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Vietnam: Drop Activist’s Long Sentence

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 16, 2018

(Bangkok, October 17, 2018) – Vietnam should reverse the draconian sentence imposed on a veteran environment and democracy activist, Le Dinh Luong, and release him, Human Rights Watch said today. The appeals court is scheduled to hear his case on October 18, 2018, in Nghe An province.

“Le Dinh Luong’s 20-year sentence is one of the harshest in the government’s crackdown on peaceful activists,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “This is an opportunity for the court to right this wrong, distinguish between criticism of the government and actual threats to national security, and defend everyone’s right to free expression.”

The government arrested Le Dinh Luong, 53, in July 2017 and charged him with “carrying out activities that aim to overthrow the people’s administration” under article 79 of the 1999 Penal Code. The People’s Court of Nghe An province originally scheduled Luong’s trial for July 30, 2018, but postponed the hearing at the last minute. Though the trial was supposed to be open to the public, only Le Dinh Luong’s wife and younger brother were allowed into the courtroom. Foreign diplomats who tried to attend were barred. 

On August 16, the People’s Court convicted him and gave him an extraordinarily long prison sentence of 20 years, to be followed by an additional five years of probation with severe restrictions on his movements. In an unusual move, the court imposed a longer sentence than the 17 years the Nghe An prosecutors office recommended. 

Le Dinh Luong has participated in various activities that the Vietnamese authorities consider politically unacceptable, including religious and environmental protests. He has joined various environmental demonstrations, including against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese company that has dumped toxic waste in the ocean and polluted Vietnam’s central coast, causing massive fish deaths and an environmental disaster. 

Police and army newspapers repeatedly accused Le Dinh Luong of being a “dangerous reactionary” connected to the Viet Tan, a US-based political party. His case has raised many fair trial concerns.

In August 2017, the police rejected a request to have Ha Huy Son serve as Le Dinh Luong’s defense lawyer. The police claimed that a person suspected of serious national security violations would not be allowed to have a lawyer until the investigation was completed under then-article 58 (now article 74) of the Criminal Procedure Code. He was not given permission to be represented by defense lawyers until early July. On July 17, his daughter-in-law, Nguyen Thi Xoan, told a reporter for Defend the Defenders that the family had been given no information about him since his arrest. 

Freedom of expression and the right to be represented by counsel are guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Vietnam is a party. The appeals court should immediately release Luong and other activists who have been wrongly imprisoned and allow them to peacefully express their views. 

The US State Department, the European Union, and various non-governmental organizations have urged the Vietnamese government to ensure that Le Dinh Luong and other human rights defenders obtain a fair trial as guaranteed by Vietnamese and international law. 

“A 20-year prison sentence for peaceful protest is outrageous,” Robertson said. “It should not matter if someone is protesting in favor or against the government’s preferred position. Vietnam’s actions, in this case, will show its real attitude toward the rule of law.”

China: Children Caught in Xinjiang Crackdown

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 16, 2018

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A mural in Xinjiang reads "Stability is a blessing, Instability is a calamity," Yarkand, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China on September 20, 2012. 

© 2012 Getty Images (New York) – The Chinese government should release to their families children held in orphanages in Xinjiang because their parents have been arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Financial Times and the Associated Press have reported on the removal of children of detained Turkic Muslims from their extended families and placed in state institutions. Human Rights Watch’s September 2018 report on mass detentions in Xinjiang detailed one such case. One million Turkic Muslims are credibly estimated to be detained in unlawful political education camps in Xinjiang, along with an unknown number arbitrarily held in detention centers and prisons, under China’s abusive “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism.”

“China’s authorities are cruelly putting the children of some of Xinjiang’s political detainees in state institutions,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “This is part of a perverse government program to take Turkic Muslim children from their extended families in the name of children’s material well-being.”

In November 2016, Xinjiang’s Chinese Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo ordered local officials to place all orphans from Xinjiang into institutions by 2020 as part of a range of development initiatives for the region. The order involves “concentrating” (集中收养) orphans previously cared for in “a scattered manner” – including by their extended families – and placing them in institutions to “improve their living standards.”

The regional policy broadly defines orphans as “children who have lost their parents or whose parents cannot be found;” in some regions this includes those whose one or both parents are detained or imprisoned.

Under Xinjiang’s regional implementation policy, issued in January 2017, local officials are encouraged to “channel” children it considers orphans into state orphanages, including by filling all empty beds in existing orphanages and upgrading and building new facilities. Some of these new facilities appear designed to house 100 or more children, according to media accounts. The government’s goal is to move from 24 percent institutionalization rate of “orphans” in Xinjiang to 100 percent between 2017 and 2020.

While the regional policy generally describes the targets of the policy as those who “wish to be institutionalized,” it otherwise gives no details concerning consent. It is unclear whether it is the children’s, the parents,’ or the extended families’ wishes that would be taken into consideration; which government agency would make the decision; and whether there are procedures for determining such consent or to challenge such determination.

A local government report in September 2017 states that children can stay with guardians who are unwilling to send them to orphanages. However, other localities have received hard quotas to be filled. In Jimsar County, officials were required to send 30 orphans to institutions by October 2017. In Xinyuan County, the authorities ordered officials to institutionalize 60 orphans by November 2017 or suffer demerits. In Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, a policy report acknowledges the difficulties in meeting those demands: “The orphans’ guardians are relatives such as grandparents…the guardians do not wish to give the children to the institutions. The guardians and the children are unwilling to be separated long-term, and do not trust that the orphanages to be a safe place for the children.”

Article 4 of China’s Adoption Law defines orphans as “those under 14 who have lost their parents, those whose parents cannot be found, and those whose parents have special difficulties and are unable to raise their children.” While article 43 of China’s Law on the Protection of Minors says that orphanages established by the Ministry of Civil Affairs have the responsibility to care for orphans, Chinese law does not empower government authorities to remove children from their relatives to place them in state care, nor any legal procedures to do so.

Reports of children being placed in orphanages against their families’ wishes are particularly alarming given the government’s sustained assault on the cultural identity of Turkic Muslim minority communities in Xinjiang, as Human Rights Watch and others have documented. In schools, authorities have long prohibited children from learning religion and have progressively marginalized the use of ethnic languages while promoting the use of Mandarin as the medium of instructions. All Muslim religious practice has been curtailed.

The preamble to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Chinese government has ratified, recognizes the family as the natural environment for the growth and well-being of children. The convention obligates governments to ensure that a “child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” Such a determination may be necessary in a particular case, such as involving parental abuse or neglect.

Even when alternative care arrangements are necessary, care by close family members should be given priority. Removing a child from the family’s care is normally a measure of last resort and should, whenever possible, be temporary and for the shortest possible duration. Officials need to ensure that a child who is capable of forming their own views has the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting them. The child’s views should be given due consideration in accordance with their age and maturity.

All decisions concerning alternative care should take full account of the desirability, in principle, of maintaining the child as close as possible to their habitual place of residence, to facilitate contact and potential reintegration with the child’s family, and to minimize disruption of the child’s educational, cultural, and social life.

As information has emerged in recent months about mass, systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang, United Nations bodies, governments, and others have publicly expressed concern about China’s policies. The United States has been considering imposing sanctions on various Xinjiang officials and entities. Germany and Sweden have temporarily suspended deportations of ethnic Uighurs to China. But governments should take stronger steps, notably by creating an international coalition to gather evidence of serious abuses and press for accountability.

“By unnecessarily sending children in Xinjiang to state institutions, officials are adding to the trauma of China’s ‘Strike Hard’ Campaign,” Richardson said. “Governments that weren’t previously outraged by Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang should press China to change course immediately and limit the long-term harm of these policies.”
 

The UK Should Suspend Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Saudi authorities’ apparent brazen crime of disappearing and potentially murdering Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi, not seen since entering Istanbul’s Saudi consulate on October 2, has surprised even those used to following Saudi Arabia’s atrocious rights record. But the abusive bent of the government under Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohammad bin Salman at home, and in its neighbour Yemen, was clear well before the Khashoggi affair.

March 7, 2018 Video VIDEO: Saudi Ruler Mohammad Bin Salman: Reformer or Authoritarian?

Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman is hailed as a champion of reform... but does Saudi Arabia really want reform? 

Despite bin Salman’s ambitious reform rhetoric, repression and human rights violations have increased in the kingdom under his leadership. The crown prince has ramped up the crackdown on criticism and opposition, including arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of peaceful dissidents and human rights advocates.

Despite this, the UK government rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi crown prince last March, and Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that the UK’s link with Saudi Arabia is historic, important, and “has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in the country.”

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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after delivering her keynote speech on Brexit at Lancaster House in London, January 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

May didn’t mention that this “link” has had devastating consequences in Yemen. The UK supports the Saudi-led coalition, having sold at least £4.6 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia since the conflict began in 2015.

Evidence continues to mount of the coalition’s repeated violations of the laws of war in Yemen, some of which may amount to war crimes, which keep killing Yemeni civilians.  The United Nations has called on the coalition to end these violations, which are exacerbating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 12 to 13 million people in Yemen face starvation, according to the UN.

Despite this, the UK government still refuses to call out the coalition over its violations in Yemen. Its decision to keep selling arms to Saudi Arabia, despite the risk that they could be used unlawfully, is being challenged in court. This week, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt joined his French and German counterparts in expressing “grave concern” over Saudi Arabia’s likely role in Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Yet he failed to say anything about revisiting the UK’s wider relationship with Saudi Arabia. Which begs the question, when will the UK finally send the critical message to bin Salman and stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia?

It’s Time to Take Palestine v. United States of America Seriously

Opinio Juris - Tuesday, October 16, 2018
[Victor Kattan is Senior Research Fellow of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore where he heads the Transsystemic Law Cluster. He is also an Associate Fellow of NUS Law and an associate (non-resident) member of Temple Garden Chambers in London.] Palestine’s Application Instituting Proceedings against the United States of America (U.S.) at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 28 September has produced much commentary in a...

The Trump Administration and International Law: A Reply

Opinio Juris - Tuesday, October 16, 2018
[Harold Hongju Koh is Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School. He returned to Yale in January 2013 after serving for nearly four years as the 22nd Legal Adviser of the U.S. Department of State.] I have been educated by the thoughtful symposium on my new book, The Trump Administration and International Law (Oxford University Press 2018). I am...

Iran: Arrests, Harassment of Baha’is

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 16, 2018
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Members of the Baha'i religion demonstrate in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach on June 19, 2011 asking Iranian authorities to release seven Baha'i prisoners accused of spying for Israel and sentenced to 20 years in jail. 

© 2011 Ana Carolina Fernandes/AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Iranian intelligence officials have increased the arrests of the country’s Baha’i religious minority over the past two months, with no clear charges, Human Rights Watch said today. In August and September 2018, authorities arrested more than 20 Baha’i citizens, as well as a city council member who a colleague said offered support for those arrested.

Those arrested included 12 people in the city of Shiraz, 4 of whom remain detained in an Intelligence Ministry detention center. On September 25, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that between August 23 and September 23, authorities arrested 11 more Baha’is in Isfahan and Karaj provinces and transferred them to the Shiraz detention center. The source who spoke to Human Rights Watch did not know about the charges brought against the detainees. Authorities also detained Mehdi Hajati, a member of Shiraz City Council, for 10 days after he said he was trying to secure the release of the Baha’is.

“The more than 20 arrests in a month without providing any justification shows how intolerant the Islamic Republic is towards Iran’s Baha’i community,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “And authorities are taking their campaign of intimidation, harassment, and persecution even further by detaining elected officials who dare to show solidarity with their fellow citizens who are Baha’i.”

Iran’s constitution does not recognize Baha’is as a religious minority in Iran. Authorities routinely harass, prosecute, and imprison Baha’is solely for practicing  their faith, and they also regularly destroy their places of burial. They also prevent Baha’i students from registering at universities and expel those who are adherent of this faith.

On October 10, a source who wished to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that authorities arrested Bahareh Qaderi, Navid Bazmandegan, Ehsan Mahboob Rahvafa, Elaheh Samizadeh, Soudabeh Haghighat, and Noora Pourmoradaian on August 24 and 25. The source said the authorities arrested Koroosh Rouhani, Mahboob Habibi, Dorna Esmaili, Houman Esmalili, Negar Misaghian, and Pejman Shahriari on August 17.

Authorities released Misaghian and Dorna Esmaili the day of their arrest, while conditionally releasing Rouhani, Shahriari, Habibi, Haghighat, Pourmoradian, and Samizadeh until their trial.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran said that authorities arrested Bahareh Zeini, Sepideh Rouhani, Afshin Bolbolan, Milad Dordan, Anousheh Rayneh, Farhang Sahba and Foujan Rashidi in city of Baharestan, in Isfahan province, and Peyman Manavi, Kianoush Salmanzadeh, Maryam Ghaffarmanesh and Jamileh Pakrou in the city of Karaj, in Alborz Province in period between August 23 and September 23.

On September 27, Qasem Moghimi a member of the Shiraz City Council, told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that authorities arrested Hajati, a member of Shiraz city council who is also a member of the council’s citizens’ rights commission, “for supporting Baha’is.”

Hajati had tweeted on September 25 that “Over the past 10 days, I tried my best to secure the release of two Baha’i friends but have failed. While standing against the foreign enemy, our generation has a duty to do its best to reform the judicial processes and other issues that threaten social justice.”

On September 30, Ali Alqasimehr, the head of the judiciary in Fars province, told Mehr News that other than “supporting a deviate cult,” Hajati is facing other criminal charges but did not provide details. Authorities released Hajati on October 7.

Several members of the Iranian parliament raised concerns about Hajati’s arrest and said he was defending citizens’ rights. On October 3, however, the association of members of parliament from Fars province published an open letter asking authorities to not allow the “deviant cult” of Bahai’s to conspire and operate while ensuring citizens’ rights are respected.

On September 18, Iran Wire news website published the name of 54 Baha’i students whom authorities had prevented from registering at universities after they took the national entrance exam for the 2018 school year. The origin of such blatant discrimination reportedly goes back to a 1991 by-law of the High Council of Cultural Revolution, a body in charge of setting education policies, that mandates authorities to expel Baha’i students from higher education institutions. 

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”(ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, freedom of religion includes “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”  Similarly, under ICCPR “anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.”

“For four decades Iran’s judiciary and security agencies have violated the most fundamental rights of the Baha’i community in Iran,” Page said. “President Rouhani and his cabinet need to stop pretending that they aren’t responsible for persecuting the Baha’i and end these violations.”

Syria: Residents Blocked From Returning

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 16, 2018
October 15, 2018 Video Syria: Residents Blocked From Returning

The Syrian government is unlawfully preventing displaced residents from former anti-government-held areas from returning to their properties.

  (Beirut) – The Syrian government is unlawfully preventing displaced residents from former anti-government-held areas from returning to their properties, Human Rights Watch said today.   Residents of one town, Qaboun, said the government is also demolishing their properties with no warning, and without providing alternative housing or compensation. Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery over Qaboun neighborhoods showing large-scale demolitions starting in late May 2017, after fighting there ended. The imagery confirms the demolitions are still taking place. Expand

© DigitalGlobe 2018

“Russia and Syria are calling on people to return to attract reconstruction funding, but as always with the Syrian government, reality is much different,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Apparently under the guise of a notorious property rights law, the Syrian government is actually blocking residents from returning.”

The Syrian council of ministers and local authorities designated parts of Darayya for redevelopment in April 2018 and Qaboun in July. Both towns have been identified with the Syrian revolution, and the government has retaken both from anti-government groups. But under Law 10 of 2018, passed in April, the government can appropriate private property without due process or adequate compensation in redevelopment zones, a Human Rights Watch analysis found.

Human Rights Watch spoke to seven Syrians who had attempted to return to their homes in Darayya and Qaboun, or whose immediate relatives attempted to return in May and July. Residents said that they or their relatives were unable to access their residential or commercial properties. In Darayya, they said, the government was imposing town-wide restrictions on access, and in Qaboun they said, the government either had restricted access to their neighborhoods or had demolished their property.

The Syrian government recaptured the towns after large-scale offensives that included indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the use of prohibited weapons. The offensives caused extensive damage and resulted in mass displacement of thousands of residents.

Based on media and government statements issued between May 2017 and October 2018, the Syrian government announced that it was destroying tunnels created by anti-government groups, as well as explosive remnants armed groups left behind in Qaboun. However, satellite imagery Human Rights Watch reviewed during this period showed that the government demolished houses with heavy, earth moving machinery such as bulldozers, and excavators as well as with the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives, which is inconsistent with closing underground tunnels.

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Satellite image of a large blast cloud from the demolition of a residential apartment building with high explosives. Blast cloud consistent with the detonation of a large conventional bomb.

© DigitalGlobe 2018

Human Rights Watch also compared impact sites from the airstrikes with the demolitions. Human Rights Watch found that while many buildings were most likely damaged in airstrikes or ground fighting, but it was clear that many of the buildings demolished were also visibly intact and potentially inhabitable and were not demolished because they were damaged by airstrikes.

As one refugee put it: “They took our children, our blood and now our property – what is left for us to return to?”

Preventing displaced residents from accessing and returning to their homes without an apparently valid security reason or providing alternatives to the displaced communities makes these restrictions arbitrary, and most likely amounts to forced displacement, Human Rights Watch said.

International law guarantees freedom of movement for people who are in a country lawfully. Restrictions should only be imposed if they are provided by law, necessary to achieve legitimate aims, nondiscriminatory, and proportionate – that is, carefully balanced against the specific reason for the restriction.

In imposing restrictions on entry and exit from Qaboun and blocking return to Darayya entirely without providing a legitimate reason, or individualized security screenings of residents seeking to enter or leave, the government is violating its obligations to guarantee freedom of movement. Given the time that has passed since the recapture of these areas, and the scale of impact of these restrictions, they also appear to be disproportionate.

International humanitarian law also prohibits “wanton destruction” of property, and deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian objects. The scale of the demolitions, and the fact that the government had retaken the area for at least a year, indicates that these demolitions are likely disproportionate, and may be war crimes.

View All Before: © DigitalGlobe 2018 After: © DigitalGlobe 2018

The restrictions on access, demolitions, and confiscation of property also affect displaced people’s ability and willingness to return to their areas of origin, Human Rights Watch said. Refugees indicated that their inability to go to their areas of origin and the lack of guarantees that security will be maintained there are reasons they would not return. Others said that this is only the latest in a series of Syrian government actions showing disregard for the civilian population.

Russia, and other countries that are calling for the return of refugees, should use their leverage with the Syrian government to ensure that the property rights of displaced people seeking to return are protected, and that the government does not expropriate or demolish their properties arbitrarily and without providing them with alternatives.

Donor countries, investors, and humanitarian agencies operating in areas retaken by the government should ensure that any funds they provide to programs aimed at rebuilding and rehabilitating structures in areas retaken by the government meet certain standards. They should make certain that their funds do not contribute to the abuse of property rights of residents or displaced people, and that the funds do not go to entities or people responsible for human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law.

The United Nations should ensure that its agencies’ programming, including delivery of humanitarian aid, small-scale infrastructure rehabilitation projects and provision of services, does not contribute to violating the property rights of residents or displaced people and is not applied in a discriminatory manner.

“In demolishing their homes and restricting access to their property, the Syrian government is signaling that despite official rhetoric inviting Syrians ‘home,’ they do not want refugees or displaced persons back,” Fakih said. “Donors considering funding reconstruction to facilitate returns should be put on notice.”

The Government Restrictions

Local officials have not provided a reason for preventing them from returning to Darayya or Qaboun, or for the other restrictions on access, residents said. Other areas including Wadi Barada and al-Tadamon have faced similar restrictions.

On September 25, news outlets reported that a Damascus provincial committee report on the implementation Law No. 10 in al-Tadamon, a neighborhood in Damascus, found only 690 homes inhabitable – about 10 percent of all housing, according to an activist quoted in the report – and that residents would not be allowed to return to homes considered uninhabitable. Residents of al-Tadamon contended that the report was subjective and unfair. The news report did not make clear whether compensation or alternative housing would be provided to the residents.

In other areas, including Zabadani and al-Moadmiyeh, that are close to Darayya and Qaboun, residents have told Human Rights Watch that they are returning and have access to their property.

Darayya

Darayya is in the Damascus suburbs, eight kilometers from the capital. It was under the control of anti-government armed groups from 2012 until 2016. In August 2016, the government retook the area after a four-year siege, which ended with the surrender of anti-government armed groups, and the evacuation of the entire population.

The town is widely acknowledged to have been central to the Syrian uprising, and is strongly affiliated with the political opposition, having produced prominent political activists. Since 2012, the Syrian government has detained and tortured dozens in unofficial prisons, and retaliated with large-scale attacks on the town.

Human Rights Watch spoke to three residents, who had attempted to return or whose immediate relatives attempted to return in 2018. All three said that Darayya had been completely closed off to residents for two years with government checkpoints and physical barriers erected by government forces. To enter, one either had to have a relative in the Syrian military or pay a bribe and even then, residents could not stay in the town, they said.

“There is a large steel barricade, and several checkpoints,” said Samer, a former Darayya resident. “They don’t allow anyone in. Our house is 300 meters from the checkpoint.” One resident said that his neighbor paid upwards of $1 million SYP to be able to enter and check on his property.

Two residents who attempted to return said that officials they spoke with at civil registries and municipalities would not provide a reason for blocking access to Darayya

A woman who attempted to return to her home in Darayya in May said that the Syrian government would not allow her in. She had returned fearing that the family’s property would be confiscated under Law 10, she said. When she went to the municipality office, officials did not allow her to visit her properties and provided no reason, saying “Not allowed means not allowed. We don’t question these things in Syria.”

A young woman whose father died recently also attempted to return to check on the lands and inheritance issues. She said she was not allowed to reach her property, and that due to the lack of transparency around the policies and property registration, she was unable to resolve, or even understand, what steps were needed to ensure that her father’s property in Darayya could pass on to her.

On August 27, a Facebook page of the Darayya Executive Office, an affiliate of the Syrian government, announced that people could enter Darayya on August 28. The decision permitted residents who had registered to enter from one point in the town, and only to check on their homes. They had to leave the same day and could not resettle or remain in Darayya.

“The government would turn us away at checkpoints,” one former resident said. “At first, they said it was security reasons, and we understood, but two years later and dozens of other areas were opened, why is Darayya still closed?”

In September, the Executive Office shared lists of names and announced that people on these lists could register and obtain a permission card that would allow them to enter Darayya at any time. However, the government did not allow any to stay or return to their homes, based on comments from residents on the Facebook page and the residents had to leave the same day.

Recent media reports have implied that residents have not been able to return to Darayya because of heavy damage to the buildings and no connection to basic infrastructure, including water and electricity. However, Human Rights Watch research shows that in other areas, that were re-taken by the government later than Darayya, including Zabadani and al-Moadmiyeh, residents were allowed to return, apparently without these preconditions in place.

A woman who attempted to return to Darayya in May 2018 after the local authorities designated it for redevelopment told Human Rights Watch that the municipality blocked her from visiting her properties. She said they did allow her to submit copies of her title deeds and the number of the property to demonstrate property ownership, as required by Law 10 to not be stripped of property in redevelopment zones, but that municipality officials told her ownership would only be recognized after security clearance without explaining what that would mean. “Some people will get an approval. Others won’t,” she said. “Hopefully, our name gets on the list and they let us back. We didn’t get any promises. We’re just hoping.”

Qaboun

Qaboun is in the Damascus countryside, six kilometers from the capital. It was under anti-government control until 2017, then recaptured by the government. Between 2014 and 2017, there was a ceasefire between the parties to the conflict there.

However, in March 2017, the Syrian government, supported by the Russian military, opened an offensive to retake Qaboun. Satellite imagery Human Rights Watch reviewed shows that the Syrian-Russian military alliance bombarded the Teshreen neighborhood with heavy artillery and large, air-dropped munitions between early February and mid-April 2017. This was followed by a large ground offensive along southern and eastern edges of Qaboun between mid-April and late May 2017. Satellite imagery recorded during this period shows the presence and movement of military vehicles, including Armored Personnel Carriers and tanks, but the majority of the ground fighting was concentrated further north from the demolition zone. The Syrian government retook Qaboun in May 2017.

In Qaboun, recaptured in May 2017, state officials made certain neighborhoods off limits to residents while allowing entry into other neighborhoods, one former resident said. But even in the neighborhoods that residents can enter, the government had imposed restrictions on entry and exit, requiring people who want to go to Damascus to pay 500 Syrian pounds [US$1] and imposing a same day return requirement. Those entering the neighborhoods are required to leave their identification cards at a checkpoint on their way in.

Human Rights Watch spoke to four people from Qaboun who said that access to certain neighborhoods remains restricted and that demolitions that began in 2018 are ongoing in neighborhoods along the M5 Highway.

“Leila,” whose relatives remain in Damascus and the Damascus countryside and who asked not to be identified to protect her family’s security, said that her house was still standing when her family left in May 2017 as part of the mass displacement to Idlib after anti-government forces in Qaboun surrendered. She has not been back since: 

I left in the displacement of Qaboun [after the government retook the area], and within a few months, asked one of my cousins to visit the house. We left a car there, and I wanted to make sure that everything was there. They refused to allow him in and did not give a reason. I insisted that he visit, and he paid them a bribe and they allowed him in. The house had been struck during the fighting – we were still there – and was burned but it was still standing at the time.

Her cousin visited the property again in August or September 2018, and found it razed to the ground. Leila and other residents said that only government officials are allowed to operate and demolish in the area. She said that her home was not part of an informal settlement and that the damage to the house did not warrant its destruction. She said her family received no notice, compensation, or support in finding alternative housing.

The government had previously used the excuse of clearing informal settlements to demolish homes.

Another resident, “Omar,” said his property was demolished shortly after Qaboun was retaken. He said he left Qaboun in May 2017 and was provided with pictures in June by a friend inside Qaboun that showed the destruction. He said that his house was formally registered, and not part of the informal settlements. His family also received no notice, compensation, or alternative housing. “This is the government’s usual practice,” he said. “They also demolished one of our properties back in 2012, and similarly gave no warning and no money. They don’t want us to return.”

Leila and Omar also said that the government is blocking access to several other neighborhoods including al-Falujeh, al-‘Aardiyeh, Mazra’et al-Hammam, Mashrou’ al-Wan, Mou’asseset al-Kahrabeh, and Jame’ al-Hussein. In another neighborhood, where Leila owns a second home, no reason was given for restricting access: “Last Eid [June 2018] my daughters were able to visit the property and move relatively freely. This Eid [August 2018], they tried again and were told they could not access the area.”

Human Rights Watch analyzed a time series of satellite imagery and identified hundreds of mostly residential buildings in Qaboun demolished between May 22, 2017 and September 29, 2018. The demolitions were conducted with heavy, earth moving machinery such as bulldozers, and excavators and the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives. The demolitions were concentrated in the southern end of the town along the M5 highway, over 35 hectares in total area.

Between May 22 and July 2, 2017, dozens of buildings in the southern end of Qaboun along the M5 highway were demolished. There were a limited number of air strikes in this part of town, and the majority of buildings demolished during this period appeared intact and potentially inhabitable before they were demolished. Demolitions resumed between September 13 and October 22, 2017, this time further north from the M5 highway.

A third round of demolitions began sometime between March 27 and April 13, 2018, and continued until early September. In parallel, satellite images showed dozens of dump trucks taken to the area to remove debris from demolished buildings, creating large areas of bare soil along the northern side of the M5 highway.

A satellite image taken on May 11 captured a large smoke plume and debris cloud immediately after the probable detonation of multiple residential buildings with high explosives.

In 2014, Human Rights Watch documented large scale demolitions in Qaboun neighborhoods, apparently in retaliation for affiliation with the political opposition. In all the cases, the demolitions took place with little to no warning, and the government failed to provide alternative housing or any compensation, residents told Human Rights Watch.

Three residents told Human Rights Watch that their families who remained inside Syria and visited Qaboun informed them that their houses were demolished between May 2017 and March 2018. Two of the residents shared pictures of the houses with Human Rights Watch, which showed an extensive amount of rubble, and destroyed structures and said that the property was not part of informal settlements. Human Rights Watch did not interview any witnesses to the demolitions in 2017 and 2018, but residents consistently said that they believed the government was responsible for the demolitions because they were in control of the area at the time.

One resident said that the government demolished properties of his in 2012, 2013, and 2017:

We had three homes in Qaboun. We owned them. In 2012, the government demolished the first home. In 2013, the regime took over the area, and didn’t allow a single person to go in. The buildings were not damaged in airstrikes, but they demolished them anyway, razing them to the ground. Then, end of last year [2017], after they forced us out, they demolished our final home. Nothing remains.

Law 10

The law, passed by the Syrian government on April 2, 2018, empowers the government to create redevelopment zones across Syria by decree, with extensive and in some cases formidable requirements for property owners or tenants to qualify to remain or to be compensated when they are required to move for redevelopment.

Following international pressure, the Syrian Foreign Minister confirmed that “indeed, the deadline for proving ownership of a property after the announcement of a re-development zone had been amended and extended to one year.” Diplomats and lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the Syrian government is returning the law for reconsideration in parliament. However, at the time of writing, no legislative amendment to Law 10 had been passed by parliament.

Law No. 10 replaced Decree 66 of 2012, to allow for the redevelopment of areas in the Damascus countryside. Following the passage of Decree 66, Damascus Cham Holding, a public-private partnership between the Syrian government and private investors, was created. On March 27, news reports said that the Damascus provincial council had approved development plans for Basilia city, the second development project, Marota City, the first development project under Decree 66 was announced as far back as 2016. These two projects include parts of Darayya, Kafr Souseh and Mezzeh, towns in the Damascus countryside. In April 2018, following the passage of Law 10, SANA announced that additional parts of Darayya will also be included in redevelopment plans.

International Law

Residents’ right to a home and to adequate housing and property is protected under international law. The treaty body tasked with interpreting the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has found that this must include guarantees of legal protection from forced eviction, including (a) an opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected; (b) adequate and reasonable notice for everyone affected before the scheduled eviction date; and (g) provision of legal remedies, among others.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights guarantee the right to property. The Arab Charter states that no one should “under any circumstances be arbitrarily or unlawfully divested of all or any part of their property.” In demolishing private homes and blocking residents’ access to their properties without notice, genuine consultation or providing adequate compensation, due process, or alternative housing, the Syrian government is failing to abide by the requirements, Human Rights Watch said.

Under the UN’s Pinheiro Principles, refugees and internally displaced are also protected from discriminatory housing, land, and restitution laws. These laws must be transparent and consistent. If a refugee or displaced person is unlawfully or arbitrarily denied their property, they are entitled to submit a claim for restitution from an independent and impartial body.

Imposing collective punishment by imposing arbitrary movement restrictions or unlawfully depriving people of their property also violates human rights and humanitarian law. If the Syrian government is blocking access to these areas due to some community members’ prior affiliation with the opposition, then this may constitute collective punishment.

Rural Women and Girls Sidelined

Human Rights Watch - Monday, October 15, 2018
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Women prepare food in Hamdallaye village in the Boké region. Compensation payments for land lost to mining are often paid to male heads of household or lineages, even where the land is utilized by entire families or households. January 2018. 

© 2018 Ricci Shryock for Human Rights Watch

Rural women and girls play vital roles in their families and communities. They produce food, gather water, provide care, and navigate myriad challenges from poverty to environmental disasters, due to climate change. Today marks the International Day for Rural Women.

But too often, rural women and girls face extreme challenges in realizing their human rights. Many are denied equal property and inheritance rights, and may lose land and other property if they divorce or are widowed. When whole communities are forced off their lands because of mining or commercial agriculture, they suffer different hardships from men, such as walking longer distances to find clean water – an essential task done mainly by women. Rural women and girls are often excluded from leadership and decision-making, they are denied justice systems and policing services, and are at added risk of violence and harmful customary practices.

In developing countries, women constitute on average 43 percent of the agricultural labor force. However, their ownership of agricultural land remains significantly lower than men’s. Human Rights Watch research in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Guinea, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia highlights how even with laws on paper protecting women’s access to land and property, government implementation of these laws is weak and oversight is poor.

Some progress has been made to recognize rural women’s rights, including their land and property rights. Last month the UN Human Rights Council adopted a draft Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, recognizing the significant role rural women play in the economic survival of their families and the rural and national economy. In 2016, a UN committee on women’s rights adopted guidance on the rights of rural women. Some countries have adopted laws that should protect women’s property and inheritance rights, but implementation often falters.

Amidst grave global threats of inequality, environmental degradation, and poverty, it’s past time to stop holding rural women back. Governments, corporations, families, and others need to fully respect their human rights

EU: Oppose Hungary’s Rejection of EU Values

Human Rights Watch - Monday, October 15, 2018
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Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban shows a document during a debate concerning Hungary's situation as part of a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France on September 11, 2018.

© 2018 FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images

(Budapest) – European Union (EU) foreign ministers should adopt a clear roadmap to declaring Hungary in serious breach of EU values, Human Rights Watch said today. Ministers meeting in the General Affairs Council session on October 16, 2018, are expected to discuss the situation in Hungary following a European Parliament resolution in September calling for political sanctions against Hungary.

“EU foreign ministers should seize this opportunity to send a clear signal opposing Hungary’s slide into authoritarianism,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Hungarian government’s childish response, including vitriolic attacks on members of the European Parliament, just confirms the need for a strong rebuke.”

On September 12, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to adopt a report, authored by Dutch Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Judith Sargentini, outlining concerns with respect to rule of law in Hungary, including attacks on the judiciary, shrinking space for civil society, restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of association, and academic freedom, as well as abusive asylum laws.

The parliament asked governments to initiate proceedings to determine whether Hungary is in breach of founding EU values spelled out in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. Such a determination could lead to use of the political sanctions envisioned in Article 7 of the same treaty, including suspension of voting rights.

The hard-hitting parliamentary report echoed numerous expressions of concern by other institutions, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as rights groups.

The Hungarian government of Prime Minister Victor Orbán vehemently denies any wrongdoing and instead has undertaken yet another distasteful publicly-funded smear campaign against Sargentini and other MEPs.

Action against Hungary under the EU Treaty is overdue, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission has tried to address problematic laws and policies using its legal enforcement powers on a case-by-case basis, but the Orbán government has largely ignored the criticism and undertaken only minor, cosmetic changes that do not address core concerns. In contrast, the commission initiated Article 7 action against Poland in December 2017 for its attacks on the courts and other democratic checks and balances.

“Member states have a responsibility to stand up for fundamental rights and freedoms, and to speak out against member states flagrantly breaching those core values,” Gall said. “It’s time to tell Hungary and other member states they will pay a price for violating EU principles.” 

Kavanaugh Appointment Foreshadows Looming Crisis for the Rule of Law

Opinio Juris - Monday, October 15, 2018
[Matt Pollard is the Director of Center for Independence of Judges and Lawyers International Commission of Jurists.] “I was very emotional,” writes Brett Kavanaugh. “I said a few things I should not have said.” It is extraordinary that someone poised to be appointed to the highest court of a country should have felt it necessary to reaffirm his judicial qualities, and...

Kavanaugh Appointment Foreshadows Looming Crisis for the Rule of Law

Opinio Juris - Monday, October 15, 2018
[Sam Zarifi is the Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists.] “I was very emotional,” writes Brett Kavanaugh. “I said a few things I should not have said.” It is extraordinary that someone poised to be appointed to the highest court of a country should have felt it necessary to reaffirm his judicial qualities, and seek to excuse (though not...

UK: Amend Flawed Counterterrorism Bill

Human Rights Watch - Monday, October 15, 2018
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An armed police officer stands guard outside the Houses of Parliament in London, April 2017.

© 2017 Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images

(London) – The United Kingdom Parliament should scrap provisions in a new counterterrorism bill that excessively restrict freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and privacy, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft law punishes a single click on terrorist content online with up to 15 years in prison.

The sweeping Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill would criminalize travel to areas the government designates terrorist risk zones, which could obstruct family visits, news reporting, and aid work. It would also erode rights to consult a lawyer during stops at ports, airports, and borders.

“The new UK counterterrorism bill veers dangerously toward the logic of guilty until proven innocent,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament should strip this bill of provisions that risk harming legitimate activities in the name of security.”

Government officials contend the bill contains ample safeguards and is a necessary response to deadly Islamic State (also known as ISIS)-inspired attacks in London and Manchester in 2017, as well as poisonings in Salisbury in March 2018 for which the UK blames Russia. The House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament, sent the bill to a review committee following an impassioned debate on October 9. The House of Commons approved the draft law in September and a final vote is expected in late 2018 or early 2019.

In an attempt to clamp down on internet-inspired attacks, the draft law would criminalize even one click on, or view of, online content that the authorities deem useful to preparing or committing a terrorist act. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) upholds the freedom to receive and express opinions and information even if they offend, shock, or disturb. Viewing or clicking on offensive content should not be criminalized absent a clear link to inciting, preparing, or carrying out an unlawful act, Human Rights Watch said.

The provision allows the accused to argue that they have a “reasonable excuse” to view the content. However, the only excuse it specifies is not knowing or having no reason to believe that the content was terrorism-related. That could leave researchers, journalists, and those who click through “ill-judged curiosity” but no criminal intent unprotected, the UK human rights group Liberty wrote.

The bill also criminalizes “reckless” expressions of support for a banned organization, regardless of whether the person succeeds – intentionally or unintentionally – in encouraging its audience to support the group. The provision does not specify what constitutes expressions of support.

As the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights noted in a report seeking 29 changes to the bill, the “reckless” offense is disproportionate, ambiguous, and “could have a chilling effect” on academic debates. While the concept of “recklessness” exists for certain criminal acts, such as causing physical harm, it should never be applied to speech, which must contain an element of intent to be criminal, Human Rights Watch said. UK law already criminalizes “glorification” and “encouragement” of terrorism, as well as “inviting support for a proscribed organization,” making this one of several clauses in the bill that are unnecessary as well as overreaching.

The bill would also criminalize the online publication of an image depicting a flag or other item that would prompt “reasonable suspicion” that the person posting the image is a member or supporter of a proscribed organization. This could lead to unjust prosecutions for publishing historical, satirical, or journalistic material, Human Rights Watch said.

A recent amendment would punish traveling to or remaining in areas abroad that the UK Secretary of State designates terrorist risk zones with prison terms of up to 10 years. The proposal, which mirrors an overbroad 2015 Australian law, aims to deter UK nationals from joining armed groups abroad and returning to commit attacks at home.

While concern about the potential security risk posed by some returning fighters is warranted, the measure could target travel to visit family, attend funerals, report on conflicts, or provide life-saving food and medical care, Human Rights Watch said. The proposal allows such travel if the person provides a “reasonable excuse,” but unjustly places the burden of proof on the traveler.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) upholds everyone’s right to leave any country and the right to enter their own country. The UN independent human rights expert on countering terrorism has expressed concern about overbroad foreign fighter travel bans.

In response to the Salisbury poisonings, the bill also would empower customs and immigration officials to stop, question, search, and copy or seize personal belongings of anyone at ports, airports or border crossings to determine whether they may be involved in “hostile activity” on behalf of a foreign government. Detention could last up to six hours. No grounds for suspicion would be required and hostile activity is vaguely defined. Failure to provide information or belongings would be punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison.

Border officials could question the person for up to an hour without a lawyer. In addition, a senior police official could require that legal consultation take place within eyeshot and earshot of the authorities in certain cases – for example, if the authorities express concern that a lawyer might engage in evidence tampering. The right of detainees to see a lawyer is enshrined in the ECHR and the ICCPR, and the UN Human Rights Committee have interpreted that right to include legal consultation in private. The Law Council of England and Wales called the proposal’s potential to damage lawyer-client privilege “severe.”

The proposed powers are similar to those already in force in the UK for counterterrorism stops-and-searches, which have disproportionately affected members of ethnic minorities. In one positive step, the measure would clarify that answers given during such questioning are not generally admissible as evidence.

Another clause would decrease independent oversight of police retention of fingerprints and DNA samples of people arrested for serious terrorism offenses. In certain cases, the provision would increase the retention period from two to five years with no review by the country’s biometrics commissioner. Extensive retention of personal data for suspects not even charged with a crime violates the right to privacy enshrined in both the ECHR and the ICCPR.

The bill also would amend the UK’s Prevent program, aimed at preventing people from being drawn into terrorism, allowing local authorities to refer people they consider vulnerable to special risk-assessment panels. Currently, only police officers can make such referrals. The program has been criticized by two UN human rights experts. Before making such a change, the government should commission an independent review to assess the program’s effectiveness and its impact on individuals and communities, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN human rights expert on counterterrorism and the UK’s outgoing independent reviewer of terrorism legislation have also criticized portions of the bill as disproportionately broad or invasive.

“At home, the new UK counterterrorism bill risks subverting the very freedoms and democratic principles that it purports to protect,” Tayler said. “Abroad, it gives countries with fewer checks and balances a dangerous excuse to follow suit.”

The Netherlands Should Protect Venezuelan Refugees

Human Rights Watch - Monday, October 15, 2018
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Colombian police officers stand in front of people queueing to try to cross into Colombia from Venezuela through the Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cucuta, Colombia. January 24, 2018.

© 2018 Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

The devastating crisis in Venezuela has triggered the largest migration flow of its kind in recent Latin American history. But not all those who flee seeking safety in the Americas will get a fair hearing. 

For example, Venezuelans who fled to Curaçao, a constituent country of The Netherlands located in the Caribbean, have reportedly suffered serious abuses. Human Rights Watch received credible information, included in a recent report, that Curaçaoan authorities are sweeping up asylum seekers in immigration raids, verbally and physically harassing them, and detaining others indefinitely in inhumane conditions and without access to lawyers. Authorities have also allegedly deported some Venezuelan asylum seekers.

Hundreds of Venezuelans have sought asylum in Curaçao over the past year. Yet to the best of our knowledge the government of Curaçao has not issued a single asylum-seeker certificate.

Curaçaoan authorities have questioned our methodology and denied our findings, apparently without conducting any kind of meaningful inquiry. The Dutch government has emphasized that Curaçao is solely responsible for asylum and migration issues on its own territory and will remain so.

Curaçao is bound by international law, which demands states do not return asylum seekers if they face torture or inhumane treatment.

This week Human Rights Watch warned both the Curaçaoan and Netherlands governments that they risk violating their international obligations to Venezuelans in need. Venezuela’s exodus will not end any time soon, and it’s vital that those who flee to safety are not denied it.

Iran’s Death Penalty Laws Failing Children

Human Rights Watch - Friday, October 12, 2018
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Women watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup match between Iran and Portugal in a public viewing event at Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran on June 25, 2018. 

© 2018 Getty Images

Last week, Iranian authorities executed Zeinab Sakaavand for allegedly murdering her husband when she was 17. During her trial the court discounted Sakaavand’s claims that her husband frequently beat and abused her. She was only 15 when they were married.

Sakaavand is the fifth child offender that Iran has executed this year. On January 30, Mahboubeh Mofidi was executed for allegedly murdering her husband when she was 17. The same day, Ali Kazemi was executed for a murder he allegedly committed at 15. Amirhossein Pourjafar was also executed in January for the rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl when he was 16. In June, authorities executed Abolfazl Chazani for an alleged murder he committed at 14.

Iran is one of only four countries known to have executed child offenders since 2013. Amnesty International has identified 49 alleged child offenders at risk of execution in Iran, and the United Nations Secretary-General reported that there were 160 child offenders on death row in Iran as of late 2014.

Iran changed its laws in 2013 to limit when child offenders could face capital punishment – they granted judges the discretion to not sentence to death a child offender who could not comprehend the nature and consequences of the crime when it happened.

Yet the law allows courts to rely on a forensic doctor’s opinion as to whether a defendant understood the consequences of their actions. In the case of 14-year-old Chazani, the Legal Medicine Organization of Iran reportedly concluded he had reached “developmental maturity” at the time of the crime. Even with this flawed approach to the death penalty, research shows children are far more predisposed toward impulsive decisions.

Especially troubling is the cases of the two young women executed for killing their husbands who both were victims of child marriages and possible domestic abuse. In Iran, girls can marry at 13 and boys at 15. Girls who marry as children face a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse than women who marry later.

Under Iran’s Qisas law, an intentional murder is punishable by death but victims’ families can forgive the accused to save them from execution. This means the burden has been on activists and mourning families to work around the law. It is time for Iranian authorities to recognize their own responsibility and end the execution of child offenders once and for all. 

Medical Experts Call to Defer Unnecessary Intersex Surgeries

Human Rights Watch - Friday, October 12, 2018
October 25, 2017 Video US: Doctors Still Do Harmful Surgeries on Intersex Kids

Medical professional associations should enact standards of care for intersex children that rule out medically unnecessary surgery before patients are old enough to consent.

A group of European medical experts has published new treatment guidelines urging the deferral of medically unnecessary surgeries on intersex children until they are old enough to consent. The guidelines are based on medical data and ethical considerations – and, importantly, the views of intersex patient advocates, including parents of kids affected.

“Intersex” refers to the estimated 1.7 percent of the population born with bodily traits that do not fit conventional expectations of female or male. Their sex characteristics, such as chromosomes, gonads, or genitals, may differ from social expectations. These variations are medically benign, yet in the 1960s surgeons in the US popularized  “normalizing” cosmetic operations, such as procedures to reduce the size of the clitoris. But these procedures are not designed to treat a medical problem and there is no evidence that such operations help children “fit in” or “function in society,” which some surgeons say is their aim. The operations do however carry high risks of scarring, loss of sexual sensation, incontinence, sterilization, and psychological trauma.

The new European consensus statement states that: “For sensitive and/or irreversible procedures, such as genital surgery, we advise that the intervention be postponed until the individual is old enough to be actively involved in the decision whenever possible.”

Medically unnecessary surgery on intersex children has already been condemned by the World Health Organization, three former US surgeons-generalPhysicians for Human Rights, the AIS-DSD Support Group for intersex people and their families, Amnesty InternationalUN expertsLambda Legal, the ACLU, two American pediatrics professional bodies, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and intersex-led organizations worldwide.

For decades, intersex patients and their advocates have asked the medical community to develop standards to defer elective procedures until patients can decide for themselves. But, bar some brave physician voices, professional medical associations have largely failed to regulate the practice – and in some cases, even shut out the views of intersex people

As the momentum to end medically unnecessary surgeries grows, including patient advocate voices in policy development should be the new normal.

Central African Republic: Rebels Executing Civilians

Human Rights Watch - Friday, October 12, 2018
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Thérèse Weseba, about 60-years-old and her husband Benoit Wambala, about 65-years-old were executed by fighters from the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC) outside Bria on September 6, 2018. ©Private 2016.

Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic captured and executed at least nine civilians, including seven women, on September 6, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The executions around the town of Bria in the Haute-Kotto province came almost two weeks after the same group killed 11 civilians after a clash with a rival militia.

“These executions and killings are brazen war crimes by fighters who feel free to kill at will, despite the presence of United Nations peacekeepers,” said Lewis Mudge, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The peacekeepers are allowed to use force to protect civilians, and should seek to anticipate these attacks and to intervene early.”

Rebels from the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC), captured and executed the nine civilians, who had been working or going to their fields outside a displaced people’s camp. The same group killed at least 11 civilians fleeing the town’s Borno neighborhood, three kilometers from the camp, on August 25 after fighting between the FPRC and anti-balaka militia. Human Rights Watch found evidence that the group killed at least four more civilians around Bria on September 16.

Human Rights Watch also found evidence that anti-balaka groups killed at least eight civilians in the area since June. Tensions have increased between the two groups since 2017, with unlawful killings by both. Both groups deny attacking civilians.

The FPRC, drawn from the predominately Muslim Seleka group that briefly took power in the country in 2013, control most of Bria. Though previously aligned with anti-balaka against another group, it has fought anti-balaka in the region since mid-2017. The anti-balaka emerged in 2013, largely from existing self-defense groups to resist Seleka abuses, and have committed serious abuses against civilians, particularly Muslims, across the country. They attack civilians in the forests and fields outside Bria, on the Irabanda road, but some fighters also stay in the “PK3” displacement camp in Bria.

Fighting since May 2017 has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. More than 50,000 now live at the “PK3” camp. Camp leaders confirmed that anti-balaka base themselves at “PK3” for short periods.

Between September 19 and 22, Human Rights Watch interviewed 39 people in and around Bria, including crime victims, victims’ relatives, two FPRC commanders, and a former anti-balaka fighter.

Residents and camp officials said that tensions in the town were high when the fighting broke out in the Borno neighborhood on August 25. The fighting was short-lived as the anti-balaka fled. The FPRC fighters then turned on fleeing civilians, chasing them into their fields across the Kotto river, witnesses said.

One 40-year-old survivor said: “[My relatives]and I got split up as we crossed the river and they were captured by the Seleka. From my hiding place, I watched how they were both stabbed in the chest and killed. Before they killed them, the Seleka yelled, ‘You are the mothers of the anti-balaka!’ They were both left for dead as the Seleka went on to kill more people.”

FPRC fighters captured and executed 9 civilians on September 6 in the bush and fields near the displacement camp where they live, witnesses and family members said. Several victims bore signs of torture and were found with their hands tied. Witnesses said that the fighters were under the command of General Jaboud Tijani.

A family member of 53-year-old Suzanne Yassimeya, one of the victims, said: “She knew it was dangerous outside the camps, but she had to go to the fields. Otherwise her family would starve… When we found her body, her hands were still tied up and she had been shot in the stomach.”

In the September 16 attack, fighters attacked unarmed civilians working in fields around Tamangola, a village 15 kilometers north of Bria, killing at least four more people.

The total number of civilian victims is most likely higher than the 24 the FPRC and the 8 the anti-balaka killed since late June. Families say several of their relatives are still missing. Residents of surrounding villages continued to report killings of unarmed civilians in fields outside of Bria. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm all reported killings due to limited access and security concerns.

On September 7, the UN peacekeeping force, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, (MINUSCA), announced an investigation into the group execution. MINUSCA should carry out the investigation with the purpose of facilitating possible future national, regional or international prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said.

MINSUCA peacekeepers are based in front of the displacement camp, at the airport, and by the hospital. Human Rights Watch researchers saw some UN patrols in the camp, but armed FPRC fighters move about freely in the town.

The FPRC have denied responsibility for the crimes and blamed anti-balaka forces. General Hussain Damboucha, the regional commander of the Haute-Kotto province, told Human Rights Watch that his men did not kill any civilians in Bria or the surrounding villages. “The anti-balaka kidnapped those nine people […]and tortured and killed them to say that we did it,” he said. Human Rights Watch found no evidence to support this claim.

On September 22, Tijani told Human Rights Watch that his men did not capture or target civilians: “The anti-balaka want me to leave this area because I fight them hard, so they are killing civilians and blaming it on me.”

Anti-balaka militia around Bria have targeted both Muslims and non-Muslims accused of collaborating with the local Muslim population.

In late June, anti-balaka fighters in a group managed by Thierry Francois Pelenga, alias “Bokassa,” killed four non-Muslim women in the village of Gbre, five kilometers from Bria. “We killed them because they continued to sell food in town,” a former anti-balaka fighter said. “We made them dig their own graves, then we hit them in the head and buried them alive.” The next day the same fighters captured three men, accused them of the same offense, and killed them. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm all the details.

The war crimes in Bria occurred as the Special Criminal Court – staffed with national and international judges and prosecutors to try grave human rights violations since 2003 – has begun operations. The court – which is based in Bangui – offers a crucial chance for accountability for the crimes, and to stop cycles of killings, Human Rights Watch said.

The attacks and counter-attacks in Bria appear to be ongoing. Damboucha expressed frustration that the “PK3” camp has become a haven for the anti-balaka and hinted that the FPRC may forcibly disarm the camp. Seleka rebels have attacked and burned displacement camps in the past, killing scores of civilians.

Given clear warning signs that violence will continue, peacekeepers should be on high alert. They should urgently take steps to protect civilians in the camp and surrounding areas from attack, Human Rights Watch said.

“FPRC fighters apparently don’t fear the peacekeepers, and there are anti-balaka in the camp,” Mudge said. “MINUSCA should be ready for an attack on the camp, and arrests and prosecutions of those responsible for the recent killings are urgently needed.”

Central African Republic in Crisis

Fighting has raged in the Central African Republic since December 2012, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, claiming to represent the country’s aggrieved Muslim minority in the northeast, moved southwest into more populous non-Muslim areas, killing thousands of civilians.

In 2014, international forces pushed the Seleka out of the capital, Bangui. Ethnic divisions, rivalries, disagreements over resource control, and disputes over strategy quickly tore the Seleka apart. By late 2014, the Seleka split into several factions, each controlling its own area. In July 2018 the Seleka factions met and formed a political alliance under the banner of the National Council for Defense and Security (Conseil National pour le Défense et la Sécurité, CNDS).

A political dialogue between the African Union and armed groups, including the FPRC, restarted in late August. The dialogue aims to reach a political agreement to end ongoing violence. The FPRC has made past proposals for a dialogue that might lead to a general amnesty. But no agreement signed since 2012 has taken hold.

Recent Violence in Bria

In the past the FPRC had allied itself with the anti-balaka to fight the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), a group with close links to the minority ethnic Peuhl and also drawn from the Seleka, when the two groups split over access to local resources. Fighting between them in Bria in late November 2016 left at least 14 civilians dead and 76 wounded. The FPRC and the UPC have since re-established alliances to fight the anti-balaka.

Residents of the Borno neighborhood reported that the fighting on August 25, between the FPRC and anti-balaka, lasted only a half hour. The FPRC pushed the anti-balaka forces in the neighborhood across the Kotto river with little resistance. However, following the fighting, FPRC fighters chased civilians who had fled the fighting, killing at least 11. Some of the victims were captured and quickly executed.

A 64-year-old man said he hid as the Seleka chased him and his brother, 56-year-old George Rediebone. “After the shooting stopped, I went to look for my [relative],” he said. “After a while I found the bodies of four men, three of them had their arms tied to one another. My brother was one of the men. Each of them had been shot in the head.”

The victims included at least one child, Bellivia Gadda, 14. “I was hiding in the bush and I saw Bellivia run by,” a witness said. “She had a child on her back. She saw the Seleka and threw the child into the tall grass and she was captured with another woman,” Bénédicte Renede-Chatou, 25. “They were both shot in the head.” The child, Gadda’s 3-year-old brother, survived.

A relative of Sem Koumounda, an 18-year-old man with physical and intellectual disabilities, said that he used to wait by the river for his relatives to return from the fields. When the fighting started, the river trapped Koumounda as the fighters chased the civilians. “When we finally made it back to Bria [after the fighting] we found him dead in his usual place by the river, shot twice in the side,” the relative said. “A member of the Seleka later told us that another fighter had shot Sem for no reason.”

Human Rights Watch confirmed that FPRC fighters raped a 22-year-old pregnant woman on September 9, near the area where the September 6 executions occurred. A relative of the woman said the family wished to start a legal process against the attacker when the judicial system functioned again in Bria. Human Rights Watch corroborated this case with health care providers in Bria. Other rapes by FPRC fighters were reported, but details were not corroborated.

September 6 Executions

Human Rights Watch spoke with two people who saw Tijani and his men on September 6, one who saw Tijani in the area where the people were execution in the early morning, and another whom Tijani sent back to the displacement camp before the killing.

The first witness said that Tijani’s men opened fire on her and her family in the same area. “We were walking to the fields and we crossed the road and saw Jaboud with some men, they were wearing camouflage uniforms,” she said. “When we saw them, we ran into the tall grass and they shot at us.”

At approximately 11 a.m. Tijani and his men had collected at least 10 civilians in a group about five kilometers from the MINUSCA base. They took some hostages who were going to the fields, and others who were already working in the fields.

A survivor who had been captured with other victims but was released said:

I had spent Wednesday in the fields with some family members. On Thursday the Seleka came to our house [a temporary field house used during the planting season]. It was Jaboud [Tijani] and his men. Jaboud is well known in Bria, he used to run a business in the Pia neighborhood. He had about 20 fighters with him and they immediately asked if we were hiding guns for the anti-balaka. We explained that we were just farmers. They checked the house and found nothing. They tied us up and burned our small hut down. They then took us with them to a spot in the bush near PK5 [approximately 5 kilometers from Bria].

There were other people there who had been taken hostage by the Seleka, they were being guarded by other fighters… They made some of the women prepare some corn that they had collected. As they were preparing the food, Jaboud came and told me, “You go back to the camp and you tell the anti-balaka that they must come out here to fight us or we will kill more hostages.” As I left, the Seleka were beating the men they had captured [Benoit Wambala, 67, and Philman Wambala, 24]… I ran down the road and I heard the shooting shortly after. I knew that they were killing all the hostages. Now, I can’t even think about going into the fields to work. It is too dangerous for anyone to go out there.

Human Rights Watch spoke with the family members of three victims who said that when they found their loved ones’ bodies, they could see their hands had been tied, indicating an execution. A relative of Francoise Renemati, 66, said, “When we went to collect her body, we saw that they used her headscarf to tie her hands behind her back.”

Anti-Balaka Abuse in Bria Since June

Anti-Balaka fighters under the “Bokassa’s” command have targeted civilians since at least late June. Bokassa controls area around the road leading from Bria to Irabanda. Residents said they target civilians for suspected witchcraft and for “treason” – conducting any type of business with Muslims in Bria.

One man said Bokassa held him for three days in June. “They beat me and called me a traitor because I still go into town,” he said. “They took all the goods from my farm and I had to give them all my money just to be freed… If you come to town, the anti-balaka will want to kill you, but we have to go to town to sell our crops and try to survive.”

A former anti-balaka fighter, who left the group in July, said:

We captured four women that we had warned in the past. Bokassa said to them, “You women are selling goods to the Chadians [Muslims from Chad] to help them live. You are giving them information about our positions. We have warned you many times, and you refuse to follow our orders, so now we are going to kill you.” We gave them shovels to dig their own graves. When they finished we hit each of them in the head with a shovel, one by one, and they fell into the holes. We then buried them alive.

The next day we caught three men returning from Bria after they had sold manioc. Bokassa decided to make an example out of them too, so we took all the things they had bought in town, soap and sugar, and we also made them dig their own graves. This is how we dealt with people we accused of sorcery and treason… After we killed those people, some of us questioned why we had joined the anti-balaka and we decided to run away… If Bokassa’s men ever caught me they would kill me straight away.

Czech Transgender Sterilization Law Violates Right to Health

Human Rights Watch - Friday, October 12, 2018
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Participants hold a giant rainbow flag during the Prague Pride Parade where thousands marched through the city centre in support of gay rights, in Czech Republic, August 13, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

A policy in the Czech Republic forcing transgender people to undergo sterilization surgeries to legally change their gender violates the right to health, according to the European Committee of Social Rights.

Transgender people whose documents don’t reflect their gender identity find that daily life is fraught with potential for violence and humiliation whenever their identity documents are checked or their appearance scrutinized.

Non-governmental groups ILGA-Europe and Transgender Europe argued that the Czech Republic’s requirements for legal gender recognition violated the European Social Charter, a Council of Europe treaty focused on social and economic rights. Earlier this month, the committee that evaluates governments’ compliance with the treaty found the Czech Republic to be in violation of Article 11, on the “right to protection of health.”

The current Czech law means some “transgender persons in the Czech Republic may be forced to accept to undergo a medical sterilization, a serious life-altering medical intervention, with risks of side effects and complications, and which is not medically necessary, in order to have their gender identity recognized,” the committee said.

There are clear standards on how to do better.

Countries around the world are moving toward gender recognition policies based on a person’s self-identification, not the approval of any doctor, judge or other authority. Malta’s 2015 law, based on a case that originated in a case at the European Court of Human Rights, states that transgender people can legally self-declare their own gender without any medical assessments. Denmark and Argentina have also removed medical requirements altogether. 

“State recognition of a person’s gender identity is itself a right recognized by international human rights law,” the social rights committee noted, “and is important for guaranteeing the full enjoyment of all human rights.” This judgement should prompt the Czech government to change its law, and it should resonate with governments across Europe as a call to action.

Belarus: Tajik Soccer Player Faces Extradition

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, October 11, 2018

(Moscow) – A well-known Tajik athlete faces possible torture or ill-treatment if he is forcibly returned from Belarus to Tajikistan, the Association for Central Asian Migrants, Human Rights Watch, and Norwegian Helsinki Committee said today. Belarus should not extradite or deport the athlete, Parviz Tursunov, or otherwise facilitate his forced return.

Belarusian migration police at Minsk International Airport detained Tursunov, a former professional soccer player in his country’s premier soccer league, under a Tajik extradition request on September 18, 2018, after he landed in Minsk. Tajik authorities had demanded that Tursunov shave his beard, which he wears as a manifestation of his religious belief. When he refused, in 2011, the Khayr team dismissed him. Expand

Parviz Tursunov, a former defender with Tajikistan’s Khayr soccer team, was dismissed from team when he refused to shave his beard, a manifestation of his religious beliefs. Tajik authorities are now seeking his extradition from Belarus, where he was detained in September 2018.

© Radio Ozodi, Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

“Tajikistan’s long-running and severe crackdown on religious believers is taking increasingly absurd forms, such as labeling a person an extremist simply for wearing a beard,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Belarus has a legal obligation not to send Tursunov to anywhere he could face torture or ill-treatment, such as Tajikistan, and it should abide by those international commitments.”

Over the past decade, Tajikistan has imposed a de facto ban on men wearing beards and women wearing the hijab as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on independent Muslims, who practice Islam outside strict state controls. By labeling Tursunov an adherent of “extremist” Salafi Islam for wearing a beard, authorities have brought politically motivated charges of “mass calls to extremist activity” against him for the peaceful exercise of his religion.

Tajikistan intensified its severe, widespread crackdown on free expression and association, peaceful political opposition activity, the independent legal profession, and the independent exercise of religious faith in 2018. Well over 150 political activists, including a number of lawyers, remain unjustly jailed. Relatives of dissidents who peacefully criticize the government from outside the country have been subjected to retaliation, such as arbitrary detention, threats of rape, confiscation of passports and property, and vigilante justice at the hands of sometimes violent mobs.

Tajikistan severely restricts religious freedom, regulating religious worship, dress, and education, and imprisons numerous people on vague charges of religious extremism. Authorities also suppress unregistered Muslim education throughout the country, control the content of sermons, and have closed many unregistered mosques. Under the pretext of combating extremist threats, Tajikistan bans several peaceful minority Muslim groups.

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Parviz Tursunov

© Radio Ozodi, Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Tursunov, 43, was a defender for the Khayr soccer team and popular in the team’s native city of Vahdat. The Tajik media outlet “Asia-Plus” reported in April 2011 that Khayr’s head coach, Tohir Muminov, had stated that Tursunov would be excluded from playing in games because “law enforcement bodies do not wish to see a soccer player on the field wearing a long beard, like a mullah.” Tursunov responded by saying that were he to be forced to choose between his beard and the sport, he would choose the former, citing the importance of his religious faith. The team ousted him the next day.

Tursunov and his family later left for the United Arab Emirates, and then Turkey, where they worked as migrant workers, cooking and selling Tajik traditional cuisine. In September 2018, the family decided to travel to Europe via Belarus.

Tursunov’s relatives told the rights groups that since his detention on September 18, Tursunov has been held in Minsk’s pre-trial detention center no. 1 pending possible extradition to Tajikistan. The Belarus Prosecutor-General confirmed that it is awaiting documentation on the extradition request and that Tajik authorities have charged Tursunov with “public calls for carrying out extremist activity” (art. 307(1)(2)) and “organizing an extremist community” (art. 307(2)(1)) of Tajikistan’s criminal code. Authorities routinely invoke article 307 charges in politically motivated cases.

Despite reforms to Tajikistan’s criminal code that outlaw torture, as defined under international standards, torture is an enduring problem in Tajikistan. Police and investigators often use it to coerce confessions, and human rights groups have received many credible reports of torture of people associated with political opposition groups. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that there is a serious risk that a person forcibly returned to face charges in Tajikistan would be tortured or subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. The court also rejected as unreliable assurances from the Tajik government that it would not subject anyone sent back to prohibited treatment.

As a matter of international law, and specifically as a party to the Convention against Torture, Belarus is obliged to ensure that it does not forcibly send anyone to a place where they face a real risk of torture, or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Although Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, a decision to flout the prohibition on return to torture or inhuman treatment would damage its relationship with the council and future membership plans.

“Opposition members, lawyers, journalists, and human right activists have long been in the crosshairs of the Tajik government,” said Marius Fossum, regional representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Central Asia. “That authorities are also targeting athletes for wearing beards shows even more clearly how cruel and absurd the crackdown has become.”

Saudi Arabia: Reveal Fate of Jamal Khashoggi

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, October 11, 2018
October 11, 2018 Video Video: #WhereisJamal

The world wants to know: #WhereisJamal

(Beirut) – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman should immediately release all evidence and information Saudi Arabia holds regarding the status of the prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Human Rights Watch said today. Khashoggi, 59, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and has not been seen or heard from since. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, claiming he left the consulate alone shortly after his arrival, but has produced no evidence to support the claim.

On October 7, Yasin Aktay, an adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, told Reuters he believed that Khashoggi had been murdered inside the consulate, and that a group of 15 Saudi men were “most certainly involved.” On October 9, The Washington Post reported that US intelligence officials had intercepted Saudi communications revealing a plot to capture Khashoggi.

“There is a mountain of evidence implicating Saudi Arabia in the enforced disappearance and potential murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and as the days go by, Saudi Arabia’s fact-free denials are becoming indictments in and of themselves,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Saudi Arabia is responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible murder, the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and other Saudi allies need to fundamentally reconsider their relationship with a leadership whose behavior resembles that of a rogue regime.”

Saudi authorities have escalated repression against dissidents and critics since Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017.

Khashoggi’s fiancé, a Turkish national, told media outlets that Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of October 2 to obtain documents necessary for their marriage, and that he left her his phones and instructions to alert the authorities if he did not return after two hours. That was the last time his fiancé saw him.

Mohammad bin Salman denied that Saudi Arabia had captured Khashoggi in an interview with Bloomberg on October 5, claiming “[i]f he’s in Saudi Arabia I would know that,” and the Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince’s brother, described all the allegations as “baseless” and “absolutely false.” Saudi officials, however, have produced no evidence that Khashoggi ever left the embassy, and Khalid bin Salman told The Washington Post that the consulate’s security cameras “were not recording” on October 2.

Turkish officials, however, have outlined to The Washington Post what appears to be a coordinated Saudi plan to target Khashoggi. Citing flight records and Turkish officials familiar with the investigation, the Post described how two private planes carrying 15 people arrived in Istanbul from Riyadh on October 2, and that men from one of the planes traveled to the consulate. They later allegedly left in a black van for the consular general’s residence, about two hours after Khashoggi entered the consulate. Both planes departed later that evening, one bound for Cairo and the other for Dubai, then both returned to Riyadh the following day. Turkish officials told media outlets that the Turkish staff at the consulate were ordered to take a holiday on October 2.

The Daily Sabah, a Turkish pro-government newspaper, on October 10 published the names and photos of the 15 Saudi men whom Turkish investigators claim are involved in the plot. One of the men is identified as a forensics expert.

Khashoggi’s disappearance has provoked messages of concern from US Vice President Mike Pence, US President Donald Trump, prominent US senators, and UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, as well as calls for Saudi investigations by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini. Few of these statements indicate a potential for serious consequences if the alleged murder is proven true.

On October 9, three prominent United Nations experts – Bernard Duhaime, chair-rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression; and Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on summary executions, called for an “independent and international investigation” into the Khashoggi matter.

The targeting of Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963. Article 55.2 of the convention holds that “[t]he consular premises shall not be used in any manner incompatible with the exercise of consular functions.” The convention also states that diplomatic immunity can be annulled in cases of a “grave crime” upon the decision of a competent court (art. 41).

In September 2017, Saudi Arabia arrested dozens of dissidents, writers, and clerics. Activists have circulated lists of more than 60 people being held, and Saudi authorities began bringing them to trial in September 2018, largely on charges related to their peaceful opinions and expression as well as political affiliations.

Authorities are seeking the death penalty against several, including a prominent cleric, Salman al-Awda, who is facing 37 charges based on his alleged ties to the Qatari government and to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia classifies as a terrorist organization. A Saudi economist, Essam al-Zamil, is also facing the death penalty apparently merely for calling into question the official economic forecasts around the proposed Saudi Aramco Initial Public Offering.

In May, Saudi Arabia began a sweeping crackdown on women’s rights activists, arresting at least 13 women under the pretext of maintaining national security. Nine of the women remain in detention.

Saudi authorities have also targeted Saudi citizens abroad in recent months, including directing the kidnapping of a prominent women’s rights advocate, Loujain al-Hathloul, from the United Arab Emirates and her husband Fahad al-Butairi from Jordan in March 2018, forcibly returning both to Saudi Arabia.

As the Saudi defense minister, Mohammad bin Salman oversees all Saudi military forces. Saudi Arabia leads the coalition that began military operations in Yemen in March 2015. The coalition has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law, including likely war crimes, and has failed to carry out credible investigations into alleged violations or to provide civilian victims redress.

Countries should end arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said. UN Security Council members should impose targeted sanctions on Mohammad bin Salman and other senior coalition commanders substantially responsible for widespread violations of the laws of war who have not taken serious steps to end abuses, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolutions 2140 and 2216 on Yemen. And Saudi Arabia should be removed from the UN Human Rights Council for engaging in “gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

“Given that Saudi Arabia will not provide any evidence about Khashoggi’s movements in and out of the consulate, they cannot be trusted to conduct a genuine – far less effective – investigation,” Whitson said. “Saudi Arabia’s goal is fact obscuring, not fact finding, and they should be made to face serious consequences.” 

UN: Philippines, Eritrea Don’t Belong on Rights Council

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, October 11, 2018
(New York) – United Nations member countries should oppose the candidacies of the Philippines and Eritrea for the Human Rights Council because of their egregious human rights records, Human Rights Watch said today. Serious rights violations in Bahrain and Cameroon also raise significant concerns. On October 12, 2018, the UN General Assembly will vote to fill one-third of the seats on the 47-member council for the 2019-21 term.  

All five of the General Assembly’s regional groups submitted competition-free slates, meaning that all candidates, regardless of their rights records, are virtually assured seats on the council. The absence of competition reverses the modest progress in previous years when some slates offered a modicum of competition. By putting forward serious rights violators and presenting only as many candidates as seats available, the regional groups risk undermining the council’s credibility and effectiveness.

“UN member countries should show their outrage at the Philippines and Eritrea by leaving two spots on the ballot sheet blank and keeping them off the council,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s abusive ‘war on drugs’ has been a killing frenzy that has left thousands dead. In Eritrea, the authorities persecute and jail government critics and force citizens into indefinite national service.”

Countries need a minimum of 97 votes – a simple majority – to get elected to the council.

The Philippines is undergoing a human rights crisis that may amount to crimes against humanity. Since Duterte took office in July 2016, more than 12,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been gunned down in what they call “legitimate police operations.” Human Rights Watch and other rights groups, as well as the media, have found a pattern of police misconduct, notably the planting of drugs and handguns on suspects’ bodies. The killings continue daily and have spread to cities and provinces outside the capital, Manila. The Duterte administration has sought to quell all dissent and criticism of the “drug war” by jailing, threatening, and harassing critics. No police officer has been convicted for any of these deaths.

The recent arrest of Eritrea’s former finance minister is indicative of the ongoing repression in the country, despite recent progress in its diplomatic engagements. Eritrean political prisoners include 21 senior government officials and journalists detained since 2001 after they criticized President Isaias Afewerki. Some have been in incommunicado detention without charge for over 17 years.

A 1995 proclamation requires 18 months of national service for all Eritreans, but the government forces many conscripts to serve indefinitely. A UN Commission of Inquiry in 2016 said the government’s “totalitarian practices” and disrespect for the rule of law manifested “wholesale disregard for the liberty of its citizens.” Indefinite national service has compelled tens of thousands of Eritreans to flee the country over many years.

As a condition of membership, Human Rights Council members are expected to cooperate with the council and its rights experts. Instead, the Philippines has carried out vicious campaigns against UN officials, including against the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and the high commissioner for human rights. Eritrea has refused all cooperation with the Commission of Inquiry and a special rapporteur, whom the Council appoints.

Human Rights Watch also raised serious concerns about human rights in Bahrain and Cameroon. In Bahrain, the courts have convicted and imprisoned peaceful dissenters, including prominent human rights defenders such as Nabeel Rajab. Police and National Security Agency officers threaten, coerce, and mistreat detainees into signing confessions. Authorities have failed to hold officials responsible for torture to account.

In Cameroon, government security forces and armed separatists have committed grave abuses against residents of the country’s Anglophone region. The region has been rocked by protests and violent clashes rooted in longstanding political grievances of the Anglophone minority. While the government has taken some positive steps in recent months, including signing the Safe Schools Declaration, violence and abuses in the Anglophone region continue.

In addition to Bahrain and the Philippines, the Asia group has also nominated Fiji, India, and Bangladesh. In addition to Eritrea and Cameroon, the Africa group has nominated Burkina Faso, Togo, and Somalia. The Latin American group has put forward Argentina, Uruguay, and the Bahamas. Eastern Europe has proposed Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. From Western Europe, Austria, Denmark, and Italy are running.

The Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the failed UN Commission on Human Rights, which had largely been unwilling to address grave human rights concerns and to which the world’s worst rights violators could easily be elected. Over the last 12 years, the council has made significant contributions to human rights, reviewing the human rights records of all countries under the Universal Periodic Review process.

It has created commissions of inquiry on North Korean, Syria, Burundi, Myanmar, Yemen, and other countries. And it has appointed numerous special rapporteurs and other independent experts to ensure competent and impartial investigations into alleged abuses even when the country concerned refused to cooperate.

The council recently displayed its important role protecting and promoting human rights. In its September 2018 session, the first since the US withdrew  from the body, the council created a quasi special prosecutor unit to gather and preserve evidence related to the abuses against the Rohingya in Myanmar. It adopted the UN’s first-ever resolution on the crisis in Venezuela, renewed the mandate of the UN investigation into abuses by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, and held the first public discussion of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ report on reprisals against human rights defenders by such countries as China, Egypt, and Bahrain.

“Many UN member states talk a good game about strengthening the Human Rights Council, but this year all regional groups ignored the need for competitive elections,” Charbonneau said. “Instead of pushing candidates to demonstrate they’re worthy of joining the UN’s premier human rights body, the UN membership has put forward a non-competitive vote that makes a mockery of the word ‘election.’”

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