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Ukraine: Executions, Torture During Russian Occupation

Human Rights Watch - 0 sec ago
Click to expand Image Volodymyr Ivashchenko shows the basement where he sheltered in the initial days of the war, together with his wife, mother-in-law, daughter, and 3-year-old grandson, in Yahidne, April 17, 2022. His 70-year-old mother-in-law, Nadezhda Buchenko, died in the school basement during the internment by Russian forces. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

(Kyiv) – Russian forces controlling much of the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions in northeastern Ukraine from late February through March 2022 subjected civilians to summary executions, torture, and other grave abuses that are apparent war crimes, Human Rights Watch said today.

In 17 villages and small towns in Kyiv and Chernihiv regions visited in April, Human Rights Watch investigated 22 apparent summary executions, 9 other unlawful killings, 6 possible enforced disappearances, and 7 cases of torture. Twenty-one civilians described unlawful confinement in inhuman and degrading conditions.

“The numerous atrocities by Russian forces occupying parts of northeastern Ukraine early in the war are abhorrent, unlawful, and cruel,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These abuses against civilians are evident war crimes that should be promptly and impartially investigated and appropriately prosecuted.”

Human Right Watch interviewed 65 people between April 10 and May 10, including former detainees, torture survivors, families of victims, and other witnesses. Human Rights Watch also examined physical evidence at the locations where some of the alleged abuses took place as well as photos and videos shared by victims and witnesses.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian forces have been implicated in numerous violations of the laws of war that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch previously documented 10 summary executions in the town of Bucha and several other northeastern towns and villages during Russian forces’ occupation in March.

Click to expand Image Empty containers for surface-to-air missiles left behind by Russian forces in Novyi Bykiv, April 16, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

In 1 of the 22 newly documented killings, in the Kyiv region, Anastasia Andriivna said that she was at home on March 19 when soldiers detained her son, Ihor Savran, 45, after they found his old military coat. On March 31, the day after Russian forces withdrew, Anastasia Andriivna found her son’s body in a barn about 100 meters from her house after recognizing his sneakers sticking out the barn door.

Civilians described being held by Russian forces for days or weeks in dirty and suffocating conditions at sites such as a schoolhouse basement, a room in a window manufacturing plant, and a pit in a boiler room, with little or no food, inadequate water, and without access to toilets. In Yahidne, Russian forces held over 350 villagers, including at least 70 children, 5 of them infants, in a schoolhouse basement for 28 days, severely limiting their ability to leave even briefly. There was little air or room to lie down, and people had to use buckets for toilets.

“After a week everyone was coughing violently,” said someone formerly held at the school. “Almost all the children had high fevers, spasms from coughing, and would throw up.” Another said some people developed bedsores from constant sitting. Ten older people died.

In Dymer, Russian forces held several dozen people, the men blindfolded and handcuffed with zip-ties, for several weeks in a 40 square-meter room in the town’s window manufacturing plant, with little food and water, and buckets for toilets.

Human Rights Watch documented seven cases of torture in which Russian soldiers beat detainees, used electric shocks, or carried out mock executions to coerce them to provide information. “They put a rifle to my head, loaded it and I heard three shots,” said one man who had been blindfolded. “I could hear the bullet casings falling on the ground, too, and thought that was it for me.”

Click to expand Image Boiler room next to the Yahidne school. Russian forces held over 350 villagers in a schoolhouse basement for 28 days. Ten older people died during this period. Their bodies were stored in the boiler room for days before being buried in the village cemetery, Yahidne, April 17, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch documented nine cases in which Russian forces fired on and killed civilians without an evident military justification. On the afternoon of March 14, for example, as a Russian convoy passed through Mokhnatyn village, northwest of Chernihiv, soldiers shot to death 17-year-old twin brothers and their 18-year-old friend.

All of the witnesses interviewed said they were civilians who had not participated in hostilities, except for two torture victims who said they were members of a local territorial defense unit.

All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, including the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, and customary international law. Belligerent armed forces that have effective control of an area are subject to the international law of occupation found in the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions. International human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, is applicable at all times.

The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilians, summary executions, torture, enforced disappearances, unlawful confinement, and inhumane treatment of detainees. Pillage and looting of property are also prohibited. The internment or assigned residence of civilians is permitted exceptionally for “imperative reasons of security.” A party to the conflict occupying territory is generally responsible for ensuring that food, water, and medical care are available to the population under its control, and to facilitate assistance by relief agencies.

Click to expand Image Holes dug in the Yahidne schoolyard, apparently from  the military use by the Russian forces, Yahidne, April 17, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Anyone who orders or commits serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent, or aids and abets violations, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.

Russia and Ukraine have obligations under the Geneva Conventions to investigate alleged war crimes committed by their forces or on their territory and appropriately prosecute those responsible. Victims of abuses and their families should receive prompt and adequate redress.

As a general matter, Ukrainian authorities should take steps to preserve evidence that could be critical for future war crimes prosecutions, including by cordoning off gravesites until professional exhumations are conducted, taking photos of bodies and the surrounding area before burial, recording causes of death as possible, recording names of victims and identifying witnesses, and looking for identifying material that Russian forces may have left behind.

“It’s increasingly clear that Ukrainian civilians in areas occupied by Russian forces have endured terrible ordeals,” Gogia said. “Justice may not come quickly, but all steps should be taken to ensure that those who suffered see justice someday soon.”

For more information on the abuses documented in the Chernihiv and Kyiv regions, please see below.

Click to expand Image An optical very high-resolution commercial satellite image collected on March 10, 2022 shows dozens of armored and support military vehicles in the yard of and next to Yahidne school, and possibly  more in the trees surrounding the school, and large vehicle tracks throughout the village with a higher concentration at the schoolhouse. Apparent impact craters from Ukrainian attacks are also visible in the village, the closest 60 meters northeast of the schoolhouse, where Russian forces held over 350 villagers for a month while they occupied the school and used it as a military base.

Summary Executions

Human Rights Watch has documented 32 apparent summary executions by Russian forces in Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, including 10 in a previous report on Bucha. Summary executions, irrespective of the victim’s status as a civilian, prisoner of war, or otherwise as a captured combatant, are serious violations of the laws of war. Anyone who orders or commits summary executions is responsible for war crimes.

Kyiv Region

Andriivka

Anastasia Andriivna, 66, the mother of 45-year-old Ihor Savran, lives in the village of Andriivka, 40 kilometers northwest of Kyiv. She said that when Russian forces took control of the area on February 26, they came to her home, confiscated her and her son’s cellphones, and threatened to kill anyone who kept a working phone. She gave them an old phone and hid her newer, working phone. On March 19, a commander and a soldier came to her door, demanding that she let them inside. They said they had a device that had sensed cell phone usage coming from the area. The commander took her into one room to search for the phone, while the soldier dragged Savran to a summer kitchen in the yard. Anastasia Andriivna heard the soldier find Savran’s old military overcoat, from his 1993 National Guard service, and start shooting at it. The commander ordered her to stay in the house for the next 30 minutes, “without moving,” and left with the soldier, taking Savran.

Click to expand Image Door to one of the rooms in the Yahidne school basement. There is a calendar the residents drew to keep track of days. On the right side of the door, they kept a list of people who died, 10 in all, including their date of death, and on the left, a list of people, totaling seven, who were shot or were “disappeared,” Yahidne, April 20, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

On the night of March 30, Russian forces withdrew. The next morning, Anastasia Andriivna left home for the first time in weeks, hoping to find her son. About 100 meters from her home, she recognized her son’s sneakers, with a red stripe, sticking out of a barn door. She said:

He was lying there in a fetal position, with his hands tucked under his head, and his jacket draped over his shoulders. He had been shot in the ear, with blood covering his face. His best friend [Volodymyr Pozharnikov] was lying next to him; he had also been shot. His legs were bent in an unnatural position.

The stepfather of Anton Ischenko, 23, said that Russian forces came to their home in Andriivka and took Ischenko on March 3. Anton had been in the Ukrainian armed forces years earlier. The family found his body in a field in the suburbs of the village on March 31, the morning after Russian forces left the area. The stepfather declined to detail the state of Anton’s body but said that they had to identify him by his clothes.

Motyzhyn

On April 4, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Motyzhyn, a village about 50 kilometers west of Kyiv, saw the body of a woman whom the authorities identified as the mayor, Olha Sukhenko, 51, along with the bodies of her husband, Ihor, and son, Oleksandr. There was a fourth body, an unidentified man, who had tape covering his eyes and zip-ties lying next to him, indicating he may have been bound. His head had a large hole in it.

The four people appear to have been summarily executed, but Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the circumstances of their deaths. A fifth body, an unidentified male with bruises and other marks, was found in a well nearby the mass grave on the same property. Human Rights Watch found evidence on the property and in the area in which the bodies were found that suggested that Russian troops occupied the area for an extended period, including discarded and partially consumed food and clothing consistent with that worn by Russian forces.

Click to expand Image Russian forces dug pits and dugouts throughout the yard of Yahidne school and behind the school, while holding over 350 civilians in the school basement, Yahidne, April 17, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Chernihiv Region

Novyi Bykiv

A Novyi Bykiv villager whom Russian forces had held with about 20 others in a boiler room said that on March 30, a day before the Russian forces withdrew, several soldiers came to the boiler room saying that they had an order to execute 8 detainees and asked if there were any “volunteers.” When no one stepped forward, they took away eight men. The following day, after Russian forces withdrew, the villager found the bodies of two of the eight men about 50 meters from the boiler room, their heads smashed. He said he heard that the body of a third detainee was also found a bit further away. Human Rights Watch has no information about what happened to the other five men.

Staryi Bykiv

Russian forces in the village of Staryi Bykiv rounded up at least six men on February 27. Viktoria Hladka, the mother of one of the men, said she was sheltering in the family basement when Russian forces took her son Bohdan, 29, and brother-in-law Oleksandr Mohyrchuk, 39, from their yard. They had been smoking cigarettes, having just come up from the basement. Bohdan was a post office employee while studying management in Kyiv, and Mohyrchuk was a construction worker. Hladka saw their dead bodies and four others in a field the day after the men were taken.

Click to expand Image Russian forces left behind boxes of munitions at Yahidne school, which they used as their military base in the village, Yahidne, April 17, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch documented these killings through a telephone interview with Hladka just after Russian forces withdrew from the village. Human Rights Watch on April 16 went to Staryi Bykiv and spoke with Hladka, who said that following the Russian forces’ departure, Ukrainian law enforcement officers exhumed the bodies. An examination showed that some of her son’s ribs had been broken, and he had a knife wound to the heart and a shot in the head. Mohyrchuk had a knife wound near the heart and his neck had been slit. Hladka also provided the names of the other men found dead: Oleksandr Vasylenko, 39; Volodymyr Putiata, 46; Ihor Yavon, 32; and Oleh Yavon, 33.

Yahidne

In Yahidne, Russian forces held over 350 villagers in a schoolhouse basement for 28 days, severely limiting their ability to leave, even for brief periods. Valerii Polrui, a local councilman from Yahidne, said that a village resident, Viktor Shevchenko, was shot on March 3, the day Russian forces arrived in the village. Polrui said that one of the soldiers told him that Shevchenko was shot because he was a major in the Ukrainian armed forces, which he said was untrue. Shevchenko’s body was found a month later, buried in his own backyard. Ukrainian law enforcement officers exhumed Shevchenko’s body and conducted a forensic exam. Polrui said that the forensic exam showed that Shevchenko was shot in the head.

The bodies of two men who had been visiting Yahidne were found in a cellar on March 6 or 7. A villager who saw the bodies said their hands were tied behind their back and that each had two bullet wounds, in the head and in the back. Both were in their 40s.

Petro Tolochyn, in his 50s, was believed to be a retired lieutenant colonel who had a holiday home in Zolotynka, about 6 kilometers from Yahidne. One of the women held in the school basement and who sat close to the door, which had cracks in it, described seeing an armored vehicle bringing Tolochyn, covered in a blanket, to the schoolyard. She saw Russian soldiers put him on his knees and question him, and then throw him into the boiler room on the other side of the schoolyard.

Click to expand Image Boiler room in Novyi Bykiv center, where Russian soldiers detained civilians they had rounded up in the village. At least 20 people were kept in it for several weeks in March 2022,  April 16, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

The following day, the soldiers brought him to the basement, but took him away next morning, allegedly to take him to a hospital. Another villager in the basement who said he knew Tolochyn well and recognized him there, said Tolochyn’s body was discovered after Russian forces withdrew on March 31. Human Rights Watch visited the school on April 17 and saw a body bag. A villager who had identified Tolochyn’s body said it had gunshot wounds to the temple and left leg.

Mykhailo-Kotsiubynske

On March 4, Russian forces detained Oleh Prokhorenko, 38, in the town of Mykhailo-Kotsiubynske. He was allegedly using his phone to film Russian troop movements and provide the information to Ukrainian forces. Witnesses said they saw Prokhorenko, after he was detained, digging trenches for the Russian soldiers, a laws-of-war violation. Then no one saw him for weeks. His body was found on April 8 in the nearby woods, shot and buried. The forensic exam on file with Human Rights Watch says that he had gunshot wound to the head with skull fracturing and brain destruction.

Unlawful Killings of Civilians

Human Rights Watch documented nine cases of apparently unlawful killings of civilians by Russian forces in the Chernihiv region. Parties to an armed conflict, including occupying forces, may not attack civilians unless they are directly participating in the hostilities. Parties must do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives, such as soldiers, weapons, and military equipment.

Click to expand Image Left: Entry to the pit in the boiler room where five men were held for several days in late March. Right: Inside the pit in the boiler room. One was hurt and was lying down, while others could only stand or bend down, Novyi Bykiv, April 16, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

On March 14, between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., as a Russian convoy passed through Mokhnatyn village, soldiers shot to death 17-year-old twin brothers Yevhen and Bohdan Samodiy and their friend, Valentin Yakimchuk, 18. Yevhen and Bogdan were in vocational training to become electricians, while Yakimchuk was a first-year university student in Chernihiv.

The twins’ sister, Tanya, and other witnesses said that Russian forces had not occupied Mokhnatyn. Tanya said by phone that a Russian convoy earlier that day had been attacked near Mokhnatyn, and vehicles had scattered to various villages, including Mokhnatyn.

Tanya, who lived on the main road, said that her brothers and Yakimchuk had left for a friend’s house early that afternoon. She was at home when she heard the rumble of a convoy heading from the village center on the main road toward her house. After shots were fired, she immediately ran toward the village center and saw about 10 Russian military vehicles on the road, including armored personnel carriers, vehicles hauling rockets, and a gasoline supply truck.

When she arrived at the site of the incident, neighbors told her to get her parents. When she returned with them, they saw the bodies of the three on the ground. Yevhen and Yakimchuk were dead. Witnesses said half of Yakimchuk’s head was gone and Yevhen had been shot in the chest. Bohdan was wounded in the abdomen and still alive. His mother and her partner drove him to the Chernihiv children’s hospital, but Bohdan died before they arrived.

On March 4, in Nova Basan village, Russian soldiers shot dead Dmytro Solovei, 14, who was kicking around a football on a playground near his house. His brother, Serhii, 30, who saw Dmytro playing, went outside to bring him in, but also got shot at and wounded in the leg. Serhii managed to crawl to a neighbor’s house and get first aid. He could not seek professional medical assistance until Ukrainian forces regained control of the area on March 31. Their mother, Anzhela Solovei, said on May 10 that Serhii remained hospitalized, and his recovery was expected to take several months.

Click to expand Image Yahidne school from behind and the green door entrance to the school basement where Russian forces held over 350 village residents for 28 days, Yahidne, April 17, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

On February 28, also in Nova Basan, Russian soldiers apparently shot Mykola Kucherina, about 40, in the head as he passed by their post. The village administration chief said that although the family knew about Kucherina’s death, his body remained there for a month, as the Russian forces did not allow his parents to collect it.

Three residents of Levkovychi village said that around 6 p.m. on February 28, Russian forces entered the village and shot dead four men – Oleksandr Oryshko, Oleksandr Derkach, Yaroslav Varava, and Serhii Nimchenko – in the village center. The residents said that the men were unarmed and that each suffered multiple bullet wounds.

Enforced Disappearances

Human Rights Watch documented six cases in which Russian forces detained civilians, but their families could find no information about their circumstances or whereabouts. During an international armed conflict, failure to acknowledge a civilian’s detention or to disclose their whereabouts in custody can constitute an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law. The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has since February 24 documented 204 cases of enforced disappearances involving 169 men, 34 women, and a boy, the overwhelming majority of them attributed to Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups.

Russian soldiers detained Anatolii Shevchenko, a Yahidne resident in his 40s, on March 4. His next-door neighbor saw him being apprehended and again later sitting handcuffed on the concrete near the schoolhouse where other residents were arriving to shelter in the school basement. For a month, Russian forces used the school as their base. Shevchenko’s family members told the neighbor, who sees them regularly, that they had received no news of Shevchenko’s whereabouts.

Click to expand Image Inscription on a door frame indicates five adults and one child were held in this room. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

On March 4, around 3 p.m., five Russian soldiers detained Mykyta Buzinov, a 24-year-old taxi driver in Chernihiv city, at his house in the town of Mykhailo-Kotsiubynske. His uncle, Borys Buzinov, who was at home at the time, said that the soldiers checked everyone’s phones and saw that Nykyta had provided information to the Ukrainian forces. The soldiers first took Buzinov and his girlfriend, Katya, and then his mother and uncle to a nearby veterinary clinic, where the Russian forces were encamped.

Later that evening, the soldiers released everyone except Buzinov, saying they would talk to him and release him later. The encampment relocated the following day and Buzinov has not been seen since then. Borys Buzinov has been trying to locate Nykyta since his detention and spoke to members of various Russian units stationed throughout Mykhailo-Kotsiubynske in March, but he could not obtain any information about his nephew’s whereabouts.

Click to expand Image Inscription on a door frame indicates 19 adults and 9 children were held in this room. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Natalia Tarashenko, 48, and her husband, Mykola Sadovyi, 47, residents of Krasne, Chernihiv region, moved to her mother’s house on the other side of the town because their house was close to Ukrainian positions on the main road. Her husband stayed to take care of the household and domestic animals. On March 9, their neighbor’s child came to Natalia to say that her husband had not been seen for two days.

Sadovyi had told the neighbor on March 7 that he had run out of his heart medication and was planning to bicycle to Chernihiv to buy it. He was with his friend, Kostya Sivko, who also disappeared the same day. They are concerned that Russian forces took them into custody. Although Krasne remained under Ukrainian control, to get to Chernihiv, the men would have had to ride on roads controlled by Russian forces, through Russian checkpoints, and also pass through Yahidne, which was under Russian control at the time.

On March 10, Serhii Molosh, 39, and his friend, Vitalii Kulik, were missing from the village of Ryzhyky, about 22 kilometers north of Chernihiv, and there are concerns that they were taken into custody. Serhii’s mother, 69, said the men set off by foot during daylight hours to buy meat in the village of Riabtsi, 2.5 kilometers away. They never reached Riabtsi and were not heard from since. Villagers knew of no shelling in either village or on the road between them. Russian forces were in full control of the area where Ryzhyky and Riabtsi are located, and Russian armored vehicles were patrolling the road between both villages as well as other neighboring villages.

Unlawful Confinement and Inhuman, Degrading Detention Conditions

Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases in which Russian forces rounded up and unlawfully detained civilians in dirty and suffocating conditions, restricting their access to food, water, and toilets. The Fourth Geneva Convention applies to all civilians, who are considered protected persons when under the control of belligerent or occupying forces. The Geneva Conventions permit the internment or assigned residence of protected persons only for “imperative reasons of security,” as a measure of last resort. In the cases investigated, Human Rights Watch found no basis for detaining civilians. The ban on torture and other ill-treatment is absolute under both the laws of war and international human rights law.

Click to expand Image Inscription on a door frame indicates 28 adults and 5 children were held in this room. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Chernihiv Region

Yahidne

Russian forces entered Yahidne, a small village 15 kilometers south of Chernihiv city, early March, after days of shelling. For 28 days, they held over 350 civilians, almost the whole population, in the basement of the village schoolhouse without ventilation in extremely cramped and unsanitary conditions. They severely limited people’s ability to leave the basement, even for brief periods, arbitrarily depriving them of their liberty. Seventy were children, including five infants. During this time, 10 died, all older people.

On March 3, Russian forces rounded up the villagers or otherwise ordered them to the school basement ostensibly for their own safety. Some refused and were allowed to remain in their homes because they were sick or were providing someone health care.

Russian forces turned the school into a military base, thereby endangering the villagers detained there.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 people detained in the basement, which consisted of two large rooms and a warren of six smaller rooms. They said that during the first few days Russian soldiers did not open the door at all, and subsequently opened it no more than once a day, allowing people to leave irregularly to use the outdoor toilet and to cook over outdoor fires, and at times allowing some detainees to go home to bring food back to the basement. They described the suffocating lack of air, the absence of space to move around or lie down, and having to use buckets for toilets. Many fell ill.

Some villagers went voluntarily to the basement, fearing the continued shelling. Some were directly coerced. Olha Volodymyrivna said that on March 3, three Russian soldiers came to her house, beat and kicked her husband, Volodymyr, 63, in her presence, smashed his phone, and locked both in their stand-alone cellar for two days, while the soldiers lived in their house. On the third day, they ordered the couple to go to the school basement.

On March 3, Volodymyr Ivashchenko was sheltering in the basement of his home with his wife, mother-in-law, daughter, and 3-year-old grandson, when five soldiers banged on the basement door and ordered everyone out. Ivashchenko’s 70-year-old mother-in-law, who walked with a cane, remained inside. Ivashchenko explained to the soldiers that she had difficulties walking. She left the basement only after one of the soldiers threatened to drop the grenade he was holding if she did not leave. The following day, Ivashchenko and his family walked to the school basement. He described the conditions there:

It was damp and everyone was coughing. There was not enough air…. There were hundreds of people [and] nowhere to sleep, we were locked there for days at a time, used buckets as toilets. Imagine sitting on a chair for weeks, no place to even lie down.

A woman from Yahidne said:

The room had no light. We could only sit on small children’s chairs or narrow benches. Our baby was sitting and sleeping on laps. The air was filled with dust and the smell of lime from the walls. … After a week everyone was coughing violently. Almost all the children had high fevers, spasms from coughing, and would throw up. We tried not to walk unnecessarily, because people were sitting so densely that it was only possible to move sideways…

We tried not to drink much because there was not enough water, and we were anxious that the soldiers would not allow us to use the … small outdoor toilet. They … [soldiers] didn’t give us food during the first days. … After that, they allowed some of us to go home for food supplies. They allowed us to make a fire near the exit and cook for ourselves. We were able to provide a half liter of [cooked] food per two people.

She also said the soldiers would not allow a 63-year-old man with cancer, for whom sitting was painful, to go home. They said he could “hang himself” to alleviate the pain. Some people developed bedsores from constant sitting. Around March 20, several children and adults came down with chickenpox and secondary infections from scratching the blisters.

Halyna Tolochyna, who spent nearly a month in the Yahidne school basement, said that to keep track of days, together with another woman, she drew a calendar using chalk on one of the basement doors. On the right side of the door, she kept a list of people who died, 10 in all, including their date of death, and on the left, a list of people, totaling 7, who were shot or were forcibly disappeared.

Tolochyna said 2 of the 10 people had died at home a few days after the soldiers let them leave because of their rapidly deteriorating health. Among the eight who died in the basement was Ivashchenko’s mother-in-law, Nadiia Buchenko. Ivashchenko said:

Imagine sitting on a chair for weeks. Nowhere to lie down, and not enough air. Her legs got swollen and her blood pressure would drop a lot. We had no medications and could not leave. She died on March 28. Her body was moved to the boiler-room and two days later, Russian soldiers allowed me to … bury her at the cemetery.

Some former detainees were still hospitalized when Human Rights Watch visited on April 17 for various ailments they contracted during their confinement.

Among them was Ivashchenko’s wife, Liubov, 50, who went to the hospital on March 31, the day they were released. Her legs had become swollen, and she was having difficulty walking.

Nova Basan

Mykola Diachenko, 63, head of the village administration in Nova Basan, spent 26 days in Russian custody, in five locations, including a post office building, a warehouse, a summer kitchen, and a cellar.

Russian soldiers detained Diachenko on March 5 at home, together with his deputy. Diachenko said that the Russian soldiers rounded up every man on his street as the soldiers were establishing control over the village. He said:

They demanded that we put on some clothes and follow them. I asked if I could take my eyedrops, [they said] I would not need them anymore. I thought they knew I was the head of the village administration, and they were going to shoot me.

One of the detention places was in a stand-alone underground cellar, which was no more than nine square meters, with 20 detainees, all men from 22 to 65. They spent two days there, with the door sealed shut. People started to suffocate. Diachenko said, “We started banging on the door, pleading [for someone] to open it and let us breathe. Eventually, the soldiers left the door slightly open to let some air in.” The men inside were given no food, only two liters of water for the 20 to share.

Novyi Bykiv

On March 24, seven or eight Russian soldiers came to the home of Volodymyr Zhadan in Novyi Bykiv, started shooting in the air, and demanded that he hand over his phone. Zhadan, 64, said:

I was in my underwear. … They started to beat me [with rifle butts], pushed me to the ground and started to kick me in the stomach, legs, back, demanding my phone. …Then they blindfolded and handcuffed me from behind and took me away. They only allowed me to put on my slippers and a jacket, no pants.

Zhadan said he was taken, together with two neighbors, to the basement of the village preschool. “They took the blindfolds away, but it was completely dark,” he said. “We spent the night there, freezing in complete darkness.” In the morning, the Russian soldiers gave him pants, blindfolded him again, and took him for questioning next door at the village school. After Zhadan was released, later that evening, he found his house had been trashed and looted.

On March 24, soldiers detained a 66-year-old Novyi Bykiv villager because they found he had a cell phone. They took him to a small boiler room in the village center, which was holding about 20 people. In the far-right corner was a pit several meters deep. Soldiers put him in the pit, where he spent five nights together with four other detainees. He said he was allowed to use the toilet only three times during the five days, that they were given no food and just one bottle of lemonade a day for all five men. “One of the detainees was in handcuffs all the time; his hands were swollen,” the villager said.

Kyiv Region

Dymer

After the Russian offensive began on February 24, Ihor Zyrianov, a 58-year-old hair stylist from Kyiv, fled to his summer house in Bohdany, a village about 80 kilometers north, together with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. On the morning of March 21, Zyrianov and five friends, including two women, got together at the home of his neighbor, Pavlo Rudyk, 47, because he had internet reception. Soon six Russian soldiers, wearing masks, arrived in an armored vehicle. They ordered everyone out, checked their documents, and stole US$11,000 that Zyrianov said he had in his passport folder.

The soldiers confiscated the two vehicles parked in the yard, took off the license plates and sprayed a “V,” one of the Russian symbols for the Ukraine conflict, on them. They blindfolded the four men, handcuffed them behind their backs with plastic zip-ties, and bundled them in the trunks of the two cars. They put the two women in the back seat of one of the cars and drove all six about 30 minutes to the window manufacturing plant complex in the town of Dymer.

There, they were taken to a 40 square-meter room that Zyrianov described as a compressor station with a big industrial air pump in the middle of the room. The six friends spent three days in custody there. At least 30 others were already in the room when they arrived, and the number grew to 49 by the end of the day. Zyrianov said the detainees ranged in age from 17 to 73, and that at least eight were 17 and 18, and that one young man had been detained there for two weeks before they arrived.

Zyrianov and Rudyk, interviewed separately, each said there was very little light in the room. There were two buckets instead of toilets, one 20-liter bottle of water and one hose for drinking and that everyone, except the women, was kept blindfolded and handcuffed with zip-ties.

Zyrianov said:

The door had a small hole, which allowed enough light for us to know whether it was a day or night. People slept and sat on the ground, on plastic buckets, or on some cloths, no beds… There was not enough space for us to lie down, so we slept in shifts. Food was given once a day... Once there was barley, once pasta, and once some kind of boiled rice. We… learned how to loosen the zip-ties when the door was closed and would lift the blindfolds when Russian soldiers were not there.

On March 23, a Russian officer told the detainees that they would be released in groups. Zyrianov, Rudyk, and their four other friends were in the second group, together with three others. They were taken, blindfolded and handcuffed, to the center of Dymer at around 4 p.m. Zyrianov said that the Russian soldiers told them that they would be killed on the spot if they were detained again.

When they returned home, both men discovered that their houses had been looted. Rudyk said that among the items stolen were a car, his wife’s wedding ring, a generator, tools, Bluetooth speakers, about $30,000 in cash, and a watch worth US$22,000.

Torture and Other Ill-treatment

Dymer

Zyrianov and Rudyk described the abuses they endured during their three days of detention at the window manufacturing plant. Zyrianov said that on the first day, March 21, Russian soldiers confiscated their phones and demanded access codes. Each day, soldiers interrogated them, one by one, for 10 to 15 minutes each, in a nearby room. He said that the soldiers had nicknames for all detainees, and they called him “American” because of the US visas in his passport.

He was interrogated, while blindfolded, three times about where he served in the military and why he had traveled to the United States. Soldiers hit him twice with a rifle butt when they did not like his responses. Zyrianov said that he was spared compared to others: “They used ‘electric shockers’ and beat some detainees. We could hear the screams.”

Rudyk said soldiers interrogated him twice and subjected him to a mock execution:

I sat blindfolded and handcuffed. They told me that it was over for me. They put a rifle to my head, loaded it and I heard three shots. I could hear the bullet casings falling on the ground too. …They told me that they would not miss next time if I don’t tell them everything… whether I participated in the Maidan events [2013 protests in Kyiv] or whether I fought in the 2014 war. Second time they interrogated me, they used an electric shocker on me. They shocked me on the back of my head. It was very painful.

Rudyk said that as of mid-April, more than 40 people detained at the window manufacturing plant were still missing. Rudyk and Zyrianov said that on April 14, two other detainees – a Red Cross volunteer driver and a nurse – were missing after the ordeal. In an April 27 CNN report about the window manufacturing plant industrial site, reporters interviewed Volodymyr Khrapun, a former detainee whom Russian forces forcibly transferred to Russia, together with dozens of other window manufacturing plant detainees. Khrapun appears to be the Red Cross driver whom other detainees had described, and who told CNN he was released as part of a prisoner exchange.

Nova Basan

Mykola Diachenko, the Nova Basan village administration head, said that at one of the five sites where he was held, Russian soldiers took him outside with other detainees. They blindfolded them and demanded that they cooperate if they wanted to survive. Diachenko then heard rifle shots, thinking that someone had been executed. They also threatened to hang him by his feet, stab his fingers, and impale him on a wooden pole so he “would die in a lot of pain.” At the fifth detention site, a small summer kitchen packed with detainees, the soldiers threatened to throw in a grenade. “I was sure that I would not survive the detention,” Diachenko said. He and others detained with him were freed after Russian forces withdrew from the area.

In Nova Basan, Human Rights Watch spoke with a villager who participated in the local territorial defense unit, the quasi-military resistance groups in Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. On March 9, about 15 Russian soldiers arrived on an armored vehicle and took the villager and his 25-year-old son, also an active resistance member, at gunpoint. They pushed them to their knees, while firing their rifles in the air, tied their hands behind their back and ordered them to show where they had hidden their guns.

Click to expand Image Inscription on a door frame in Yahidne school basement, noting the number of adults and children in a particular room. There were 136 adults and 39 children in this room. Yahidne, April 20, 2022. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

The soldiers took the son to their basement and made him dig out buried guns. The soldiers blindfolded the villager, put him in an armored vehicle and took him to a farmhouse. “They put me on a chair,” he said. “I told them that I had given them all the weapons I had, but someone then kicked me in the back of the head, and I fell off.”

The soldiers released him the next day, detained him again on March 12 and held him until March 31. They took him back to the farmhouse and threatened to cut his hands off or run over him with a tank if he did not tell them more about the resistance.

The villager said that one soldier tied his hands together in front with a zip-tie and hung a cable from the ceiling roof, pulling his hands upward, the tips of his toes touching the floor. He said the only way to avoid pain was to stand on tiptoes. He was kept in this position for two or three hours. He was set free after Russian forces withdrew from Nova Basan.

Hostomel, Kyiv region

Oleksandr Novichenko, 35, evacuated his mother from Hostomel, but stayed behind to feed his and his neighbors’ domestic animals. On the afternoon of March 27, as he was closing the neighbors’ gates, a Russian soldier took him into custody, tied his hands behind his back with a zip-tie, blindfolded him, and pushed him down into a basement, where for two days soldiers repeatedly questioned and electroshocked him.

“The zip-tie was so tight that my wrists were swollen,” he said. “I had an open wound on my knee, and they would shock me right there … I was screaming from pain, telling them that I knew nothing, but they would go on shocking me.” After two days, the soldiers put a black bag over his head and released him in the village.

North Korea Acknowledges Health Crisis amid Covid-19 Outbreak

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 16, 2022
Click to expand Image A first-ever government-released photograph showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wearing a mask, during a visit to a pharmacy in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 15, 2022.  © 2022 Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP  

Last Friday, North Korean officials made an unprecedented admission regarding the country’s Covid-19 health crisis and reported a Covid-19 case for the very first time. In a rare instance of allowing government-run media to report negative news, officials announced that an unspecified “fever” was spreading “explosively” in the country, infecting more than 1.2 million people and killing 50. A reported 564,860 people were under medical treatment.

On May 12, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the national disease-control headquarters and appeared in state media wearing a mask in public for the first time. Kim criticized health officials, saying the fever’s spread shows “a vulnerable point in the epidemic prevention system.” The government declared a “maximum emergency” and ordered a countrywide lockdown, isolating “each working unit, production unit and residential unit from each other.”

The government is right to finally acknowledge Covid-19’s spread, but the news overall is extremely concerning. While North Korea’s data can’t be trusted or the scale of cases fully known, it is evident that existing government policies exacerbate the effects of the crisis and put North Koreans at increased risk of dying from Covid-19. North Koreans have had almost no access to the Covid-19 vaccine, and many are chronically malnourished, leaving them with compromised immune systems. Medicines of any kind are scarce in the country, and the healthcare infrastructure is extremely fragile, lacking medical supplies such as oxygen and other Covid-19 therapeutics.

North Korea’s meagre economy has significantly contracted in recent years due to lockdowns, border closures, and intensifying United Nations Security Council sanctions. The current nationwide lockdown can be expected to hinder the agricultural harvest, already impacted by drought, which is crucial for the country’s economy. It’s hard to really know how bad the humanitarian situation is in North Korea, as virtually all international aid providers pulled out of the country during earlier lockdowns.

The UN and governments around the world should make every possible effort to persuade North Korea to allow outside humanitarian assistance, and accept offers of food, vaccines, and infrastructure for vaccine preservation, including refrigerators, generators, and gasoline. Despite geopolitical complexities, North Koreans are facing a uniquely acute catastrophe, and the world should not turn away.

As Sri Lanka’s Tamils Remember War Dead, Justice Remains Elusive

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 16, 2022
Click to expand Image Razor wire installed by the Sri Lankan Army along a beach in Mullaitivu district, where many civilians were killed at the end of the civil war in May 2009. © 2017 Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via AP

Every year on May 18, Sri Lankan Tamils mark Mullaivaikkal Memorial Day commemorating those who died in the civil war that ended in 2009. In recent years the authorities have sought to suppress the commemorations, issuing court orders, intimidating participants, shutting down events, and even detaining mourners over allegations of terrorism.

This year the anniversary comes at a time of unprecedented public protest in Sri Lanka. Amid a devastating economic crisis, thousands of protesters on the streets of Colombo, the capital, are demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. On May 9, pro-government thugs attacked the protesters, setting off a wave of violence and disorder across the country.

The president brought the army onto Colombo’s streets, a state of emergency is in force, and there are daily curfews. The protests nevertheless continue.

The 26-year civil war between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government was marked by countless atrocities by both sides. In the final months the LTTE used human shields, and the government indiscriminately shelled self-declared no-fire zones, allegedly killing tens of thousands of civilians. Hundreds of Tamils were forcibly disappeared in army custody.

Many of the same people in power today held senior positions in 2009. President Rajapaksa was defense secretary at the time. Today’s chief of defense staff and defense secretary commanded troops responsible for war crimes.

Since the war ended, people in the Tamil-majority north and east have frequently faced repression. The Mothers of the Disappeared, who have protested since 2017 to learn the fate of their loved ones, endure government surveillance and intimidation. On March 20, police attacked and beat them.

An Office of Missing Persons set up by the previous government is discredited. The authorities have demolished memorials to Tamil victims of the war.

It is crucial that this week’s memorial events go ahead without interference. There is a hope among many that the demands for change now being raised in Colombo could lead towards a more pluralistic Sri Lanka. Human rights lawyer Ambika Satkunanathan wrote that “there is growing awareness and space to speak of issues previously thought not possible,” including war crimes.

And Sri Lanka’s foreign partners, who are working to address the economic crisis, need to remember that steps towards lasting stability won’t succeed without protecting rights and addressing past abuses.

Student in Nigeria Murdered Over Blasphemy Allegation

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 16, 2022
Click to expand Image A burned-out security post where Deborah Samuel, a student at Shehu Shagari College of Education, was murdered in Sokoto, Nigeria, on May 13, 2022.  © 2022 AP Photo/Olu Akinrele

A female student, Deborah Samuel, was gruesomely murdered in Nigeria’s northwestern Sokoto state last week after she was accused of blasphemy. Efforts by the authorities to identify and arrest those involved in her murder have been met with protests, which have further stoked religious tensions across the predominantly Muslim state.

According to media reports, unidentified assailants hunted down and killed Samuel after she sent a WhatsApp voice note to her classmates that some of them deemed to be insulting to the Prophet Muhammed.

In one of several videos that have gone viral and caused uproar, men with sticks can be seen beating the lifeless, bloodied body of a woman, reported to be Samuel. The video also showed young men celebrating, with one man holding up a match box and saying that he used it to set her on fire and kill her.

Nigeria’s population is roughly split between the Christian majority south and Muslim majority north. While the constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, thought, and conscience, the country’s criminal law makes it an offense to insult religion. Sharia, or Islamic law, applicable in the country’s 12 northern states, including Sokoto, criminalizes blasphemy. The authorities have held people incommunicado and Sharia courts have sentenced those convicted of blasphemy to death.

Blasphemy accusations often trigger mob violence before authorities even get involved. Nigeria’s history is rife with mob killings and deadly riots over alleged blasphemy against Islam.

In 2002, the offices of Thisday newspaper in the city of Kaduna were burned down after it published an article deemed to have been blasphemous. This was the catalyst for a spate of violent clashes between Muslim and Christians. Human Rights Watch documented around 250 deaths during the clashes and criticized the authorities for lack of effective action and resolve to bring those responsible to justice. Years of failing to ensure accountability for intercommunal violence between Muslims and Christians communities has only served to fuel more violence.

Nigerian legislators should urgently introduce laws to repeal the country’s blasphemy legislation, which is inconsistent with international human rights law to which Nigeria is party. The authorities should fully investigate and appropriately prosecute all those responsible for Samuel’s murder, and send a clear message that mob killings have no place in Nigeria whatever their justification.

Burkina Faso: Armed Islamists Kill, Rape Civilians

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 16, 2022
Click to expand Image A government soldier walks past a group of villagers displaced by fighting in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region, February 3, 2020. © 2020 Olympia de Maismont/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Armed Islamist groups and government security forces and militia in Burkina Faso are committing increased abuses against civilians as the conflict there intensifies and widens, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burkina Faso government, which took power in a January 2022 coup, should better protect civilians from attack and ensure that government forces respect human rights.

Armed Islamist groups that began attacking Burkina Faso in 2016 have become increasingly abusive, carrying out hundreds of killings, summary executions, rapes of civilians, and widespread pillaging. Also since 2016, government security forces and militias engaged in counterterrorism operations have allegedly unlawfully killed hundreds of civilians and suspected Islamist fighters, fueling recruitment into armed groups. The fighting has forced 1.8 million people from their homes, most from the Sahel and Centre-Nord regions of the country.

“Armed Islamist groups are demonstrating day after day their profound disregard for the lives and livelihoods of civilians,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Government forces and associated militias must scrupulously uphold international human rights and humanitarian law and desist from killing in the name of security.”

From April 7 to 21, 2022 in Ouagadougou, the capital, and in Kaya, Human Rights Watch interviewed 83 survivors and witnesses to incidents between September 2021 and April 2022 in the Boucle du Mouhoun, Cascades, Centre-Nord, Est, Nord, Sahel, and Sud-Ouest regions of Burkina Faso. Human Rights Watch also interviewed medical professionals, security analysts, government officials, foreign diplomats, United Nations representatives, and aid workers.

Click to expand Image © 2022 John Emerson for Human Rights Watch

Villagers said that heavily armed Islamist fighters killed civilians during attacks and planted deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Fighters in dozens of cases raped and otherwise abused women and girls who were foraging for wood, traveling to and from the market, and fleeing the violence. The fighters also burned villages; commandeered ambulances and looted health centers; destroyed crucial water, telecommunications, and electricity infrastructure; and engaged in widespread pillage. Many villagers described seeing numerous child soldiers, some as young as 12, within the armed Islamist ranks.

A resident of Ankouna described the aftermath of an armed Islamist attack: “When I returned the next day, the village was still smoldering. [There were] bodies of six people including my brother, who had been shot trying to rescue a child 10 meters from his shop. I saw five people including a 70-year-old dead in one house. They’d been shot in the back or head.”

Other villagers said that government security forces and pro-government militias, called Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie, VDP), carried out unlawful killings and enforced disappearances of dozens of civilians and suspected Islamist fighters largely in Burkina Faso’s eastern and southern regions.

All parties to the armed conflict are bound by international humanitarian law, notably Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and customary laws of war, which provide for the humane treatment of captured combatants and require prosecuting summary executions, rape, and enforced disappearances as war crimes.

The government should revoke a 2021 decree that provides immunity from prosecution to members of a special counterterrorism force for acts committed “in the exercise of their functions.” In coordination with the United Nations and aid agencies, the government should increase medical and mental health support to victims of abuse including sexual and gender-based violence.

“There have been very few investigations, much less prosecutions, for the atrocities which have punctuated Burkina Faso’s conflict,” Dufka said. “The government should ensure the presence of provost marshals with responsibility for troop discipline and detainees’ rights in all military operations and adopt measures so that civilian and military courts provide fair trials for suspects.”

For details of attacks on civilians, please see below.

Abuses by Armed Islamist Groups

Several armed Islamist groups allied to both Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are implicated in serious abuses.

Since late 2021, these armed groups have dramatically increased attacks on pro-government forces including in and around the towns of Ankouna, Arbinda, Dablo, Foube, Inata, Namsiguia, Namissiguima, Pissila, and Tougouri, to which many people fleeing violence in surrounding villages had fled in 2019 and 2020.

The attacks, said security analysts, appeared designed to compel widespread displacement from towns perceived to support the government, thereby consolidating armed group control from their strongholds in northern Burkina Faso to the central regions. Humanitarian workers expressed alarm at the dramatic pace of deterioration. Said one, “Civilian life is being suffocated as roads are mined; villages blockaded; markets closed; and water points, telecommunication, and electricity infrastructure sabotaged.”

Armed Islamist groups have concentrated recruitment efforts on the nomadic Peuhl, or Fulani, by exploiting community grievances over poverty and public sector corruption. This has inflamed tensions with other largely agrarian communities, notably the Foulse, Mossi, Dogon, and Gourmantché, who have been the targets of most armed Islamist attacks.

Villagers described fighters dressed in military camouflage or traditional robes known as boubous, with ammunition vests, turbans covering their faces, and military boots. They used motorcycles, motorized tricycles, and pickup trucks, often draped with white, black, or red flags with Arabic writing, and were armed with AK-47 assault weapons, PKM-12 machine guns, pistols, and rocket-propelled grenades. The fighters were heard speaking in Fulfulde, and to a lesser extent Gourmanchéma, Arabic, and Mooré.

Killing and Summary Execution of Civilians

Human Rights Watch documented the killing by armed Islamist groups of 67 civilians during attacks on villages, farms, and artisanal gold mine sites.

In late March, in Centre-Nord region, armed Islamists summarily executed three women fleeing an attack. Three witnesses to the killings believed the victims, all over 50, had been targeted because they had recognized the armed group’s commander: One witness said:

Our convoy of 40 women on donkey carts was suddenly surrounded by over 60 terrorists. They kept us there for hours, asked if our husbands were VDPs, lectured us about how to be good Muslims, and told us this land was now theirs. They stole our phones, food stocks, money, clothing, and then burned what they didn’t want. The commander asked my friend if she recognized him. She replied honestly: “Yes, I know you and your father. You killed my husband.” He ordered her onto her donkey cart, and then executed her. We gasped. He hit the donkey and the cart took off with her inside. Then he executed on the spot two other women in their 60s, who also said they recognized him.


Villagers from Ankouna said armed Islamists killed 14 civilians during an attack on January 5, including five men executed in one house and at least two children. A 39-year-old trader said:

I was in my shop when at about 4 p.m. scores of attackers burst into town, riding on motorcycles and pickups. One terrorist jumped down, spraying bullets into the market area as he walked in a half circle. Another man fired at us with a gun mounted on a pickup. They stayed for three hours yelling “Allahu akbar,” burning the village and looting animals and market stalls.


A resident said, “There were 30 VDPs [militia members] in the village but only civilians died in this attack.”

Villagers said that armed Islamists killed nine civilians during a January 15 attack on Namsiguia. “From 6:30 a.m., they flooded into town from three directions, shooting wildly, forcing open and looting shops, then burning the rest, including an ambulance, water pump, and telecommunication towers,” said one witness. Another who helped collect the dead said, “I found bodies in the street, and several women killed near the water point. The eldest was 75, and the youngest a 10-year-old girl.” A VDP militia member said, “There were over 100 jihadists on motorcycles and pickups firing machine guns. We fired a few warning shots but quickly ditched our weapons and ran.”

A 33-year-old woman described an attack near Nagraogo village on the motorized tricycle in which she and other traders were traveling. “On our way back from market, eight armed Islamists forced us to stop,” she said. “They were talking on a walkie-talkie with other terrorists. They marched the only two men in our group into the bush and executed them. This is why our men stopped traveling on the roads.”

Residents of several villages said that farmers had been forced to abandon their land and flee after dozens had been killed in their farms or as they grazed their animals. Many farmers said they had been unable to safely work on their farms over the last two or three years. A man from Bam province described the cases of 16 farmers or herders killed since 2021: “Their strategy is to isolate and starve us,” he said. A nurse from a town in Centre-Nord said, “Since 2020, I treated at least 12 men shot while working their land and registered 16 men killed – 12 in their fields and four while grazing their cows.”

A 53-year-old herder survived one such attack that killed his brother in late 2021:

My younger brother and I were tending our herd south of Dablo. We were separated by 200 meters when I saw terrorists on two motorcycles jump off, push him down, and shoot him in the head, and then steal our cows. Two other herders were killed like this the same day.


Security sources described two attacks on artisanal gold mining sites. On March 10, armed Islamists attacked Tondobi village in Seytenga commune, killing 10 people. On March 12 they attacked the Baliata artisanal mine near Dori, killing 11. A family member said that on March 18, armed Islamists abducted 50-year-old Hama Hamidou, a local official who managed cattle, took him out of a taxi traveling between Dori and Seytenga, and executed him.

Rape and Other Violence Against Women and Girls

Human Rights Watch documented several dozen cases of rape of women and girls by armed Islamist groups since late September 2021, most in the Centre-Nord region. Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 rape survivors, many of whom had witnessed other women being raped. One said that at least nine other women had been raped during the same incident. Burkinabé elders or medical workers documented other cases, sharing anonymized records detailing cases they knew of or had treated.

The armed Islamists targeted women and girls who were gathering firewood, on their way to or from market, or as they fled attacks on their villages. The women said the assailants tried to extract information about government forces and militias and told them to convey ultimatums to their villages to abandon the area. Attackers often demanded that the women demonstrate their knowledge of the Quran.

Community leaders said the frequent killings of men as they worked in their fields or went to market had increasingly pushed women into these roles, putting them at greater risk. “If a man is found by these people, you know where he will end up,” a male villager said. “Because of this, our women are forced to do the work we wish we could do.” An aid worker said, “Women are being forced to take terrible risks to care for their families.”

A nurse from a village near Dablo said she had treated over 55 women who had been raped by armed Islamists between September and December 2021. “The women came from 11 villages,” she said. “The terrorists attacked Muslims, Christians, and animists alike. They cried – they couldn’t eat or sleep and were too ashamed to tell their families what happened.”

A nurse in another area said she had treated seven women within the same time frame: “One was a girl of 16, and another, a 40-year-old Christian who told me the assailants ripped off her cross before dragging her into the bush.” A village elder from Namissiguima said 10 women from three surrounding villages who had been raped told her they had not sought medical care.

One woman described what happened to a17-year-old family member:

We were on five donkey carts collecting wood when the girl in the last cart screamed – she had fallen into jihadists’ hands. She had lagged slightly behind because her donkey was young and slower than ours. I ran to save her, but an attacker pointed his gun saying, “If you want your life, get out of here.” We rushed to tell our men, and four hours later they found the girl emerging from the bush on foot. She was bleeding and swollen; they had violated her with brutality.”


A 35-year-old woman, one of four raped in November 2021 while foraging for wood, said:

We were on donkey carts, seven kilometers from town, when attackers captured and interrogated us about soldiers and VDPs in the village. They asked if we were Muslims, ordering us to recite the Shahada, then they each dragged the woman they wanted into the bush, covering our faces with a cloth. My rapist said, “Tell your man to put down his gun; tell him we will never be defeated.”


Islamist armed groups abducted and raped 10 women in mid-March as they fled to Kaya, the Centre-Nord regional capital. One said:

After the attack, the men fled on foot through the bush, while we women, with our children and elderly, rode on about 20 donkey carts on the road with our animals and what we managed to take. At around 6 p.m., a group of 100 jihadists emerged from the bush. They were heavily armed, some with machine guns, resembling an army. They beat us, stole our possessions, and forced 10 of us to follow them. The mothers of the younger women begged and cried saying, “Leave them! Do you read the Quran? You can’t do this!” The attackers took us into the bush. They said they were going to take us far away and marry us. Later their commander came and saved us. He seemed mad at them and said, “Leave these people, you’ve already done enough harm.”


A 25-year-old woman described being raped in late 2021 after being abducted from her home:

My husband wasn’t home that night. Two jihadists pointed their guns, forcing me and my toddler to ride on a motorcycle between them for three hours to their base. They interrogated me about the whereabouts of the soldiers and the local nurse. I recognized one, who I used to sell to in the market. I fought so hard, several of them had to hold me down.… One jihadist held my baby while another raped me. They told me to tell others to abandon the village, or they’d kill us all.


Many women said the armed Islamists whipped them during the sexual assault, typically on the back with rubber cords. Several said the whipping caused welts and bleeding.

A 36-year-old woman who was beaten and raped along with two others on her way home from the market in Barsalogho said, “I received 22 lashes with an electric cord, while my friends were hit 17 times. They said if we cried, they would restart the count.” A 37-year-old woman beaten with four others before being raped, said, “They ordered us down from the donkey cart, and to sit down in the bush, then struck us 25 times each. They said we were fake Muslims and told us to call our VDP husbands to save us. Later, one attacker took me behind a tree and did what he wanted.”

Villagers said older women and breastfeeding mothers were usually spared sexual assault but were often beaten. A 30-year-old Christian woman said that over 40 women were beaten during a late 2021 attack on a village near Bourzanga:

During the attack, the attackers gathered all of us in one house, screaming at us to tell them where our men were and saying “Why are you still here? We told you leave this place!” One of them ordered me to remove my crucifix, and I refused saying even if death awaits me, I wouldn’t abandon my faith. He ripped it off my chest and whipped and beat me and the others with branches.


A woman said that while she traveled to Kaya in late October, armed Islamists severely beat her, another woman, and nine adolescent girls:

We were taking our girls to school in Kaya. They stole the school fees and held us for hours asking about the government forces. They cocked their guns to terrify us, and tried to drag the girls off, but we fought them. That’s when they beat us with a cable. The girls received 17 lashes and the older women, 20. My back bled from the beating.


Use of Child Soldiers

Numerous villagers described seeing children they estimated to be as young as 12, many armed with military assault weapons, among armed Islamist ranks. They were seen in assaults on the towns of Namissiguima, Namsiguia, Foube, Rofenga, Pensa, Dablo, and in several areas of Est region, as well as during attacks on convoys of fleeing civilians. Any use by armed forces of children under 18 is a violation of international law and may be a war crime.

A witness to an attack in Centre-Nord region in late 2021 said, “I cowered with my baby as attackers, half of whom seemed to be children, fired into the market area. A few were so small – their guns dragged on the ground. One had a string of bullets weighing down his neck.” A witness to the March attack on Namissiguima said, “From where I hid, I saw well over a hundred attackers including around 20 children – ages 14, 15, 16, many armed.” A rape survivor said, “While the older terrorist dragged me away, the children guarded the road.”

A witness described the November 26 attack on Dablo: “In previous attacks there were just a few children, but in November, almost half the group of 40 were adolescents. I saw some firing crazily all over the village.” A man who had been abducted and held for several days in 2021 said, “Of the dozen terrorists who captured me, four were children. I feared what they might do – children don’t measure the value of life as adults do.”

Many child soldiers were observed pillaging, especially livestock, or robbing civilians as they fled attacks. “They were mostly around 14 or 15 years old, and had brought cords to take away our animals,” a witness said. A woman in a convoy of civilians fleeing a March attack in Centre-Nord said, “Scores of jihadists, including many children ages 13 to 15, emerged from the bush, interrogating us and stealing everything. Three children, all armed, rounded up the animals.”

Several people described seeing child soldiers setting fire to houses and market stalls. “I saw more than 40 jihadists,” said a witness to a 2022 attack on Namissiguima. “While the men fired in the air, another group, including children, set the house next door on fire. I called out for water because I heard screams coming from inside.”

IED Attacks on Roads and Shelling of Villages

Philippe Renard, chief of the UN’s Mine Action Service (UNMAS) office in Burkina Faso, told Human Rights Watch that IEDs have killed 73 civilians and injured 36 since 2021, most in Boucle du Mouhoun, Centre-Nord, Est, and Nord regions.

Humanitarian workers said these weapons, whose use is often unlawfully indiscriminate, isolated communities and undermined the ability of groups to deliver crucial aid and services to vulnerable populations. “Roads we used just months ago are now littered with burned-out vehicle carcasses,” an aid worker said. “We’re terrified of hitting a mine every time we set off to deliver aid,” another said.

Civilians were killed or injured by IEDs while on donkey carts, bicycles, motorized tricycles, motorcycles, buses, and other vehicles while searching for firewood and water; traveling to and from local markets; and fleeing attacks on their villages.

A woman who was wounded by an IED explosion in Centre-Nord in 2021 said:

My family was fleeing in a bus after our village, Kougri-Koulga, was attacked. As we approached a bridge near Boulga village, there was a huge explosion, followed by another and a ball of fire … the bus turned over. We struggled to escape. I fainted seeing so much blood and the dead – 11 including a pregnant woman and a baby. Another passenger took me under a tree, and a few hours later, we walked to safety.


On March 6 and 7, several mortar rounds struck Namsiguia in Bam province. “The jihadists fired shells, one crashing into the home of a 60-year-old woman, killing her,” a villager said. “There aren’t soldiers based here and our VDPs don’t have a base to target.”

“The jihadists consider everyone living here to be their enemy,” said a resident of Bourzanga, where a civilian was killed by mortar shelling in March. Human Rights Watch confirmed the weapons based on photos of the shell casings collected after both attacks.

Pillage and Destruction of Property

Villagers described armed Islamist groups carrying out successive waves of pillage during attacks: on their villages, on the larger towns to which they had fled for safety, and after they fled for a second time, typically to Kaya or Barsalogho. Fighters stole sacks of grain, cellphones, jewelry, money, clothing, animal carts, motorcycles, and cooking utensils. Shopkeepers said attackers had looted their entire inventory, and nurses said the armed Islamists stole medicines and supplies from clinics.

Struggling residents described the impact of the losses. “From where I hid, I watched them round up all my 42 cows – all the riches of our family,” said a herder from a village near Dablo.

Describing the January 5 attack on Ankouna, a villager said, “I was powerless. My family lost 31 cows and 47 sheep. They stole our motorized tricycles and used them to cart away the merchandise from our shops. How do we recover from this?”

Many civilians, ambushed on roads as they fled, said that the armed Islamists took everything they owned, even their shoes. Three women in a convoy of 30 donkey carts fleeing to Kaya after the March attack on Foube described the pillage by scores of attackers. “They took what little we had – sacks of millet, clothing, our animals, then burned the rest,” one said. “They even cut the cords of our donkeys and sent them running. Then they ordered us to take off our shoes, saying this would remind us not to return to our villages. We walked for days barefoot.”

Armed jihadists robbed traders plying market routes of their money and goods. “I’d collected money from several women to buy goods at the market, but on our way back, jihadists attacked us, stealing onions and bags of beans I was going to sell,” one trader said. “I returned with only the clothes I wore.”

“They even poured out the water we’d brought with us, saying the zone had become theirs,” said a victim of a similar attack.

Aid workers described the looting by armed Islamists of medicines and supplies from clinics, and the theft of several ambulances since mid-2021. “In December, an ambulance carrying a critically ill woman from Dori to Kaya was commandeered. They forced people out, and the woman was returned to Dori by donkey cart, but she later died,” one aid worker said. They had also documented a few cases where wounded suspects had been removed from medical hospitals by pro-government forces.

Abuses by the Army and Pro-Government Militias

Human Rights Watch documented 42 alleged summary executions and 14 enforced disappearances of civilians and suspected Islamist fighters by state security forces and members of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland, at times coordinating operations.

The majority of victims were ethnic Peuhl. In several cases, the incidents documented provoked the displacement of entire families and in some cases, communities. The incidents reported occurred between September 2021 and April 2022 and merit further investigation.

Summary Executions and Enforced Disappearances by the Military

Some of the reported abuses occurred within the context of major counterterrorism operations. Four witnesses said that soldiers detained about 40 men on November 23 in Djigoue, near the border with Cote d’Ivoire, 18 of whom were later found dead several kilometers away. On November 30, the then-minister of security, Maxime Koné, said the army had “neutralized about 30 terrorists” in an incident in the same area and at around the same time. Witnesses provided a list of the dead. A man whose 38-year-old brother was among the victims said:

Over 100 soldiers riding on pickups and motorcycles flooded the [Djigoue] market while an airplane flew overhead. I was in my shop having tea with my brother when some soldiers asked us for our ID cards. We complied and they left. Some minutes later, my brother left to check on the workers at his shop. I later learned another group of soldiers had arrested him minutes later after leaving my shop. We found his body among the dead.


Another resident said:

The soldiers left around 3 p.m. taking the detained men on several motorized taxis. We heard shots about an hour later. The next day, after the soldiers left the area we found them, dead in a line, near where the soldiers had made an overnight camp. The dead were nearly all Peuhl from 20 to 65 years old, bound and blindfolded with their own clothing. Now, nearly the entire village has fled, fearing both the army and the jihadists.


On September 12, soldiers arrested seven men during a night operation in Ouangolodougou near the Ivorian border. Their bodies were found the next day about one kilometer away. Residents said they believed the army was implicated because there had been a large military operation in the area around the same time. Witnesses said a father and two of his sons were among the dead. A resident said:

At around 1 a.m., we heard motorcycles, then banging on the door. I saw soldiers standing at the doors. They shone flashlights into our eyes. They ordered the women and children into one room, searched the house, and bound Ali Diallo [age 52] and two of his sons, Amadou, 23, and Mahamadi, 21, a university student who was home for a visit. They also arrested four other people from a nearby house. The families begged for their lives…. I heard a soldier saying in French, “It’s over for you.”


“We heard shots that night, and found their bodies – six in one group, then the seventh some meters away,” said another resident. “They’d been shot in the head or neck, and their hands were tied with cords or with their own clothing. The family filed a case with the local gendarmerie but to our surprise, they were also arrested! They were finally released after much pressure. But no one has investigated the death of our people.”

Six of 15 men arrested on February 21 by soldiers in Todiame, Nord region were forcibly disappeared. One resident said:

Around 11 a.m. soldiers in over ten pickups and on motorcycles surrounded the village, firing in the air. People fled into the mosque, and from there the soldiers checked everyone’s ID card. They tied the hands and blindfolded 15 people, including an elderly man, and put them into a few army vehicles. They beat them savagely as they took them away…. Nine people were released a few weeks later after being held in the gendarmeries in Titao and Ouahigouya. We’ve searched for the other six – in police and gendarme stations, bases, and prisons – but they are nowhere to be found.


Enforced Disappearances, Killings by VDP Militia

The government authorized the VDP as a self-defense group in 2020, providing them arms and minimal training. Most abuses implicating the VDP occurred in Cascades, Sud-Ouest, or Est region, especially in and around Fada N’Gourma.

Community leaders from these regions, which border Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Niger, and Togo, said there has been considerable ethnic tension between the pastoralist Peuhl, for their perceived support of armed Islamists, and farming communities, who are perceived to be pro-government and who make up the majority of VDP militia members in the area. Peuhl leaders consistently described being victimized by both armed Islamists and pro-government forces.

Numerous Peuhl men were allegedly summarily executed after being detained by men who witnesses believe were VDP militia, several of whom the witnesses knew by name. In several cases, the reason for the detention, killing, or enforced disappearance of the victim was unclear to the family members. In several cases they speculated that the militia used counterterrorism operations as a pretext for settling personal or community scores.

Three residents said they saw the bound bodies of eight men whom VDP militia had detained two days earlier, on February 17, in Fada N’Gourma. One witness described the detention of four of the eight men: “We were gathered for a food distribution when VDPs in red t-shirts went up to the men saying, ‘You and you…. Come with us.’ They knew exactly whom they were looking for. They took them away, hands tied, on motorcycles.” Another witness said, “I saw eight VDPs in this operation, three of whom I know personally.” Family members said four other men were arrested elsewhere in the town, including a man with a physical disability who was arrested at his home.

A man who attended the burial on February 19 said, “The bodies were behind the Bougie village primary school, 10 kilometers from Fada. Their hands tied; they had been executed.” A family member said, “Terrorists had burned the school a few days before. But we're confused – our men and the VDP both fear the terrorists! We think this is a settling of scores and that the VDP are using the fight against terrorism to cover up their deed.”


Two men detained by alleged VDP militia members on March 28 in Dankibaroum, five kilometers from Fada N’Gourma, were found dead several days later. “Three VDPs armed with AKs, one of whom I recognized, arrested my cousin Boureima, who was working in a shop,” said a resident. “They handcuffed him and later also arrested the shop owner. We found their bodies seven kilometers away – both had been shot in the head.”

VDP militia members told Human Rights Watch about three incidents in which they had executed Peuhl suspects in late 2021 and early 2022 for their perceived support of armed Islamist groups. Describing one incident, a VDP member said, “We used to turn suspects over to the gendarmes, but they always released them, so we decided to sort this problem out ourselves.” Another said, “In January 2022, we captured a Peuhl spy at the market and guarded him for three days until he told us about his collaborators. Then we dealt with all of them.”

Community leaders from Cascades and Sud-Ouest regions showed Human Rights Watch records of 10 people who had in recent months been either forcibly disappeared or executed by local VDP militia. The VDP members are sometimes referred to as “Dozos,” traditional hunters, many of whom have joined the militia.

A Peuhl community leader from Cascades region said:

The agrarian communities blame all Peuhl for the jihadist presence and are killing and driving us from our villages and looting our property. Nearly all the Peuhl have fled either to bigger towns, or into the national protected forests with their cows, which are jihadist strongholds. In the forests, they’re forced to live by the terrorists’ rules, but at least they aren’t being killed.


Several Peuhl villagers described VDP members engaging in criminal behavior. One Peuhl elder said:

In mid-March, my brother and his two sons, ages 30 and 19, were kidnapped by Dozos while watering their animals near Mangodara. The Dozos said they were “terrorists.” We went to the Dozo chief who demanded 3 million CFA (US$5,000) to secure their release, but after we gave it to him, they refused to free our people. After that, we all fled. The gendarmes are investigating, and called us to make a statement but honestly, we’re terrified to return because of all the VDP and Dozo checkpoints in that area.


Other allegations of killing and enforced disappearance allegedly involve VDP militia and government security forces working together. Two witnesses described the arrest on February 27 of Ali Diallo, 44, a local community leader, by VDP militia and the security forces. One witness said, “I saw Ali [Diallo] in the market while he was buying things for his wife, who had just given birth in the hospital. As he was buying water, he was intercepted by two uniformed soldiers and two VDPs, whom I recognized. They put a sack over Ali’s head, handcuffed, and drove off with him.”

His body was found four days later. A second witness said, “It was under some trees a few kilometers from the military camp. A sack was on his head, and his pants were down to his ankles. He’d been shot several times in the back.”

A relative who witnessed the arrest of Amadou Bande, 46, in Fada N’Gourma on March 16, said that “He was buying a sack of rice when two VDP on motorcycles jumped down, handcuffed and lifted him unto a military vehicle, which was just behind them. We’ve looked everywhere for him.” Bande’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Deadly Attack on Civilians by Unidentified Forces

On February 28, a powerful explosion killed more than 30 traders at an animal market in the town of Béléhéde, Sahel region, which was largely controlled by an armed Islamist group. The cause of the explosion and responsibility have not been identified. One witness said he heard a whistle coming from south of the village before the explosion, but two others present did not hear anything or see any helicopters or airplanes overhead.

A witness said:

It was a busy market day. The thunderous explosion went off just as traders rushed toward two cows driven into the market on a motorized tricycle. A dust cloud covered the market. When it settled, I saw that the driver, cows, and everyone in the vicinity had been pulverized. People were running, blood and pieces of human beings were everywhere. Around 30 died on the spot, and a few more later.


“We live under the yoke of the jihadists and a few were in the village that day,” said one villager. “But the vast majority of people killed in this incident were ordinary traders, including some adolescents, working the cattle market.”

A coalition of civil society organizations have reported that at least 80 men – all civilians – were killed during government military operations April 10 and 11 in villages in and around Oursi and Tin-Akoff communes, Sahel region.

Honduras Recognizes Its Responsibility in Trans Killing

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 13, 2022
Click to expand Image Rosa Hernández, mother of Vicky Hernández, holding a picture of her daughter. © Red Lésbica Cattrachas

“We recognize before the international community, the Honduran people, and the family of Vicky Hernández, the responsibility of the Honduran state in the events that led to her death,” President Xiomara Castro said on May 9.

Vicky Hernández, a trans woman, sex worker, and activist with trans rights group Unidad Color Rosa was killed in San Pedro Sula in June 2009 during a military coup. In 2012, Cattrachas Lesbian Network, a Honduran LGBT rights organization, filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the family to hold the state responsible for her murder.

The commission submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which in March 2021 found Honduras responsible for Hernández’s killing.

The court found a violation of the right to life based on the fact that police harassed Hernández hours before she was killed and, due to the coup, the military and police had effective control of the streets on the night she died. The court also noted the violence lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people faced in Honduras at the time Hernández was killed and the prevailing impunity for such acts.

The court also found that Honduras violated the right to life because the authorities did not comply with their obligation to effectively investigate Hernández’s death, as Human Rights Watch argued in an amicus brief submitted to the court in November 2020.

President Castro, who took office in January, made trailblazing commitments to implement the court’s ruling. She committed to creating a legal gender recognition procedure in Honduras that will allow transgender people to modify their legal documents to reflect their gender identity. This will go a long way to address the risk of discrimination that many transgender people face because of a mismatch between their gender and the gender marker on their official documents.

Castro also undertook to continue the investigation into Hernández’s murder and agreed to comply with other aspects of the court’s ruling, including implementing LGBTI awareness trainings for security forces and a protocol for criminal investigations in these cases, and improving data collection in cases motivated by anti-LGBTI bias.

Honduras has taken a notable step forward in recognizing the rights of transgender people and contributing to a more just and equitable society. Countries in the region lagging on trans rights should take note.

Rio Police Tear Down Memorial about Police Violence

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 13, 2022

At least eight state police vehicles carrying men armed with assault rifles, some in military fatigues, drove into the Jacarezinho neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on May 11. They stopped, and before shocked onlookers, used a crowbar to remove metal plates screwed to a small memorial wall erected on the sidewalk over a bridge. Engraved on the plates were the names of 28 people killed during a police operation in Jacarezinho on May 6, 2021, including an officer. The police then tied the memorial to an armored vehicle and tore it down, before smashing the pieces with sledgehammers.

Click to expand Image The memorial in the Jacarezinho neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before it was torn down by police on May 11, 2022. The plate on top reads: “Tribute to the victims of the Jacarezinho massacre! On 5/6/2021, 27 residents and a public servant were killed, victims of the genocidal and racist policy of the state of Rio de Janeiro, which has turned Jacarezinho into a battleground to combat small-scale drug dealing, which will never cease to take place. No death should be forgotten. No massacre should be viewed as something that is normal.” The small plates show the names and dates of birth and of death of the 27 residents and one police officer killed during the May 6, 2021 police raid. Photo courtesy of a Jacarezinho resident

“It was as if they were killing our children again,” Sandra Gomes, who was there, told me. Her son Matheus Gomes, 21, was killed during the raid.

The police claimed the memorial promoted drug dealing and allege “the 27 people it honored had proven involvement with criminal activities,” in reference to the 27 residents killed that day.

After the 2021 raid, the deadliest in Rio’s history, police said two victims, including a 16-year-old boy, had no police record, and although they claimed the other 25 had a record , they did not say if any had been convicted of a crime.

The day of the raid, police took at least 25 victims to the hospital, claiming they were alive, but they all arrived dead. Testimonies and other evidence strongly suggest this was a ruse to destroy crime scene evidence.

Insufficient witness interviews and other failures marred the investigations. Matheus Gomes’ body was photographed reclined on a plastic chair over a pool of blood, but neither police nor prosecutors ever took hold of the chair for forensic analysis, the Public Defender’s Office told me.

Prosecutors have already closed the inquiries into 24 killings, including Gomes’, for alleged lack of evidence. They have charged officers with homicide and tampering with evidence in three of the killings, and charged suspected drug dealers with the killing of the police officer.

Rio’s Attorney General’s Office, whose mandate includes ensuring police abide by the law, has failed to properly investigate the police command for its responsibility in the operation.

With such poor oversight, it’s no wonder Rio police feel empowered to try to destroy even the memory of their brutal actions.  

Hong Kong: Prominent Democracy Advocates Arrested

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 13, 2022
Click to expand Image From left, retired Archbishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, barrister Margaret Ng, Professor Hui Po-Keung, and singer Denise Ho attend a press conference to announce the closure of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund in Hong Kong, August 18, 2021. © 2021 HK01 via AP

(New York) – The Hong Kong police should drop their baseless criminal investigations against five prominent pro-democracy advocates, Human Rights Watch said today. The cases highlight the Hong Kong government's broadening crackdown on human rights. 

On May 11 and 12, 2022, police arrested the five under article 29 of Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law for the overbroad and vague crime of “colluding with foreign forces,” which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The five are a former legislator, Cyd Ho, 67; a singer-activist, Denise Ho, 45; an academic, Hui Po-Keung, 62; a senior barrister, Margaret Ng, 74; and a retired Roman Catholic bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90. None have been charged, and all have been released on bail except Cyd Ho, who was already in jail, but they are barred from leaving Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong authorities haven’t just put Cardinal Zen, Margaret Ng, and others under arrest – they have put Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms under arrest,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong’s police, the latest example of the city’s human rights freefall in the past two years.”

On May 11, police arrested Hui at the airport as he was leaving for Europe to take up a visiting scholar position at a university. The police then arrested Denise Ho, Ng, and Cardinal Zen. Cyd Ho, already in jail, was arrested on May 12, media reported.

All five were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided medical, legal, and psychological aid for protesters arrested during the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In 2021, Hong Kong police opened an investigation into the fund for alleged violations of the National Security Law, demanding information on the fund’s donors. The fund was forced to disband in October 2021.

In a May 12 statement, the Hong Kong police said they have also applied to the court to prosecute the five, plus an unnamed 37-year-old man, for their failure to register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund under the Societies Ordinance, an offense that could result in a fine. The police also said that they have reported alleged “professional misconduct” by the fund’s barristers to the Law Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Bar Association. The police said some media organizations have “defamed” the police in reporting the arrests.

Since the Chinese government imposed the National Security Law on June 30, 2020, the Hong Kong authorities have waged an intensifying crackdown on the city, erasing basic civil and political rights long protected in Hong Kong. The authorities have been arresting prominent pro-democracy leaders, shutting down independent media, labor unions, and civil society groups, and have established a hotline for informers to report suspected violations. Hong Kong and Beijing officials have decapitated the once-thriving pro-democracy movement and created a climate of fear among the general public, Human Rights Watch said.

The experiences of the five advocates arrested illustrate Beijing’s swift and sweeping assault on Hong Kong’s civil society under the National Security Law. Denise Ho and Ng were arrested in 2021 for being on the board of the popular independent media outlet Stand News, since disbanded. Cyd Ho has already been jailed for four counts of “unlawful assembly” for attending peaceful protests. Prior to Hui’s arrest, in September 2021, Hong Kong’s Lingnan University declined to renew his contract, and that of another activist-academic, without explanation.

The arrests have implications beyond Hong Kong, Human Rights Watch said. Cardinal Zen is a globally respected champion of human rights and democracy. He was one of the few senior members of the Roman Catholic Church to publicly criticize the unpublished 2018 agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese government. That deal allows the Chinese government – not the Vatican – to select bishops in China. In response to Zen’s arrest, the Vatican issued a statement saying they are following the situation “with concern” and “extreme attention.”

The arrests came days after Beijing appointed the former security chief, John Lee, as the city’s chief executive. Lee was instrumental in pushing a widely unpopular extradition bill that sparked the 2019 protests, and he also acted to shield the police from accountability for the use of excessive force against protesters.

Concerned governments should impose financial and travel sanctions on senior Hong Kong officials, including police, who are implicated in abuses, Human Rights Watch said. So far, only the United States has done so. Governments could also empanel a group of independent experts to review the role of authorities in enforcing the National Security Law and increase support for independent Hong Kong organizations inside and outside the territory.

They should also support the call by 50 United Nations human rights experts to establish a special mandate at the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on human rights conditions across China, including Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong was long a regional leader in openness and respect for the rule of law, but now it jostles for top spots in Asia for repression and political prisoners,” Wang said. “Hong Kong people have been unequivocal in their demand for human rights, and governments around the globe should be unequivocal in their response to that call.”

Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s Contempt for the Philippine Press

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 12, 2022
Click to expand Image Incoming Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. speaks to reporters at his headquarters in Mandaluyong, Philippines, May 11, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Aaron Favila

At a press conference this week, a spokesperson for Ferdinand Marcos Jr. repeatedly ignored questions from journalist Lian Buan of Rappler about an outstanding contempt order in the United States against the incoming Philippine president.

This is not the first time that the Marcos camp has mistreated Buan and other journalists. While covering the presidential campaign, Buan has been shoved aside and blocked by Marcos’ security personnel, incidents that she shared on her Twitter account. Her employer, a well-regarded, independent news site, issued a statement denouncing the incident. Another Rappler reporter also complained about being harassed by Marcos supporters.

The Marcos campaign, which relied on vloggers and social media influencers to spread its message, has benefited from a massive disinformation campaign spread through social media, particularly Facebook and TikTok.

But the Marcos family has always had a rocky relationship with the independent press. Recently, Marcos supporters have made Rappler its biggest target for online abuse. The news site has regularly reported on issues surrounding Marcos and his family, particularly the human rights record of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., his late father and ousted dictator. Rappler’s CEO, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, has faced similar threats from Marcos supporters as well from outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, along with several lawsuits and investigations from the Duterte administration. 

It isn’t only Filipino journalists who are targeted. In April the BBC’s Howard Johnson received death threats online after he posted on Twitter a video showing him asking Marcos about his refusal to participate in debates during the campaign.

As Marcos prepares to assume the presidency on June 30, his contempt for the media could pose serious risks for democracy in the Philippines. Ignoring critical publications is bad enough, but Marcos Jr. will have tools at his disposal to muzzle the media in a manner that the elder Marcos, no supporter of press freedom, could only dream of.

Real vigilance is needed from donor countries and rights-respecting governments. They, along with journalist associations in the Philippines and around the globe, need to be prepared to push back against Marcos administration inroads against media freedom and critical reporting.

A First Step for Justice in DR Congo

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 12, 2022
Click to expand Image A man wearing a T-shirt with portraits of Floribert Chebeya and Fidèle Bazana attends the trial in Kinshasa on April 30, 2013 of policemen accused of killing the two men in 2010. © 2013 Junior D. Kannah/AFP via Getty Images

On May 11, the High Military Court in Democratic Republic of Congo upheld the guilty verdicts of two senior Congolese police officers for the assassination of leading human rights defender Floribert Chebeya and his driver, Fidèle Bazana, in 2010. Former colonel Christian Ngoy Kenga Kenga was sentenced to death – commuted to life imprisonment – and former lieutenant Jacques Mugabo was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The court acquitted former major Paul Mwilambwe.

The three men had been sentenced to death in absentia in June 2011, but their appeal trial only opened in late September last year. It confirmed allegations the murders were ordered by then police chief, Gen. John Numbi. However, Numbi – who appeared in court in the 2010 trial as a witness – has not been investigated. He fled the country in March 2021 after Congolese authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.

Chebeya was the director of one of Congo's most respected human rights organizations, Voix des Sans Voix (Voice of the Voiceless). On June 1, 2010, he received a phone call asking him to attend a meeting at General Numbi's office. The next day, police said Chebeya was found dead in his car.

“This is a step, but this isn’t finished,” Chebeya’s widow, Annie, told Human Rights Watch. “All those who were cited, who knew about the orders or participated in this odious assassination, all of them should be arrested and prosecuted.”

Bazana’s body is still missing, but the appeal court heard several witness accounts confirming he was buried at a house belonging to Col. Zelwa Katanga, the Kinshasa military police commander at that time. Katanga remains in detention.

After years of advocacy by rights groups for investigations, two Congolese police officers in exile gave radio interviews in which they provided a detailed account of the crime and admitted to having participated in the killings. Another police officer in exile, who also admitted to participating in the murders, was deported in January from Turkey and presented to the court as an informant.

This appeal trial began to piece together the story of a double murder the previous Congolese administration tried to cover up. But it is only a partial step towards real justice. Almost 12 years on, those most responsible for the horrendous targeting of human rights defenders should finally be held to account.

UK’s Rights Assessment of Rwanda Not Based on Facts

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 12, 2022
Click to expand Image Protesters hold placards at a demonstration in London, United Kingdom, April 14, 2022. © 2022 Hesther Ng/SOPA Images/ Sipa via AP Images

This week, the United Kingdom published its safety assessment on Rwanda, intended to justify a recently announced agreement to send asylum seekers crossing the English Channel or other so called “irregular” or dangerous routes to the Central African country. The report was expected to downplay human rights violations in Rwanda. After all, the government couldn’t ship off vulnerable people seeking protection with a one-way ticket to a partner they regard as abusive. But it goes even further, cherry-picking facts, or ignoring them completely, to bolster a foregone conclusion.

In assessing Rwanda’s rights record, the report states that, “notwithstanding some restrictions on freedom of speech and/or freedom of association,” there are “not substantial grounds” for believing refugees would be mistreated. This conclusion is hard to square with Rwanda’s past treatment of refugees.

Between February and May 2018, Rwandan authorities used excessive force and killed 12 Congolese refugees during a protest over cuts in food rations, and police arrested over 60 others. They charged them with participating in illegal demonstrations, violence against public authorities, rebellion, and disobeying law enforcement. Some were also charged with “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state.” Human Rights Watch confirmed that between October 2018 and September 2019, at least 35 refugees were sentenced to between 3 months and 15 years in prison. One refugee was accused of sharing information with us, and the communications were used as evidence against him during trial. He is currently serving a 15-year sentence.

The UK Home Office does acknowledge some concerns over “evidence of discrimination and intolerance towards persons based on their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression,” but maintains these abuses aren’t that serious. Human Rights Watch has documented how LGBTI people have been detained, beaten, insulted and harassed for their sexual identity. Based on our conversations with members of the LGBTI community in Rwanda, it’s difficult to gauge what the UK government would consider “serious” enough.

The UK government can continue to try to sugarcoat its policy decisions with selective assessments like this one, but it won’t change the truth: in choosing to rip up international obligations to asylum seekers and expel them to a country with a track record for human rights abuse, the government continues to embrace a policy of cruelty.

Joint Letter to President Biden Re: Thailand's Abusive Draft Law on Not-For-Profit Organizations

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 12, 2022
Joint Letter to President Biden Re Thailand's Abusive Draft Law on Not-For-Profit Organizations

May 12, 2022

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
Washington, DC

Re: Thailand’s abusive draft law on not-for-profit organizations

Dear President Biden,

We, the undersigned non-profit organizations, are writing to express our serious concerns regarding Thailand’s Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations, which the Thai Cabinet approved in principle on January 4, 2022. Passage of this draft law would systematically violate the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression of non-profit groups, so we urge you to call on the Thai government to scrap this draft law when you meet with the Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and his delegation at the upcoming US-ASEAN special summit at the White House on May 12-13, 2022.

The draft law would enable officials to unilaterally order the temporary or permanent shutdown of any non-profit organization (NPO) operating in Thailand if they conduct activities or make public representations that the Thai government considers adversely affects Thailand’s “relations between countries”; “affect the happy, normal existence of other persons”; affect “public interest, including public safety”; infringe on “public order,” or “people’s good morals;” or “cause divisions within society.” Non-profit organizations also are forbidden from doing anything that infringes on “the rights and liberties of other persons” or impacts the “government’s security, including the government’s economic security.” None of these terms are defined in any way, providing maximum discretion to officials, including the military and national security officials who are the originators of this draconian, rights-abusing legislation, to arbitrarily act against any organization.

If this bill becomes law, we anticipate that many of the organizations signing and supporting this letter to you will face punitive action, including intrusive investigations, public threats, and ultimately orders from government authorities to end operations.

As you may know, in addition to the laudable work done by Thai civil society organizations in supporting human rights, social welfare, civic activity, and humanitarian work in Thailand, there is also a regional dimension to civil society in Thailand, with important international humanitarian and human rights organizations operating in Thailand to assist refugees and displaced persons fleeing the crisis in Myanmar (Burma) and supporting the provision of assistance into Myanmar. These efforts will also be put at risk if the draft law passes, given the provision that prevents civil society from undertaking actions that ostensibly jeopardize Thailand’s friendly relations with its neighboring countries.

Similarly, Thailand has long served as a refuge for political and rights activists fleeing from repressive governments in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and non-profit organizations supporting these refugees would also face significant threats to be shut down if this bill is enacted.
 

Protecting Thai civil society

To comply with relevant provisions of the Thai constitution, the Thai government, led by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, organized a public comment process between late January 2022 and the end of April 2022. In response to this rudimentary consultation process, a total of 1,867 non-profit organizations across Thailand released a joint statement and subsequently held a public rally to call for the Thai government to withdraw this bill.

The core message of our coalition is that we are civil society groups working on a wide range of issues. As organizations, we work across many sectors, and among other things, we strengthen democratic processes; safeguard the environment; reduce poverty; feed families; support children, people with disabilities, and older people; stop human trafficking; investigate business supply chains; protect human rights; support civil initiatives; expose government corruption and malfeasance; protect whistle blowers; and help people to access adequate health care and education.

Thai civil society and international supporters make Thailand a better, more inclusive democracy, and they should not face draconian restrictions of the sort that the current Thai government is proposing.
 

Risks of the bill

The draft law threatens the important work of civil society, and the Thai government has provided no rationale for this law, except that other countries in the region have similar laws. The drafters openly espouse to follow the example of India, where government restrictions forced the closure of many international nongovernmental organizations. Thai government claims that they are aiming to create “transparency” in the non-profit sector have no basis, given that Thailand already has adequate laws and regulations to regulate non-profit organizations. Put simply, this draft law is a massive extension of government power over every aspect and every grouping of civil society in Thailand.

The specific language of the law states that: “‘Not-for-profit organization’ means a collective of private individuals who form themselves as any form of grouping to conduct activities in society without intending to seek profits to be shared. However, it shall not include a group of people gathering to implement a particular, one-time activity, or conduct an activity to serve only the interests of the group, or a political party.” Moreover, the law states that “Any NPOs which have been established by virtue of any specific law, in addition to having to act in compliance with that law, shall also be subject to the provisions of this Act.”

Given the broad definition of “non-profit” organization, the law will encompass everything from foreign chambers of commerce to farmer groups, organizations supporting vulnerable persons like people living with HIV/AIDS, migrant worker collectives, LGBTQ+ organizations, aggrieved villagers protesting land expropriation, forestry and environmental groups, community sports clubs and local foundations, human rights organizations, and community development groups. There are no apparent limits when it comes to the groups that will be adversely affected by this law.

Put simply, the Thai government appears to be hoping that the international community will be looking the other way while it severely restricts basic freedoms across Thailand. In a nation of nearly 70 million people with a government infused with military influence at top levels, it is clear provisions of this bill would be applied arbitrarily to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and other human rights.
 

A closer look at the bill

As mentioned above, the draft law’s language is very vague. The subjective language means that almost any action could qualify as violating the law’s provision. Below, non-profit organizations are asked to make sure they are not tainting people’s “good morals” or “disturbing the normal happy existence of persons”—or pay a daily fine of 10,000 baht (US$295).

Section 20: A Not-for-Profit Organization must not operate in the following manner:

(1) Affect the government’s security, including the government’s economic security, or relations between countries.

(2) Affect public order, or people’s good morals, or cause divisions within society.

(3) Affect public interest, including public safety.

(4) Act in violation of the law.

(5) Act to infringe on the rights and liberties of other persons, or affect the happy, normal existence of other persons.

Section 26: Any NPO which fails to stop its operations as ordered by the registrar under Section 20, paragraph 2 or Section 21 where Section 20 paragraph 2 applies, shall be liable to a fine not exceeding 500,000 baht and a daily fine of 10,000 baht throughout the period of the breach or until it is operating correctly.

The draft law will also effectively prevent organizations who are helping communities throughout Thailand from accessing the funding they need to do their crucial work. The restrictions and reporting requirements on funding support coming from outside Thailand are contrary to international law. They also inhibit a crucial source of funding for organizations that help people in Thailand every day.

Section 21: A Not-for-profit Organization which receives funding or donations from foreign sources is required to act as follows:

(1) Inform to the registrar the name of the foreign funding sources, the bank account receiving the funds, the amount received, and the purposes for the disbursement of the funds.

(2) Must receive foreign funding only through a bank account notified to the registrar.

(3) Must use the foreign funding only for the purposes notified to the registrar in article (1).

(4) Must not use foreign funding for any activity characteristic of pursuing state power, or to facilitate or help political parties.

The draft law moves Thailand further down the slippery slope to a loss of privacy and the right to freedom of association.

Section 19: To ensure transparency and to keep the public informed about the operations of NPOs, an NPO is required to disclose information regarding its name, founding objectives, implementation methods, sources of funding, and names of persons involved with its operations to ensure such information is easily accessible to government agencies and the public.

Civil society organizations, the individuals who work for them, and the communities who benefit from these groups have the right to come together, express their opinions, and contribute to their communities. Those core civil and political rights are enshrined in international law, notably the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand is a state party to and is obligated to uphold.

Recommendations

We respectfully call on you and your administration to press the Thai government to immediately withdraw the Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations and to ensure any other laws and regulations that Thailand proposes pertaining to non-profit organizations strictly adhere to international human rights law and standards.

Sincerely,

Amnesty International APCOM Asian Cultural Forum on Development (ACFOD) Asia Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) Article 19 Asia Democracy Network (AND) Be Slavery Free Campaign Committee for Human Rights (CCHR) Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD) CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation Community Resource Center (CRC) Cross Cultural Rights Foundation (CrCF) CSO Coalition for Ethical and Sustainable Seafood (CSO Coalition) Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) EnLAW Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) Equal Asia Foundation Finnwatch Fishwise Fortify Rights Forum Asia (Asian Forum for Rights and Development) Freedom Fund Freedom United Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Foundation Glom Duayjai Green America Greenpeace Thailand Greenpeace USA Human Rights Watch Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) Human Rights Lawyers Association (HRLA) Humanity United Action ILGA Asia (Asian Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) Inter Mountain People's Education and Culture in Thailand Association International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) International Justice Mission (Thailand) Jaringan Mangsa Dari Undang–Undang Darurat (JASAD) Justice for Peace Foundation Kru Kor Sorn Labour Protection Network (LPN) Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) Manushya Foundation MAP Foundation (Migrant Assistance Program) MobNews NGOs for the People Patani Human Rights Organization (HAP) Peace and Human Rights Resource Center (PHRC) Protection International SEA Junction SHero Thailand Solidarity Center Stop Drink Network Thailand (SDN) Thai Action Coalition for Democracy in Burma (TACDB) Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) Thai Teachers for Child Rights Association (TTCR) Togetherness for Equality and Action (TEA) Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration Verite Women4Oceans Workers’ Union (Thailand) Young Pride Club (YPC)

 

cc:       Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State

Wendy R. Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State

UK: Afghan Women Evacuees in Limbo

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 12, 2022

(London) – 

Brazil: Attacks on Gender and Sexuality Education

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 12, 2022
Click to expand Image A teacher speaks to students during a lesson at a public school in São Paulo, Brazil on October 18, 2021.  © 2021 Patricia Monteiro/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(São Paulo) – Lawmakers and other public officials at the federal, state, and municipal levels in Brazil have used pernicious legal and political tactics to undermine and even prohibit gender and sexuality education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 77-page report, “‘I Became Scared, This Was Their Goal’: Efforts to Ban Gender and Sexuality Education in Brazil,” analyzes 217 bills and laws presented between 2014 and 2022 designed to explicitly forbid the teaching or sharing of gender and sexuality education, or ban so-called “gender ideology” or “indoctrination” in municipal and state schools. Human Rights Watch also documented a political effort to discredit and restrict gender and sexuality education, bolstered by the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has personally amplified this message for political effect, including as recently as March 2022.

“These hostile attempts to suppress comprehensive approaches to sexuality education are grounded in prejudice and undermine the rights to education and to nondiscrimination in Brazil,” said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Lawmakers should revoke laws and withdraw bills that violate children’s rights and instead ensure they all benefit from comprehensive sexuality education, in accordance with Brazilian and international law.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 56 public school teachers, education experts, representatives of state departments of education, and civil society organizations. Interviews with 32 public school teachers from 8 states in Brazil revealed that they were hesitant or fearful to address gender and sexuality in the classroom due to the legal and political efforts to discredit such material.

Teachers said they were harassed for addressing gender and sexuality, including by elected officials and community members. Some teachers faced administrative proceedings for covering such material, while others were summoned to provide statements to the police and other officials.

In early 2020, Alan Rodrigues, a Rio de Janeiro public high school teacher, received an anonymous email after he organized a campaign against sexual violence with his students: “Stop the indoctrination of students! We let it slide in 2019! Teachers like you should die! We are watching! You will get only one warning!” Rodrigues said he had received threats since 2014 for addressing topics relating to gender and sexuality in the classroom.

Virginia Ferreira, a public school English teacher in Vinhedo, São Paulo state, was accused by municipal government officials of “indoctrination” and “losses to students’ learning” after she asked her eighth-grade students to research feminism and gender-based violence in commemoration of International Women’s Day in 2019. Ferreira said she underwent two years of disciplinary proceedings and social media threats and posts aiming at discrediting her professionally.

Teachers and education experts say the laws and bills, political rhetoric, and harassment create a “chilling effect” on some teachers’ willingness to talk about gender and sexuality in class.

Damares Alves, who stepped down as minister of women, family, and human rights in March 2022 to run for office, has attacked gender and sexuality education, decrying the “indoctrination” and “sexualization” of children.

Ministers of Education in the Bolsonaro administration have employed discriminatory rhetoric aimed at undermining gender and sexuality education. Milton Ribeiro, who stepped down in March following allegations of corruption, has said that gender and sexuality education is an “incentive” for youth to have sex. Ribeiro also said that homosexual children come from “maladjusted families.” Previous ministers had a history of similar remarks.

In 2020, Brazil’s Supreme Court issued landmark rulings striking down eight laws banning gender and sexuality education. The court found the bans violated the rights to equality, nondiscrimination, and education, among others. At least four similar cases remain pending.

The Supreme Court has served as an important check on such laws, including at a time when President Bolsonaro has increasingly tried to intimidate the court and threatened and insulted Supreme Court justices, Human Rights Watch found. But some city councils continue to pass laws banning gender and sexuality education.

In March 2022, in one example, the city of Sinop in Mato Grosso state passed a law banning teachers from providing information on “gender ideology,” sexual orientation, and sexual and reproductive rights in all municipal schools.

In Brazil, conservative groups and elected public officials have employed “gender ideology” rhetoric to fuel allegations of “indoctrination” of children in schools with “political” and “non-neutral” ideas related to gender and sexuality. By instilling fear that children are at risk, these stakeholders weaponize education for political gain among a conservative segment of the population.

Brazilian law and guidelines, both at the federal and state levels, require instruction on gender and sexuality. Under international law, children’s right to comprehensive sexuality education is an essential element of the right to education. At its core, comprehensive sexuality education consists of age-appropriate, affirming, and scientifically accurate curricula that can help foster safe and informed practices to prevent gender-based violence, gender inequity, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies.  

Brazil’s high levels of gender-based violence, including violence against women, girls, and LGBT people, are one indicator of a critical need for such instruction in schools, Human Rights Watch said. Studies and education experts link comprehensive sexuality education to numerous positive outcomes in young peoples’ lives, such as delayed initiation of sexual intercourse and increased use of condoms and contraception, increased knowledge on protection from sexual and gender-based violence, and positive attitudes toward gender equity and diversity.

Lawmakers at all levels of Brazilian government should immediately withdraw bills or revoke laws that infringe upon the rights of students to learn about gender and sexuality, Human Rights Watch said. Officials at the federal, state, and municipal levels should cease to politicize gender and sexuality education or to use it as a wedge issue.

The Education Ministry and state and municipal departments of education should adhere to existing law and guidelines, Supreme Court rulings, and international human rights law protecting the right to comprehensive sexuality education. That should include ensuring that school administrators, teachers, and other school staff understand and feel supported in teaching and holding activities aimed to expand knowledge on this topic.

“Ultimately, the misuse of gender and sexuality education as a political weapon most directly and negatively affects Brazil’s teachers and young people, those who need the information most,” González said. “Brazil should focus its efforts on ensuring that all youth have adequate and inclusive information on gender and sexuality, which they need to live healthy and safe lives.”

 

Bangladesh Police Beating Rohingya Refugees

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Click to expand Image Bangladesh military personnel check vehicles for Rohingya refugees on the road that connects refugee camps to the nearby tourist town of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 23, 2018.  © 2018 AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

On May 7, a 62-year-old Rohingya refugee was returning to her shelter in Kutupalong camp after collecting food rations when she was stopped at a checkpoint with other Rohingya by officers from Bangladesh’s Armed Police Battalion, or APBn, who refused to let them through. “The police officers suddenly became angry and started beating us with bamboo sticks.” She remembers falling. “Some people were hurt. I injured my waist. I was finally able to flee but lost my rations and ID.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with five Rohingya refugees who described being beaten by APBn officers and other officials at camp checkpoints over the past few days.

Click to expand Image A new “movement permission” application introduced in Rohingya refugee camps 15 and 16 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, May 2022. © 2022 Private

In two camps, Bangladesh authorities have introduced a draconian permission application for movement within the camp areas, which some refugees compared to the oppressive conditions they faced back in Myanmar. The authorities are reportedly planning to institute the policy across all camps.

The crackdown follows the temporary detention of 656 Rohingya on May 4 and 5 for celebrating the Eid ul-Fitr holiday outside the camp confines, as well as months of worsening restrictions on Rohingya’s freedom to move, work, and study.

“We live in camps surrounded by barbed wire fencing, with no options for celebration, so we went [to a nearby beach] to celebrate Eid,” a Rohingya refugee said. “But they detained us, and then charged us each 200-500 BDT [US$3-6] for transportation back to camp.”

Two Rohingya said the police beat them when they tried to get critical medicine for their parents. “My mother has ‘kala jaundice’ [hepatitis C],” one told us. “Yesterday, I was stopped by APBn when I went to the Lambasia checkpoint with her medical documents and prescription. The only way to buy the medicine is from a pharmacy outside the camp, but they didn’t allow me to leave. The APBn beat me, and I fled in fear.”

Governments have an international legal obligation to ensure medical care for refugees at least equivalent to that available to the general population.

The checkpoint harassment is seemingly part of the authorities’ efforts to coerce refugees to relocate to the remote island of Bhasan Char or to return to Myanmar. Donors funding the refugee response, including the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union, should urge Bangladesh to reverse these harsh restrictions before the refugees’ lives closely mirror the constraints and harassment they fled.

End Cluster Munition Attacks in Ukraine

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Click to expand Image The rocket motor and tail section of a 220mm Uragan cluster munition rocket that struck a cemetery in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, March 21, 2022.  © 2022 Bülent Kılıç/AFP via Getty Images Russian armed forces have used at least six types of cluster munitions in attacks in Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces also appear to have used them at least once. Cluster munitions spread multiple explosive submunitions or bomblets over a wide area and leave dangerous duds that can kill and maim, like landmines, for years or even decades. Russia and Ukraine should immediately end their use of cluster munitions and both countries should join the international ban treaty.

(Geneva, May 12, 2022) – Russian forces have repeatedly used cluster munitions in attacks that killed hundreds of civilians and damaged homes, hospitals and schools since its invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian forces appear to have used cluster munitions at least once. Both countries should cease their use of this banned weapon and commit to joining the international treaty prohibiting cluster munitions.

The 20-page report, “Intense and Lasting Harm: Cluster Munition Attacks in Ukraine,” details how Russian armed forces have used at least six types of cluster munitions in the international armed conflict in Ukraine.

May 11, 2022 Intense and Lasting Harm

“Russian forces’ repeated use of cluster munitions in populated neighborhoods in Ukraine causes immediate and long-term civilian harm and suffering and needs to stop,” said Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Ukraine should also stop using these brutal weapons before more civilians are harmed.”

Human Rights Watch has documented several cluster munition attacks by Russian forces in populated areas in the cities of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Vuhledar. The exact number of cluster munition attacks in the 2022 conflict is not known, but hundreds have been documented, reported, or alleged.

In Mykolaiv, for example, Russian forces launched cluster munition rockets into populated areas on March 7, 11 and 13, killing civilians and damaging homes, businesses and civilian vehicles. One of the March 13 attacks killed nine people who were waiting in line at a cash machine, local media reported.

Russia has not denied using cluster munitions. It alleged that Ukrainian forces used cluster munitions in the city of Donetsk on March 14, but this has not been independently confirmed.

The New York Times reported that Ukrainian forces apparently used Uragan cluster munition rockets in an attack on Husarivka in Kharkiv oblast on March 6 or 7, when the village was under Russian control. Ukraine has not denied using cluster munitions in the current conflict but said that “the Armed Forces of Ukraine strictly adhere to the norms of international humanitarian law.”

Cluster munitions can be fired from the ground by artillery systems like rockets and projectiles or dropped from aircraft. They typically disperse in the air, spreading multiple submunitions or bomblets indiscriminately over an area about the size of a city block. Many fail to explode on initial impact, leaving dangerous duds that can kill and maim, like landmines, for years or even decades unless cleared and destroyed.

The cluster munitions currently used in Ukraine are launched from the ground in rockets and missiles with the exception of the RBK-series cluster bomb, which is delivered by aircraft. The cluster munitions were all manufactured in Russia, some as recently as 2021, or in its predecessor state, the Soviet Union.

Click to expand Image © 2022 Human Rights Watch

According to Ukraine’s State Emergency Service a total of 98,864 items of unexploded ordnance including submunitions and landmines have been cleared and destroyed in the war, as of May 9. During the first seven weeks of the conflict, 29 workers were reportedly killed while doing demining and related work, and 73 were injured. On April 17, three people working for Kharkiv’s emergency services were killed while clearing cluster munition remnants.

Previously, both Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed armed groups used cluster munitions in eastern Ukraine between July 2014 and February 2015, based on investigations by Human Rights Watch and others.

Russia and Ukraine have not joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions – the 2008 treaty banning cluster munitions – which requires destruction of stockpiles, clearance of areas contaminated by explosive cluster munitions remnants, and assistance to victims. The convention has 110 states parties.

The convention obligates each state party to make their “best efforts to discourage” the use of cluster munitions. At least 36 countries have condemned the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine, including the United Kingdom as the current president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Human Rights Watch cofounded and chairs the Cluster Munition Coalition, the global coalition of nongovernmental organizations working to ban cluster munitions. Human Rights Watch will present its report to countries attending intersessional meetings of the convention at the United Nations in Geneva on May 16 and 17.

“Most of the world rejected cluster munitions years ago due to their widespread indiscriminate effects and long-lasting dangers,” Wareham said. “Condemning the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine will strengthen the global stigma against these weapons and help ensure that civilians are protected from them in future.”

“Intense and Lasting Harm” will be presented at the intersessional meeting of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which opens at the United Nations in Geneva on May 16.

UK Government’s Proposed Laws Will Embolden Autocrats

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Click to expand Image Prince Charles reads the Queen's speech next to her crown during the State Opening of Parliament, at the Palace of Westminster in London, May 10, 2022.  © 2022 Arthur Edwards/Pool Photo via AP

In this week’s Queen’s Speech, the British government heralded itself as playing a “leading role in defending democracy and freedom across the world.” Its legislative proposals for the year ahead, some of which would not look out of place in an autocrats’ playbook, risk doing the exact opposite. Several proposals pose a grave danger not only to the human rights of people in the UK, but also to British democratic institutions that protect them, and the maintenance of international human rights standards.

The government plans to rip up the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, undermining the integrity of the human rights system across the UK and Europe. Alongside stripping away rights protections domestically, the proposed reforms will hamper the UK’s ability to effectively advocate for human rights overseas. With authoritarianism on the rise and as the international community is trying to stand up to abuses committed at the hands of autocrats, the UK is sending the message that international standards can be set aside.

While the UK government fights efforts globally to stifle opposition voices and close democratic space, there is more than a whiff of irony in this week’s proposals. The government plans, through its Public Order Bill, to further clamp down on the right to protest, including by introducing new criminal offenses. These laws could have prevented protests that led to some of the most significant democratic and human rights achievements in the UK, including universal suffrage.

The government is also proposing to introduce a Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Bill with the vague aim of stopping public bodies from taking a different approach to the UK government’s foreign policy on sanctions, boycotts, and divestment. The proposals face widespread opposition from civil society organizations, and risk interfering with the responsibilities of public authorities to conduct effective human rights due diligence and ensure they aren’t supporting companies that cause or contribute to human rights harms.

These bills follow a recent string of laws that already undermine the rights of the most vulnerable, encourage voter disenfranchisement, limit judicial oversight, and place new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.

At a time when respect for international norms is vital, the UK is playing right into the hands of autocrats and dictators. This poses a grave threat to the rights of people in the UK and to UK efforts to promote democracy and human rights globally.

Cameroon: Rising Violence Against LGBTI People

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Click to expand Image A rainbow LGBT pride flag. © Wikimedia Commons

(Nairobi) – Security forces in Cameroon are failing to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from violent attacks and instead are arresting the victims, Human Rights Watch said today. There has been an uptick in violence and abuse against LGBTI people in Cameroon in 2022, according to a leading civil society group.

Since March 9, security forces have arbitrarily arrested at least six people and detained 11, all of them victims of group attacks, for alleged consensual same-sex conduct and gender nonconformity. Gendarmes beat two of them in detention.

“Cameroon’s law criminalizing same-sex conduct has created a climate that allows both other Cameroonians and security forces to abuse and assault LGBTI people without consequence,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Central Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should take urgent action to revoke this discriminatory law and to ensure that the human rights of all Cameroonians, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics, are upheld.”

Cameroon’s law prohibits consensual same-sex relations, a crime punishable with up to five years in prison. Since Cameroon's penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex conduct, not LGBTI identity, arrests of people on the basis of perceived identity are unlawful. Nonetheless, the legal environment, compounded by widespread social stigma and discrimination, allow violence to proliferate, while security forces fail to protect LGBTI people from group violence and instead arrest and detain those who report it.

Click to expand Image Section 347-1 of the Cameroon’s penal code criminalising same-sex conduct. © 2022 WIPO

Between April 1 and 22, Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 people by phone, including six people who were assaulted by groups of people, four of whom were arrested and detained. Human Rights Watch also interviewed lawyers representing LGBTI people, and four members of Cameroonian nongovernmental organizations advocating for the rights of LGBTI people. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports by Cameroonian LGBTI organizations, court documents, medical records, videos, and photographs showing victims’ injuries and damage to their property.

Click to expand Image A wound suffered a 32-year-old teacher in a violent attack on March 9, 2022 by a group of people accusing him of homosexuality in Buea, South-West region. © Private, March 9, 2022, Buea, South-West region, Cameroon.

Human Rights Watch shared its findings with Justice Minister Laurent Esso; Yves Landry Etoga, the state secretary at the Defense Ministry in charge of the national gendarmerie; and Martin Mbarga Nguele, the delegate general for national security, in separate letters sent on May 2 requesting answers to specific questions on the findings. None have responded.

Since the beginning of the year, the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), a prominent human rights organization advocating for LGBTI people, said it recorded 32 cases of violence and abuse against LGBTI people across the country, an increase of 88 percent from the same period in 2021.

On April 10, between 7 and 9 a.m., a crowd of about eight men armed with machetes, knives, sticks, and wooden planks, attacked a group of at least 10 LGBTI people who had attended a party at a private home in the Messassi neighborhood in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the armed men first beat a watchman, then stormed the house and pursued their victims through the neighborhood. They severely beat 10 LGBTI people, witnesses and victims interviewed reported.

“Three men kicked me, slapped me, pulled me by my clothes, stole my bag with my phone, and money just because they said I am gay,” one of the victims said. “The entire neighborhood was outside watching how as I was being assaulted … None dared to help me.”

A local official from the neighborhood attempted to assist two of the victims, taking them to a gendarmerie brigade. However, the gendarmes on duty beat and humiliated them, then released them later that day after they paid a bribe of 15,000 CFA (US$D 24).

“Gendarmes held us at the entry of the brigade, on the floor,” said a 21-year-old man. “They called us ‘faggots,’ ‘devils.’ They said: ‘We should kill you because you are monsters and searched our phones looking for any ‘evidence’ that we were gay. They ordered us to remove our shoes and beat us on the soles of our feet with a machete.’”

The other eight LGBTI people remained in the hands of the violent crowd for at least two hours. Some were injured and robbed, including of money and phones. On April 13, CAMFAIDS filed a complaint with the gendarmerie on behalf of the victims for assault, battery, inhuman and degrading treatment, theft, threats, defamation, and trespassing. The gendarmerie investigation is pending.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has ruled that the criminalization of consensual same-sex conduct between adults violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cameroon is a state party. The Yogyakarta Principles, on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, assert that states are required to “…prevent and provide protection from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, perpetrated for reasons relating to the sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim, as well as the incitement of such acts.”

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights explicitly calls on member states, including Cameroon, to protect sexual and gender minorities in accordance with the African Charter and has urged governments to protect people from violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to bring attackers to justice.

“Cameroon’s criminalization of same-sex relations not only violates its obligations under national and international law but condones an atmosphere of violence and hate against LGBTI people,” said Alice Nkom, a prominent Cameroonian human rights lawyer and LGBTI activist.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented an uptick in police action against LGBTI people in Cameroon. Between February and April 2021, security forces arrested at least 27 people, including a child, for alleged consensual same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity, beating and subjecting some, including three teenagers ages 15 to 17, to forced anal examinations in detention. These examinations, which have no evidentiary value, are recognized by the United Nations special rapporteur on torture as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment as a form of ill-treatment that can rise to the level of torture.

Human Rights Watch also documented group attacks against two transgender women in 2021, and against an intersex person in Yaoundé in November.

“LGBTI people are being assaulted, threatened, and humiliated in the street while their attackers go free” Allegrozzi said. “Cameroon’s authorities and security forces should be protecting people, not violating their rights because of their presumed sexuality or gender identity.”

For more details about the recent human rights abuses and violence against LGBTI people, please see below.

Group Attack and Arbitrary Detention of a Teacher in Buea (March 9)

On March 9, a group of at least 10 people assaulted a 32-year-old teacher in Buea, Southwest region, accusing him of homosexuality and repeatedly slapping and kicking him and dragging him on the ground. The police arrested three alleged attackers, but took their statements and then released them, the victim’s lawyer said. The police also detained the teacher on suspicion of homosexuality. He was released the following day after paying a bribe of 50,000 CFA ($82).

Human Rights Watch spoke with a member of a Cameroonian LGBTI association who documented the case, and with the teacher’s lawyer, in addition to reviewing photographs showing the teacher’s injuries. The lawyer said:

When I met the teacher at the police station, I was shocked to see him in such a bad state. He had a blood clot in his right eye, his face was swollen, his clothes torn. I asked the [police] investigator to put the health of my client before anything else. But the teacher spent the night at the police station and was only taken to an infirmary the following morning. He did not see any doctor and was just given pain killers. At the police station, policemen intimidated my client and read him [the section] of the penal code which criminalizes sexual relations between persons of the same sex. The application of this article in Cameroon is totally arbitrary and often leads to violence against people who can be arrested and prosecuted based on the simple suspicion that they are LGBTI.


The lawyer said the teacher is currently not working at the school, while continuing to be paid, after he received a call from his school principal suggesting that he will be transferred to another institution.

The lawyer also said that the teacher doesn’t want to take legal action against the attackers out of fear of retaliation and stigma.

Group Attack and Arbitrary Arrest of 6 LGBTI people in Douala (March 31)

On March 31, at 10 a.m., a group of about 15 men armed with sticks, broken bottles, knives, and machetes broke into at least two homes in Mabanda neighborhood in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. They destroyed private property and threatened people they suspected of being LGBTI. The attackers then called the police, who came to arrest at least six men, accusing them of homosexuality, two of the victims said. One man was released the same day, while the other five were released between April 1 and 4. At least one had to bribe the police to secure his release.

The two men interviewed were robbed and threatened by the group and subsequently arrested. They showed Human Rights Watch photographs of damage to their property and personal belongings. Human Rights Watch also spoke with two members of a Douala-based LGBTI organization that assisted the victims while they were in custody and afterward.


One of the two men, age 23, said:

I was home, sleeping. Two of my friends were also sleeping at my place. I heard noise from outside. Someone was knocking at my door insistently. So, I opened, and some 15 men broke in screaming: ‘Here are the gay men! Look at them! You are bad creatures! God should punish you!’ They scattered things around, turned my room upside-down. They stole my money and phone. I was scared. I saw that more armed men were breaking into another home nearby. They [armed men] called the police. The police came, entered my home and searched everywhere. They found lubricants and condoms and accused us of being homosexual. They handcuffed me and my friends and took us to the police station.


The other victim, 21, said:


At the police station, the officers made fun of us of and called us ‘faggots.’ They took my statement and put me in a cell. In the cell, people also insulted me. The following day, they released me, but only after my sister came and paid a bribe of100,000 CFA [USD $164] to the police.


Group Attack Against a Gay Man and His Relatives in Yaoundé (April 5)

During an attack from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on April 5, a group beat, threatened, insulted, and humiliated a 29-year-old gay man, outside his home in Yaoundé’s Bastos neighborhood, as well as his 55-year-old mother and 16- year-old sister, who tried to defend him. The attackers, at least 20 men and women, some of whom carried sticks, also threw rocks at the victims’ home, causing damage.

Human Rights Watch spoke with the man, and consulted medical records, court documents, videos, and photographs showing his and his relatives’ injuries, and damages at the victims’ home.

He said:

I was outside of my family home … A woman, my neighbor, approached me and threw a jar full of urine at me. I thought that was just an accident, but she yelled at me. She said she didn’t want to see me around because I am gay. She then called the neighbors, who all came to surround me and my sister who had come out to take my defense. They started beating us, I was hit everywhere on my body. My mother also came out and a man among the violent crowd hit her with a stick in her nose. She fainted and fell on the ground. As we rushed her home, the crowd started throwing rocks at us. They were screaming: ‘Let’s lapidate [stone] them!’ Some rocks broke the windows.”

According to medical reports issued by the Elig Essono hospital in Yaoundé, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the man’s mother had multiple hematomas all over her body and a wound on her nose. The doctor said that she could not work for at least 10 days due to the severity of her injuries.

On April 7, CAMFAIDS filed a complaint with the police on behalf of the man for assault, battery, and inhuman and degrading treatment. CAMFAIDS is providing support to him, including medical and psychological assistance. The police investigation is pending.

US-ASEAN: Promote Rights, Democracy at Summit

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 10, 2022
Click to expand Image United States President Joe Biden speaks in the virtual meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on Tuesday, October 26, 2021.  © 2021 Brunei ASEAN Summit via AP

(Washington, DC) – The United States-ASEAN Special Summit on May 12, 2022 will embolden autocratic leaders unless it directly confronts the region’s worsening environment for human rights and democracy, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the summit’s host, US President Joseph Biden. Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should also acknowledge the bloc’s failure to achieve progress in addressing the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar since the February 2021 military coup.

“The Biden administration will need to convince ASEAN’s autocrats at the summit that the alliance’s ultimate future depends on democratic reform,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The US-ASEAN relationship needs to honestly and directly address the region’s deteriorating human rights situation and democratic backsliding.”

The growth of autocratic rule in the ASEAN region is occurring amid increasing Chinese government efforts to undermine human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said.

US officials should speak openly, forthrightly, and publicly about specific concerns in bilateral meetings with ASEAN members and in statements to the media about the summit, Human Rights Watch said. The Biden administration can do so most credibly and effectively by focusing on factual situations in each country, while acknowledging the many deficiencies in the US rights record and the US government’s efforts and challenges in taking corrective actions to address them.

Human rights abuses have increased in ASEAN countries in recent years, Human Rights Watch said. The Myanmar military has committed mass atrocities against Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic groups, and anti-coup demonstrators. Outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial executions. The one-party Vietnamese government has intensified an ongoing crackdown and imprisoned over 150 dissidents. The Cambodian authorities are conducting mass trials, many in absentia, of opposition political figures.

The US should press ASEAN members to abandon their failed “five point consensus” approach to Myanmar’s crisis. Like-minded ASEAN members, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, should join a coordinated international effort to steer the junta toward reform, including increasing restrictions on its foreign currency revenues and weapons purchases. The US and these ASEAN countries should develop a clear, time-bound approach to pressure the junta to end its abuses, including signaling support for additional sanctions on oil and gas revenues and a Security Council resolution instituting a global arms embargo.

“Discussing regional human rights concerns at the US-ASEAN summit will send the message that human rights and the promotion of democracy are critical in forging a multilateral response to the Chinese government’s assaults on the international human rights system,” Sifton said.

Sri Lanka: Government Backers Attack Peaceful Protesters

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 10, 2022
Click to expand Image A Sri Lankan anti-government protester tries to save some papers from a tent that was set on fire by government supporters at Galle Face Green in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 9, 2022. © 2022 Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Clashes broke out in Sri Lanka on May 9, 2022 after government supporters attacked peaceful anti-government protest sites in Colombo, the capital, and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should uphold the right to peaceful protest, ensure that the security force response to public disorder is proportionate and rejects excessive force, and promptly investigate and appropriately prosecute acts of violence.

Several hundred people identifying themselves as supporters of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa arrived by bus in Colombo on May 9 and advanced to the Galle Face Green, where protesters calling for the resignation of the government have been peacefully camped for several weeks. Witness accounts and video footage show government supporters attacking the protesters with clubs and other weapons and setting fire to tents. Hours later, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister.

“The attack on peaceful protesters by Sri Lankan government supporters has sparked a dangerous escalation, increasing the risk of further deadly violence and other abuses,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is vitally important for the security forces to fully respect the right to peaceful assembly, and for those responsible for violence to be held to account.”

Kasumi Ranasinghe Arachchige, a protester who was at Galle Face Green when the attack occurred, said that police forces at the scene, which included a water cannon truck, “retreated” when government supporters attacked protesters with knives and sticks. “They [government supporters] started destroying everything,” she said, describing damage to tents and other facilities, including temporary showers and a small library. “It seemed as if they knew what and who to look for.”

Over 150 people have been reported injured and at least five dead in different incidents, including the attack on Galle Face Green, and the government has imposed a nationwide curfew. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Bar Association, as well as foreign diplomats, condemned the attack on protesters and called for an impartial investigation.

In recent months, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has provoked widespread protests calling for political reform and for the resignation of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his brother Mahinda, the prime minister. On April 1, President Rajapaksa imposed a state of emergency, lifting it five days later. The government reimposed a state of emergency on May 6 after police fired teargas and arrested students protesting near parliament, which was adjourned until May 17. Although the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, the police fatally shot a protester on April 19, and on several occasions have used teargas and water cannon against protesters. The authorities have made numerous arrests and repeatedly imposed curfews.

Following the attack on the protesters’ camp at the Galle Face Green, there were numerous violent incidents in Colombo and elsewhere in the country, including clashes between government supporters and anti-government protesters, and attacks on the property of ruling party politicians. In Nittambuwa, 50 kilometers from Colombo, police said that Amarakeerthi Athukorala, a government member of parliament, opened fire on protesters blocking his car, wounding one and killing another, then fatally shot himself.

Concerned governments and international institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which are offering assistance to address the country’s economic crisis, should insist that the government respect fundamental freedoms, Human Rights Watch said.

The latest state of emergency was imposed on May 6, but the government did not immediately publish the emergency regulations laying out the special powers assumed. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a party, certain rights may be derogated, or restricted, under a state of emergency, while other rights, including the right to life and prohibition of torture, may not under any circumstances be limited. Any derogations must be limited and proportionate. Foreign governments, including the United States and Canada, as well as the European Union, have questioned President Rajapaksa’s decision to assume emergency powers.

Sri Lanka has a poor record under successive administrations of investigating and prosecuting countless grave violations of human rights. During a previous government between 2005 and 2010, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa, as well as other senior figures in the current administration, were implicated in the killing and enforced disappearance of journalists and political activists, and in numerous war crimes during the civil war that ended in May 2009.

“In recent weeks, thousands of Sri Lankans have peacefully protested against corruption and called for accountable governance and respect for human rights,” Ganguly said. “Pro-government supporters have responded to those calls with violence, which those in authority need to stop.”

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