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Thailand: Outspoken TV Channel Banned

Human Rights Watch - 0 sec ago
Click to expand Image © 2020 Voice TV

(Bangkok) – The Thai government’s shutdown of the outspoken Voice TV channel misuses Thailand’s emergency decree to censor the media, Human Rights Watch said today.

On October 20, 2020, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society announced at a news conference that the government had obtained a court order to close down Voice TV on all online platforms. The ministry alleged that the station’s coverage of a democracy protest in Bangkok on October 16 violated media restrictions under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations and the Computer-Related Crime Act.

“Banning Voice TV is the Thai government’s latest attempt to stop the reporting about democracy protests and ensuing abuses against protesters,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The crackdown is part of a bigger effort to bully and control the media into becoming a government mouthpiece.”

On October 15, before the station’s online platforms were shut down, the Thai authorities pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV. Since the May 2014 military coup that brought Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to power, the government has targeted Voice TV for censorship and punitive sanctions more than any other TV station in Thailand. 

The government has also requested a shutdown order for three other online media services – The Reporters, The Standard, and Prachatai – citing similar reasons. In addition, Human Rights Watch obtained a document showing that the government is also seeking to block the Free Youth democracy movement’s accounts on the Telegram application.

On October 15, Prime Minister Prayuth declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. The United Nations, Thai human rights organizations, and Human Rights Watch, among others, raised concerns about the state of emergency on human rights and fundamental freedoms in Thailand.

The Emergency Decree empowers Thai authorities to impose broad censorship that violates the right to free expression and media freedom. On October 16, the police issued several warnings against news reports and social media commentary critical of the monarchy, the government, and the political situation in the country. Livestreaming pro-democracy protests was declared illegal, as well as posting selfies at a protest site.

That day, police arrested a Prachatai journalist, Kitti Pantapak, while was he was broadcasting the police’s dispersal of a democracy protest in Bangkok. True Visions is licensed to run the BBC World Service, CNN, and Al Jazeera English on its cable TV network, but it has blocked the broadcast of news reporting on the protests in Thailand. In addition, Thai authorities have blocked access to the online petition site Change.org, after it hosted a petition calling for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to be declared persona non grata in Germany.
The government has shown increasing hostility toward pro-democracy protests, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. The protesters called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 81 protesters have been arrested since the declaration of state of emergency in Bangkok.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reform, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views.

In addition, over the past five months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies, harass pro-democracy activists, and enforce censorship.

“Concerned governments and the United Nations should publicly demand an immediate end to the Thai government’s censorship and political repression,” Adams said. “Prime Minister Prayuth should immediately lift Voice TV’s ban and end further attempts to stifle media freedom and free speech in Thailand.”

Canada: Climate Crisis Toll on First Nations’ Food Supply

Human Rights Watch - 8 hours 47 min ago
Climate change is taking a growing toll on First Nations in Canada, depleting food sources and affecting health. Canada is contributing to the climate crisis, which acutely affects Indigenous peoples who live off the land. Canada should urgently scale up its efforts to reduce emissions, and provide financial and technical support to First Nations dealing with the effects.

(Ottawa) – Climate change is taking a growing toll on First Nations in Canada, depleting food sources and affecting health, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Canadian government is not adequately supporting First Nations’ efforts to adapt to the mounting crisis and is failing to do its part to reduce the global greenhouse gas emissions that are driving it. 

The 120-page report, “‘My Fear is Losing Everything’: The Climate Crisis and First Nations’ Right to Food in Canada,” documents how climate change is reducing First Nations’ traditional food sources, driving up the cost of imported alternatives, and contributing to a growing problem of food insecurity and related negative health impacts. Canada is warming at more than twice the global rate, and northern Canada at about three times the global rate. Despite its relatively small population, Canada is still a top 10 greenhouse gas emitter, with per capita emissions 3 to 4 times the global average. 

October 21, 2020 “My Fear is Losing Everything”

“Climate change is pushing increasingly dangerous levels of food poverty in First Nations,” said Katharina Rall, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By flouting its emissions-reduction commitments, Canada is contributing to the global climate crisis that, within its borders, is being felt most acutely by Indigenous people who live off the land.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 120 people, including residents, chiefs, and council members in First Nations in Yukon, northwestern British Columbia, and northern Ontario, as well as medical providers, educators, and environment and health experts, including Indigenous mental health counsellors and staff of Indigenous representative organizations. Human Rights Watch also reviewed academic research and peer-reviewed scientific studies documenting and projecting the impact of climate change in the areas studied, and contacted federal, provincial, and territorial government officials about the issues.

In the three geographic locations studied, residents reported drastic reductions in the quantity of food they are able to harvest, and increased difficulty and danger associated with harvesting food from the land. These changes are being driven in significant part by climate change impacts on wildlife habitat, including changing ice and permafrost conditions, more and increasingly intense wildfires, warming water temperatures, changes in precipitation and water levels, and unpredictable weather.

Interview: Climate Crisis Hurts Harvest for First Nations

Life is getting harder for First Nations in some of the most remote stretches of Canada. Senior environment researcher Katharina Rall visited communities to learn how the climate crisis is impacting food, health, and land like never before, and how they are fighting back.


Households must supplement their traditional diet with more purchased food. But grocery stores are often remote and the prices for nutritious foods prohibitive. As a result, people said, they tend to eat more affordable but less nutritious foods, compounding existing health conditions resulting from historic marginalization and poor access to health care in rural and remote Indigenous communities. Children, older people, and people with chronic diseases are particularly affected. Some children go to school hungry, and some older people cut down on their food. People with chronic diseases often cannot afford to follow medically recommended diets. Access to adequate and sufficient food corresponding to cultural traditions is an essential component of the human rights to food and health.

Across the country, First Nations are working to address the impact of the climate crisis. Some maintain strong traditional food sharing networks, while others have created monitoring systems for climate change impacts on their environment. Yet, all these efforts require resources and capacity, which many communities lack, and the federal and provincial governments are not doing enough to support them, Human Rights Watch found.

Federal climate change policies have largely ignored the real impact of climate change on First Nations. While climate change is already exacerbating historic inequalities experienced by First Nations, most existing policies fail to monitor – let alone address – current human rights impacts in these settings.

Subsidies, health resources, and other resources needed to respond are often not available, insufficient, or do not reach those who need them most. The federal government’s Nutrition North program subsidizes transporting nutritious foods from registered southern retailers, but healthy store-bought food options remain financially out of reach for many in remote and northern communities.

Canada is also not doing its part to advance global efforts to address climate change. Canada has not set adequately ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets consistent with the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement, and the government is not even on track to meet its own targets.

The federal government acknowledged that food security is a critical issue and that more work is needed to cut emissions and meet First Nations food security needs. But it has not clarified how it will curb emissions or concretely address climate-exacerbated food insecurity.

Click to expand Image Weenusk First Nation member, Mike Wabano, sets up camp for caribou hunting on a frozen river near Peawanuck, December 14, 2019. As a result of warming temperatures, ice and snow cover is often thinner and more unstable.  © 2019 Daron Donahue

Provincial and territorial government responses varied. The Yukon territorial government has committed to monitoring and tracking food insecurity and acknowledged the need to address the unique impact on Indigenous peoples. Ontario’s government, by contrast, has cancelled numerous climate adaptation and mitigation programs that benefited First Nations.

British Columbia has collaborated with First Nations to develop a climate adaptation strategy but did not respond to requests for further information on the details of this strategy, due to be released this year. Neither Yukon, Ontario, nor British Columbia have made any significant progress in reducing their emissions.

“If Canada does not urgently scale up its efforts to reduce emissions, it will continue to fuel the global climate crisis that is already having an outsized impact on First Nations,” Rall said. “The government should also urgently provide financial and technical support to First Nations already facing the devastating impacts of climate change.”


Selected Community Accounts

“Climate change is really affecting First Nations right now. There is no food for animals to eat. The animals won’t be there for us to hunt.”



 – Chief Madeek, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, Skeena River watershed, British Columbia


“I am concerned about the caribou. Already now there is less caribou [nearby].... They might have changed the route because of the wildfires.”

 – Elizabeth Kyikavichik, childcare worker, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Yukon


“My biggest fear of climate change [is] losing everything. Losing our tradition over the weathers, over melting ice. [I]f we lose what we have now, what will we have to show our children in the future?”

 – Kyle Linklater, father, hunter, and resident of Weenusk First Nation, Ontario


“There [are] a lot of kids who do not eat on the weekends. We have programs here where kids take food home for the weekend. Lots of schools have lunch programs but they do not offer traditional food.”

 – Teacher in Smithers, Skeena River watershed, British Columbia


“First Nations peoples know what is wrong, and what is needed. Most are plagued with over-crowding, high unemployment rates, health issues such as diabetes. Any real solution to address the climate crisis and food poverty must protect First Nations’ traditional territories and traditional food sources. Canada needs to fund climate change adaptation projects so families can grow their own food and plan ahead for the future.”

 – Sam Hunter, community climate monitor, Weenusk First Nation, Ontario

Turkey: Justice for Rights Lawyer’s Killing

Human Rights Watch - 9 hours 47 min ago
Click to expand Image Tahir Elçi, the president of Diyarbakir Bar Association and human rights lawyer, speaks to the media shortly before being shot dead in Diyarbakir, Turkey November 28, 2015 .    © 2015 IHA agency via AP

(Istanbul) – The first hearing of a trial against three police officers charged with the fatal shooting of a Kurdish human rights lawyer, Tahir Elçi, is scheduled for October 21, 2020 in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, Human Rights Watch said today.
Elçi was a key figure in Turkey’s human rights movement for decades, and then president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association. He was shot in the head with a single bullet on a Diyarbakır street on November 28, 2015, shortly after he had gathered with colleagues to issue a statement protesting armed clashes in the old city between the security forces and the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“For five years the family and friends of Tahir Elçi have pushed for an effective investigation of his killing and for his killers to be brought to justice,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Many in the human rights movement in Turkey and internationally will be focused on whether the conduct of the trial is designed to reveal the full circumstances of Elçi’s killing or instead to try to exonerate the police at all cost.”

Moments before Elçi’s shooting, two PKK militants had shot two police officers dead in a main street nearby. They escaped down the street where Elçi had addressed the media. Police officers monitoring the news conference exchanged fire with the militants, killing Elçi in the process. The militants fled the scene. While there is video footage of the exchange of fire, it doesn’t show the moment when Elçi was shot dead.

There have been huge obstacles to securing an effective investigation into Elçi’s killing. The authorities failed to collect evidence at the site. Police failed to locate the bullet that shot Elçi. The prosecutor decided at the outset not to interview police officers who had shot in Elçi’s direction as possible suspects but rather as witnesses. The authorities failed to examine the firearms the police carried. There have been extreme delays, and the prosecutor investigating the killing was replaced several times.

A Diyarbakır Bar commission of lawyers and human rights defenders, including Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Joint Platform, followed the prosecutors’ investigation and examined the available video evidence and witness statements. The Bar Association appointed Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary group investigating human rights violations based at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, to conduct its own independent analysis of the video footage and all other evidence.

The Forensic Architecture study identified one of the police officers as the one most likely to have shot Elçi because he had a clear line of fire. The study identified two other police officers as having possibly shot Elçi. The study found that the two PKK militants were not in positions from which they could have shot Elçi and were not shooting in the timeframe in which he was killed. Video evidence provides indisputable evidence that they did fatally shoot two police officers before escaping down the street where Elçi was then shot.

In the trial that begins on October 21, the Diyarbakir prosecutor accuses three police officers, Mesut Sevgi, Fuat Tan, and Sinan Tabur, of killing Elçi and charges them with “causing death by foreseeable negligence.” If convicted, they would face a possible sentence of two to nine years in prison. There are compelling reasons to argue that the charge should have been the more serious “foreseeable intentional killing” since in discharging firearms in a street with civilians present the police knowingly endangered civilian lives.

Charges against a PKK militant, Uğur Yakışır, tried in absentia, include intentional killing of the police officers Cengiz Erdur and Ahmet Çiftaslan in a nearby main street and foreseeable intentional killing of Elçi, as well as armed separatism. The other PKK militant alleged to have been involved was reportedly killed during armed clashes in March 2016.

“The Forensic Architecture study of the available evidence provides a credible argument that Tahir Elçi was killed by a bullet fired by the police,” Porteous said. “It will be very important for the Diyarbakir court to take full note of the study’s findings and carefully examine whether the prosecutor’s charges against the police are commensurate with the gravity of the crime.”

Elçi had worked since the early 1990s as a human rights lawyer, first in his hometown of Cizre, in the southeast, and later in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the region. He worked extensively to represent families of victims of egregious human rights violations by the security forces, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings by suspected government agents.

Over many years, he played a key role in representing victims of these crimes before the European Court of Human Rights, and worked closely with international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He himself was a victim of torture and arbitrary detention, among other abuses, facts recognized by the European Court of Human Rights before which he and his colleagues also successfully brought their own case.

As head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, in the weeks before he was killed, he led fact-finding missions into curfews and military operations against the PKK imposed on cities and towns in southeast Turkey, including Cizre, Silvan, Bismil, and Nusaybin, and documented security force human rights violations against civilians.

He was a prominent critic of government-imposed curfews in southeastern cities and security operations in which armed clashes between the police and the youth wing of the PKK have resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians. Elçi was critical of the PKK youth wing’s practice of erecting barricades and trenches in towns and advocated an immediate return to dialogue and peace negotiations.

Despite his impartial and independent stance, on October 15 the Turkish authorities opened a criminal investigation into Elçi after he stated, on a October 15 CNN Türk talk show, that the PKK was not a terrorist organization but an armed political movement which had at times committed terrorist acts. Although Elçi’s comments fell squarely within the boundaries of protected free speech, a case against him for “making terrorist propaganda” had been due to begin in April 2016.

US: Protect Peaceful Assemblies; Limit Use of Force

Human Rights Watch - 11 hours 46 min ago
Click to expand Image Federal officers run after dispersing protesters in Portland, Oregon, July 22, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Noah Berger

City and state officials in the United States should review their laws, policies, and practices ahead of the November 3, 2020 general elections to ensure that they protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, five international human rights organizations said on October 20, in letters to over 3,500 mayors and city council members throughout the country, as well as to all governors.  

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International-USA, Physicians for Human Rights, and Human Rights First urged officials to prevent a repetition of recent abuses by law enforcement against overwhelmingly peaceful protests opposing systemic racism and police violence. In a separate letter to governors, also signed by Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), the organizations cautioned against the deployment to protests of forces without adequate training in crowd control, including from the National Guard.

“The United States holds itself out as a rights-respecting nation that others can look up to, but the police abuses against peaceful protesters this summer were nothing to be proud of,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “When law enforcement officers in the United States commit abuses, they not only violate the rights of people at home but also undermine the US government’s ability to promote respect for rights abroad.”

The organizations have documented that between May and September, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in dozens of locations across the country repeatedly interfered with the right of peaceful assembly, resorted to excessive use of force, and conducted mass arbitrary arrests in response to largely peaceful protests.

In 125 separate incidents in 40 states and the District of Columbia, between May 26 and June 5, Amnesty International-USA found police using excessive force against protesters, including beating protesters, misusing tear gas and pepper spray, and inappropriately and at times indiscriminately firing “less-lethal” projectiles against protesters.

“This summer, police in city after city committed widespread and egregious human rights violations against people protesting the unlawful killings of Black people,” said Bob Goodfellow, interim executive director of Amnesty International-USA. “Rather than being a necessary and proportionate response to any specific threat, the use of force became a matter of first resort for any form of resistance, or to enforce a hastily imposed curfew, to end an ongoing demonstration – or clear a park for a photo op. Real, systemic and lasting police reform and oversight is needed at all levels to ensure that people across the country feel safe to walk the streets and express their opinions freely and peacefully without facing a real threat of harm from the very officers that are supposed to protect them.”

At least 115 people suffered head and neck injuries when law enforcement officers shot them with kinetic impact projectiles, such as rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, during the first two months of the George Floyd protests, May 26 to July 27, according to a visual investigation by Physicians for Human Rights. The group also documented how the Portland Police Bureau and federal agents abused crowd-control weapons and obstructed medical care at the Portland protests, resulting in severe injuries and psychological trauma to both medics and protestors.

“So-called ‘less lethal weapons’ can cause severe injury, disability, and death, particularly when used in the reckless and excessive ways we’ve seen from law enforcement agencies around the country in recent months,” said Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. “In cities across the United States, protesters suffered fractured skulls, broken jaws, traumatic brain injuries, and permanent vision loss. The misuse of crowd-control weapons poses a profound threat to the human body and to our democracy.”

In New York City, Human Rights Watch reported, the police planned an assault and mass arbitrary arrests of more than 250 peaceful protesters in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx on June 4. The police “kettled,” or surrounded, protesters and legal observers, leaving them with no avenue to disperse shortly before a curfew took effect. Officers used excessive force, including with batons and pepper spray, then arrested and jailed protesters in crowded conditions with no protection from Covid-19. The operation could cost New York City taxpayers several million dollars in misconduct complaints and lawsuits.

In addition, the groups documented that law enforcement officers used crowd control weapons to target the media, legal observers, and medics who were not participating in protests, causing injuries.

CIVIC also found that while governors in over 20 states and Washington, DC, mobilized state National Guard units to support local law enforcement at protests, little evidence suggested that more than a few had provided guidance or additional training for Guard members on conducting crowd-control operations including de-escalation tactics, or on reporting misconduct by law enforcement units they were supporting.

“Military units are generally ill-trained and ill-equipped to manage demonstrations, and their mobilization in such contexts should be avoided,” said Frederic Borello, executive director of CIVIC. “If necessary, governors should only utilize forces that are trained and equipped to comply with obligations under international human rights law, notably to protect the rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, and avoid excessive use of force. All forces responding to protests should be concerned, first and foremost, with the protection of human lives and civil liberties.”

Throughout the summer, Human Rights First mobilized US military leaders and veterans, and worked to shed light on excessive use of force by law enforcement, including the use of military tactics and weapons against protesters exercising their rights.

“When political leaders treat our public square like a ‘battle space,’ inappropriately and unnecessarily using militarized tactics, weapons, or personnel to quell protests, human rights abuses are very likely to occur,” said Michael Breen, president and chief executive officer at Human Rights First. “Such tactics have no place in a democracy.”

The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution and international human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States ratified in 1992. The ICCPR applies to all levels of government, including state and local officials.

“The freedom of peaceful assembly is a cornerstone of democratic governance and the human rights standards the United States has helped to shape,” Roth said. “City and state officials have an obligation under domestic and international law to enable peaceful assembly and ensure that law enforcement officers are trained to protect that right.”

A Domestic Violence Case Goes to Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Click to expand Image Cartoon about Domestic Violence by Tatiana Zelenskaya. © Open Line NGO

Gulzhan Pasanova could spend 10 years in prison because in defending herself from her abusive husband, he died. On October 22, the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan will consider her case on appeal.

In November 2019, Pasanova’s husband, accusing her of having an affair, threatened her with a knife. Gulzhan hit her husband with a metal pole in self defense. She called for help for her husband, but he died at the hospital.

It wasn’t the first time Pasanova’s husband attacked her. A forensic medical examination she underwent in 2019 showed evidence of previous physical abuse.

Following his death in November, police arrested Pasanova, and placed her in pre-trial detention. In March, the Osh City Court found her guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm resulting in death and sentenced her to 9 years.

Her lawyer, Muhayo Abduraupova, called the sentence “cruel” and told Human Rights Watch that under Kyrgyz law, the extenuating circumstances meant a judge could have issued Pasanova a shorter sentence or even acquitted her.

In June, an appeals court reduced Pasanova’s sentence as part of a general prisoner amnesty, but her in-laws appealed, requesting Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court to impose the maximum 10-year sentence.

The American Bar Association Center for Human Rights, which monitored the hearings, found that Kyrgyzstan’s prosecution of Pasanova entailed serious violations of international human rights standards.

Gender based violence is a pervasive issue in Kyrgyzstan. This is not the first time courts have handed down long prison sentences to women who have fatally wounded their abusers in self-defence.

Despite positive steps and improved legislation, Kyrgyz authorities do not routinely enforce measures to keep domestic violence victims safe, such as protection orders that limit contact between an abuser and his victim. The years of abuse Pasanova suffered at the hands of her husband show how difficult it can be for some women in Kyrgyzstan to overcome barriers to reporting abuse, including stigma, social pressure, and dismissiveness by authorities. When women do report instances of domestic violence, their abusers are rarely punished.

Authorities need to take more action to protect women and hold perpetrators accountable to prevent grave violence at home, but when prevention fails a victim of domestic violence should be assured that evidence of self-defence will be given proper weight in any determination of guilt and sentencing.

When Will Iraq Start Protecting Journalists?

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Click to expand Image The office of Dijlah TV station in Baghdad was badly damaged after it was torched by protesters on August 31, 2020. Photo circulated on social media.

A well-known TV station in Baghdad was torched by protesters after it broadcast a music concert during Ashura, a Shia holy day which was underway at the time. The offices of Dijlah TV station, which has links to Jamal Karbouli, a Sunni politician from Anbar, were badly damaged in the incident, which took place on August 31. But how have Iraqi officials since responded to this dangerous act? Not by investigating those who set the fire, but by issuing an arrest warrant for Karbouli, claiming the broadcast offended religious views under article 372 of Iraq’s Penal Code. 

Meanwhile, three Dijlah staffers told Human Rights Watch that they have received numerous threats during phone calls and on social media, and that armed men came looking for them. The threats have now forced all of them to resign from their jobs, via public announcements posted on Facebook. But even that was not enough to stop the threats, and all three have now also fled their homes.

One employee said that after the governor of Diwaniya told government departments “not to deal with” Dijlah staff, he could no longer rely on local security forces to keep him safe. In Wassit, where another of the staffers lived, the governor called on security forces to prevent anyone with a Dijlah badge from reporting from the governorate. A total of six colleagues from Dijlah have now reportedly gone into hiding. The journalists’ fears for their safety are not unfounded – four reporters have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of 2020, according to Reporters Without Borders.  

Earlier this month, several weeks after Human Rights Watch released a report on the growing number of prosecutions of journalists under defamation and incitement laws in the country, the Iraqi embassy in Beirut finally responded, saying that the government had formed a ministerial committee to “look into cases of assaults against journalists” back in 2016. The committee was still in operation, the embassy said, but did not provide evidence of any reports or other outputs by the body.  

Over the last few years Human Rights Watch has interviewed over a dozen journalists who were victims of violent attacks, including by state forces, and not a single one of them knew of this committee or had ever been contacted by it. If it exists, it is clearly not taking its job seriously. After the public torching of a TV station, what more needs to happen for Iraqi authorities to take these attacks seriously? 

Killer Robots: Precedent for a Ban Treaty

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Click to expand Image Following the lead of legal precedent, a new treaty on killer robots should ensure meaningful human control over the use of force and ban weapons operating without such control.  © 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch Following the lead of legal precedent, a new treaty on killer robots should ensure meaningful human control over the use of force and ban weapons operating without such control.  © 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – A treaty to ban fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” is essential and achievable, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 25-page report, “New Weapons, Proven Precedent: Elements of and Models for a Treaty on Killer Robots,” outlines key elements for a future treaty to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force and prohibit weapons systems that operate without such control. It should consist of both positive obligations and prohibitions as well as elaborate on the components of “meaningful human control.” 

“International law was written for humans, not machines, and needs to be strengthened to retain meaningful human control over the use of force,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch, which coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “A new international treaty is the only effective way to prevent the delegation of life-and-death decisions to machines.”

The report was co-published with the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, for which Docherty is associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection.

While many countries have voiced support for a new international treaty on fully autonomous weapons, there is some trepidation over how to handle the cutting-edge and rapidly changing nature of these weapons and concern that it will complicate negotiations.

The report seeks to allay these concerns by identifying legal and policy precedent for each of the proposed treaty elements.

“Killer robots present distinctive challenges but constructing a new treaty does not require starting from scratch,” Docherty said. “Existing international law and principles of artificial intelligence provide ample precedent showing that it is legally, politically, and practically possible to develop a new treaty on killer robots.”

Nearly 100 countries have publicly expressed their views on killer robots since 2013, primarily in talks under the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major disarmament treaty. The last CCW meeting, in September 2020, looked at how human control and decision-making are critical to the acceptability and legality of weapons systems. During the meeting, many countries and groups of countries expressed their strong interest in negotiating a new international treaty. Thirty countries have explicitly called for a ban on fully autonomous weapons.

A small number of militarily advanced countries – most notably France, India, Israel, The Netherlands, and the United States – have called any move to create a new treaty “premature.” These nations are investing heavily in the military applications of artificial intelligence and developing air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapons systems.

Decisions at the CCW are by consensus, which allows a few countries – or even a single country – to block an agreement sought by a majority. A new treaty, however, does not have to be negotiated under CCW auspices.

More than 60 governments will convene at the next CCW meeting at the United Nations in Geneva from November 2 to 5, the tenth since 2014 on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is a coalition of more than 160 nongovernmental organizations in 65 countries that is working to pre-emptively ban fully autonomous weapons and retain meaningful human control over the use of force.

“There’s no time to waste when it comes to preventing development of fully autonomous weapons,” Docherty said. “It’s crucial for governments to begin negotiations and swiftly adopt a new international ban treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force.”

DR Congo: Wanted Warlord Preys on Civilians

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 20, 2020

(Goma) – Congolese authorities have not arrested a rebel commander wanted for multiple crimes under a June 2019 warrant even as his forces have continued to carry out summary killings, rapes and sexual slavery, extortion, and forced recruitment of children.

Congolese judicial authorities on June 7, 2019 issued the warrant for the militia leader, Guidon Shimiray Mwissa (known as Guidon), for participating in an insurrection, recruiting child soldiers, and committing the crime against humanity of rape in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The authorities also have not provided survivors of sexual violence adequate assistance. Congolese authorities should enforce the arrest warrant and bring to justice Congolese army officers found to have assisted him.

“A 2019 arrest warrant has not stopped Guidon from committing horrific abuses against civilians in areas he controls,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “His backers within the Congolese army should be investigated and prosecuted for using an abusive group as a proxy force.”

Guidon commands a faction of the Nduma Defense of Congo-Rénové (NDC-R), which until it split in July 2020, controlled more territory than any other armed group in eastern Congo. It was effectively in administrative control of much of Walikale, Lubero, Masisi, and Rutshuru territories in North Kivu – an area roughly the size of neighboring Rwanda. Human Rights Watch has not been able to identify any attempt by Congolese authorities or United Nations peacekeepers to arrest Guidon. Instead, there is evidence that elements of the Congolese army have been collaborating with the NDC-R. However, since the group split into two factions in July, Congolese troops have carried out military operations against Guidon’s forces and say they are seeking to arrest him.

Between January 2016 and September 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 people, including victims and witnesses of attacks in all four territories, former child soldiers, Congolese security sources, UN staff, and local activists. Human Rights Watch also analyzed and authenticated a trove of footage filmed by local residents with undisclosed cameras showing abuses by NDC-R fighters and evidence of collaboration between the Congolese army and the NDC-R. Given the large scale of the abuses and the remoteness of the areas where the NDC-R has been operating, this research covers only a fraction of the abuses committed.

Since 2014, NDC-R forces have killed dozens of men, women, and children in those four territories, many of them hacked to death with machetes or shot. During attacks, fighters looted and burned houses, and tortured men and women with knives and machetes, said witnesses and victims, including former child soldiers.

In January, NDC-R fighters detained about 12 people at a banana plantation in Rutshuru territory. “[The fighters] made us sit together and started to cut us with machetes,” a 17-year-old boy said. At least two men were killed.

Congolese commanders have helped Guidon’s rebels control vast swathes of territory despite killing civilians, raping women and girls, and causing massive displacement. Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher

Human Rights Watch

NDC-R fighters have also committed widespread sexual violence against women and girls, including rapes and sexual slavery. Women and girls described being raped, in some instances while being beaten, stabbed with knives, or tied up. Some survivors said they were raped repeatedly, in some instances by several fighters.

Human Rights Watch documented 15 cases of rape, of 11 women and 4 girls, and heard reliable accounts of scores of other cases. A 14-year-old girl from Masisi territory described being raped by an NDC-R fighter while returning from the fields in early 2020: “He took me and pushed me on the ground. He said, ‘If you refuse, I will shoot you in the stomach.’”

NDC-R fighters have also forcibly recruited scores of young men and boys and imposed forced labor and illegal “taxes” on people living in areas under their control. People who did not comply or failed to pay were kidnapped, severely beaten, and ill-treated while detained in underground pits at NDC-R bases. Since the arrest warrant was issued, the Kivu Security Tracker – a joint project by Human Rights Watch and the New York University-based Congo Research Group – found that NDC-R forces killed about a hundred civilians.

Guidon, 40, is an ethnic Nyanga and former government soldier from Walikale territory who defected in 2007 to become a rebel fighter. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC) under Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka. In 2014, Guidon broke away from Sheka and established the NDC-R. Sheka surrendered to the authorities in 2017 and was charged with mass rape, murder, pillaging, recruiting child soldiers, and torture. His trial took place before a military court in Goma, which has yet to deliver its verdict. Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuses by Sheka’s forces.

In January 2018, the UN Security Council added Guidon to the UN sanctions list, freezing his assets and imposing a worldwide travel ban. Reports by the UN Group of Experts and the Congo Research Group, along with videos obtained by Human Rights Watch, have shown that Congolese army units have continued to support and collaborate with the NDC-R, from planning military operations to providing the group with arms and ammunition.

A Congolese army spokesman in North Kivu told Human Rights Watch by phone in October that government troops were “actively seeking to arrest Guidon.” “We want to get him alive so we can hand him over to face justice,” said Maj. Guillaume Njike Kaiko. “We have seen no evidence but if army officers were found to have collaborated with the [NDC-R] group, they will be handed over to the competent authorities because that would be against the army’s mission.”

The Congolese government should step up efforts to arrest Guidon and end his capacity to commit abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Congo’s international partners should publicly and privately urge the administration of President Felix Tshisekedi to act.

Under article 190 of Congo’s constitution, supporting non-state armed groups amounts to high treason. In February 2013, 11 African countries signed the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Region in Addis Ababa, in which they agreed not to tolerate or provide support to armed groups. Congolese authorities should investigate the sources of support to the abusive NDC-R forces – whatever the faction – and act to stop it. Military commanders implicated should be suspended and appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.

“Congolese commanders have helped Guidon’s rebels control vast swathes of territory despite killing civilians, raping women and girls, and causing massive displacement,” Fessy said. “The Congolese authorities not only need to shut down Guidon, but also all those military officers who have kept him from justice.”

Abuses by Guidon’s Forces since 2018

Since the NDC-R was established in 2014, its leaders have promised to provide the Nyanga people greater access to land and mineral resources, to fight the armed group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR) and to improve their representation in public office and the army. With several thousand members, the NDC-R set up governance structures and a sophisticated system of illegal taxation, mainly on households and mining activities. Guidon’s NDC-R rapidly became a key partner for Congolese army units operating in the area.

Human Rights Watch documented widespread abuses by the NDC-R against civilians in parts of Masisi territory as well as in and around the town of Katsiru, in Rutshuru territory. The Kivu Security Tracker reported that the group killed more than 130 civilians, including children, since 2018.

On July 8, 2020, the NDC-R split in two, when deputy commanders broke away from Guidon. Both factions have since been fighting for control, forcing thousands of people out of their homes.

Killings near Katsiru

In December 2019, the NDC-R took control of Katsiru, a town with an estimated 33,000 people in western Rutshuru territory. In Katsiru, Guidon’s troops imposed taxes and forced labor, looted houses, and stole harvests from fields.

Following clashes with a rival armed group in early 2020, Guidon’s forces accused civilians of collaborating with the enemy, and on January 21 and 22 went on a rampage, killing at least 15 women, men, and children in nearby Kabweja, Mukaka, and Kinyamugezi.

On January 22, NDC-R fighters killed two loggers in Bulanda village. A man who managed to escape told Human Rights Watch: “[My friend] was on a log. I heard gunshots and saw him fall.” He recognized the attackers as NDC-R by their clothing and said that a second person was killed nearby. On the same day, NDC-R fighters ordered Katsiru residents to bury those the fighters had killed earlier. Witnesses said that some corpses were mutilated, with genitals and other organs cut off.

Killings in Masisi

Guidon’s troops also committed widespread abuses against civilians in Masisi territory, as the NDC-R expanded its reach in late 2018. In early January 2019, NDC-R fighters killed at least 15 civilians in the area of Shibu, near Ronga. A woman said she heard gunshots as she was walking back from the fields carrying her child on her back. On arriving home, she saw her 8 and 12-year-old boys lying dead in the yard. She tried to flee but she and her child were both struck by a bullet. That day, she said, the NDC-R killed nine other people in a single house: a mother who had given birth three days earlier, a nanny, and seven children. “The three-day-old baby died because he was abandoned,” she said. Four other men were also killed in the area that day.

In April 2019 in Ronga, the NDC-R detained a couple and their year-old baby because they had not paid the unofficial monthly tax. The man paid a fine for his release, but he was not able to pay more to free his wife and child. “A few days later, we heard that some detainees had been killed while trying to flee overnight,” he said. “I found my wife and child dead. She had been shot in the back and died with the baby strapped to her back.” The bodies of three other women who were held for the same reason were also found the same day, April 9. NDC-R fighters also fatally shot two shepherds in nearby Rugarambiro. Two witnesses said both bodies’ genitals had been cut off and taken away.

Human Rights Watch documented that NDC-R fighters killed seven more people, including two women, in July 2019, in two separate incidents. Witnesses said genitals also had been removed from most male corpses.

The NDC-R committed further abuses near Miandja, Bapfuna groupement, from August 2018 onwards after they pushed the Nyatura militia, mostly ethnic Hutu, out of the village. A man from this area prepared a list documenting the killings of 21 civilians by the NDC-R in Bapfuna and Bashali-Kaembe groupements between August 2018 and August 2019.

Sexual Violence in Masisi and Rutshuru

Human Rights Watch interviewed rape survivors and heard credible reports of dozens of other cases of sexual violence in the Katsiru area.

In January 2020, NDC-R fighters captured four women peeling bananas in a plantation and raped them. One woman who was seriously injured died on her way to Mweso hospital, near Katsiru, said one survivor.

In February, another rape survivor said: “Not one day goes by without a woman who has been raped going to the health center.... [The NDC-R fighters] tell us that the Nyatura [another armed group] are our children. ‘We must rape you,’ they say.”

Human Rights Watch also interviewed seven women and three girls from Masisi raped by NDC-R fighters. An 18-year-old woman said that Guidon’s troops stopped her on her way to Bibwe market in September 2019, accusing her of not paying the monthly tax. They stole her money and beat her severely. She said they put her in a small house where a fighter raped her at least twice. She was released after her mother gave them a goat.

In January 2020, a 14-year-old girl, displaced to Mpati, was walking on the road with two girlfriends when three NDC-R fighters stopped and raped them in the nearby bush. “When we resisted, they told us, ‘We’re going to kill you,’ so we couldn’t do anything,” she said. The three girls were taken to an NDC-R position but managed to escape overnight during an attack from the Nyatura.

Human Rights Watch also heard credible reports of girls being held as sex slaves for several days or weeks in the NDC-R camps. An activist described this situation in Katsiru in February:

When [NDC-R fighters] meet pretty underage girls, they forcibly take them to their camps.… They use them as wives for a while, then chase them away. They have to go home. It’s like taking turns; they take other pretty girls afterwards. That’s what happens. They are kept for several days before being chased away. The families of these girls don’t know how to protest – if they did, they could be killed.

A 45-year-old woman said NDC-R fighters abducted her 14-year-old daughter along with four other girls in March 2019. They were in a camp in Mpati where they had been displaced. She said the fighters took them to their position and several men repeatedly raped them. Her daughter was only able to escape two months later.

The woman said that in July 2019, four NDC-R fighters came to their house and forced her to lead them to her daughter, who had gone into hiding. They took them to their position, where they beat them and detained them in an underground pit – common in NDC-R positions – with their hands and feet tied. NDC-R fighters repeatedly raped both of them. The mother was released nine days later, and the daughter was freed eventually, following ransom payments. Fearing further retaliation, the daughter fled Mpati.

In June, the UN Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo found that armed combatants, especially those from NDC-R and the Collectif des mouvements pour le changement/Forces de défense du people (CMC/FDP), a coalition of Nyatura militias, had “committed widespread conflict-related sexual violence amidst recurrent fighting in Masisi and Rutshuru territories from January 2019 to February 2020.... Those acts included rape, gang rape, some instances of sexual slavery and forced marriage” that “may amount to torture, may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The Group of Experts further noted that, “Some NDC-R and CMC/FDP commanders committed those acts, and commanders of both armed groups, who had effective control, failed to take the necessary measures to punish subordinates responsible for those acts, despite awareness thereof or owing to willful ignorance.”

Illegal ‘Taxation;’ Forced Labor

The NDC-R set up a sophisticated illegal tax system in areas under their control. Adults were forced to pay about 1,000 Congolese francs (US$0.60) per month for a security tax known as lala salama (“sleep in peace” in Swahili). Guidon’s group at times also imposed additional taxes on the population. Those unable to pay were often detained, beaten, raped, and forced to pay large sums in cash or in-kind to be released.

The NDC-R often forced adults and children to take part in “community labor,” or salongo in Swahili. Several people from Masisi said that men and boys were forced to work one or two days a week. This included heavy work, such as digging trenches or constructing shelters at NDC-R positions, building and cleaning roads, or clearing land.

Those who failed to comply with the salongo were beaten and forced to pay “fines.” For the work, the NDC-R gave them jetons, tokens which certified their attendance.

A teacher from Masisi territory said: “We keep the jetons jealously. If I lose it and they [NDC-R] stop me on the way, they can kill me. Even the students have to do this work.”

Congolese Army Support

The NDC-R rapidly benefited from the support of Congolese military officers who used the group as a proxy force in their fight against other militias. Several sources told Human Rights Watch that Guidon’s troops had consistently received material and operational support from the 3307th, 3410th, and 3411th regiments of Congo’s armed forces since at least early 2018. These regiments were all involved in operations dubbed “Sukola 2” (“clean-up” in Lingala) against FDLR rebels. Support was also channeled through the 34th Military Region in Goma.

The NDC-R actively took part in military operations against FDLR rebels and its offshoots throughout 2019, according to several sources, confirming its prominent role as a proxy force for the Congolese army. This collaboration appeared to be closely managed by certain networks within the Congolese military in exchange for access to resources where the NDC-R operated and controlled much of the business and trade of gold and minerals around mining sites.

Senior Congolese army officers have provided NDC-R troops with material support such as arms and ammunition. At least five sources said that Gen. Innocent Gahizi, former deputy commander in North Kivu, was among them.

At least four sources said that Col. Yves Kijenga, the former commander of the 3411th regiment in Kitchanga, met senior NDC-R commanders to arrange the delivery of military equipment several times and managed day-to-day operations with the group. At least two other sources also confirmed the involvement of Col. Claude Rusimbi, a commander from the same regiment.

Rusimbi denied the allegations when Human Rights Watch contacted him by phone in October. He said he had “not participated in any meetings” with the NDC-R and that he was “not aware of any army support” to the group. Human Rights Watch attempted but was not able to reach Gahizi and Kijenga.

In the town of Katsiru, for instance, residents said that the collaboration between government troops and the NDC-R was well known. “We see them together – they even drink beer together,” one resident said in February. “The Ndime Ndime [NDC-R] ‘arrest’ people, but soldiers don’t intervene.”

Two sources described a meeting they attended in Katsiru on December 23, 2019, with local authorities and an army commander in town – from the 3307th regiment in Nyanzale – who had asked the NDC-R to come to the city. “We were all there one morning and [an army commander] rang ‘General’ Guidon from his phone,” one of the two witnesses said. “[The army commander] told him, ‘Guidon, can you send troops to guard the town of Katsiru?’ At 2 p.m. that same day, [NDC-R] fighters were already there.” The same witness said that Guidon himself stayed overnight in town. He left the day after but came back to Katsiru about two weeks later.

Guidon’s forces held several positions near Katsiru with an estimated 200 fighters – some of whom were recruited locally – residents said. Only 17 government soldiers and 7 police officers were stationed in town.

Videos obtained by Human Rights Watch provide further evidence of this collaboration. In one of them, filmed in Masisi territory in 2019, an NDC-R fighter said:

We have no problems [with the Congolese army]. Yesterday, we came into Masisi town and we were with them. We work together and the collaboration is going very well. We also spent the night together.... When we need ammunition, it’s not really a problem. All we need is to make a phone call and an army convoy comes over. We aren’t rebels.

In another video, an NDC-R fighter said: “At the end of the day, we wanted to be integrated [into the army]… Our training is like that; we are the government’s children. Whenever we cross paths with government troops, we have a conversation.”

An NDC-R commander seen in a different sequence went even further: “When [Mapenzi Likuhe, Guidon’s then-deputy] arrives in Goma, he first goes to the [34th] military region’s headquarters. There, they assign police officers to guard his house.” Other sources confirmed the occasional presence of Mapenzi in Goma for meetings with army officers.

From late 2018, Guidon’s NDC-R increasingly became an asset for Congolese army units conducting operations against other armed groups. NDC-R fighters were often sent to the front line and they successively pushed fighters from the Conseil national pour le renouveau et la démocratie (CNRD) – a splinter group from the Rwandan FDLR – and their dependents out of Masisi from December 2018 through to January 2019, as well as the CMC.

In another video, an NDC-R fighter described the division of roles in combat. “We split in two groups. We would be out in the front and they [the Congolese army] would be out back,” he said. Or we would cover one side and they would cover the other, and we would regroup in a set location.”

In a video shot in 2019 in Masisi territory, two officers from the Congolese army’s 3410th regiment are seen discussing their collaboration with the NDC-R. “Our cohabitation has been very peaceful,” one said. The other, who is being called “commander,” said that the NDC-R fighters “can even sleep over at our position if they want … they really are tied to us, they are our children. They came to join in the operations against the FDLR.” He added, “Why would you call someone who is hanging out with us a ‘rebel’?”

Human Rights Watch also received reports alleging collaboration between Rwandan security forces and Guidon’s NDC-R. Such information should be investigated.

Saudi Arabia: Alleged Child Offenders Face Death Sentences

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Click to expand Image Men hold placards bearing portraits of a prominent Shia Muslim cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution sparked demonstrations in 2016 by the country's minority Shia citizens against systematic governmental discrimination. Some of the alleged child offenders currently on trial were accused of attending similar protests.   © 2016 STR/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against eight Saudi men charged with protest-related crimes, some of which they allegedly committed as children, Human Rights Watch said today. The ongoing cases demonstrate critical gaps in a 2018 criminal justice reform curbing the death penalty for child offenders, leaving the eight men at risk of capital punishment.

Human Rights Watch obtained and analyzed the charge sheets for two group trials that included the eight men in 2019. Some of the crimes listed were allegedly committed while the men were between ages 14 and 17. One of the men, now 18, is charged for a nonviolent crime he allegedly committed at age 9. All eight men have been in pretrial detention for up to two years.

“Saudi spin doctors are marketing judicial reforms as progress while prosecutors appear to blatantly ignore them and carry on as usual,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Saudi Arabia is serious about reforming its criminal justice system, it should start by banning the death penalty against alleged child offenders in all cases.”

The Public Prosecution, which reports directly to the king, accused the detained men of several charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes, including “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” and “seeking to incite discord and division.” All of the men are from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s Shia minority live.

In 2018, around a year before prosecutors referred the cases to court, Saudi Arabia introduced the Juvenile Law, which sets a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for anyone who committed a crime before they turned 18 and was convicted under the Islamic law principle of ta’zir. Ta’zir offenses do not have set penalties under Islamic law, and judges have wide discretion to determine punishments in individual cases.

However, this provision does not apply to qisas, or retributive justice offenses – usually for murder – or hudud, serious crimes defined under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the eight men under hudud, which would leave them ineligible for pardons if sentenced to death. The Saudi prosecution also demands that if the judge does not impose the death penalty on the basis of hudud, he should do so on under ta’zir, in blatant disregard of the Juvenile Law.

Saudi authorities arrested the men between April 2017 and January 2018. One group – Ahmad al-Faraj, Ali al-Batti, Mohammed al-Nimr, Ali al-Faraj, and Mohammed al-Faraj – have only had two trial hearings since first being presented to court in September 2019, partly due to Covid-19 restrictions. Human Rights Watch could not determine how many hearings the second group – Ali al-Mabyook, Sajjad al-Yasin, and Yousef al-Manasif – has had nor the month they were first presented to court in 2019. The next court hearings for both groups remain unclear.

Saudi activists in communication with sources close to al-Nimr and al-Faraj told Human Rights Watch that authorities tortured them during their initial detention and interrogation and that both were denied access to legal counsel.

The crimes listed in the men’s charge sheets, which for seven of the eight men included attacking police officers or patrols with Molotov cocktails or firearms, are almost entirely based on the men’s confessions, and give no details of any injuries to police officers.

Al-Faraj, now 18, was arrested at age 15 and is the youngest of the eight. The charges against him, none for violent crimes, include participating in demonstrations and funeral processions, one of which he confessed to attending when he was 9. Other charges include chanting slogans against the state, concealing men wanted by police, and monitoring and sharing the movements of armored security vehicles via WhatsApp with men wanted by the police.

Human Rights Watch has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases. In April 2019, Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 37 men, 33 of them from the country’s Shia minority community. One, Abd al-Kareem al-Hawaj, was a child at the time of his alleged offenses and arrest; another, Salman Al Quraish, was a child at the time of some of his alleged offenses.

In June 2019, Saudi prosecutors sought the death penalty against an 18-year-old, Murtaja Qureiris, who allegedly committed some of his offenses when he was just 10 or 11 and was arrested at 13. Later that month, following international pressure, he was spared the death penalty and instead sentenced to 12 years in prison.

On April 8, 2020, the Saudi authorities briefly posted an execution announcement to the Saudi Press Agency website for a man convicted of murder allegedly committed when he was a child, but the announcement was removed later that day. The Saudi authorities have not publicly confirmed whether they executed him.

International law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a state party, absolutely prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed by children. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.

In April, Saudi Arabia introduced a royal decree allowing the 2018 Juvenile Law’s provisions to be retroactively applied, meaning that justice officials can review the cases of convicted child offenders and stop punishments for those who have already served 10 years.

On August 26, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced the judiciary would review three death sentences in accordance with the recent decree. Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher were between 15 and 17 when arrested in connection with demonstrations in 2011 by the country’s minority Shia citizens against systematic governmental discrimination. They were held incommunicado and detained without charge or trial for up to 22 months, and eventually sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials.

Under the decree, the commission stated, the three detainees will be resentenced based on the Saudi Juvenile Law. They will have completed the maximum 10 years in prison under that law by 2022.

“Saudi authorities should spare Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher’s lives and make sure no other alleged child offender ends up on death row,” Page said.

Sri Lanka: Forced Anal Exams in Homosexuality Prosecutions

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Click to expand Image LGBT Rainbow Flag  © 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

(Colombo) – Sri Lankan authorities have subjected at least seven people to forced physical examinations since 2017 in an attempt to provide proof of homosexual conduct, Human Rights Watch and EQUAL GROUND said today. The exams, which include forced anal examinations and a forced vaginal examination, are a form of sexual violence as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that can rise to torture.

The Sri Lankan government should end abusive physical examinations and stop prosecuting people for consensual same-sex conduct, Human Rights Watch and EQUAL GROUND said.

“No one should be arrested, let alone subjected to torture and sexual violence, because of their perceived sexual orientation,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lanka’s Justice Ministry should immediately bar judicial medical officers from conducting forced anal examinations, which flagrantly violate medical ethics as well as basic rights.”

A lawyer told Human Rights Watch and EQUAL GROUND that he along with other counsel represented six defendants in the last 12 months accused of male homosexual conduct. In all cases prosecutors submitted reports of anal exams in court as evidence of past anal penetration. He said the accused alleged having been subjected to other abuses, including being whipped with wires. The court ordered three of the men to undergo HIV tests without their consent, the results of which were made public in court.

Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code prohibit “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and “gross indecency between persons” commonly understood in Sri Lanka to criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults, including in private spaces. Human Rights Watch has documented that other laws, including a vaguely worded Vagrancy Law and a penal code provision banning “cheating by personation,” are also used to target transgender and gender non-conforming people for arrest. In the last few years, Sri Lankan police have raided hotels and other locations to arrest people for offences including consensual same-sex conduct. A police performance report indicates that in 2018 police brought charges against nine men for “homosexuality,” arrested in five such raids.

Police have carried out many such arrests with violence. Among the 61 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people interviewed for a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, 16 had experienced physical or sexual assault, including rape, by the police.

Forced anal exams, which have the purported objective of finding “proof” of homosexual conduct, often involve doctors or other medical personnel inserting their fingers, and sometimes other objects, into the anus of the accused in an attempt to determine whether the person has engaged in receptive anal intercourse. Anal examinations, first devised by a French doctor in the 1800s, are rooted in discredited theories that anal penetration is evident by the tone of the anal sphincter or the shape of the anus.

The tests lack any scientific basis and violate medical ethics. The Independent Forensic Experts Group (IFEG), composed of forensic medicine specialists from around the world, has condemned forced anal examinations, stating that “The examination has no value in detecting abnormalities in anal sphincter tone that can be reliably attributed to consensual anal intercourse.”

The World Health Organization has denounced the exams as a form of violence and torture. The World Medical Association has called on all medical professionals to stop conducting the exams, saying that it is “deeply disturbed by the complicity of medical personnel in these non-voluntary and unscientific examinations, including the preparation of medical reports that are used in trials to convict men and transgender women of consensual same-sex conduct.” The judicial medical officers who carried out the exams in Sri Lanka are fully qualified medical doctors, employed by the Justice Ministry, and are bound by standards of medical ethics.

In one of the cases of anal examinations in Sri Lanka, according to the lawyer, one defendant said that after the police badly whipped him, he was sent to a judicial medical officer to have the anal exam. The defendant did not know he could refuse. In another case, the lawyer said, a man was given the option not to undergo an anal exam, but was told that rejecting it could be used against him. Free and informed consent cannot be provided under conditions of duress, Human Rights Watch and EQUAL GROUND said.

The lawyer also said that in 2019, police forced a transgender man to undergo a so-called “virginity test” in which a judicial medical officer inserted two fingers inside the man’s vagina. The police attempted to prosecute the man for same-sex conduct, but a magistrate dismissed the case, recognizing the trans man’s gender recognition certificate and his marriage to a cisgender woman as valid. Virginity testing is a form of gender-based violence. In November 2014, the World Health Organization stated unambiguously that, “There is no place for virginity (or ‘two-finger’) testing; it has no scientific validity.”

Sri Lanka has ratified core international human rights treaties that obligate the government to protect people’s rights not to experience violence, discrimination, torture, and other ill-treatment. Sri Lanka’s constitution at article 11 and its Convention Against Torture Act recognize the absolute prohibition of torture. Furthermore, fundamental rights recognized by the Sri Lankan Constitution includes nondiscrimination under article 12(2) which states that “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, and place of birth or any one of such grounds.”

In 2014, the government stated at the UN Human Rights Council that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people was unconstitutional and that LGBTI people were protected under the Right to Equality provisions of Sri Lanka’s Constitution. The government, through its Attorney General, further stated that sections 365 and 365A of the penal code were not used to target LGBTI Sri Lankans and that to enforce the law in a discriminatory manner against LGBTI persons was unconstitutional. In 2017, the government reiterated its 2014 position and accepted recommendations from Council members to end discrimination against LGBTI people. The government made a “voluntary pledge” to “[e]nsure and strengthen respect for fundamental rights of all persons, including those from the LGBTIQ community, and address concerns raised in that regard.”

“The recent evidence of violence and harassment against the LGBTIQ community by law enforcement here is gravely concerning,” said Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, executive director of EQUAL GROUND. “Sri Lanka must respect its commitment to the UN to protect the fundamental rights of LGBTIQ people, including by ending arbitrary arrests and by banning torture and other mistreatment by the authorities.”


Saudi to Host Women’s Summit While Women Activists Sit Behind Bars

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Click to expand Image Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul had been on hunger strike for six days before Saudi authorities finally allowed her parents to visit on August 31, according to family members. Al-Hathloul had spent almost three months before that in incommunicado detention. © Private

Saudi Arabia will virtually host the Women20 Summit (W20) this month. During the event, over 80 women’s rights experts representing nonprofits, private companies, and academic institutions will discuss “realizing opportunities of the 21st century for all,” a catchphrase that belies the reality of many Saudi women’s rights activists today.

The Saudi government’s use of women’s rights to divert attention from other serious abuses is well-documented. Recent changes, including the right to drive and to travel without male guardian permission, might be significant, but do not hide the fact that some of the women who campaigned for these changes still languish behind bars.

W20 is an official engagement group of the G20 that makes sure gender considerations are reflected in world leaders’ agendas and policy commitments. Participants should be aware of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS’s) government’s crackdown against women’s rights activists. Beginning in May 2018, authorities arrested prominent activist Loujain al-Hathloul and several others, just weeks before the driving ban was lifted.

Al-Hathloul, well-known for her campaigning against the driving ban, was held incommunicado for three months following her arrest, and family members say that authorities subjected her to electric shocks, whippings, and sexual harassment in detention. Others have faced the same or similar abuse. None have been convicted.

While some have since been released, al-Hathloul, as well as Nassima al-Sadah, Samar Badawi, and Nouf Abdulaziz – who were arrested later that year – remain in detention. Those released risk immediate return to prison if they step out of line.

Moreover, earlier this year, Saudi women took to Twitter to shed light on the entrenched discrimination against them. They called for the abolition of the male guardianship system, and an end to sexual harassment and inequality in marriage, divorce, and child custody.

The G20 Presidency – and, subsequently, the privilege to host the W20 – has conferred an undeserved mark of international prestige on the government of MBS. While courageous women are subjected to torture for peaceful activities, the Saudi government seeks to assert itself on the international stage as a “reforming” power.

W20 attendees should refuse to play a role in Saudi Arabia’s whitewashing efforts, use their platform to speak up for Saudi women’s rights champions, and advocate for the end of all discrimination against women. If they are committed to “realizing opportunities for all,” that includes all Saudi women activists behind bars, and numerous unnamed victims of discrimination.

North Korea: Horrific Pretrial Detention System

Human Rights Watch - Monday, October 19, 2020
Click to expand Image Illustration of a North Korean pre-trial detention and investigation facility (kuryujang) based on former detainees’ testimonies told to Human Rights Watch and the illustrator's personal experience in detention. © 2020 Choi Seong Guk for Human Rights Watch

(Seoul) – The North Korean pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary and lacks any semblance of due process, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Former detainees described systematic torture, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and unpaid forced labor.

The 88-page report, “‘Worth Less Than an Animal’: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea,” provides a unique and detailed description of the country’s opaque criminal justice system. It highlights North Korea’s weak legal and institutional framework, and the political nature of the courts and law enforcement agencies under the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

“North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight former government officials who fled the country and 22 North Koreans – 15 women and 7 men – held in detention and interrogation facilities (kuryujang) since 2011, when the country’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, took power.

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had no way of knowing what would happen to them once they were arrested, had no access to an independent lawyer, and had no way of appealing to the authorities about torture or violations of the criminal procedure law. Once an individual faces an official investigation there is little chance of avoiding a sentence of short-term or long-term unpaid forced labor. Some female detainees reported sexual harassment and assault, including rape.

Former detainees said they were forced to sit still on the floor for days, kneeling or with their legs crossed, fists or hands on their laps, heads down, and with their eyes directed to the floor. If a detainee moved, guards punished the person or ordered collective punishment for all detainees.

Four former government officials said that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea considers detainees to be inferior human beings, and therefore unworthy of direct eye contact with law enforcement officers. They are referred to by a number instead of their names.

“If we moved, we were punished by standing and sitting, doing push-ups, abdominals, or holding onto the metal bars,” said a former soldier who left North Korea in 2017 after being detained multiple times for smuggling and trying to escape to South Korea. He added:

Some guards made us put our face between the bars or hit our fingers through the bars with a stick or with the gun. If they were really upset, they’d come into the cell and beat us. This happened every day, if not in our cell in the others, we could hear it, it was to maintain tension.… There were times I was almost about to give up on life.… While I was there, more than 50 detainees disappeared [into the political prison camp system].

October 19, 2020 “Worth Less Than an Animal”

The people interviewed described unhealthy and unhygienic detention conditions: very little food; overcrowded cells with insufficient floor space to sleep; little opportunity to bathe; and a lack of blankets, clothes, soap, and menstrual hygiene supplies. Former detainees and police officers described detainees being covered by lice, bedbugs, and fleas. Many detainees said guards or interrogators, often after demanding bribes, unofficially allowed family members or friends to provide food or other essentials after questioning ended.

The North Korean government should end endemic torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in pretrial detention and interrogation facilities, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also improve abysmal detention and prison conditions and ensure basic standards of hygiene, health care, nutrition, clean water, clothing, floor space, light, and heat.

In 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea found that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the North Korean government constituted crimes against humanity.

“Former government officials told Human Rights Watch that mistreatment and humiliation are considered a crucial part of the North Korean criminal justice system,” Adams said. “The North Korean authorities should bring the system out of the dark ages by asking for international assistance to create a professional police force and investigative system that relies on evidence instead of torture to solve crimes.”

Selected Accounts from the Report:

A former government worker who escaped in 2018 was detained by secret police at a detention and interrogation facility in a border city with China in 2011 and 2012 because someone reported he was a spy. He told Human Rights Watch that:

They put me in a waiting cell. It was small and I was alone. They searched my body. Afterwards, the head of the city’s secret police department, the party’s political affairs head, and the investigator came in. It was very serious, but I didn’t know why. They just beat me up for 30 minutes, they kicked me with their boots, and punched me with their fist, everywhere on my body.…

The next day they moved me to the next room, which was a detention and interrogation facility cell, and my preliminary examination started. But the questioning didn’t really have any protocols or procedures. They just beat me…. The preliminary examiner hit me violently first…. I asked, “Why? Why? Why?” but I didn’t get an answer…. As the questioning went on, I found out that I had been reported as a spy. Violent beatings and hitting were constant in the beginning of [the preliminary examination] questioning for one month. They kicked me with their boots, punched me with their fist or hit me with a thick stick, all over my body. After [when they had most of my confession ready], they were gentler.

It was winter, but there was no heating. There was only one small wood heater right in front of us, next to the guard. It was so cold … and nobody knew where we were, so we couldn’t get anything from outside. It was really cold, but it was worse because there were so many bedbugs and other bugs that bit you.

A former lumberjack who escaped in 2014 and was detained by the police twice, in 2010 for smuggling and in 2014 for not going to work at a government-sanctioned workplace, said:

Every single day was horrible, so painful and unbearable [from being immobilized].… Many times, if I or others moved [in the cell], the guards would order me or all the cellmates to extend our hands through the cell bars and would step on them repeatedly with their boots or hit our hands with their leather belts. Even then we weren’t allowed to move. If we responded and they didn’t like us, they’d beat us up.

A former trader who escaped in 2017 and was detained by police twice in Suncheon, South Pyongan province, in the early 2010s for selling banned products, and in 2016 for getting into a fight with a party member with better connections than hers, said that:

All toiletries came from the homes of the detainees. After detention, the police informed the families and the investigator in charge went over and brought things like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, or menstrual pads. [The guards] broke the body of the toothbrush and would only leave the head [to avoid it being used to commit suicide]. The people without family didn’t have toiletries and had to use the things of other detainees.

We were all in similar situations, so we women shared our things, but I heard that men didn’t, that the men that didn’t have relatives suffered more and were all covered by lice, but the other men didn’t care [and didn’t share]. [The first time I was detained,] family members could send [menstrual] pads. One detainee [who had no relatives] had to wash a sock and use it as a [menstrual] pad. In 2016, we could ask the police officer in charge for pads during our period and the officer would go to the store outside and buy them. We didn’t have to give money, they just bought them for us.

Cuba’s Government Targets Social Media Influencers

Human Rights Watch - Monday, October 19, 2020
Click to expand Image Screenshot from a video showing Ruhama Fernández.  © YouTube/Ruhama Fernández

Cuba’s government has a well-documented history of harassing dissidents, journalists, and opposition party members. Now it has a new target: social media influencers.

On October 14, police arrived at the homes of four Cuban YouTubers about to participate in an online forum discussing Cuban politics. Two—Jancel Moreno and Maykel Castillo—were detained, Iliana Hernández and others had their internet cut. One, 21-year-old Ruhama Fernández, had to hide to participate in the discussion by phone.

The incident was just the latest example of the type of harassment influencers have faced.

Take the case of Fernández, who started her YouTube channel just ten months ago.

In Fernández’s videos, which are often critical of the government, she discusses current events and interviews people about their daily lives or their views on politics.

Soon after she started making videos, her friends began receiving citations from the police, she told Human Rights Watch. Officers would appear outside their homes and their parents’ workplaces. “They wanted to know who I was, where I lived, if I had a boyfriend.”

People began stopping her brother on the street—sometimes police, but often people dressed as civilians. “They tell him I should stop doing what I’m doing, or I might disappear.”

In April, she received her first police citation. At the station an officer told her she should stop posting videos, or else they could prosecute her for “counter-revolutionary” activities.

In July, authorities forced her internet provider to cut the connection at her home. Fernández received internet access through an informal network run by one of her neighbors—a common practice in Cuba where internet access is extremely limited. The neighbor said that police threatened to shut down the entire connection if she continued supplying Fernández.

In August, authorities denied Fernández a passport to travel to the United States to visit her parents. An Interior Ministry official told her she could not leave the country for “reasons of public interest,” a justification measure frequently invoked to bar dissidents from traveling.  

In September, after being questioned a second time by police, she posted a video detailing her experience. Days later, she received a call from an unknown number threatening to “finish” her off if she left her house.

Like others, Fernández says she is undeterred. “Now that I’ve told the truth, there’s no turning back.”

Cameroon: Opposition Leaders, Supporters Detained

Human Rights Watch - Monday, October 19, 2020
Click to expand Image Demonstrators stopped by gendarmes and police in Bafang, West Cameroon, on September 22, 2020. © 2020 Private

(Nairobi) – Cameroonian security forces fired tear gas and water cannons and arrested hundreds of people, mainly opposition party members and supporters, to disperse peaceful protests across the country on September 22, 2020. Many peaceful protesters were beaten and mistreated while being arrested and in detention. Cameroon’s authorities should immediately release all those held for their political views or for exercising their right to peacefully assemble.

The African Union (AU), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Cameroon’s other regional and international partners should publicly denounce the crackdown on Cameroon’s political opposition and other dissenters. These groups should press the Cameroon government to hold to account those responsible for violations of the rights to assembly, to liberty, and to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment.

“African and regional bodies should call out Cameroon’s government for its repression and rampant abuses,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As the end of the AU’s 2020 theme, ‘Silencing the gun,’ approaches, it’s crucial for these institutions to send strong messages to President Paul Biya’s administration that flagrant violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties are unacceptable.” 

According to the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC), over 500 people were arrested on September 22, only 155 of whom have been released. Lawyers for the party say that 21 were taken before a civilian court on various charges, including rebellion and participating in an illegal demonstration; 107 have been taken before a military court on various charges including terrorism and insurrection; 63 others continue to be held without charge, while the situation of others still in custody is unclear. In a statement on October 14, Cameroon’s communications minister said that 294 people were arrested on September 22, of whom 176 have been released.

Human Rights Watch, between September 22 and October 10, interviewed ten leaders and members of the opposition party MRC, five lawyers, three journalists and four relatives of men who were arrested and beaten by the police on September 22. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs and video footage showing the September 22 demonstrations and the security force response.

In early September, Cameroon authorities banned demonstrations across the country after the MRC encouraged people to take to the streets over the government’s decision to call regional elections in December. The party has said the government should revise the electoral law and resolve the crisis in the Anglophone regions – where violence has been acute since late 2016, as separatists seek independence for the country’s minority Anglophone regions – before holding these elections.

The territorial administration minister then announced that anyone organizing or leading demonstrations would be arrested, claiming that protests would endanger lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. The communications minister warned political parties on September 15 that protests could be considered “insurrection” and that illegal demonstrations would be punished under the anti-terror law.

The wife of a 32-year-old MRC member who was arrested in Yaoundé, the capital, on September 22 told Human Rights Watch: “I went to the central police station where my husband is being held. His eyes were red and swollen. He told me that the police beat him up when they arrested him.” A party member who visited his 36-year-old friend at the Yaoundé central police station after his arrest, said: “Policemen beat him so savagely that his wrist is now dislocated. He’s being held in a small dirty cell with 20 other people with no light and a non-functioning toilet.”

At least eight journalists were among those arrested on September 22, and it appears that at least some were deliberately targeted. Radio France Internationale (RFI)’s correspondent in Yaoundé, Polycarpe Essomba, told Human Rights Watch: “I had finished covering the demonstrations, and I was in a hairdresser shop preparing my radio show when six policemen came in and pointed at me. One said: ‘That’s him whom we are looking for. That’s him who’s spoiling Cameroon’s image abroad.’ They put me in their truck and forced me to lay down. Then they kicked me, and one hit me with a truncheon.” The reporter, who was taken to the central police station in Yaoundé, was released three hours later. The other seven journalists were also released over the course of that day and the following day.

Maurice Kamto, the MRC leader, who had been arrested in January 2019 after countrywide peaceful protests and released following a presidential decree in October 2019, has been held under de facto house arrest since September 22. Dozens of police and gendarmes surround his residence in Yaoundé, refusing to allow him to leave. On October 5, his lawyers filed a request before the Yaoundé Court of First Instance seeking to free the leader, but the court rejected the request the following day “for lack of urgency.” On October 11, Kamto’s lawyers filed a complaint against the state of Cameroon, accusing the authorities of holding the leader under house arrest illegally. The first hearing, scheduled for October 15 before the Yaoundé Court of First Instance, was postponed until October 29.

Click to expand Image Security forces gather outside the residence of Maurice Kamto, leader of the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC) in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, on September 28, 2020. © 2020 Private

Two other prominent MRC leaders – its treasurer, Alain Fogue, and its spokesperson, Bibou Nissack – were also arrested, on September 21 and 22 respectively. They are being held at the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’Etat à la défense, SED) without charge. While their lawyers and family members can visit them, their lawyers say they cannot talk to their clients privately and that visits are only allowed for less than 10 minutes. Nissack is being held in solitary confinement and is not permitted to have reading material.

On October 1, following the announcement of a protest, policemen and gendarmes surrounded the headquarters of the opposition party Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) in Yaoundé and the residence of its president, Edith Kahbang Walla, known as Kah Walla. “Police initially informed me that I was under house arrest, but then backed down when I demanded to see the court judgment authorizing such an arrest,” Kah Walla said in an October 9 statement.

The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by Cameroon’s constitution and international human rights law. Arbitrary arrests, mistreatment in detention, and unnecessary use of force to disperse protesters violate those guarantees and Cameroon’s international obligations. Protesters should instead be protected by the authorities.

While the authorities used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to ban the demonstrations, detaining hundreds of people in cramped conditions poses serious risks to public health and could be considered a right-to-health violation. Human Rights Watch has urged governments around the world, including Cameroon, to reduce their jail and prison populations, given the heightened risk of Covid-19 for detainees and staff. For the same reason, authorities should only make custodial arrests when strictly necessary. Especially given that those arrested during the September 22 protests were not engaged in violence and presented no immediate threat to commit violence, there was no justification for custodial arrests.

Cameroonian authorities have arbitrarily arrested critics of the government and political opponents on multiple occasions, and security forces have used excessive and indiscriminate force to stifle other opposition-led demonstrations. In late January, Kamto, the MRC leader, and some of his closest allies were arrested alongside another 200 party members and supporters after they held countrywide protests.

In June 2019, security forces arrested at least 350 MRC members and supporters across the country as they tried to hold demonstrations. Some, including the party vice-president, Mamadou Mota, remain in detention on politically motivated charges.

“We feel as if there’s a normalization of repression,” a Cameroonian human rights lawyer, Michelle Ndoki, told Human Rights Watch. “The international community should know that the political space for opposition groups to express themselves freely is getting smaller every day.”

On October 12, 14 United Nations independent human rights experts called on Cameroon to release Kamto and others arrested during peaceful protests, and to stop the intimidation of political activists. On October 14, the communications minister said that the UN human rights experts’ statement is “partial and biased” and “based on false information.”

“As further opposition-led demonstrations are expected across Cameroon in the coming months, the AU and the ECCAS should press President Biya to end the wave of repression and promote respect for human rights,” Allegrozzi said. “African and regional bodies should not remain silent in the face of escalating repression and should rally support from within their institutions to hold Cameroonian authorities to their human rights obligations, including by calling for the immediate charge or release of all arrested demonstrators and political opponents.”

Mauritania: Free Activists Held on Blasphemy Charges

Human Rights Watch - Monday, October 19, 2020
Click to expand Image

(Beirut, October 19, 2020) – Mauritania’s government should drop charges of blasphemy and insulting Islam against eight political activists and release the five held in pretrial detention since February 26, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The Nouakchott West Criminal Court is due to hear the case on October 20.

The prosecution accused the eight defendants of “mocking God, his messenger and the Holy Book,” and “creating, recording and publishing messages using an information system that affects the values of Islam,” according to the charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch reviewed. They could face the death penalty if convicted.

“Posting a photo or text on social media, even something others might see as insulting religion, should not be a crime,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These charges should have never been brought in the first place, let alone been used to jail five people for eight months.”

The accusations for three of the men included collaboration with two foreign nationals who had been deported from Mauritania for allegedly proselytizing for Christianity.

The five defendants in detention since February 26 are Ahmed Mohamed Moctar, 38, Othman Mohamed Lahbib, 25, Mohamed Abdelrahman Mohamed, 58, Mohamed Ould Hida, 41, and Mohamed Fal Ishaq, 41. One other defendant was provisionally released and two are abroad.

Mauritanian authorities in February summoned the eight men for questioning after they attended a meeting organized by the newly founded group Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State (AREM). The group calls for reforming Mauritania’s public administration and health systems and rejects the country’s caste system.

On July 6, a specialized investigations unit dealing with terrorism and state security crimes at the General Prosecutor’s office referred the case to the Nouakchott West Criminal Court, charging the eight men with blasphemy and contempt of religion under article 306 of the Penal Code. The authorities also charged three of them with disseminating content that “undermines the values of Islam” under article 21 of the Cybercrime Law and article 20 of the Counterterrorism Law.

In July 2019, in an earlier case, authorities freed a blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who had been held in a blasphemy case for five and a half years. After a court sentenced Mkhaitir to death in December 2014, an appeals court converted the penalty to two years in prison, already served. But the authorities held him in solitary and arbitrary detention for another 21 months after that before they released him. Mkhaitir is in exile in France and heads the newly founded AREM.

Prosecutors have an arsenal of repressive legislation to punish critics for nonviolent speech, including harsh and overbroad laws on terrorism, cybercrime, apostasy, and criminal defamation used to jail human rights defenders, activists, and bloggers.

In 2018, the National Assembly passed a law on blasphemy that replaces article 306 of the Criminal Code and makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and “sacrilegious” acts. The law eliminates the possibility under article 306 of substituting prison terms for the death penalty for certain apostasy-related crimes if the offender promptly repents. The law also provides for a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 600,000 Ouguiyas (US$15,940) for “offending public indecency and Islamic values” and for “breaching Allah’s prohibitions” or assisting in their breach.

In December 2015, the National Assembly passed the cybercrime law, which established prison sentences and heavy fines for disseminating certain types of politically sensitive content over the internet.

Mauritania’s laws impose the death penalty for a range of offenses, including, under certain conditions, blasphemy, apostasy, adultery, and homosexuality, though a de facto moratorium on executions has been in effect since 1987. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and its irreversible and inhumane nature.

Article 19 (1) of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Mauritania in 2004, says, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference, and, everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” The Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, determined that, except in very limited circumstances, prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the covenant. It also said that “[T]he free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential.”

Article 9 (2) of the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which Mauritania ratified in 1986, states that “[E]very individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”

“The authorities should urgently prioritize decriminalizing peaceful speech, starting with the elimination of capital punishment for blasphemy,” Goldstein said.

Japan: Raise Rights on Trip to Vietnam, Indonesia

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, October 18, 2020
Click to expand Image Japan's new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence Wednesday, September 16, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. © Carl Court/Pool Photo via AP

(Tokyo) – Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, should press the governments of Vietnam and Indonesia to improve their deteriorating human rights records during his visit to the two countries, Human Rights Watch said today. Suga will visit Vietnam and Indonesia on his first foreign trip as prime minister, scheduled for October 18-21, 2020.

Human Rights Watch, in an October 16 letter, urged Suga to publicly and privately raise concerns about Vietnam’s widespread violations of civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and movement. He should also criticize Indonesia’s clampdown on freedom of religion, press freedom, the rights to sexual orientation and gender identity, and the rights of Indigenous peoples.

“Japan should use its significant leverage as a major donor to the Vietnamese and Indonesian governments to press both to stop violating human rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Prime Minister Suga should publicly and privately show that Japan is serious about its policy declarations to promote human rights abroad.”

People who criticize the Vietnamese government or the ruling Communist Party are subjected to police harassment, restricted movement, physical assault, arbitrary arrest and detention, and imprisonment. The police routinely detain political activists for months without access to legal counsel and subject them to bullying interrogation. Vietnamese authorities have also shut down access to politically independent websites and social media pages, while pressuring social media and telecommunication companies to remove content deemed critical of the government or the party.

Rights abuses under Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo include increasing violations of the rights to freedom of religion and belief. In 2020, at least 38 people have been arrested for blasphemy, including a man who was sentenced to three years in prison for tearing a Quran inside a mosque.

“Prime Minister Suga should make human rights a cornerstone of Japan’s foreign policy in a way that his predecessors never did,” Robertson said. “Suga’s first foreign trip as head of the Japanese government is a great opportunity to urge the leaders of Vietnam and Indonesia to end abuses and protect the human rights of their people.”


Thailand: Water Cannon Used Against Peaceful Activists

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, October 17, 2020
Click to expand Image Pro-democracy demonstrators face water cannons during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, October 16, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

(Bangkok) – Thai police unnecessarily used water cannon against peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on October 16, 2020, in violation of international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities acted under state of emergency powers declared the previous day, which allows the security forces to commit abuses with impunity.

At about 6:30 p.m., police forcibly dispersed a demonstration organized by the pro-democracy People’s Movement in which thousands of people, including many students, took part. Human Rights Watch observed the police using water cannon laced with blue dye and an apparent teargas chemical to break up the protest in Bangkok’s Pathumwan shopping district. The police then charged in with batons and shields to disperse the protesters. Scores were arrested. The government has not yet provided details about people in police custody. After the crackdown, 12 protest leaders are being sought on arrest warrants.

“By sending in the police to violently disperse peaceful protesters, Thailand’s government is embarking on a wider crackdown to end the students’ protests,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Invoking the Emergency Decree gives the police the green light to commit rights abuses with impunity.”

Under the 2020 United Nations guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement, “Water cannon should only be used in situations of serious public disorder where there is a significant likelihood of loss of life, serious injury or the widespread destruction of property.” In addition, water cannon should “not target a jet of water at an individual or group of persons at short range owing to the risk of causing permanent blindness or secondary injuries if persons are propelled energetically by the water jet.”

Police arrested a Prachatai journalist, Kitti Pantapak, as he broadcast the police’s dispersal operation on Facebook Live. Kitti identified himself as a reporter and wore a press armband issued by the Thai Journalists Association. He faces possible charges under the Emergency Decree, which prohibits publishing and broadcasting information that threatens national security.

International news reporting on Thailand, such as by the BBC World Service, has been blocked on the country’s main cable TV network, True Visions. Thai authorities also pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV, a station widely known for its critical coverage of the government.

The Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation empowers Thai authorities to impose broad censorship in violation of the right to free expression and media freedom. On October 16, the police issued several warnings against news reports and social media commentary critical of the monarchy, the government, and political situation in the country. Livestreaming pro-democracy protests was declared illegal, as well as posting selfies at a protest site.

The decree also grants the authorities broad powers to arrest people without charge and detain them in informal detention sites, such as military camps. Officials carrying out the duties under the decree have legal immunity. The decree does not require access to legal counsel or visits by family members. Discussions about political issues in the parliament have also been suspended. Any public gathering of five or more people is now banned in Bangkok.

The crackdown occurred a day after Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on October 15, asserting that escalating protests by pro-democracy groups contravened the law and the constitution, threatened the monarchy institution, caused disturbances, harmed national security and public safety, and undermined measures to curtail Covid-19. Shortly after his announcement, the government sent in police to forcibly disperse protesters camped outside the Government House. The police arrested at least 22 people, including the protest leaders Arnon Nampha, Parit Chiwarak, Prasiddhi Grudharochana, and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul.

The government has shown increasing hostility toward pro-democracy protests, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. The protesters called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 85 protesters faced illegal assembly charges for holding peaceful protests in Bangkok and other provinces. Some protest leaders have also been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, for making demands regarding reforms of the monarchy institution.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. In addition, over the past five months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.

“Protesters in Thailand are peacefully demanding democracy, human rights, and reform,” Adams said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations should speak out publicly to demand an immediate end to political repression by the Prayuth administration.”

Nigeria: Crackdown on Police Brutality Protests

Human Rights Watch - Friday, October 16, 2020
Click to expand Image Demonstrators protesting against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, on October 15, 2020. © 2020 Sunday Alamba/AP Photo

(Abuja) – Nigerian security forces have responded to overwhelmingly peaceful protests against police brutality with more violence and abuse.

Nationwide protests began on October 8, 2020, calling on the authorities to abolish an abusive police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). In response, the police have shot tear gas, water cannons, and live rounds at protesters, killing at least four people and wounding many others. Armed thugs have also disrupted protests and attacked protesters.

“People exercising their right to protest and calling for an end to police brutality are themselves being brutalized and harassed by those who should protect them,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This underscores the importance of the protesters’ demands and the culture of impunity across the policing system, which is in dire need of reform.”

The protests were sparked by a video that surfaced online on October 3, allegedly showing a SARS officer shooting a young man in Delta state. This generated an outcry on social media, especially Twitter, where the hashtag #EndSARS began trending globally, and led to protests across Nigeria and in other cities around the world.

Responding in part to the protesters’ demands, the government announced on October 11 that the SARS unit would be disbanded. Yet its members will be integrated into other police units following “psychological tests,” and SARS is to be replaced by a Special Weapons and Tactical Team that is to begin training next week. No steps have been taken to hold SARS officers to account for past abuses, or to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the recent crackdown on protesters.

SARS was formed in 1992 to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes. Yet since its inception, the unit has allegedly been implicated in widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, and extortion. Many Nigerians feel that the unit has deliberately profiled and targeted young people, especially those with tattoos, dreadlocks, and visible possessions such as phones and laptops. Over the years, Nigerian authorities have repeatedly promised to reform SARS and ensure accountability for abuses by its officers, but with few results.

Although the authorities have now agreed to abolish SARS and take measures to end police brutality, the protests led by young Nigerians have continued. Protesters are calling for more far-reaching reforms and critical action to address police brutality, especially in the wake of attacks against protesters.

On October 10, a young man, Jimoh Isiaka, was allegedly killed when police opened fire to disperse protesters in Ogbomosho, Oyo state, media reports and Amnesty International have said. At least two other people – a man and a teenage boy – were killed the following day in protests against Isiaka’s death, based on a Premium Times investigation that included a video purporting to show police officers dragging bodies into an armored personnel carrier after the shooting.

The Oyo state governor confirmed that three people were killed and at least six others injured during protests in the state. The police said in a statement that they only used tear gas to disperse the protesters and denied allegations of any shooting on October 10.

In Abuja, police dispersed protesters on October 11 with tear gas and water cannons. Human Rights Watch interviewed three people who participated in or were in the vicinity of the protests and were badly beaten by officers.

One, a 30-year-old woman, said that at least four police officers beat her with big sticks and batons soon after the police fired tear gas and water cannons on protesters.

“When we saw officers down the road from us had formed a line facing us, we stopped moving and we sat on the ground or knelt down to show them that we were not aggressive,” she said. “But before we knew it, tear gas started flying all over the place and a strong force of water followed for about 10 to 15 minutes nonstop. I had a mask on and with the water hitting my face, I found it very difficult to breathe. They soon started running in our direction. I didn’t run because I shouldn’t have to; I was not doing anything wrong.”

The woman said that one officer began beating her with a stick, and when she tried to ward him off, two others joined in, with a stick and baton. She lay flat on the ground as they continued beating her. Eventually someone who had been observing and filming on the other side of the road came by in his car and shouted at her to get in. As she tried to get in the car, another officer hit her back with a big stick. She said that the beating fractured her skull and she has had dizzy spells since. She has been hospitalized.

Another, a 28-year-old woman, said that she was on her way home from work on October 11 around the Federal Secretariat in Abuja when she saw a crowd of people running in her direction. She also started running but soon stopped to figure out where she was going.

“As soon as the police arrived there and saw me, one asked me what I was doing there, and when I replied that I was on my way back from work, he asked, ‘Which work?’” she said. “I didn’t even get a chance to explain or show identification before others came and started beating me with big sticks. About six officers gathered around me, beating me as I lay on the ground. One even threatened me with a knife; they emptied the contents of my bag all over the floor and smashed my phone before they let me go.”

On October 12, police officers in Surulere, Lagos, opened gunfire to disperse protesters, killing 55-year-old Ikechukwu Ilohamauzo, media reported. Human Rights Watch interviewed two protesters and one journalist at the scene. One protester said that the police arrived and opened fire to disperse the protesters when they were close to a police station around Western Avenue. As he and others were running, they realized that a man had been hit by a bullet and went back to where he was. The protesters watched and filmed as a medical team tried to give the man emergency care, but he died. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and has it on file.

Media reports said that Ilohamauzo was a driver stuck in traffic in the vicinity of the protests who came out of his vehicle to urinate when he was struck by a stray bullet.

Police in Surulere claim that Ilohamauzo was killed by a stray bullet from protesters who they say also shot and killed a police officer during an attack on the police station. They arrested three protesters whom they claim were responsible. Videos have since surfaced online, however, that purport to show that the officer fell to the ground after a burst of fire from his colleagues. The protesters were eventually released. Human Rights Watch has not seen any evidence indicating that protesters were armed or firing on the crowd.

The police arrested dozens of protesters, refused some of them access to their lawyers, and only released them following the intervention of senior government officials, including the state governors and the Senate President. There have been reports of police damaging and confiscating the cameras of protesters and journalists. Alleged pro-government thugs have also injured protesters and destroyed property, media reported.

On October 15, the Nigerian army warned “subversive elements and troublemakers” to desist and offered to “support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order.” The Nigerian army has also been implicated in human rights abuses, including the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters.

The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution and international human rights law. Unnecessary use of force to disperse protesters is unlawful. Protesters should instead be protected by the authorities.

Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses by the Nigerian police force for years. In a 2010 report, Human Rights Watch cautioned that the long-term failure of the authorities to address abuses by the police would reinforce impunity and lead to more systemic abuses.

“Nigerian authorities can no longer evade the need for serious reform and accountability in the police system,” Ewang said. “They should go beyond words and send a signal that it is no longer business as usual by investigating the attacks on protesters and taking immediate steps to hold officers and others accountable.”

CDC Director Doubles Down on Endangering Asylum Seekers

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, October 15, 2020
Click to expand Image Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testifies before Congress on the Coronavirus crisis, July 31, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington.  © 2020 Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP

The Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Robert Redfield, renewed an order this week that gives border agents the authority to summarily expel migrants, including asylum seekers, at US land borders. Although the order purports to be a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDC’s own doctors reportedly found the original decision to halt asylum processes to have no basis in public health.

So far more than 204,000 people have been expelled under the order, typically without being given any screening to ensure they are not returned to potential harm in their home countries. The expulsions have included 8,800 unaccompanied children for whom additional special protections are supposed to apply. Human Rights Watch research shows that the consequences of returning asylum seekers to danger can be catastrophic – resulting in sexual assault, torture, and death.

When Redfield first issued the order effectively closing US borders to vulnerable asylum seekers in March, we wrote to him explaining that asylum seekers have a legitimate reason to enter the United States, that safe detention alternatives exist, and that life or death stakes are involved in returning potential refugees to harm. But his reply failed to address our concerns.

Recent Associated Press reporting and our own discussions with a senior CDC official who asked to remain anonymous have made clear that the CDC’s order is not about public health, but rather a response to political pressure.

In a press conference held Wednesday, Mark Morgan, the senior official performing the duties of the commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), repeated the now-disproved claim that the Title 42 expulsion order is “a public health directive that directed CBP from a public health perspective...” and refused to give any concrete information about when the order could be lifted. Morgan said the CDC would determine when it was time to end the expulsions.

Director Redfield should immediately rescind the Title 42 expulsion order before more damage is done to the credibility of the CDC and an even greater number of possible asylum seekers, including children, are returned to serious danger not only to their health, but their lives.

Marginalized Communities Will Pay Highest Price for Pulling Plug on US Census

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, October 15, 2020
Click to expand Image Census Drive and voter registration booths at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, New York, September 22, 2020.  © 2020 2020 Lev Radin/Sipa via AP Images

The US Census Bureau will cease counting for the 2020 census at midnight, two weeks earlier than had previously been announced, a move that will likely leave many of the country’s most marginalized communities undercounted and could undermine rights for the decade to come.

The decision to stop counting comes after the Supreme Court approved the US Department of Commerce’s request to suspend a lower court order that extended counting through the end of October.

The goal of the census, conducted once every 10 years, is to produce an accurate count of all people residing in the country. With this data, the federal government reapportions political power in the form of seats in the US House of Representatives and the drawing of congressional districts. Among other uses, the count determines the distribution of nearly $1 trillion for federally funded programs, apportioned based on an area’s population, income, age, and other factors. The US government’s largest spending programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing loan vouchers and programs, and special education grants, are determined by the census. Additionally, state and local governments, local communities, and businesses use this data to guide decisions affecting schools, housing, healthcare services, and more.

This decision is the latest in a series of events – including the Covid-19 pandemic, funding slashes, and multiple administrative orders – that experts fear will result in the least accurate modern census count. The Supreme Court is set to discuss on Friday whether to hear oral arguments in December on the government’s attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census numbers for apportionment and appropriations.

An inaccurate count could have devastating effects for some of the country’s most marginalized communities and their ability to access basic education, health, and other services. Those most at risk for undercounting include low-income households, those who live in remote areas or who lack internet access, homeless people, Native Americans, Black people, Latinx people, and those who have fear and distrust of the government, including undocumented immigrants. But the incidental events and purposeful efforts to undercount the population in any state or community will have repercussions for all people, citizen or not, living within that community.

This decision, at a time of acute racial and economic disparities, puts the country’s most marginalized people, and the cities and states they live in, in even greater peril.