, as Human Rights Watch has extensively documented.

“Pastor Wang Yi has said he would stand up for his faith if he were to be imprisoned,” Wang said. “Everyone who supports religious freedom should stand with Wang Yi and speak out against the Chinese government’s repression of religion.”


Singapore: Drop Defamation Charges Against Editor

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 13, 2018


A general view of the Parliament House in Singapore June 2, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters (Bangkok) – Singapore authorities should drop criminal defamation charges against Terry Xu, editor of the online news site The Online Citizen, for publishing a letter alleging government corruption, Human Rights Watch said today. Xu is scheduled to appear in court on December 13, 2018. The authorities should also drop the criminal defamation charge filed against the letter’s author.

“Singapore authorities have once again responded to criticism with criminal charges,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should respond to any inaccuracies in the letter by seeking a correction, apology or retraction, rather than with a heavy-handed criminal prosecution.” 

The letter, published on September 4 by The Online Citizen, one of the few alternative news sources in Singapore, was from someone identified as “Willy Sum.” The letter criticized a Facebook post by a member of parliament and alleged corruption in the upper echelons of the Singapore government. The Online Citizen took down the letter two weeks later after the government Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) ordered it to do so.

Nevertheless, on November 20 the police went to the homes of Xu and “Willy Sum” and seized their electronic equipment. Xu was interrogated for eight hours at the police station. On December 12, the authorities announced that Xu would be charged with criminal defamation. If convicted, he faces up to two years in prison. The authorities also charged the letter writer, identified as DeCosta Daniel Augustin, with criminal defamation and with unauthorized access to computer material in violation of the Computer Misuse Act for allegedly using another person’s email account to submit the letter.

Criminal defamation violates international norms on freedom of speech that defamation should be considered a civil matter, not a crime punishable with imprisonment. Criminal defamation laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary restriction on free speech and create a chilling effect that effectively restricts legitimate as well as harmful speech.

For these reasons, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and the representative on freedom of the media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), together with the Organization of American States special rapporteur for freedom of expression, have concluded that criminal defamation is “not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression” and have called for the abolition of such laws.

Defamation cases filed by government officials or public persons are particularly problematic. While government officials and those involved in public affairs are entitled to protection of their reputation, including protection against defamation, as individuals who have sought to play a role in public affairs they must tolerate a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than ordinary citizens.

“It’s outrageous that the news site took down the letter after the authorities told it to do so, yet the government is still bringing criminal charges against the site and the letter’s author,” Robertson said. “The criminal defamation charges should be dropped immediately.”

No Justice for Horrors of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship 50 Years On

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 13, 2018

Tanks occupy the Avenida Presidente Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 4, 1968.

© 1968 Correio da Manhã

Fifty years ago today, Brazil´s military regime unleashed all-out repression with the publication of Institutional Act 5. Brazil’s president, army general Artur da Costa e Silva, immediately invoked the Act to close Congress and state legislatures, arrest opposition politicians, and revoke their political rights. He established widespread censorship and suspended habeas corpus for offenses that criminalized political activity, crimes against national security, and other crimes.

This kicked off the bloodiest period of the dictatorship (1964-1985) and spurred a stronger response by leftist groups that were engaged in ongoing armed resistance.

In 2014, a National Truth Commission identified 377 state agents, close to 200 of them still alive, as responsible for hundreds of cases of torture, killings, and enforced disappearances.

Last week, forensic experts identified the remains of trade unionist Aluísio Palhano Pedreira Ferreira, whom authorities kidnapped and disappeared in 1971, the Commission concluded. He is one of only five people identified from the more than 1,000 bags of human remains unearthed from a clandestine grave almost 30 years ago.

The anniversary of Institutional Act 5 has gained new significance this year, after Brazilians elected former army captain Jair Bolsonaro as president. As congressman, Bolsonaro opposed the creation of the Truth Commission. Paraphrasing the motto inscribed on Brazil’s flag, Bolsonaro has defined the bloody military period as “20 years of order and progress.” He also calls the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who directed one of the dictatorship’s torture centers, a “hero.”

Prosecutors charged Ustra and a civil police officer with kidnapping Palhano, but the courts rejected the case, citing an amnesty law passed by the military regime that has so far shielded all torturers from justice. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled twice that the amnesty law should not prevent the prosecution of grave human rights violations.

Bolsonaro’s electoral victory is emblematic of Brazilians’ widespread disillusionment with democracy. Only 34 percent of Brazilians said in a poll published in November that they preferred democracy to any other form of government, one of the lowest percentages in the Americas.  

The anniversary of Institutional Act 5 should remind Brazilians of the horrors of the authoritarian path.

Symposium: Review of John Heieck, A Duty to Prevent Genocide

Opinio Juris - Thursday, December 13, 2018
[William A. Schabas is professor of international law at Middlesex University in London. He is also professor of international human law and human rights at Leiden University, emeritus professor of human rights law at the National University of Ireland Galway and honorary chairman of the Irish Centre for Human Rights.] John Heieck has produced a fine study on the duty...

Ethiopia’s Torture Problem and the Court of Public Opinion

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ethiopia’s state broadcaster EBC aired a documentary this week, detailing numerous horrendous acts of torture carried out by security services in recent years. Many Ethiopians were shocked and outraged.


Screenshot from EBC documentary detailing numerous horrendous acts of torture carried out by security services in recent years.

© 2018 EBC/YouTube

These allegations are not new. Human rights groups have documented extensive torture in detention for many years. What has changed is that torture is now spoken about openly on state television and by the government after years of denial that torture even existed. This a refreshing change.

The airing of Tuesday’s torture documentary came several weeks after another documentary appeared on state television describing corruption involving state-owned Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC). Days earlier, several former high-ranking officials and employees of METEC were arrested and accused of corruption or gross human rights abuses. They have not yet been charged.

While this may signal a new commitment to justice, the government should avoid the past practice of using these documentaries to undermine defendants’ right to a fair trial by mobilizing the public to support a judiciary that was far from independent of state control. This long-standing tactic was used ahead of arrests or trials of Muslim protest leaders, journalists, and others who were targeted for peaceful activities.

Human Rights Watch and others have continually stressed the importance of accountability and justice as Ethiopia comes to grips with its repressive past. But for recent accountability efforts to be meaningful, due process rights must be respected and trials not turned into politicized shows targeting those seen to be opposed to the government and its policies, as trials in the past have often been.

The only way for victims to see justice done is through fair trials where victims can describe their ordeals, defendants are forced to answer to allegations, and decisions are arrived at based on evidence and in accordance with the law, free from political interference. This would send an important message to other past, present, and would-be abusers, including those currently in government, that torture and other abuses will be longer be tolerated. Meaningful accountability and justice, in parallel with reconciliation efforts, are critical for Ethiopia to move forward and come to terms with the abusive past.

Iran: Escalating Crackdown on Lawyers

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 13, 2018

Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and Farhad Meysami, a human rights defender, protest the suspension of  Sotoudeh's law license in front of the Tehran bar association in Tehran, February 2015. 

© Private 2015

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities have escalated their crackdown on lawyers, Human Rights Watch said today. Over the past month, revolutionary courts have sentenced at least three lawyers to long prison terms for their human rights activism and security forces have arrested another one.

On December 10, 2018, the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported that a revolutionary court had sentenced Qasem Sholehsadi and Arash Keykhosravi, human rights lawyers arrested during a gathering in front of parliament on August 18, to six years in prison. Mohammad Najafi, a human rights lawyer who is serving a three-year sentence for exposing torture in prison, has been sentenced to an additional 13 years for two other sets of charges, his lawyer, Payam Derafshan told Human Rights Watch. Authorities have detained Amir Salar Davoudi, another human rights lawyer, since November 20.

“Now Iran is not only arresting dissidents, human rights defenders, and labor leaders, but their lawyers as well, criminalizing their fundamental freedoms,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lawyers should be the cornerstone of protecting the rights of the accused, but in Iran, they are just another enemy of repressive authorities.”

Davoudi’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he has not been able to meet with his client or read the charges against him. He said he believes Davoudi, who is in Evin prison, is facing charges of “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” and that authorities are also trying to charge him with “assembly and collusion to act against national security.”

Judge Abolghassem Salavati at branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced Sholehsadi on the charge of “assembly and collusion to act against national security” to five years in prison and an additional year for “propaganda against the state.” Salavati used a video message Sholehsadi posted on social media saying that he would demonstrate in front of the parliament and his peaceful gathering in front of parliament as the sole evidence against him, a source confirmed on December 11. Keykhosravi was sentenced on similar charges.

The Arak revolutionary court, in Markazi province, sentenced Najafi to 10 years in prison on the charge of “cooperating with an enemy state through transferring information and news to anti-revolutionary networks…” and to another 3 years for “propaganda against the state and insulting the Supreme Leader,” Derafshan told Human Rights Watch. The court used the defendant’s confession of chanting “death to the dictator” during a demonstration to charge him with “insulting the Supreme leader,” though Najafi said in court that he was not referring to the Supreme Leader in his chant.

The authorities had already sentenced Najafi to prison in reprisal for his role in exposing Vahid Heydari’s death in custody in January and reporting that Heydari’s body bore marks of torture and other ill-treatment. On July 26, Branch 2 of Arak’s criminal court sentenced Najafi to three years in prison for “disrupting public order through unconventional acts such as chanting slogans” and “publishing false information to disturb public opinion.” He began serving his sentence on October 28.

On August 31, the authorities arrested Derafshan and another human rights lawyer, Farokh Forouzan, when they were visiting Keykhosravi’s family. Derafshan, Forouzan, Sholehsadi, and Keykhosravi have been released temporarily on bail.

Since June, the Intelligence Ministry has arrested several human rights lawyers and activists, including the prominent human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh; her husband, Reza Khandan; and Farhad Meysami for their peaceful activism against compulsory hijab laws. Meysami has reportedly been on a hunger strike since August 1, and his health condition has drastically deteriorated.

Sotoudeh is facing several charges, including for her efforts to represent women who protested compulsory hijab laws and her public support of the group Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to reducing executions in Iran.

Freedoms of assembly and expressions are guaranteed under international human rights law. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, stating that “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide that lawyers must be allowed to carry out their work “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” In addition, it affirms the right of lawyers to freedom of expression, also provided for in Article 19 of the ICCPR, which includes “the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights.”

“Iran’s authorities are incinerating what remains of fundamental freedoms to cover up their manifold abuses against their own citizens,” Page said.

Lebanon: Stalled Effort to Get Syrian Children in School

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 13, 2018

Fewer than half of the school-age refugee children in Lebanon are in formal education.

(Beirut) - The number of Syrian refugee children enrolled in school in Lebanon has stalled at the same inadequate levels as in the 2017-2018 school year, Human Rights Watch said today.

Fewer than half of the 631,000 school-age refugee children in Lebanon are in formal education, with roughly 210,000 in donor-supported public schools and 63,000 in private schools. The Education Ministry said that it was obliged to limit enrollment and cut costs due to insufficient funding from international donors.

“Every Syrian refugee child who is not in school is an indictment of the collective failure to fulfill their right to education,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There was already an education crisis in Lebanon, yet the current school year has been marred by finger-pointing over funding and last-minute decisions that left many kids out in the cold.”

International donors have made joint pledges to support universal enrollment for Syrian refugee children and should ensure they are providing sufficient funds to reach that goal, Human Rights Watch said. They should work with Lebanon’s Education Ministry to increase accountability, transparency, and predictability in education planning.

The Education Ministry’s goal for 2018-2019 was to enroll 250,000 Syrian children, an increase of 40,000, and 215,000 Lebanese children in public schools, which would have required $149 million in donor funding. As of November, the ministry said that it had received only $100 million.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six Syrian families with a total of 14 children who could not enroll. Some said that they were not informed that new students could not enroll, or of subsequent policy changes, or whether their children would be placed on waiting lists. Human Rights Watch also interviewed Education Ministry officials, staff of nongovernmental groups and UN agencies, and donor governments that are funding education in Lebanon, but could not identify a single issue or actor responsible for the budget shortfall.

In September, the ministry decided it would not accept new Syrian students but limit enrollment to students who had previously been enrolled in public schools or completed accredited pre-primary or catch-up programs. However, many Syrian children who were in school last year did not re-enroll. The ministry extended the deadline by two weeks, to October 27, and instructed schools and nongovernmental groups to identify students who did not return. On October 20, it also eased restrictions to allow new Syrian students to enroll, so long as no new classes had to be opened to accommodate them. As of November 20, about 36,000 new students have enrolled, but 28,500 former students still had not, a ministry official said. Taking the lower enrollment numbers into account, the ministry reported in mid-November that it still faced a $30 million budget gap.

The families told Human Rights Watch that officials at a primary school in the Bekaa valley had either refused to enroll their children or accepted them but told them to leave after a few days, including one boy who had in fact been enrolled in a public school last year. Groups supporting children in the area corroborated the families’ accounts and reported similar problems at two other public schools.

In other areas, some school officials arbitrarily insisted that refugee children present documents that the Education Ministry does not require for enrollment, such as proof of legal residency in Lebanon, or asked parents to pay to enroll their children, staff at several groups said. Human Rights Watch has previously found noncompliance by some public school staff with official education policies.

Human Rights Watch was not able to determine whether any individual donors failed to meet agreed funding goals, but has documented that a lack of transparent and timely donor funding has undermined the goal of reaching Syrian refugee children with education. At a series of international conferences since 2016, Lebanese and donor government representatives have jointly agreed on the goal of universal enrollment for refugee children and on education budgets.

Some Syrian children who were denied enrollment at public schools have been left with no alternative access to education. Syrian parents whose children had been rejected by public schools told Human Rights Watch that preschool programs run by nongovernmental groups could not accept the children back, either because classes had filled up or because their children had aged out of the preschool programs. The Education Ministry generally permits nongovernmental groups to help primary-school-age children who are already enrolled in public schools, for instance with homework support, but does not permit them to teach out-of-school children in this age group.

The Education Ministry did not repeat last year’s “Back to School” campaign, in which nongovernmental groups and UN agencies had encouraged Syrian and vulnerable Lebanese families to enroll their children. The ministry said the campaign had been inefficient and that a new campaign risked enrolling children whom there were no funds to teach. But nongovernmental education providers said that the lack of a campaign contributed to poor re-enrollment this fall among children who had formerly been in school.

Other education programs have also been curtailed or interrupted, including the Accelerated Learning Program, to help children who had been out of school catch up. The ministry lost funding for the program and cut the number of students during the summer, and only received funding to continue it in November, an official said. Placement tests are due to be held in December. The program is the only way back to school for thousands of Syrian children who could not pass entrance examinations. As of November, the ministry had not reinstated a program to allow UN agencies to place Syrian volunteers as “community education liaisons” to support Syrian students at second shift schools taught in Arabic.

Some families said that the barriers to education were pushing them to think about leaving Lebanon for Syria, despite the risks involved, and that others had already left. Humanitarian organizations have also noted that limited access to education is one of the factors pushing Syrians to return to Syria despite concerns about safety.

Human Rights Watch does not have evidence that recent returns of Syrians have been forced. However, harsh living conditions, largely as a result of Lebanese policies that have restricted legal residency, work, and freedom of movement, have put so much indirect pressure on refugees that some believe they have no option but to return to a country where they face serious risks.

Lebanon should follow through on the important commitments to refugee rights that it made at a the Friends of Syria donor conference in Brussels in April, including on residency statuslegal protection, education,  and nonrefoulement or not returning people to places where they would be in danger.

“Many refugee children are still shut out of school in Lebanon and it’s already December, putting their future at risk,” Van Esveld said. “Donors should ensure that the Education Ministry has the promised funds to prevent a “lost generation,” while insisting on access to quality education. Parents shouldn’t be forced to decide between their kids’ education and their safety.”

Accounts from Families

Names have been changed for the protection and privacy of those interviewed.

“Sara,” the mother of two boys ages 11 and 8 in the Bekaa valley, described her desperation as October went by and they were unable to enroll in school:

I went to register them both, and at first the school told me they could begin on October 10. But then [the younger son] only went for 5 days, and the older boy went for 10 days, and the director told them to leave. “You don’t have a name here,” the director said. She meant they weren’t on the list from the ministry, or on her computer. [My older son] was told to leave in the middle of a class by his teacher, and when he went to the director and asked why, the director slapped him. He deserves to know at least why they won’t let him go to school. I tried to register them at other schools. [My older son] was a good student before, now he can’t remember how to multiply, and [my younger son] can’t even read.

“Sabrine,” 40, said that a public primary school had refused to enroll her daughters last year, saying that there was no room for them, and rejected them again this fall. “Um Ahmad,” 27, said her boys, ages 10 and 11, were both enrolled in first grade at a public school last year. This year, officials at the school allowed the older boy to register but rejected his brother, without explanation.

Some school officials who initially registered but then refused to enroll students said they were acting on verbal instructions from the Education Ministry, humanitarian groups reported.

“Awad,” 50, said that his three children, ages 7 to 10, were turned away by public school officials when they tried to register in October because they lacked certifications of previous enrollment at a public school. He said that barriers to accessing education were contributing to refugees leaving Lebanon:

The camp I’m in has 17 children who are not in school. A whole extended family went back to Syria because they wanted the kids to get an education. I think I will have to go back at the end of the year too, if I can’t get my children in school here.

Refugee Education and Funding

The Syrian conflict forced an estimated 1.5 million refugees into Lebanon, which with a population of approximately 4 million, is hosting the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.  

At a conference in London in February 2016, donors and countries hosting Syrian refugees had committed to ensure that there would be no “lost generation” of children, and that $1.4 billion annually was needed to support education, primarily in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

At the conference, Lebanon presented an updated version of a national education plan, “Reaching All Children with Education II,” with a budgeted need of $350 million annually in donor support for five years, an overall figure that includes first and second shift enrollment costs as well as other costs. Donors and Lebanese government representatives re-committed to universal enrollment and the $350 million figure in subsequent meetings in Brussels.

Even before the Syrian conflict, 70 percent of Lebanese parents sent their children to private schools due to concerns about the quality of the public school system. Lebanon’s public schools now have roughly the same number of Syrian and Lebanese children enrolled.

Overall, there are 631,000 refugee children in Lebanon, ages 3 to 18, who are eligible to enroll in formal education, from pre-primary through secondary school. During the 2017-2018 school year, about 213,000 Syrian refugee children enrolled in public schools, including 59,000 enrolled in “first shift” morning classes at public schools alongside Lebanese children and 154,000 in Syrian-only, “second shift” classes, which operate in the afternoons at public schools, of whom 149,000 completed the year. Another 63,000 Syrian children were enrolled in private or semi-private schools.

For the current school year, the Education Ministry reported in November that 155,000 Syrian children are enrolled in second-shift classes. Figures for Lebanese and Syrian children in the morning shift classes were not yet available. But an official estimated that the numbers in morning shift classes and private schools remain roughly equivalent to last year.

The Education Ministry said it had not repeated its “Back to School” campaign because it cost $1 million and that only 20 percent of children it reached were out of school. It said that a new campaign risked reaching children whom it had no funds to teach. Instead, the ministry said that nongovernmental groups and UN agencies should identify out-of-school children and place them on waiting lists in case more funding becomes available.

The Education Ministry said in planning documents that its goal was to increase enrollment to 250,000 Syrian children in 2018-19, at a projected cost of $135.8 million, based on previously-agreed “unit costs” of $600 per Syrian child enrolled in second shift classes, and $363 per Syrian child enrolled in first shift classes. In addition, the ministry aimed to increase enrollment of vulnerable Lebanese children from 210,000 to 215,000, at a cost of $12.9 million in donations, at $60 per child. Donor funding offsets part of the school fees that Lebanese families would otherwise have to pay. As of July, donors had contributed $100 million, leaving a budget gap of $48.7 million for the school year that began on September 25 for Lebanese children and October 10 for Syrians.

Based on current enrollment figures, the ministry reported in late November that it still faced a $30 million funding gap.

In discussing the budget shortfall, all parties mentioned an ongoing disagreement over the way the Education Ministry was using $100 out of the $600 allocated per child enrolled in second shift classes to build new schools rather than for maintenance and depreciation of existing facilities, and donors were pushing for the ministry to switch from “unit costs” per enrolled student to an overall cost for the RACE 2 program, but there was no information to show these issues were linked to the funding shortfall.


Colombia: New Armed Groups Plague Afro-Colombian Zone

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, December 13, 2018

December 13, 2018 Video Colombia: Rape, Kidnapping and Murder Continue After Peace Agreement

Groups that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas are terrorizing the mostly Afro-Colombian municipality of Tumaco.

(Bogotá) – Groups that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas are terrorizing the mostly Afro-Colombian municipality of Tumaco, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 57-page report, “Recycled Violence: Abuses by FARC Dissident Groups in Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific Coast,” shows how flaws in the demobilization of FARC guerrillas – and in their reincorporation into society – helped prompt the formation of these new dissident groups. These groups, including United Guerrillas of the Pacific and the Oliver Sinisterra Front, now batter urban neighborhoods and rural hamlets of Tumaco. These groups have engaged in scores of killings in Tumaco, contributing to a dramatic spike in homicide rates.

“Tumaco residents hoped that the accord would finally bring peace to their communities and neighborhoods, but their hopes were soon frustrated,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “FARC dissidents are killing and disappearing those who dare defy them, raping women and girls, recruiting children, and forcing thousands of people to flee.”

Tumaco residents have, for many years, endured horrific abuses at the hands of armed groups, including right-wing paramilitaries and groups that succeeded them, as well as the FARC. Before the peace accord, in 2014, Human Rights Watch documented abuses in Tumaco by the FARC and the Rastrojos – a group that grew out of paramilitary death squads. Now, the violence is dominated by FARC dissident groups that formed, in part, as a result of blunders in the demobilization process and a failure to reincorporate former guerrillas into society.

December 13, 2018 Report Recycled Violence

Abuses by FARC Dissident Groups in Tumaco on Colombia’s Pacific Coast

In 2017, the homicide rate in Tumaco was four times the national average, and data through September show killings are up nearly 50 percent during 2018. For residents of Tumaco, simply crossing an “invisible border” into neighborhoods where the group in control doesn’t know them – or entering from an area dominated by a rival group – can be a death sentence.

Murder victims include rights defenders. With at least seven rights defenders reported killed since January 2017, Tumaco is the municipality with the highest number of such killings in Colombia, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Armed groups in Tumaco, including FARC dissident groups, are also committing rape. Nowhere else in Colombia does sexual violence by armed groups appear to be so widespread in absolute terms as in Tumaco. Human Rights Watch documented the case of a 14-year-old girl who was raped in rural Tumaco in October 2017. Four armed men arrived at her home one night around 11 p.m. and told her parents that “the commander” had asked for her. They took her away, returning her the next morning with various wounds. She told her parents that several men had raped her.

FARC dissident groups have also been responsible for disappearances and kidnappings in Tumaco. Residents believe that the bodies of the disappeared are thrown into the sea, estuaries, or rivers.

In March, the Oliver Sinisterra Front kidnapped three employees of the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio who were reporting on the group’s operations in Mataje, Ecuador. The group held the men hostage, demanding that the Ecuadorian government release three imprisoned members. The bodies of the newspaper employees were found in rural Tumaco in mid-June.

“The brutal kidnapping and murder of three Ecuadorian press workers on the border with Colombia wasn’t just an isolated incident,” Vivanco said. “It was part of a trend of widespread abuses by FARC dissident groups in the area.”

In early 2018, the Colombian government began a powerful military and police operation to curb abuses by armed groups, deploying thousands of security officers to Tumaco, and nine neighboring municipalities in Nariño Province. Yet since then, serious abuses in Tumaco have continued at comparable or higher rates. And a new group, led by a former FARC guerrilla known as Mario Lata, has emerged in the area.

Impunity remains the norm for abuses in Tumaco. In the more than 300 murders officially counted there since 2017, only one person has been convicted. No one has been charged, let alone convicted, for any of the disappearances, child recruitment, or forced displacement.

When President Iván Duque took office in August 2018, he prioritized actions to capture or kill high-level commanders of FARC dissident groups, especially a man known as Guacho, head of the Oliver Sinisterra Group.

The Colombian government should increase the number of investigators, prosecutors, and judges in Tumaco who handle forced displacement, disappearances, sexual violence, child recruitment, and other serious abuses. It should also increase efforts to reduce coca cultivation in Tumaco, including replacing it with food crops. The government should take steps to ensure that Tumaco residents have adequate services, displaced people have shelter, and rape victims have the services they need.

“The government’s focus on capturing Guacho is certainly understandable,” Vivanco said. “But Tumaco residents who have endured years and years of abuses from many sides of the conflict need much more to ensure that violence isn’t recycled again.” 

Thailand: Lift Draconian Speech Restrictions

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, January 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom (New York) – Thailand’s junta should immediately end restrictions on the right to free expression so that credible national elections can be held on February 24, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 11, 2018, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) lifted its prohibition on public gatherings and political activities, allowing political parties to conduct election campaigns for parliament. However, the junta kept in place military orders restricting expression and authorizing detention and prosecution for speech critical of the junta, its policies and actions, and the monarchy. All criminal cases in military and civilian courts related to opposition to military rule will proceed.

“Thailand can’t hold credible elections when political parties, the media, and voters are gagged by threats of arrest and criminal prosecution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “With polling day just two months away, the Thai junta should immediately lift all legal orders that restrict the right to freedom of expression.”

Since the May 2014 military coup, Thailand’s junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinions to constitute disinformation, seditious acts, and threats to national security. For more than four years, the junta has routinely enforced media censorship and blocked public discussions about human rights and democracy. On December 1, Thai authorities blocked access to the Human Rights Watch Thailand webpage, alleging that the contents were inappropriate and constituted a “national security threat.”

For more than four years under military rule, Thai authorities have prosecuted hundreds of activists and dissidents on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for peaceful expression of their views. Since the beginning of 2018, more than 100 pro-democracy activists have been prosecuted for peacefully demanding the junta to hold the promised elections without further delay and to lift all restrictions on fundamental freedoms.

In August, the leader of the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was charged with violating the Computer-Related Crime Act, which could result in a five-year prison term, for online commentary criticizing the junta. Watana Muangsook, former Social Development and Human Security Minister, and other key members of the Pheu Thai Party have also been repeatedly charged with sedition and computer-related crimes for making comments, including on social media, opposing military rule.

Local human rights and political activists expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that independent monitoring of elections will not be possible under current conditions. Thai authorities frequently retaliate with criminal charges, including for criminal defamation and Computer-Related Crime Act violations, against anyone who reports allegations of state-sponsored abuses and official misconduct. The junta forcibly blocked efforts to monitor the constitutional referendum in 2016 and prosecuted many people involved in such activities.

Thailand’s upcoming elections will be held while Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha still maintains unchecked and unaccountable powers, including for human rights violations, that will remain in place until a new government is formed. The junta-appointed Senate and other elements of the 2017 constitution will ensure prolonged military control even after elections are held.

After the 2014 coup, the United States, European Union, and many other countries set conditions for their normalization of relations with Thailand. These included holding free and fair elections to establish a democratic civilian government and improved respect for human rights. For the February elections to be a genuine democratic process, Thailand’s friends should press the junta to:

  • End the use of abusive, unaccountable powers under sections 44 and 48 of the 2014 interim constitution;
  • End restrictions on the right to freedom of expression;
  • Ensure that political parties and supporters are able to freely participate in peaceful election campaign activities;
  • Free everyone detained for peaceful criticism of the government;
  • Drop all sedition charges and other criminal lawsuits related to peaceful opposition to military rule;
  • Transfer all remaining civilian cases still in military courts to civilian courts that meet international fair trial standards;
  • Ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders to work, including by dropping politically motivated lawsuits and strategic lawsuits against public participation against them; and
  • Permit independent and impartial election observers to freely monitor the election campaign and the conduct of the elections, and to issue public reports.

“The junta’s half-step to relax its chokehold on fundamental freedoms is inadequate,” Adams said. “Foreign governments seeking the restoration of democracy in Thailand should publicly state that they will only recognize an election that meets international standards.”

Justice Moves Ahead in the Central African Republic

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, December 12, 2018

On December 12, Patrice Edouard Nagaissona, a one-time self-declared political coordinator of anti-balaka militias, was arrested in France on International Criminal Court (ICC) charges. With his arrest, the prospects for justice for grave crimes committed during the Central African Republic’s most recent crisis took a welcome step forward.


A burned Pentecostal church in Zéré. Hundreds of Christian and Muslim homes and places of worship were destroyed in the town during a series of attacks by both ex-Seleka and anti-balaka forces. November 4, 2013.

The anti-balaka is implicated in grave abuses during the country’s conflict since 2012, including attacking and killing civilians suspected of collaborating with Seleka rebels during the conflict.

Nagaissona is accused by the ICC of alleged responsibility for murder, deportation, imprisonment, and torture as part of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western part of the Central African Republic between December 2013 and December 2014.

Nagaissona is the second arrest in a month in the ICC’s more recent investigation in the Central African Republic, thanks to the cooperation of authorities in France where Nagaissona was taken into custody. The ICC’s first investigation in the country, which focused on crimes committed in 2002 and 2003, has brought just one case, which ended in acquittal in June. Human Rights Watch criticized the lack of additional cases in the ICC’s first investigation, and has urged the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor to pursue charges that are representative of the crimes committed to ensure meaningful delivery of justice.

To that end, it will be crucial to see charges in this investigation cover suspects implicated in grave crimes from all warring groups. In particular, the Seleka and ex-Seleka groups are implicated in widespread continuing abuses and no ICC charges of individuals involved with the Seleka have been announced. As we have seen, pursuing cases involving individuals associated with just one side in a crisis can create enormous problems.

Nagaissona’s arrest is positive. Many in the Central African Republic claimed he was “untouchable” because of his senior post at the Confederation of African Football. But today’s news should be a wake-up call for perpetrators of the worst crimes all over the world: even those in positions of power can be held to account.

Nicaragua: US legislation Key for Accountability

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, December 12, 2018


A person is arrested by riot police during a protest against the government of President Daniel Ortega in Managua, on October 14, 2018.

© 2018 INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images (Washington, DC) – United States President Donald Trump should move quickly to sign into law a bill that will allow targeted sanctions against top Nicaraguan officials and others implicated in egregious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. The legislation will create a powerful tool to press the Ortega-Murillo government to end its pattern of abuse against opponents.

On December 11, 2018, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), a bipartisan bill that allows the US Treasury Department to sanction any non-US person implicated in egregious human rights abuses and corruption in Nicaragua. The bill would allow for freezing assets held in the US, forbidding entry to the US, and revoking US visas. The Senate passed the bill on November 27.

“This bi-partisan legislation can play a very important role in pressing the Ortega-Murillo government to stop its brutal repression of opponents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is now critical to move forward with its enactment and implementation to send a powerful message that Nicaragua’s crackdown with impunity on the government’s opponents will no longer be tolerated.”

Under the NICA Act, the US Treasury Department would have the power to sanction “any foreign person, including any current or former official of the Government of Nicaragua or any person acting on behalf of that Government” whom the US president determines has been involved in “significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes an abuse or violation of human rights against persons associated with the protests in Nicaragua that began on April 18, 2018.”

Other activities that could lead to sanctions include the arrest or prosecution of a person or media outlet “primarily because of the legitimate exercise by such person of the freedom of speech, assembly, or the press,” “significant actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions,” and “acts of significant corruption.”

The law defines “involvement” in these activities in various ways, including responsibility for “ordering, controlling, or otherwise directing” the actions, having “knowingly participated” in them “directly or indirectly,” or being the leader of an institution implicated in them.

Since April, 325 people have been killed and 2,000 injured in Nicaragua during a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, according to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). The commission found that the National Police of Nicaragua and armed pro-government groups, which acted in coordination with the police, are responsible for most deaths and injuries.

Police and these groups have also abducted or arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people across the country. Over 300 remain arbitrarily detained, the commission said in November, including many who were charged with grave crimes like “terrorism” in connection with their alleged involvement in anti-government protests. Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which detainees were beaten, waterboarded, given electric shocks or raped.

President Daniel Ortega, who under Nicaraguan law is the “supreme chief” of police, has rewarded top officials who bear responsibility for the bloodbath. Not a single police officer or member of an armed pro-government group has been brought to justice for these abuses.

The pressing need for legislation that allows for targeted sanctions is highlighted not only by the egregious violations and overwhelming impunity, but also the government’s concerted effort to silence nongovernmental groups and critical media outlets. On December 12, Nicaragua’s National Assembly, controlled by Ortega’s party, arbitrarily cancelled the legal registration of the country’s most prominent human rights organization, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH).

The US government already sanctioned three Nicaraguan officials in July for their responsibility in the crackdown and involvement in acts of corruption under Executive Order 13818 “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption,” which expands upon the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In late November, Trump signed a new executive order specific to Nicaragua, enabling the US Treasury Department to sanction two additional Nicaraguans.

The officials sanctioned for their involvement in the crackdown are Vice-President Rosario Murillo, who is Ortega’s wife; General Francisco Díaz, the police chief; Fidel Moreno Briones, a political appointee in the Managua mayor’s office; and Néstor Moncada Lau, a top presidential aide. Others have been sanctioned for their participation in corruption schemes.

In addition to sanctions, the NICA Act instructs US executive directors in various international financial institutions to use “the voice, vote, and influence of the United States” to oppose loans or financial or technical assistance to the Nicaraguan government for projects in Nicaragua.

Within 90 days of the law’s enactment, the US president is required to brief Congressional committees on the government’s strategy to engage with civil society in Nicaragua and to adopt measures to support the protection of human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists.

Is China winning its fight against rights at the UN?

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech in the Palais des Nations at the United Nations in Geneva, January 18, 2017.

© 2017 Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Few governments work harder to eliminate criticism of their human rights record at the United Nations than China. And China’s efforts may well make it easier for other abusive actors to escape scrutiny. Other governments – and the U.N. system itself – should push back against these encroachments.

The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has a widely-documented record of serious human rights violations. They include the crackdown on rights lawyers and activists that began in shortly after he assumed power in 2013 and the continued use of torture in police custody despite laws ostensibly intended to end the practice.

This has not stopped China from working assiduously to weaken or block key human rights reviews at the United Nations, ease important standards, and ensure only praise for its rights record. Few, if any, senior U.N. officials broach the Chinese government’s human rights record when visiting China or meeting with Chinese leaders.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch exposed Beijing’s efforts to silence U.N. human rights experts and staff, to prevent critical voices from China from participating in U.N. processes, and to manipulate rules and procedures to ensure more favorable reviews. The net effect: weaker United Nations scrutiny, not just of China but of other abusive governments. One positive response is that the United Nations now reports annually on government reprisals against human rights defenders participating in U.N. human rights efforts; China has topped the list of offenders in every report issued.

In March, China introduced a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council, entitled “Promoting the International Human Rights Cause through Win-Win Cooperation.” The title might sound innocuous, but the resolution gutted procedures to hold countries accountable for human rights violations, suggesting “dialogue” instead.  

It failed to specify any course of action when rights violators refuse to cooperate with U.N. experts, retaliate against rights defenders, or actively reject human rights principles. And it even failed to acknowledge any role for the Human Rights Council itself to address serious human rights violations when “dialogue” and “cooperation” don’t produce results. The resolution was adopted by a distressingly strong majority.

In August, China was reviewed by the U.N. Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination, evidently hoping to slip through unnoticed. But  thanks to tough questions by committee members, particularly about China’s “Strike Hard” campaign in Xinjiang, where credible estimates suggest 1 million Turkic Muslims are arbitrarily detained in “political education” camps, Beijing has been forced to acknowledge that these camps exist.

And in early November, the Human Rights Council scrutinized China’s record through the Universal Periodic Review, a process by which all U.N. member-states review one another.  About two dozen countries helped prevent China from pulling off the whitewash it sought, instead vocally calling out Beijing’s mass arbitrary detention in Xinjiang, its glacial progress toward ratifying a key human rights treaty on civil and political rights, and its persecution and enforced disappearance of rights lawyers and activists. The countries that had the courage to stand up to China defended both the people in China who are enduring human rights violations, and the responsibility of the council to put China on the spot about those violations.

But the review was marred by the U.N.’s own complicity with China’s quest for a critique-free review. While accepting — seemingly without question — contributions from groups that praised China’s rights record, U.N. officials removed without explanation the submissions from Hong Kong, Tibetan, and Uyghur groups that are critical of Beijing. Many of the excluded contributions were reinstated at the eleventh hour, but the damage was done.

What’s at stake here? If the ideas proposed in China’s resolution, which only the United States voted against, become actual operating principles for the Human Rights Council, victims of state-sponsored abuses worldwide — including in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen — will face almost impossible odds in holding abusive governments accountable.

Instead, they’ll have to stand on the sidelines and hope their abuses are either ended or resolved through “dialogue” and “cooperation.” If the United Nations doesn’t vigorously support its own experts and processes when a powerful member-state is under review, or if the United Nations helps silence critical voices, rather than defend them, everyone’s rights are under threat.

The new U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, made waves when in her first speech to the Human Rights Council in September she called on China to allow access for U.N. investigators to Xinjiang. The U.N. Security Council, which will visit China later in November, has an opportunity to demonstrate support for the high commissioner, for victims of human rights abuses across China, and for the United Nations itself by echoing her call.

Symposium: On Territoriality, Power, and Influence–A Review of John Heieck’s A Duty to Prevent Genocide: Due Diligence Obligations Among the P5

Opinio Juris - Wednesday, December 12, 2018
[Mohamed S. Helal is an Assistant Professor of Law, Moritz College of Law & Faculty Affiliate, Mershon Center for International Security Studies – The Ohio State University.] Introduction Dr. John Heieck’s A Duty to Prevent Genocide: Due Diligence Obligations Among the P5 is a lucid, well-argued, and extensively researched book. It is essential reading for academics and practitioners who have...

Nigeria: End Impunity For Killings of Shia

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, December 12, 2018
December 12, 2018 Video Video: End Impunity for Killings of Shia Muslims in Nigeria

Nigerian authorities have failed to ensure justice for the killings of hundreds of members of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) since 2015. 

(Abuja) – Nigerian authorities have failed to ensure justice for the killings of hundreds of members of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) since 2015, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a video of security forces’ violent crackdowns against members of the IMN.

On December 12, 2015, the Nigeria army used disproportionate force against the group’s street procession in Zaria, Kaduna State in northwest Nigeria to clear a route for the army chief’s convoy. In an ensuing three-day violent crackdown, the army killed 347 members of the group and arrested hundreds more, including the group’s leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, and his wife, Ibraheemat.

Representatives of the group allege that subsequent crackdowns on the group’s activities and protests in Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Yobe, Plateau, Sokoto, and Abuja, the federal capital, have resulted in the death of at least 110 people.

“The repression against the IMN Shia Muslim group by government security forces risks creating grievances that could worsen Nigeria’s already precarious security situation,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The increasing spate of protests by the group is a cry for justice that authorities would do well to heed.”

The authorities should end impunity for the disproportionately violent Zaria attacks, carry out a speedy and independent investigation into subsequent crackdowns on protests, and hold anyone found responsible for using unlawful force to account.

In September 2016, a Kaduna State Judicial Commission of Inquiry recommended prosecuting soldiers involved in the Zaria killings. State prosecutors ignored that recommendation but brought charges against 177 members of the group in the killing of Corporal Dan Kaduna Yakubu, the only military casualty in the episode.

The lawyer for the defendants, Maxwell Kyon, told Human Rights Watch in June 2018 that defendants with severe gunshot wounds were denied medical care by prison authorities, resulting in the deaths of three of them in custody.

In July, after the defendants spent over two years in detention, the court discharged and acquitted 87 of them because the prosecution could not substantiate the charges. The trial of the 90 others is ongoing. 


Sanusi Abdulkadir, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) leads on November 16, 2016 in Kano the funeral prayers for the some of the victims of clashes that broke out on November 14 between police and members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) taking part in an annual 130-kilometre walk to the city of Zaria to mark the Ashura religious festival

© 2018 AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images

The commission also recommended that Sheikh El Zakzaky should bear responsibility for failing to call his followers to order when authorities asked him to. The government refused to obey a December 2016 Abuja High Court order for his release and payment of compensation for the destruction of his home. The Sheikh and his wife were charged before a Kaduna high court in April 2018 with aiding and abetting murder, among other offenses. The court ordered them detained by the Department of State Security, pending their trial, set for 2019.

According to a media report, the police arrested another 115 members of the group during a protest in Abuja to demand El Zakzaky’s release in April. On October 27, soldiers shot into a gathering of the movement’s members in Zuba, a major bus terminal on the highway northwest of Abuja, leaving at least six people dead. On October 29, soldiers at a military checkpoint shot at the group’s religious procession at Karu, northeast of Abuja, killing at least 21 people. On October 30, the police used teargas and live ammunition to stop the group’s procession into the Abuja city center and arrested 400 members, 120 of whom have been charged with various offenses.

In statements released on October 28 and 29, the Nigerian army admitted that soldiers shot and killed three members of the group in Zuba, saying they had blocked the road and attempted to steal military equipment the troops were escorting from Abuja to the Army Central Ammunition Depot in Kaduna. The statement also said that soldiers killed three other members of the group after protesters threw fuel bottles, large stones, and other dangerous objects that injured four soldiers at the Karu checkpoint.

The Islamic movement, in a statement, rejected the army’s claims, countering that soldiers killed 42 of their members without provocation.

A spokesman for the group, Abdullahi Muhammad Musa, who took part in the Karu procession, told Human Rights Watch that though the soldiers initially fired warning shots to disperse the procession, they soon began shooting directly at protesters as they tried to flee.

Human Rights Watch documented 21 dead bodies with gunshot injuries and interviewed witnesses in Karu after the shootings on October 29. The group’s members said they kept the bodies at home, preserving them with blocks of ice to prevent soldiers from burying them secretly to distort the death toll.

A senior medical officer at the Federal Medical Center in the town of Keffi told Human Rights Watch that four injured victims of the Karu incident had been treated there. The doctor said that one woman’s hand was amputated because of gunshot wounds, another had gunshot wounds to her right leg, and two men had been shot in the head.   The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights General Comment on the Right to Life states that firearms should never be used simply to disperse an assembly and prohibits intentional lethal use of force by law enforcement officials, unless it is strictly unavoidable in order to protect life and all other means are insufficient to achieve that objective.

Any unnecessary use of force, especially lethal force, by security forces violates Nigeria’s obligations under international law, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as national constitutional guarantees of the rights to life, and freedom of religion, peaceful assembly, and movement. The Nigerian army has yet to respond to a Human Rights Watch request for comments on the allegations.

“Any unlawful use of violent force against processions and protesters is highly likely to be counterproductive, as well as a crime,” Ewang said. “International partners providing assistance to the Nigerian military should press authorities to respect those rights and ensure that anyone responsible for unlawful violence and for killing Islamic Movement members faces justice in an open and fair trial.”