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US Consumer Protection Agency Scraps ‘Payday Loan’ Rules

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 9, 2020
Click to expand Image This ACE Cash Express outlet on San Mateo Boulevard in Albuquerque, New Mexico sits on a block with several small loan storefronts. The lenders who advance people money on their paychecks charge exorbitant interest rates that often snare the most vulnerable customers in a cycle of debt. © 2015 Vik Jolly/AP Photo

The United States Consumer Finance Protection Bureau announced this week it would reject rules that aimed to prevent predatory practices by so-called payday and other small-dollar lenders. The regulations would have required lenders to take the basic step of making sure borrowers could repay their loans as well as limit how many loans people could take. The Bureau’s decision to scrap these rules leaves many low-income people at risk.

The Bureau finalized the loan rules in November 2017, and they were meant to take effect in August 2019. But before they could, the Bureau delayed implementation and said it would reconsider the rule.

Payday lenders have waged a campaign against the small-dollar loan rules, including attempts to influence the Trump administration to eliminate the regulations. In April the New York Times obtained a memo from an outgoing Bureau staffer alleging that Trump appointees at the Bureau manipulated data and analysis to justify removing protections. 

Payday and other small-dollar lenders offer cash-strapped people small, short-term, high-interest loans. Human Rights Watch has found that many people used the loans to pay for basic necessities. Fees, penalties, and other costs associated with these loans can lead to exorbitant, sometimes triple-digit interest rates. When people have difficulty repaying their loans, they may have to take out new loans to extend repayment windows. Late payment penalties and charges for reborrowing can cause payments to balloon, forcing some to choose between paying off their loans and buying essentials. Predatory lending practices by payday and other small-dollar lenders have disproportionate impacts on Black, Latino, and impoverished communities.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s regulations were a critical step to help prevent people from falling into a debt trap and to deter lenders from using exploitative practices, all of which are vital to protecting human rights. The Trump administration’s decision to gut these protections at a time when so many are suffering from the Covid-19 linked financial crisis means that Congress needs to step in and pass legislation that enshrines these protections, and include a federal cap on interest rates, to stop this corrosive cycle of exploitation and debt.

Bangladesh: Move Rohingya from Dangerous Silt Island

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 9, 2020
Click to expand Image People stand by the banks of Bhasan Char, or floating island, in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, December 2019.   © 2019 AP Photo/Saleh Noman

(New York) – Bangladesh authorities should immediately move over 300 Rohingya refugees, including at least 33 children, from the silt island of Bhasan Char to the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps to be with their families, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite pledges, the Bangladesh government has yet to allow United Nations officials to provide protection services and aid to the refugees detained on Bhasan Char, who had been stranded at sea for several weeks.

The authorities said that the rescued refugees needed to be temporarily quarantined on Bhasan Char to protect against the spread of Covid-19 in the crowded camps. However, more than two months later, the refugees remain on the island, at risk of flooding and storms during the current monsoon season, despite calls from UN Secretary-General António Guterres and humanitarian experts to safely return them to the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

“Bangladesh authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to detain refugees on a spit of land in the middle of a churning monsoon sea while their families anxiously pray for their return,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government is inexplicably delaying aid workers’ access to support the refugees with immediate care, and refusing to reunite them with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.”

Families in Cox’s Bazar told Human Rights Watch that relatives on Bhasan Char are being held without freedom of movement or adequate access to food or medical care, and face severe shortages of safe drinking water. Some refugees have alleged that they were beaten and ill-treated by Bangladesh authorities on the island.

Some families in Cox’s Bazar said that camp leaders told them that if they wanted to see their family members, they must join them on the island. One refugee in Cox’s Bazar told Human Rights Watch that a leader from his camp came and collected his personal information, saying that they needed it because his son is on Bhasan Char. “One of them visited my shelter and said I might need to go over there to join my son,” he said.

But he has serious concerns about going to Bhasan Char, even to see his son. “When I was last able to talk to my son, he complained about everything over there,” he said. “If we are forced to relocate there then there will be no option other than to flee from my shelter. My son even told me not to agree to their proposal at any cost.”

Refugees’ fears over relocating to Bhasan Char are well-founded. Humanitarian experts have repeatedly raised concerns over the habitability of the island and whether refugees living there would have freedom of movement and access to food, water, medical care, and education. When then-UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, visited the island in January 2019, she questioned whether the island was “truly habitable.”

Given these concerns, Bangladesh authorities have repeatedly said that no refugees would be involuntarily relocated to Bhasan Char, saying that the government would await a “green signal” from UN agencies and independent technical experts. Shah Kamal, senior secretary of Bangladesh’s Disaster Management Ministry, told the media on October 30, 2019, that “UN agencies will conduct a technical assessment regarding the safety issues in the island … and we will not start the relocation without any clearance from the UN agencies.”

However, the government has gone back on this promise by refusing to return the refugees to their families, preventing UN agencies from visiting the refugees to provide protection, medical, and verification services, and refusing to allow UN agencies access to the island to conduct a transparent assessment of its habitability.

Bangladesh actions to move more refugees to Bhasan Char would be a dangerous reversal of the government’s position, Human Rights Watch said. A disaster management and relief minister, Enamur Rahman, told Reuters in February that “We have not taken a final decision yet, but we're no longer interested in moving them [to Bhasan Char],” and added that the government wanted to work with China and Myanmar to focus “instead on a safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation.”

Meanwhile, Myanmar has yet to take concrete steps to enable safe and voluntary refugee returns. Donors and concerned governments should insist that the Myanmar government and military ensure the security and basic rights of Rohingya, ensure unhindered access for international humanitarian agencies to provide resources and monitor rights, and provide full citizenship for the Rohingya, with all accompanying rights and protections, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Bangladesh government’s assurances that the refugees on Bhasan Char are safe and well-off means the authorities should welcome the UN’s unfettered access to the island to provide protection and basic services, and conduct a long overdue technical assessment,” Adams said. “While Bangladesh authorities should not be cruelly holding refugees’ lives in the balance, concerned governments should do more to press Myanmar to accept responsibility for the Rohingya refugees.”

 

Music Shouldn’t Stop at Hong Kong’s School Gates

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 9, 2020
Click to expand Image Children wait for a school bus in Hong Kong, November 20, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Hong Kong’s secretary for education, Kevin Yeung, must have skipped the class on children’s rights.

This week, Yeung banned school students from singing or playing certain political songs at school, saying children’s right to expression “is not absolute.”

No one’s free speech rights are absolute, but under international human rights law, the right to freedom of expression can only be restricted when necessary to protect other people’s rights or reputation, or for genuine national security, public order, or public health reasons. Any restrictions must be proportionate to the threat posed.

There’s no loophole for banning songs that make politicians feel uncomfortable. And children’s free expression rights are protected under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

So, yes, schools can limit children blasting their music of choice during classes – whether it’s the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” or the Cantonese pop hit “We Grew This Way” – since that might disrupt fellow students’ education. But it does not justify a blanket ban on all songs with a political theme on school grounds.

Nor can authorities play DJ and pick the music. Although Yeung’s views on today’s Top 40 remain unknown, he has approved the song “I love Basic Law,” which praises Hong Kong’s functional constitution. He’s also expressed no qualms with legislation compelling schools to penalize students who “disrespect” mainland China’s national anthem.

Yeung’s music ban comes hot on the heels of China’s new National Security Law, whose broad provisions prohibit an uncertain array of peaceful behavior, and under which the authorities have already arrested dozens of Hong Kongers. But it is difficult to see how singing children present a national security concern.

Yeung also said that, “Under no circumstances should anyone be allowed to incite students to indicate their stance on controversial or evolving political issues.” But this goes against the actual aims of education under international human rights law: to develop children’s personalities, mental abilities, cultural identity and values, and respect for human rights, and to prepare them for a responsible life in a free society. Children’s right to express their views on matters concerning them is also internationally protected.

In short: children should be free to form and express their opinions, fears, joys, and desires.

They should be allowed – and even encouraged – to raise them in the classroom, post them on their school newspaper’s blog, paint them in art class, and debate them in the courtyard.

Or, sing them.

Lebanon in the Dark

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 9, 2020
Click to expand Image A protester holds up a placard reading, “Hello Darkness My Old Friend,” in front of the Lebanese electricity company headquarters, during protests against the Lebanese government and corruption, in Beirut, Lebanon, November 7, 2019. © 2019 Rafael Yaghobzadeh/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images

Widespread electricity blackouts lasting up to 22 hours per day are crippling Lebanon. The blackouts are caused by fuel shortages. Fuel, like almost everything in the country, is imported. But supplies were badly disrupted after a shipment of faulty fuel had to be returned. The economic crisis has also made it difficult to finance additional fuel shipments. 

Lebanon’s biggest public hospital and main Covid-19 treatment center has had to close some operating rooms and turn off all air-conditioning in offices and corridors to ensure wards and intensive care units can be cooled. Fuel shortages at switchboards caused cuts to mobile phone coverage last week, and the national telecommunications company, Ogero, warned that internet coverage may be disrupted or even cut in some areas. Some streets and homes across the country are pitch black, and local businesses that cannot afford private generators have closed.

Lebanese are no strangers to chronic power cuts that usually last three to six hours per day, and the private generator sector has been filling the gaps in the government’s electricity supply. But generator owners, now struggling to find fuel themselves, have hiked their prices, making them unaffordable for families already suffering from the economic crisis. Other operators have restricted electricity supplies to households, forcing families to choose between operating a fridge or a washing machine. Others turn off their generators for several hours – usually at night – making it difficult to sleep in the sweltering heat.

The blackouts have caused a rapid deterioration in living standards. One woman tweeted that she drove her car for an hour at midnight just to charge her phone so that she can set an alarm to wake up for her job.

The blackouts are not just a nuisance. For many they are a matter of life or death. The parents of a 9-month-old sick baby who gets his medication through an electrical device took him to an electricity company in north Lebanon asking that staff connect the machine there, as they had no power at home.

Electricity access is necessary for many basic human rights, including the right to health, to food, to information, and to an adequate standard of living. Numerous reports have described how Lebanon has failed to reform its dilapidated electricity sector and is now failing to seriously tackle the economic crisis. As a result, basic rights of its residents are being violated on a daily basis.

Tajikistan: Intensified Pressure on Dissidents’ Families

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 9, 2020
Click to expand Image Asroriddin Rozikov © Personal Archive 

(Berlin) – Tajik law enforcement authorities have arbitrarily detained the son of an imprisoned senior member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, an outlawed opposition party, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Asroriddin Rozikov, 38, has been in detention since June 25, 2020, but the Tajik authorities have not provided his relatives with information about his wellbeing, the grounds for his detention, or whether he has been charged with an offense. In June 2016, Tajikistan’s Supreme Court sentenced his father, Zubaidullohi Rozik, who was a member of the party’s political council and presidium, and served as head of its science department, to 25 years in prison on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. 

“The arbitrary detention of Asroriddin Rozikov is part of intensified efforts by Tajik authorities to spread fear among perceived government critics and peaceful dissidents everywhere,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tajik authorities should immediately release Rozikov, investigate his arbitrary detention, and hold those responsible to account.” 

Since mid-2015, Tajik authorities have imprisoned more than 150 people on politically motivated charges, including lawyers, perceived critics, and members of the opposition party. The authorities closed down the party, declaring it a terrorist organization. The authorities have routinely harassed relatives of those locked up and of peaceful dissidents abroad with mob violence, threats of rape, arbitrary detention, confiscation of passports, and bans on travel outside of the country. A large number of other party leaders and senior staff members also received lengthy prison sentences, including life imprisonment.  

Rozikov’s brother Khisomiddin, who lives in exile in Poland, said that Tajik law enforcement authorities detained Rozikov on the morning of June 25 in Dushanbe, when he was on his way to the market where he sells children's wear. Khisomiddin and Rozikov’s wife were unable to reach Rozikov on his phone later that day.

His whereabouts were unknown until Rozikov’s mother and another brother went to the State Committee for National Security on June 26. A staff member confirmed that Rozikov was being held there and told them he would be released after questioning. Khisomiddin Rozikov told Human Rights Watch that his mother was also informed that his brother would be detained until June 29, and then would be released or transferred to a detention center.

On July 1, the State Committee for National Security told Rozikov’s relatives that he had been transferred to a detention center known as SIZO Number 1 in Dushanbe. On the following day, his mother and brother visited the detention center, intending to give Rozikov some clothes and food. They were told that he was not there, and the officials refused to accept the parcel, although they did the next day. But they have not allowed his mother to visit or provided information about any charges against him.

Khisomiddin Rozikov said that the authorities claim that “they won’t release Rozikov, they did nothing to him and everything's fine.” He said he had received information before his brother was detained that the authorities had tried to coerce his father to give an interview on camera criticizing the Renaissance Party and its leadership and to “admit that they are all terrorists,” but he had refused. He said that his brother is not involved in any political activity, but that around 2003-2004, he worked as a layout designer for the party’s newspaper.  

Humayra Bakhtiyar, a Europe-based journalist and human rights defender who closely follows the situation in Tajikistan, told Human Rights Watch that Tajik authorities have intensified harassment of dissidents’ relatives. She said that Tajik authorities have harassed, detained, questioned, and pressured 13 family members of Jannatullohi Komil, an exiled party member based in Germany, to testify on camera against the party. She said on July 7 that at least five of the family members were in detention, where they had been held for more than a week. 

In another case, Farzona Sayfullozoda, daughter of Hikmatulloh Sayfullozoda, an editor of the now-banned party newspaper, Najot, denounced the party in a Tajik-language video. Her father was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2016. In the video, she said, she “urges people not to believe IRPT and its leadership” and says that “it is a terrorist party and she regrets everything that happened to her family.”

Bakhtiyar said that “Sayfullozoda asked two times to turn off the camera as she could not continue speaking” because of her emotions. Bakhtiyar said that “the video was posted by a suspicious account and whoever recorded her also published the video.” The original video, posted on Facebook, was later removed. 

In June 2019, Tajik authorities also harassed Bakhtiyar’s family in Dushanbe in an attempt to pressure her to return to Tajikistan. 

She said that on June 29, 2020 political prisoners’ relatives who live in Europe had published an appeal in which they called on Tajik authorities to stop harassing their relatives in Tajikistan and torturing relatives who are in prison.   

“Tajikistan should immediately end its harassment of relatives of political prisoners or peaceful dissidents abroad,” Williamson said. “The Tajik government should allow its citizens to peacefully exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression without fear of reprisal.”

UAE: Omani Sentenced to Life in Tainted Trial

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 9, 2020
Click to expand Image The Abu Dhabi Federal Supreme Court.  © 2011 Reuters/Nikhil Monteiro

(Beirut) – An Emirati court sentenced an Omani man to life in prison in May 2020, following what appears to have been a grossly unfair trial, Human Rights Watch said today.

A family member said that following the arrest of Abdullah al-Shaamsi in August 2018, when he was 19 and still attending high school in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), state security forces subjected him to incommunicado detention, prolonged solitary confinement, and torture. Al-Shaamsi, now 21, has depression and kidney cancer.

“Sentencing a man who has depression and cancer to life in prison using a tainted confession is a harrowing example of the unfair UAE justice system,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “UAE authorities are refusing to provide information about al-Shaamsi’s condition while holding him during the Covid-19 crisis in a prison known for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and lack of access to adequate health care.”  

Al-Shaamsi’s trial, which began in February 2020, more than a year and half after his arrest, was marred with due process violations, family members told Human Rights Watch, including denying him access to a lawyer during interrogation and accepting an allegedly forced confession as evidence. Al Shaamsi’s lawyer, who was appointed by the Omani embassy, submitted a request for appeal on June 4.

Al-Shamsi told family members that he was not informed of any charges against him throughout his pretrial detention and that the evidence against him, only presented to him a month before his trial, included tweets he denied making and online competitions he participated in when he was just 17, which were hosted by Emirati TV stations as well as the Qatari-owned TV station al-Rayyan. As part of these competitions, al-Shaamsi won prizes which amount to around AED 5,000 (US$1,361), a family member said.

The authorities also denied al-Shaamsi access to family members for about six months. While the family member said that the UAE authorities have barred the family from attending most court hearings as well as access to the charge sheet and other court documents, they said a lawyer familiar with the case told them the charges included spying for Qatar, which his family denies.

On May 31, family members, who have been denied contact with al-Shaamsi since early March, received news from other prisoners that he is in a quarantine cell for prisoners infected with the virus that causes Covid-19 in al-Wathba Prison, just outside Abu Dhabi. The family requested information from prison authorities about whether he has been tested for the coronavirus or experienced Covid-19 symptoms, but they were not given any information. Human Rights Watch previously reported on outbreaks of Covid-19 in at least three Emirati detention facilities, including al-Wathba.

Al-Shaamsi, whose mother is a UAE citizen, disappeared on August 18, 2018, after leaving the family’s house in al-Ain, east of Abu Dhabi. His family said that they didn’t know where he was or what had happened to him until September 16, when a group of men wearing military and civilian clothing and a policewoman brought him to the house. Without identifying themselves or presenting a search warrant, they searched his house, confiscated his electronic devices, and took him away again.

Family members said that they made inquiries, but that the authorities refused to reveal his whereabouts. The family member said that until February 14, 2019, when they were first allowed to visit him in al-Wathba Prison, state security forces held him in solitary confinement in a secret detention facility.

Solitary confinement can trigger and exacerbate psychological distress and be particularly harmful for people with mental health conditions. Prolonged solitary confinement is strictly prohibited under international law, should never be used on people with mental health conditions, and can amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

In one of the few family visits that followed, al-Shaamsi said that during the first three months of interrogation, state security forces tortured him with beatings, electric shocks, and pulling out his fingernails, among other methods. The authorities denied him access to legal counsel throughout his pretrial detention. In one phone call, al-Shaamsi said that interrogators forced him to sign a confession while blindfolded, which was later used against him in court. The family member said they saw signs of torture on his body twice during family visits, in February 2019 and March 2020.

Prior to his arrest, al-Shaamsi had been receiving treatment for kidney cancer, which led to the removal of one of his kidneys, and was receiving mental health medication and counseling. The family member said that during pretrial detention, authorities admitted al-Shaamsi to the psychiatric department of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi for two weeks after he experienced what they described as a “mental health breakdown.”

The family member said that he was also diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes during detention. The family member said that al-Shaamsi told them he receives medication for cancer and depression, but his family has not been able to obtain access to medical reports or more detailed information on his condition, treatment, and medication.

The trial, which began on February 5 at the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeals, where all state security-related cases are heard, consisted of three hearings in February and March and a final sentencing hearing on May 6, during which the state security prosecutor first informed al-Shaamsi of the specific charges he faced. The sentencing hearing was conducted remotely due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Family members were only granted permission to attend the five-minute second hearing in March. At that hearing, a government medical committee confirmed that al-Shaamsi has a mental health condition, but concluded that it should not be taken into account during his trial.

In late April, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion on al-Shaamsi’s case that found his detention arbitrary, stating that the government’s response to the allegations of torture and due process violations do not sufficiently rebut the allegations, and saying that the authorities should ensure his immediate release.

Al-Shaamsi’s family last visited him in March, just before authorities banned in-person prison visits to contain the spread of Covid-19. The last phone call Al-Shaamsi made to his family members was on October 6, 2019. On May 31, other prisoners’ relatives informed his family that he had been transferred to an isolation cell with around 30 others.

His family member said that after receiving this news they visited the prison to inquire about his health, but prison authorities threatened them with arrest if they did not leave. The family member said that the Omani Embassy informed them on June 3 that Emirati authorities denied any outbreak of Covid-19 in al-Wathba Prison.

Given al Shaamsi’s medical history, UAE authorities should immediately grant him the medical care he requires, as well as provide his family with relevant and timely informtion regarding his mental and physical health, Human Rights Watch said. 

“UAE authorities have compounded the suffering of al-Shaamsi’s family by intentionally keeping them in the dark about his health amid reports of a Covid-19 outbreak in his prison,” Page said.

US Nursing Home Residents Should Know Their Rights

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on people living in nursing facilities. More than 50,000 residents of nursing facilities and other long-term care facilities in the United States have died from Covid-19. In March, the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the regulator for over 15,000 nursing homes in the US, announced a “no visitors” policy for all facilities across the country.

That blanket ban cut off over 1.5 million older residents from family and friends, and had only limited exceptions for end-of-life visits. While some limits on visitors are reasonable to protect residents and workers from the virus, the ban fails to account for the serious risks posed by social isolation. CMS has recommended phased plans to states to begin allowing limited visitation, but most facilities remain locked down.

Know Your Rights: An Easy-to-Read Guide

A guide about rights for people in nursing homes and their families. 

Read the Guide Here

Beyond the health risks, social isolation increases the risk of poor treatment, such as overmedication. A 2018 Human Rights Watch report on older people, mostly with dementia, living in US nursing facilities found that people on their own, without family or friends visiting or communicating with the facility staff, and who have language barriers or disabilities that make communication between them and others difficult, are particularly at risk. People described how overmedication caused hallucinations and excessive sleeping, and how they were sometimes given drugs without their consent or knowledge.

It does not have to be this way. Older people with dementia have a right to receive support for their dementia and to consent to or refuse medication.

Today, Human Rights Watch released a guide about US nursing facility residents’ rights concerning medication in easy-to-read formats, available as an electronic or print leaflet and as a video. This guide aims to fill an important gap, supporting older people in knowing and claiming their rights. It highlights some of the resources available to people living in nursing facilities, such as long-term care ombudsperson programs that advocate for individual residents’ rights.

Human Rights Watch produces easy-to-read products to make its research more accessible to people with disabilities, including dementia, and to others with difficulties reading long and complex texts.

Under the US government’s current restrictions on nursing home visitors, it is even more important that older people with dementia have every opportunity to advocate for themselves. People do not check their rights at the door when they check into a nursing facility, and should get resources that can support them, and their families and friends, to know and claim their rights.

Malaysia: Stop Treating Criticism as a Crime

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a press conference after the first cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 11, 2020.  ©2020 AP Photo/Vincent Thian

(Bangkok) – Malaysian authorities are increasingly responding to criticism of the government by initiating criminal investigations, Human Rights Watch said today. Journalists, civil society activists, and ordinary people have all recently faced police questioning for peaceful speech under broadly worded laws that violate the right to freedom of expression.

“Malaysia’s Perikatan Nasional government is increasingly responding to public criticism by carrying out abusive investigations on specious charges,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin should recognize that everyone has a right to criticize their government without fear of investigation or prosecution.”

The most recent target of the government’s ire is Al Jazeera, which produced a video segment discussing Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. After denouncing the documentary as “deceptive and unethical,” Defense Minister Ismail Saabri said that Al Jazeera should “apologize to all Malaysians.” The police subsequently announced that they were investigating Al Jazeera for sedition, defamation, and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).

In an apparent case of retaliation, the Immigration Department announced that it was looking for one of the migrants interviewed in the report, and the department’s director general warned that foreigners who “make inaccurate statements aimed at sullying the country” would face potential revocation of their visas or work passes. In the documentary, Al Jazeera reported that it had reached out to the government and sought interviews with senior officials, but those interview requests had been denied.

On June 6, 2020, Boo Su-Lyn, editor of the health news portal CodeBlue, announced that she was being investigated under the Official Secrets Act and the penal code for a series of articles about the findings of an independent investigation into an October 2016 hospital fire that killed six patients. Boo Su-Lyn stated that the findings on which she based her articles had been declassified. 

In another case targeting the media, the attorney-general filed contempt proceedings against the online news portal Malaysiakini and its editor, Steven Gan, based on comments posted by the outlet’s readers. On July 3, the Federal Court rejected an application to set aside the decision permitting the attorney general to initiate contempt proceedings, holding that the government had made a prima facie case that Malaysiakini had “published” the comments and that the comments impugned the judiciary. The court will hear arguments in the case on July 13. The defense argued that media should not be held responsible for comments made by readers, noting that Malaysiakini had removed the comments as soon as it was alerted about them. The Committee for Independent Journalism and the Malaysian Bar Council are among those who have expressed concern about the implications of the case for media freedom.

Activists and ordinary people are also facing criminal investigation for speech critical of the government. On July 7, the police questioned the director of the nongovernmental organization Refuge for the Refugees about a social media post alleging mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centers. The activist, Heidy Quah, is being investigated for defamation and violation of section 233 of the CMA and was required to surrender her phone to the police.

On July 3, a retiree was fined RM2,000 (US$470) for posting “insulting” comments about the health minister on social media, even though the court noted that the criticism “was not overboard or malicious in nature.” He will have to serve a month in jail if he fails to pay the fine.

Other recent investigations include:


While none of those investigations have yet resulted in criminal charges, others have been prosecuted for peaceful speech, including:

All of the laws cited in these investigations are overly broad and subject to abuse, and have been used by prior administrations against critical voices. Under international human rights standards, governments may only impose restrictions on freedom of expression if they are provided by law and are necessary for the respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals. Restrictions must be narrowly drawn to limit speech as little as possible, and sufficiently precise that an individual can understand what is made unlawful. None of the laws at issue meet these standards.

“Since the new government took office, freedom of speech and the press have faced renewed threats in Malaysia,” Robertson said. “The government needs to stop treating criticism as a crime and take immediate steps to amend or repeal the abusive laws being used against critical speech.”

Nigeria: Humanist Group Leader Held Incommunicado

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image Mubarak Bala  © 2020 Leo Igwe

(Abuja) – The Nigerian police should immediately disclose the whereabouts of Mubarak Bala, president of the Nigerian Humanist Association, who has been detained incommunicado since April 28, 2020. 

Bala was arrested at his home by police in Kaduna State in response to a complaint by lawyers accusing him of publicly insulting the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook page. The police transferred him to Kano State around May 2, but have since refused to provide details of his whereabouts and denied access to his wife and lawyers.

“Regardless of the offense or the sensitivity of the case, the authorities may not withhold information on Bala’s whereabouts from people legally authorized to know,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities are required to ensure that he has regular and adequate access to his legal counsel, and Bala’s family should be able to speak to him.”

Nigerian law criminalizes insult to religion. Islamic Sharia laws applicable in the country’s 12 northern states with a significant or majority Muslim population, including Kano, also criminalize blasphemy. People have been sentenced to death for blasphemy under Sharia law. Blasphemy allegations have also triggered violent riots and killings in Kano State. Nigeria’s constitution, however, protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and guarantees the right to freedom of expression.

Bala has been an outspoken religious critic in the conservative northern region, where open religious opposition is unusual. After renouncing Islam in 2014, he was forcibly committed to a psychiatric facility by his family in Kano. He was discharged and has continued to receive death threats for alleged blasphemy.

The petition against Bala to the Kano State Police Command concerned his Facebook comment comparing Prophet Muhammad to a Nigerian Evangelical preacher who he suggested was better than the Prophet because he was not a terrorist. The lawyers contended that he had violated Nigeria’s cybercrimes law, which criminalizes insult of people based on their religion. It also alleged that the posts were contrary to the Kano State penal code, which sets punishments of up to two years in prison for public insults or contempt of any religion likely to lead to a breach of peace.

James Ibor, the lawyer heading Bala’s legal team, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have yet to bring charges against him. He said that the Kano police filed a First Information Report on May 4 before a magistrate court, which under the criminal procedure code should evaluate whether to proceed with charges. The lawyer said the response has been slower than usual.

Ibor also said that the magistrate had granted a police application to keep Bala in protective custody. Details of the order, made without the knowledge of Bala’s legal team, are yet to be made available to them.

Leo Igwe, the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Association, told Human Rights Watch that he believes Bala’s arrest was an effort by the authorities to silence him and send a strong message that such views and ways of thinking will not be tolerated. “It is not clear why the authorities will transfer Bala to Kano State, which is prone to religious tensions, if they are concerned about his safety,” he said.

Bala’s wife told Human Rights Watch that she had repeatedly called the Kano State Police Commissioner to ask about her husband’s whereabouts, but has not received a response. “I have sleepless nights worrying about Bala while struggling to care for our baby who was born a month before the arrest,” she said.

Bala’s lawyers filed a case at the Federal High Court in Abuja in May, but the case has yet to be heard due to Covid-19-related delays in court processes. The case challenges Bala’s arrest and detention as a violation of his rights to liberty, fair trial, freedom of thought and expression, and freedom of movement, as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution and international human rights law.

The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, in principle violate freedom of expression. Authorities rejected the claims that access to Bala’s lawyers has been denied. Habu Ahmadu, the Kano state police commissioner, told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview on July 4 that Bala’s case was before the courts, where he is free to have legal representation. “The lawyers should be able to get access to him from the courts,” he said.

On June 29, the Magistrate Court in Kano granted an order mandating the police to allow Bala’s lawyers access to him after a formal application was made. The order has still not been processed by the chief magistrate and so cannot be enforced. The delay appears to be an effort to further impede access. 

“The authorities should urgently allow Bala’s lawyers access to their client and preclude any further delay in the justice process,” Ewang said. “Immediate steps should be taken to charge him with an offense that does not violate his human rights, or release him unconditionally.”

Netherlands Sees No Role for Gender Marker on ID Documents

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image The Dutch flag flies at the parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, March 16, 2017. © 2017 Daniel Reinhardt/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The Dutch government will no longer include gender markers on national identification documents (IDs) in the next five years, a move that balances the potential harms – such as harassment, discrimination, and violence – that requiring people to declare gender on documents poses against whether there is any justification for publishing a person’s legal gender.

Activists around the world have long pushed for simpler and more transparent procedures to allow transgender people to change the “female” or “male” gender marker on their documents. Some – now including in the Netherlands – have called for removing gender markers from IDs altogether. The move to remove gender markers is in part based on recognition that they do not accommodate non-binary people and that even rights-respecting legal gender recognition procedures impose burdens on trans people to proactively change their gender markers.

International legal thinking is evolving.

In 2006, global experts drafted the Yogyakarta Principles, a codification of international human rights standards related to sexual orientation and gender identity. A decade later, they updated their call for barrier-free legal recognition of gender to recommend that states “end the registration of the sex and gender of the person in identity documents such as birth certificates, identification cards, passports, and driver licenses, and as part of their legal personality.”

The United Nations Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity said in 2018 that “Legal systems must, on an ongoing basis, carefully review the reasoning behind the gathering and exhibition of certain data” expressing “significant doubts as to the real need for the pervasive exhibition of gender markers in official and non-official documentation.”

There is precedent for removing information from IDs, as not relevant to the purpose of the document. Many countries have removed personal characteristics such as race, religion, or marital status. The primary purpose of an identity document is to ensure that the person presenting the ID is who they say they are. Race or gender markers do not create additional clarity.

The Netherlands’ decision puts into sharp focus the question whether gender markers on ID documents are redundant and potentially harmful. For those in the Netherlands at least, when implemented, the move means citizens will no longer be required to carry documents displaying unnecessary information that for some could invite harm.

Covid-19 Catches Up with Brazil’s President

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image Brazil´s President Jair Bolsonaro (center, wearing a white shirt) poses for a picture with US Ambassador Todd Chapman (center, wearing a hat) and several ministers during a luncheon at the ambassador´s residence, July 4, 2020. © 2020 Isac Nóbrega/PR

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro spent months downplaying Covid-19 and refusing to take measures to protect himself and the people around him. He visited stores; he let supporters congregate around him; he shook hands – all without wearing a mask. On July 4, he and his ministers posted pictures of a luncheon at the US ambassador’s residence – again none wore a mask.

On July 7, he told reporters he had tested positive for the coronavirus. He did not seem surprised. He said that he had previously thought he could have contracted Covid-19 earlier in the year because of his close contact with people, but may have been asymptomatic. That makes his disregard for World Health Organization (WHO) social distancing recommendations even more disturbing.

This time, he was wearing a mask, but spoke less than a meter away from some reporters.

People can spread the virus through droplets expelled while coughing or talking.

The WHO recommends that anyone who tests positive for the virus or has symptoms wear a medical mask and self-isolate.

Bolsonaro has not only put those near him at risk; his policies endanger all people in the country.

Brazil has 1.6 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and more than 65,000 deaths, the second-highest toll after the United States.

To reporters, Bolsonaro repeated his mantra that people should go back to work, and said that “The virus is like rain, which is going to get to you.” 

Bolsonaro has disseminated misleading information and sabotaged efforts to fight Covid-19. His administration has tried to block states from imposing social distancing rules and to withhold Covid-19 data from the public.   

Bolsonaro fired his health minister for defending WHO recommendations and pushed his replacement to quit. An active-duty general without public health experience is now acting health minister.

Just this week, Bolsonaro vetoed legislation requiring the use of masks in Brazil’s unsanitary and overcrowded prisons and juvenile detention centers. Covid-19 has infected more than 11,000 people in those facilities and killed 127, the majority of them staff, according to the latest data from the National Council of Justice.

Asked in April about Covid-19’s mounting death toll, Bolsonaro answered: “So what? I am sorry. What do you want me to do?”

Taking measures to protect people in Brazil, including those around him, from contracting the disease would be a good start. 

Two Men Face Execution in Bahrain

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image Mohamed Ramadan (left) and Ali Moosa (right).   © Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy

“I am Mohamed Ramadan. I have been sentenced to death.… I want my voice to be heard by those who believe in the principles of justice and equality.… I am innocent of the crime of which I was accused, subjected to a sham trial and sentenced to death. My death will be unlawful, and yet, it has been [ordained] by law.” Ramadan asked that this statement, a message he left on his wife’s cell phone, be shared.

Ramadan is slated to appear before Bahrain’s Court of Cassation – the country’s court of last resort – on Monday, July 13, one final opportunity to appeal his unjust death sentence. This is not the first time the Court of Cassation will hear the case of Mohamed Ramadan and Hussein Moosa. A criminal court sentenced both men to death in 2014 for murdering a policeman and other terrorism charges, despite both men stating that officers tortured and sexually assaulted them into confessing. Ramadan refused to sign a confession. Moosa said he told interrogators what they wanted to hear, implicating Ramadan, because he was in agony from his interrogators repeatedly kicking him in the groin.

The Court of Cassation confirmed the death sentences in November 2015. But then the public prosecutor’s Special Investigations Unit, pressured into investigating the torture allegations, “found” a previously unknown medical report by an Interior Ministry doctor documenting injuries on Moosa’s wrists. These injuries “raise the suspicion that he was subjected to assault and mistreatment,” the report said, adding that there is a “suspicion of the crime of torture … which was carried out with the intent of forcing them to confess to committing the crime they were charged with.”

After the Court of Cassation, considering this new evidence, overturned the death sentences in October 2018, an appeals court in January 2020 reinstated the convictions and death sentences. The court effectively rewrote the government’s own evidence to discount Moosa’s torture, in violation of the men’s basic rights.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and finality.

Bahrain’s allies, including the United States and United Kingdom, should press Bahrain to allow United Nations experts to independently investigate Moosa and Ramadan’s torture claims. Bahrain should free the two men or retry them in a judicial proceeding that meets fair trial standards.

Justice at Risk in Democratic Republic of Congo

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image Protesters, including many motorbike-taxi drivers, demonstrate while holding placards for the second day around the Parliament in Kinshasa, June 24, 2020. © 2020 Arsene Mpiana/AFP via Getty Images

Addressing the nation on the eve of Independence Day last week, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, pledged to fight proposed laws that would undermine the country’s justice system.

A group of parliamentarians loyal to former president Joseph Kabila hope to use their overwhelming majority in parliament to pass three draft laws on the courts. These laws would provide the justice minister greater control over prosecutors, including by intervening in criminal prosecutions and even sanctioning prosecutors for pursuing a case against the minister’s will.

If passed, these laws would threaten to seriously undermine a judicial system already weakened by years of political interference and corruption. Human Rights Watch has long advocated for reforms to strengthen the rule of law in Congo.

The laws face mounting criticisms and street protests from civic groups, as well as opposition from the Catholic Church and protestant churches, and from prosecutors and judges in several cities.

Justice Minister Célestin Tunda, a Kabila loyalist, reportedly bypassed government consultations as well as the president, and endorsed the proposals. On June 27, the authorities briefly detained Tunda, further escalating political tensions in Kinshasa.

The embassies of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States on July 2 issued a joint statement saying that “[u]ndermining this independence [of the courts] would erode protection of civil and political rights in the [Congo].”

The pro-Kabila faction proposed these laws as a major corruption trial, the first of its kind in Congo, came to a close last month. At a time when many Congolese are eager to see justice for corruption and rights abuses, the proposed laws would be a serious step backwards, protecting senior officials from the previous administration who have enjoyed impunity for many years.  

“Under no circumstances will I accept reforms in this sector which, by their nature and content, would harm the fundamental principles governing justice,” Tshisekedi said.

Parliamentary discussions over the draft laws have been postponed to September. They should be withdrawn altogether. Instead of putting forward amendments to existing laws that would further protect a few untouchables, parliament should work to protect the rights of all Congolese and push for much needed accountability.

US: Alabama Missing Ways to Improve Young People’s Health

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020

(Washington, DC) – Alabama is failing to enact policies to improve health outcomes for its young people, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Despite the positive impact adolescent vaccines and sexual health education can have on improving health outcomes in the United States, state policies restrict access to information on sexual and reproductive health, leaving many young people unprepared to lower their health risks throughout their lives.

The 65-page report, “‘It Wasn’t Really Safety, It Was Shame’: Young People, Sexual Health Education, and HPV in Alabama,” documents the Alabama state government’s failure to provide young people with comprehensive, inclusive, and accurate information on sexual and reproductive health. Human Rights Watch also found that the state is not addressing barriers to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine – an effective tool to prevent several types of cancer – and that vaccination rates throughout Alabama remain low.

July 8, 2020 “It Wasn’t Really Safety, It Was Shame”

“Young people need access to accurate information on their sexual health to build healthy relationships and make informed and safe decisions,” said Annerieke Daniel, women’s rights fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Alabama can significantly improve health outcomes and possibly wipe out cervical cancer for future generations by guaranteeing comprehensive sexual health education in schools and increasing HPV vaccination rates.”

At a time when the United States is focused on health equity, the Alabama State Department of Education is enacting a new five-year strategic plan to reform the education system. Alabama has a unique opportunity to address historic inequalities and prioritize the long-term health and well-being of all young people. Any plan to increase student achievement and success should guarantee comprehensive sexual health education for all adolescents.

Earlier Human Rights Watch research detailed state policies that create a significant gap in protecting Alabama’s women from dying prematurely and addressing persisting racial disparities in health outcomes in the state. From May 2019 to January 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed 113 people for the new report, including 45 between the ages of 14 and 26 who shared their experiences of sexual health education in 16 Alabama counties.

Alabama has high rates of sexually transmitted infections and of cancers associated with HPV, including cervical cancer, a highly preventable and treatable disease. According to the latest data available from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017, Alabama was among the top five US states with the highest rates of cervical cancer cases and deaths. Black women in Alabama are nearly twice as likely to die of the disease as white women.

Click to expand Image ©

Alabama does not require teaching sexual health education in schools, but for schools that do, the Alabama State Code requires a focus on abstinence. Abstinence-focused education programs withhold critical, scientifically accurate information that young people need to make safer decisions to protect their health and instead often shame adolescent sexuality, with harmful consequences. The State Code also contains stigmatizing language around same-sex activity and prohibits schools from teaching lessons about sexual health in ways that affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.

Ashley W., who identifies as gay, said: “Every message that I ever got about sex, relationships, sexual health has all been wrapped in shame.” She said that “it has carried with me into my adulthood and it’s something I am continuously trying to shake.” At age 22, Ashley still has not been to see a gynecologist, which she partly attributes to the shame she felt around her sexuality growing up.

Misunderstandings among educators about the sexual health content teachers are permitted to teach, as well as inadequate teacher training on the topic, further limit the effectiveness of sexual health education in Alabama. Some schools, especially in rural and less wealthy areas, cannot afford to teach sexual health. The resulting unequal access to information can create lifelong disadvantages for some students, particularly those who are Black and live in poverty, and may contribute to racial disparities in health outcomes as they enter adulthood.

Alabama is also failing to invest in a proven effective cancer prevention tool – the HPV vaccine. Vaccination rates in Alabama are below the national average, leaving many youth unprotected against most of the strains of HPV that can lead to cancer. Very few young people learn in school about HPV, the vaccine, and how they can protect themselves from the virus. Misconceptions among parents and stigma because HPV is associated with sexual activity contribute to low vaccination rates.

Alabama should enact legislation mandating comprehensive sexual health education in all primary and secondary schools that is age-appropriate, scientifically and medically accurate, rights-based, and inclusive of all young people, Human Rights Watch said. Alabama should also allocate funding for community-based initiatives to ensure information on sexual health reaches young people who are out of school, adopt clear policies that facilitate education around HPV, and address additional barriers that contribute to low HPV vaccination rates.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore Alabama’s racial disparities in health, with Black Alabamians significantly more likely to die from the virus than white people in the state. It has exposed structural inequalities and state failures to invest in everyone’s health and rights, including people in low-income and marginalized communities. The pandemic has also brought attention to the importance of ensuring that everyone has the information and resources they need to make informed decisions and take steps to safeguard their health.

“By investing in young people, Alabama’s government could reverse the trend of poor health outcomes that plague the state after years of discriminatory neglect,” Daniel said.  “Comprehensive sexual health education in schools can lay a solid foundation for all young people to thrive as healthy and informed adults.


Selected accounts from the report:

Monique S. (pseudonym), 22
:
Monique S. said that the sex education she received in high school “was actively harmful and not at all useful or valid information.” Guest speakers who were brought into her 9th grade health class used harmful metaphors and shameful language around sex. They also showed graphic photos of sexually transmitted infections, which she described as a doomsday scenario: “This is gonorrhea. This is chlamydia. This is what it looks like on your genitals and face and stuff. And here are your chances of getting it if you have sex even once.” Beyond abstinence, Monique and her peers were not provided with any information on how to prevent these infections or how to protect themselves and stay healthy into adulthood. She said the education she received on sexual health “wasn’t about providing accurate information. It was about scaring people.”

Joan A. (pseudonym), 21:
Joan A. said that abstinence was always preached in school, especially to young girls, and she was never educated on protecting herself or having conversations with sexual partners about protection. Although she left for college believing she would wait until marriage to have sex, she ended up having unprotected sex with one person and contracted trichomoniasis, a common and treatable infection. She said that, “I didn’t have my own protection but I expected him to and he didn’t.” Although she felt she should not have unprotected sex, Joan lacked not only the confidence to say no to her partner, but also an understanding of steps she could have taken to protect herself in that situation.

Ariel G., 23:
Although she was sexually active in high school, Ariel G. said that she didn’t feel comfortable seeking out information or resources on her sexual health due to her feelings of shame: 
It [sex] was like seen as something so bad so I never felt like I wanted to speak up about it. Or if I wanted help, I never felt like I could reach out because I was already seen as a criminal for having sex. So it makes it more like a kind of thing to be done in secrecy.

Patricia E. (pseudonym), 25:
Patricia E. said that the primary care doctors she saw as an adolescent in Marengo County did not recommend the HPV vaccine. She first heard about it when she saw a commercial on television when she was 17, but it was not until years later that she learned about the role the vaccine plays in preventing cancer: “I didn’t even know until I was 22 that the HPV vaccine was a preventive measure against cervical cancer.”

Burkina Faso: Residents’ Accounts Point to Mass Executions

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Click to expand Image © 2020 Burkina24

(Bamako) – Common graves containing at least 180 bodies have been found in a northern town in Burkina Faso in recent months, and available evidence suggests government security force involvement in mass extrajudicial executions, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should seek assistance from the United Nations and other partners to conduct proper exhumations, return remains to families, and hold those responsible to account.

Residents of the town of Djibo who saw the bodies told Human Rights Watch that the dead, all men, had between November 2019 and June 2020 been left in groups of from 3 to 20 along major roadways, under bridges, and in fields and vacant lots. With few exceptions, the bodies were found within a 5-kilometer radius of central Djibo.

Residents buried most in common burials in March and April, while other remains are still unburied. They said they believed the majority of the victims were ethnic Fulani or Peuhl men, identified by their clothing and physical features, and that many were found blindfolded and with bound hands, and had been shot. Several residents said that they knew numerous victims, including relatives.  

"The Burkina Faso authorities need to urgently uncover who turned Djibo into a 'killing field' said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. "Existing information points toward government security forces, so it's critical to have impartial investigations, evidence properly gathered, and families informed about what happened to their loved ones." 

Since November, Human Rights Watch has interviewed 23 people by telephone and in person who described seeing the bodies. Several interviewees provided hand-drawn maps of where they found and buried the dead. All believed that government security forces, who control Djibo, had executed the vast majority of the men. However, none had witnessed the killings and Human Rights Watch could not independently verify those claims. Human Rights Watch is analyzing satellite imagery of the locations of common graves in the vicinity. 


On June 28, Human Rights Watch wrote the Burkinabè government detailing the major findings of the research, and on July 3, the Minister of Defense responded on behalf of the government, committing to investigate the allegations and to ensure the respect of human rights in security operations. He said the killings occurred during an uptick in attacks by armed Islamists and suggested they could have been committed by these groups, using stolen army uniforms and logistics, noting it is at times “difficult for the population to distinguish between armed terrorist groups and the Defense and Security Forces.” The minister also confirmed the government’s approval for the establishment of an office in Ouagadogou by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Beginning in 2016, armed Islamist groups allied with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State have attacked security force posts and civilians throughout Burkina Faso, but mostly in the Sahel region bordering Mali and Niger. Human Rights Watch has since 2017 documented the killing of several hundred civilians by armed Islamist groups along with their widespread attacks on schools. Human Rights Watch has also documented the unlawful killing of several hundred men, apparently by government security forces, for their alleged support of these groups, including 31 men found executed after the security forces detained them in Djibo on April 9.

The 23 people interviewed, including farmers, traders, herders, civil servants, community leaders, and aid workers, believed the security forces had detained the men as suspected members or supporters of Islamist armed groups.

“So many of the dead were blindfolded, had their hands tied up … and were shot in the head,” said a community leader. “The bodies I saw appeared in the morning … dumped at night on the outskirts of Djibo, a town under the control of the army and in the middle of a curfew imposed and patrolled by the army.”

Some residents said that they found the bodies after hearing the sound of vehicles passing and bursts of gunfire at night. “We’ve grown accustomed to hearing the sound of shots ringing out at night, and later seeing bodies in the bush or along the road,” an elder from Djibo said.

“At night, so many times I’d hear the sound of vehicles and then, bam! bam! bam!” said a farmer. “And the next morning we’d see or hear of bodies found in this place or that.”At least 114 men were buried in 14 common graves during a mass burial on March 8 and 9 organized by residents with the approval of the military and local authorities. Local residents also buried 18 men, found around March 18 about a kilometer east of Djibo, in a common grave in early April. The bodies of another approximately 40 men, including 20 allegedly discovered in mid-March south of Djibo and another 18 found in May near the airport, had yet to be buried. 

An ethnic dynamic underscores the violence in Burkina Faso. The Islamist armed groups largely recruit from the nomadic Peuhl or Fulani community, and their attacks have primarily targeted agrarian communities including the Mosssi, Foulse, and Gourmantche. The vast majority of men killed by alleged security forces are Peuhl because of their perceived support of the armed Islamists.

"Djibo reidents should feel protected by, not terrified of, their own army. The government's failure to make good on promises of accountability for past allegations of security force abuse, including in Djibo, appears to have emboldened the perpetrators," Dufka said. “The authorities need to put an end to unlawful killings through credible and independent investigations.”

Bodies Appear in Djibo

Residents of Djibo said they first started seeing bodies in the more rural, less inhabited parts of the town in November 2019. “Human remains are strewn all over the outer limits of Djibo town … along sides of road, near a pond, by the Djibo dam, near abandoned houses, under a bridge, and in the bush,” one man said.

“From November 2019, so many bodies started showing up,” another man said. “Five or six here, 10 or 16 there, along the three highways out of town ... to the north, east, and south.”

Residents said the vast majority of the dead were ethnic Peuhl, identified as such by their clothing, features, and, in about 10 cases, by those who knew individual victims by name.

The people interviewed were extremely anxious as they spoke with Human Rights Watch and said they feared reprisals from the security forces, who had been implicated in the extrajudicial killing of 31 men in Djibo in April, and other killings there, since 2017.

The residents did not believe the men were killed in a gun battle. “Yes, Djibo has been attacked and there are jihadists [armed Islamists] not so very far from Djibo,” said a resident who had observed several groups of bodies. “But on the days before seeing bodies, we weren’t aware of any clashes or battles between the jihadists and army in the middle or outskirts of Djibo. Word travels fast and we’d know if this were the case.”

Another resident, who said he frequently travels from Djibo, said: “Had there been clashes with the terrorists, the public transport would have stopped.… We never would have been able to travel.”

Nine people identified some of the dead by name, including family members, whom they had either witnessed being detained by the security forces or had been informed by someone else who had seen the men being detained. In each of these incidents, the body they identified had been found with numerous other victims. One man, for instance, recognized “a man named Tamboura from a village further south, who I’d seen arrested in the Djibo cattle market by soldiers some days earlier.” Another recognized a man who worked as a security guard and who had been arrested by soldiers days before his body was found. Others described seeing the bodies of men they had seen being arrested by the authorities at the market, the hospital, during a food distribution, or at the bus station. 

Several residents said they believed many of the unidentified victims had been detained during army operations or were internally displaced villagers who in recent months had settled in and around Djibo after fleeing their home villages. "Djibo isn't such a but town that we wouldn't recognize people, which is why we think so many of the dead were displaced," one resident said. 

Many residents speculated that the army had arrested the displaced people for questioning, fearing infiltration by armed Islamist groups, which had attacked Djibo on several occasions. “The army has really hit the IDPs [internally displaced persons],” a resident said. “They’ve gone for them in the animal market, as they come in to Djibo to buy and sell. After so many major jihadist attacks in Mali and Burkina, they’re really afraid of infiltration.”

Apparent Extrajudicial Executions

Residents described seeing groups of bodies near their homes as they grazed their animals or as they walked or drove along the major roads leading out of Djibo.

Apparent Execution of Five Men on June 13, 2020

On June 14, several residents described seeing the bodies of five men scattered over a half a kilometer in two of Djibo’s southern neighborhoods, sectors 3 and 8. One of those found, 54-year-old Sadou Hamadoume Dicko, the local chief and municipal councilor of Gomdè Peulh village, had been seen arrested by soldiers the previous day. Residents could not identify the other four bodies.

A trader described the arrest of Dicko on June 13:

Being the chief, he’d just finished picking up sacks of rice and millet for his people, now in Djibo after fleeing their village, about 125 kilometers away. Mr. Dicko had in April 2018 been abducted and held for several days by the Jihadists but this time it was the army who took him. At around 11:30 a.m. four men in uniform on motorcycles surrounded him and about six others and took them into an unfinished building for interrogation. Eventually, the soldiers let the others go but left with Mr. Dicko.


Three residents said they heard gunshots on June 13 and found the bodies of the five men the next day. “The gunshots rang out around 8 p.m. and the next day, June 14, I was called to be told the chief was dead,” one resident said. “It was what we feared. His hands were bound tightly behind his back and he had been shot in the head and chest.”Said another: "The shots rand out a few hours after the 7 p.m. curfew...[L]ater we saw one body to the north, near La Maison de la Femme [Women’s Center], another south near a large well, and three others next to an elevation of sand.” All of the men were buried later the same day.

Apparent Execution of 18 Men, May 13 and 19, 2020  

Residents described seeing the security forces arrest 17 men near a Djibo market on May 13. The bodies of the 17 were found the next day along a path going through sector 5, also known as Mbodowol. The men had been shot in the head, according to the residents. Another man, with a mental disability, was found around the same place after having been arrested on May 19. At writing, the bodies had not yet been buried.

Said one resident:

I was in the market, when at around 10 a.m. I saw two vehicles with about 10 soldiers drive up. I don’t know if they were gendarmes or army. I was too afraid to stare at them, but I saw they were in uniform, with helmets and vests and all held semi-automatic weapons. The 17 men had come from other villages to buy and sell that day. I recognized many of them, who worked as blacksmiths.


A sector 5 resident who heard gunshots on May 13 and saw the bodies a day later near the Djibo airfield said:

They were killed as darkness fell. I saw a vehicle from afar, coming from the direction of town. Sometime later we heard shots. Around 15 minutes later the same vehicle returned, this time with the headlamps on. On Thursday, May 14, around 9 a.m. we discovered the bodies – eight on one side close together … their faces covered with their shirts – and around 20 meters away, nine more bodies. They’d been shot in the head. You could see this clearly…and there were bullet casings on the ground. The men looked to be from 25 to 45 [years old.] The body of another man was found in the same place a few days later. That one, I’d seen arrested…he lives near me. He is not normal [has a mental disability] … He was picked up outside his house listening to his radio. There is a curfew and only the army can drive around at night like this.


Apparent Execution of 18 Men, March 17, 2020

Residents said that on March 18, they saw 18 bodies about 500 to 700 meters east of Djibo. The bodies were found near several large publicity signs that line the Djibo-Tongomayel road.

A man who feared his brother was among the dead explained why he believed government security forces were responsible for killing the 18 men:

On March 17, around 7 a.m., I got a frantic call from the bus station saying my brother and another man had just been arrested by gendarmes as they boarded a bus to Ouagadougou [the capital]. Later that night, around 9 p.m. I heard many gunshots, and thought, oh God, my brother is dead.

Just after dawn, I went in the direction of the shots and found 18 bodies. Their hands were tied, and they were blindfolded, each shot in the forehead. The blood flowed like a pond. The bodies were all together in a pile. I looked for my brother among the corpses … moving them enough to see if he was there. But he wasn’t. Among the dead, I recognized six men … they’d all been arrested by the FDS [Defense and Security Forces]. One was [name withheld] who had recently had a foot operation and had been arrested in front of many people near the hospital. I recognized his boubou [wide-sleeved robe]; his foot was still bandaged. Five others were traders I myself had seen arrested by the FDS on market day a week prior. As for my brother, he is still missing, even today.

Apparent Execution of 9 Men, January 15, 2020

A man who saw nine bodies on the road going east to Tongomayal, including a close relative, on January 16, said:
 

I discovered the bodies of nine people some meters off the road, one of whom was my 23-year-old nephew. They’d been arrested the day before. A friend called around 11 a.m. saying there was trouble in the market, that my boy had been arrested. I went to the market immediately and saw all nine, tied up and face down on the ground. Four gendarmes led them into their vehicle and took them away. That night around 8 p.m. I heard shots near the Djibo dam, and in the morning saw them in the bush, hands tied, riddled with bullets … Eight were Peuhl and one was a Bellah. We were too afraid to even bury them … we had to watch my nephew turn into a skeleton. He was not laid to rest until the mass burial in March, with dozens of others, but it was hardly a funeral and my boy was not a jihadist.


Bodies Found Near Djibo’s Sector 4, November 2019 and January 2020

Five residents of Djibo’s Sector 4 (also known as Wourossaba and Boguelsawa), south of the town, described seeing three groups of bodies within what they said was a one kilometer radius: a group of 8 bodies and a group of at least 16 bodies in November 2019, and a group of between 16 and 19 bodies around January 8, 2020. The total number of bodies seen largely corresponds to the 43 bodies buried in this sector during the mass burial on March 8 and 9.

A resident of Sector 4 described the three groups of bodies:

Many didn’t have shirts, and most were tied — some their eyes, others by the wrist, and they’d been shot. I knew none of them but believe all 43 were prisoners because all three times, I’d heard vehicles coming from the direction of town and saw the headlights … and heard gunshots. It was too far and too dark to see their uniforms but there wasn’t a battle and the jihadists can’t be driving around in a heavy truck that close to Djibo.


Another resident of Sector 4 described seeing 19 bodies around January 8:

I saw them around 7 a.m., 19 bodies in a line – all men, save one around 15 years old. The night before, I’d seen lights of a vehicle – it was around 8 p.m. and we were under curfew. Then I heard the shots. The bodies were about one kilometer south of Djibo, and 150 meters west from the highway – many bound at the arms, and with their eyes blindfolded. They’d been shot in the head, others in the chest, others the stomach. We didn’t know any of them, so they just stayed there until the March burial, by that time they were almost skeletons.


A health worker said that in February on the way to Ouagadougou she saw five bodies from her bus window, about 15 kilometers south of Djibo, near the village of Mentao: “They were 20 meters from the road – the bodies smelled – it seemed they’d been there for a week or so. By their dress, all the men appeared to be Peuhl. When I returned a week later, they were still there.” These bodies were not buried during the March mass burial.

Burials in March and April 2020

Djibo residents described an organized mass burial on March 8 and 9 during which at least 114 bodies were collected and buried in 14 common graves.

Residents who attended the burials said the bodies were in various stages of decomposition. “Some had just been killed, others had started to decompose, and many others were skeletons,” one said.

“Given how long the bodies had been outside, notably under the hot sun, many were only identifiable by their clothing,” said another.

Several residents said the dead were left unburied both because the families were either not from Djibo or because they were too frightened to claim the body. “Fear stopped people from burying the dead,” a village elder said. “You need permission from the security forces to bury a body and given the level of tension in Djibo these days, people are just too terrified that if they claim the body of a man accused of being a terrorist, they too will be taken and end up dead.” Many residents described the burials as “a delicate subject” which was not covered by local media. “Fear has kept us from talking much about the mass burials,” a village leader said.

“The bodies were scattered along and not far from the major roads leading to and from Djibo,” a resident said. “The first day, we worked from 9 a.m. to noon and buried 42 bodies to the south, along the Djibo-Ouagagdougou road. On the second day it was worse … working from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. we buried 72 people, 20 to the north and 52 to the east, along the Djibo-Dori road. Some people gathered the bodies while others dug the graves. The dead were buried in 14 common graves with from 3, 6, 7, up to 23 bodies.”

They said Djibo residents had obtained permission from both the civilian and military authorities based in Djibo to bury the dead largely because of the potential health and sanitation risk. “We were fearful of epidemics, especially as we approach the rainy season,” a community leader said. “We were overwhelmed seeing the bodies of lifeless people and so we organized ourselves and asked the authorities for permission to bury the dead,” said another.

Other residents spoke of the mental health impact on the town. “We organized the burial on health grounds but also because of the psychological impact on people, especially children, having to walk by the bodies every day on their way to market or school,” one resident said.

A herder said: “Imagine what it’s like to see these bodies every day, some eaten by dogs and vultures. It’s not easy living with that terrible reality day after day.”

Those who observed the mass burials said they were attended by the civilian authorities, who they said helped organize the funeral; the health authorities, who provided masks and sanitizer; and the security forces, which provided security. They said they were “strictly forbidden” from taking photographs of the burials. “No one would dare do that because the FDS was watching,” a resident said.

A resident who was at the burial said:

After getting authorization – from the army – and after involving health officers – we spent two days burying the dead who were in groups of 5, 7, 9, 20 – scattered all over. I didn’t recognize any of them, but several of those watching the burial later told me they’d recognized their father, brother, or son … that he’d been missing since being arrested by the soldiers in Djibo or in their village – weeks or months earlier. They didn’t say anything during the burial though … out of fear that they too would be arrested.

A man who buried 13 of the bodies found in north Djibo, including a family member whom he had last seen in the custody of the security forces in January, said “The road to Tongomayel was full of corpses and remains. Honestly, many were only skeletons … and their bodies had been scattered by animals. We were divided in groups, and went about looking for ribs, body parts.”

Two people described the burial in early April of the 18 men whose bodies were found on the road to Tongomayel around March 18. The bodies appeared after the security services had allegedly arrested the men. “We dug a large hole, big enough for all of them, and put sand and branches on top of it,” one man said. “The road to Tongomayel is full of bodies … the 52 buried during the mass burial, the 18 from mid-March, and it hasn’t stopped.”

Bodies Found, Left Unburied

Three residents described seeing 20 bodies that they said had been left in mid-March about 100 meters from the cemetery in Boguelsawa neighborhood, several kilometers south of Djibo.“Just days after we buried over 100 bodies, we woke up to find another 20 bodies,” a resident said. “It’s like, whoever is doing the killing is mocking us.” They told Human Rights Watch on June 14 that the bodies, now scattered and decomposed, have yet to be buried. “With death all around, we feel like tomorrow could be my turn to die,” a resident wrote.

Another man said that on June 1, “My nephew came across three dead while gathering wood north of Djibo, including two [ethnic] Bellahs we know well. He was so frightened he ran straight home without the wood.” As of June 30, the 18 dead found near the airport in mid-May had similarly yet to be buried.

Recommendations

Residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch were unaware of any judicial investigations into the apparent killings. Some killings allegedly implicating the security forces had occurred after the government’s pledge to fully investigate the apparent execution of 31 men detained by the security forces on April 9, 2020.

Human Rights Watch urges the Burkina Faso authorities to:

  • Promptly and impartially investigate the killings in Djibo since November 2019, and fairly and appropriately prosecute all those responsible for extrajudicial killings and other crimes, including as a matter of command responsibility. Ensure the findings are made public.
  • Send the commanders of the two security force bases in Djibo– the gendarmerie and army – on administrative leave, pending outcome of the investigation.
  • Invite United Nations or other neutral international forensic experts, including those with experience working before criminal tribunals, to help preserve and analyze evidence in common graves. Exhumations without forensic experts can destroy critical evidence and greatly compromise the identification of bodies.
  • Return remains of individuals found to be buried in graves or left unburied to their family members.

 

Turkey: Plan to Divide, Undermine Legal Profession

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image Chairs of Turkey’s provincial bar associations stage a sit-in demonstration after police blocked the group from marching to Ankara to protest a new draft law. The new law is set to divide the legal profession along political lines and has been strongly opposed by bar associations. June 22, 2020.  © AP Photo

(Istanbul) – The Turkish government’s plan to allow for multiple bar associations appears calculated to divide the legal profession along political lines and diminish the biggest bar associations’ role as human rights watchdogs, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said today. The current bar associations have not been consulted, and 78 bars out of 80 signed a statement opposing the plan.

Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists have published a question and answer document explaining the draft law, scheduled for a vote in parliament in the coming days. The document outlines the government-led effort to reduce the influence of leading bar associations, reflecting the executive’s growing dissatisfaction with the bar associations’ public reporting on Turkey’s crisis for human rights and the rule of law.

“Turkey’s prominent bar associations play a key role in defending fair trial rights and scrutinizing human rights at a time when flagrant violation of rights is the norm in Turkey,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government move to create multiple bars and dramatically cut leading bars’ representation at the national level is a clear divide-and-rule tactic to diminish the bar associations’ authority and watchdog role.”

The proposed amendments provide that in provinces with over 5,000 lawyers, a group of at least 2,000 lawyers can establish alternative bar associations. In big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, several bar associations could be established. The amendments would also greatly reduce the representation of the largest bar associations at the national level within the Union of Turkish Bars, the Ankara-based umbrella body with significant financial resources it controls and distributes to provincial bars.

The fact that the vast majority of elected legal profession representatives oppose the move and that the likely impact will be to greatly diminish the authority of leading provincial bars that have been critical of certain government initiatives demonstrates that the aim of the proposed change is to shield the government from justified criticism, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said.

Drastically cutting the number of delegates from large bar associations representing thousands of lawyers to the national Union of Turkish Bar Associations would reduce the influence of the large bar associations in electing the national group’s president and participating meaningfully in other decision-making functions.  

A provincial bar association with fewer than 100 lawyers, such as Ardahan in northeastern Turkey, for example, would be represented by 4 delegates, compared with 3 at present. But a bar association such as Izmir in western Turkey, with over 9,500 lawyers, which sends 35 delegates, would be entitled to only 5. Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir Bar, which represent 55 percent of the lawyers in Turkey, would be entitled to only 7 percent of all delegates within the national union.

The atmosphere of conflict in which the draft law has been introduced, its timing, and the lack of consultation with the bar associations themselves provides credible grounds for great concern and skepticism over the government’s motives, the groups said. Over the past year, Turkey’s presidency and government have made public statements strongly criticizing leading bar associations in response to the bars’ legitimate expression of concerns about Turkey’s rule of law crisis and executive interference in the justice system. The government has reacted strongly against the bars’ scrutiny of its failure to uphold human rights obligations through bar association publication of reports on torture, enforced disappearances, and other rights abuses ignored by the authorities.

For these reasons, the government’s proposed amendments are clearly designed to achieve a political purpose unrelated to an effort to advance or strengthen standards in the legal profession, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said. The government’s move is politically divisive and will contribute to undermining the appearance of independence and impartiality in the justice system.

“The government should immediately withdraw the current proposed amendment and embark on a process of full consultation with bar associations,” said Roisin Pillay, director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at the International Commission of Jurists. “The government’s plan as it stands will only deepen mistrust in Turkey’s justice system as lacking independence by dividing the legal profession along political lines. This could have disastrous long-term consequences for upholding the role and function of lawyers and for fair trial rights.”

Moscow’s Use of Facial Recognition Technology Challenged

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image In this photo taken on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, two surveillance camera are seen in a street in Moscow, Russia. Moscow's city officials announced the use of facial recognition technology to target people evading quarantine © AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Activist Alyona Popova and politician Vladimir Milov have lodged a complaint over Russia’s use facial recognition technology during protests to the European Court of Human Rights.

Their lawyer, Kirill Koroteyev, said this would be the first case challenging the use of facial recognition technology to conduct mass surveillance in the court’s practice.   

On September 29, 2019, at least 20,000 people, including Popova and Milov, took part in an authorized rally in Moscow in solidarity with those arrested and charged for their participation in peaceful protests. The demonstrations were triggered by the exclusion of independent candidates from the Moscow city legislature elections.

According to Popova and Milov, all the participants of the September protest had to pass through metal detectors equipped with CCTV cameras installed at eye level. The Moscow government announced plans shortly before the protests to use facial recognition technology at large public gatherings. The applicants believe that this was the first case of the Moscow authorities using facial recognition technology to gather data about protestors.

In January, the applicants filed a domestic complaint against the Moscow government. Koroteyev, the head of the international justice program at Agora, said that during a January court hearing in Moscow, a representative of the Moscow Information Technology Department confirmed the use of the facial recognition technology to conduct mass surveillance at the protest. In March, the court dismissed the complaint, claiming that the government’s use of the technology was legal.

Collection of protesters’ unique biometric data through the use of facial recognition technology violates the right to privacy and the freedom of assembly, as protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, Popova and Milov argue in their application. They also state that using this technology at an opposition rally amounts to a discrimination based on political views.

Russian law requires explicit consent for government and private collection of biometric data via facial recognition technology, although there are exceptions set out in the set of vague laws on public security and countering crime.

Article 6 of the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with Regard to the Processing of Personal Data (Convention 108+), signed by Russia, underlines the importance of the appropriate legal safeguards to processing of the biometric data obtained via facial recognition technology. Koroteyev noted these safeguards are missing under the Russian law, especially given the absence of any judicial or public oversight over the surveillance methods, including facial recognition.

Venezuela: Rulings Threaten Free and Fair Elections

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Click to expand Image Nicolas Maduro, sitting at desk second from right, speaks with Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno at the Supreme Court before giving his annual presidential address in Caracas, Venezuela. January 31, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

(Washington, DC) – Venezuela’s Supreme Court is demonstrating its lack of independence by appointing government supporters to leadership positions in three opposition parties and to the National Electoral Council, Human Rights Watch said today. In doing so, it is undermining Venezuelans’ rights to free and fair elections and freedom of association.

On July 7, 2020, the Supreme Court suspended the leadership of the opposition political party Voluntad Popular, to which the National Assembly president Juan Guaidó belongs, and appointed supporters of the Nicolás Maduro administration to lead it. The court also held that the new leadership could use the name and logo of Voluntad Popular in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In a series of rulings in June, the Supreme Court similarly orchestrated the takeover of two other opposition political parties, Acción Democrática and Movimiento Primero Justicia, replacing their leadership with Maduro administration supporters.

“When a judiciary that answers to Maduro decapitates opposition political parties that represent dissenting voices, it undermines the rights of all Venezuelans, dispensing with even the pretense of a democratic process,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Venezuelans’ right to vote for their preferred candidates requires a free and fair election in which all parties and candidates have a reasonable opportunity to present their ideas to the electorate.”

On July 1, the Venezuelan authorities announced that they will hold legislative elections on December 6 to fill 277 seats in the National Assembly, increasing the total number of seats by 110, from the current 167 seats. The move appears to be a first step toward packing the legislative branch.

In June, the Supreme Court suspended opposition leaders of Acción Democrática and Movimiento Primero Justicia, contending that they had breached their respective statutes regulating the election of party authorities and had denied members various political rights. Some members of both political parties claimed that the suspended leaders had changed the parties’ regional, municipal, and local authorities “at their will.” The ruling on Voluntad Popular is not yet available on the Supreme Court’s website.

In each of the two available rulings, the court used almost identical language, appointing an ad hoc board of directors to “restructure” the parties and ruling that new leaders will fulfill “the managerial and representative functions of the organization” and designate “regional, municipal, and local authorities.” The ruling allows the new leadership to use “the electoral card, the logo, symbols, emblems, colors and any other concept of the organization for political purposes” and to modify the party’s internal statutes. The court announced that it was applying similar measures to Voluntad Popular.

The Supreme Court appointed José Gregorio Noriega, Guillermo Luces, and Lucila Ángela Pacheco to head Voluntad Popular. Noriega is a legislator who was expelled from the party after being implicated in bribing other legislators to vote against Guaidó as president of the National Assembly in January. Luces was also expelled after voting for a government supporter, Luis Parra, to lead the National Assembly in the same contested election, which led to the creation of a parallel pro-government National Assembly leadership. Both Parra and Noriega have been recently sanctioned by the European Union and the United States. Pacheco is a former legislator from the government party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Primero Justicia is now chaired by José Dionisio Brito, who had been expelled from the party amid corruption allegations and had also supported Parra’s election. Acción Democrática is currently chaired by Bernabé Gutiérrez, whose brother is a member of the newly appointed National Electoral Council.

A similar case is pending before the Supreme Court, asking it to remove the leadership of Un Nuevo Tiempo, the only one of the so-called G4 parties that oppose the Maduro administration that the court has not yet taken over.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s attorney general has asked the Supreme Court to declare Voluntad Popular a terrorist organization, arguing that it has sought to destabilize the Maduro government. This case is currently pending before the Supreme Court’s Criminal Chamber. Voluntad Popular’s leader, Leopoldo López, has been the subject of an arbitrary and politically motivated prosecution since 2014.

The court’s appointment of pro-government politicians to lead Venezuela’s opposition parties severely undermines the ability of dissenting voices to participate in the electoral process, unjustifiably restricting its members’ human rights to freedom of association and expression, Human Rights Watch said. The new leadership’s ability to use logos, symbols, and emblems from the opposition parties also threatens basic rights to information and political participation, as it creates a serious risk of misinformation and deception of voters who have associated those images with the opposition parties’ ideals.

The right to associate for political purposes, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has said, not only entails the right to associate freely without interference from public authorities, but also the freedom “to seek the common achievement of a licit goal, without pressure or interference that could alter or change their purpose.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights “considers that the right to vote and to participate in government includes the right to organize parties and political associations that, through the free exchange of ideas, prevent a monopoly on power[.]” Similarly, the Inter-American Democratic Charter establishes that “The strengthening of political parties and other political organizations is a priority for democracy.”

Governments – including courts – may only restrict political rights if it is lawful to do so and necessary and proportionate for a legitimate purpose. The Supreme Court’s rulings did not analyze whether these criteria were met. The Venezuelan Constitution provides that political parties’ governing bodies and candidates running for office are to be selected in internal elections in which party members should participate. For the court to address a dispute about the election of party leadership by imposing its own hand-picked choices is not lawful, necessary, or proportional.

On June 12, the Supreme Court selected all five members of the National Election Council, despite constitutional provisions establishing that the National Assembly, currently the only opposition-led institution that acts as a check on executive power, should do so. All appointed members of the Council are government supporters, including two former Supreme Court justices who have issued several rulings favoring the government. Three of them have been sanctioned by the United States, Canada, Panama, and/or members of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance.

The removed leadership of opposition political parties had publicly said they would not participate in the upcoming legislative elections because there are no guarantees they will be free and fair. The new court-appointed leadership, instead, has announced that they intend to do so.

Since former President Hugo Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly conducted a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004, Venezuela’s judiciary has stopped functioning as an independent branch of government. Members of the Supreme Court have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and have consistently upheld abusive policies and practices.

The Supreme Court has interfered with the leadership or internal structure of eight opposition political parties since 2012. The playing field leading up to past elections was far from even, with arbitrary disqualifications of opposition members from running from office and credible allegations of political discrimination in government jobs, which undermine the ability of many Venezuelans to express their views freely. Venezuelan authorities have also used hunger as a tool of social and political control during past elections.

The last elections in 2017 to choose Constituent Assembly members were marred by allegations of fraud leveled by Smartmatic, a British company hired by the government to oversee the vote that concluded that there had been tampering with the turnout figures and estimated that actual voter turnout was probably at least 1 million less than the 8 million official reported. There has been no independent oversight of Venezuelan elections for years.

UK’s New Human Rights Sanctions Offer Tool to Curb Abuse

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Click to expand Image The Union Flag flies near the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, June 7, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

This week’s launch of the United Kingdom’s human rights sanctions regime offers victims a chance to see a measure of justice for the harms they suffered. Yet to be effective, it’s vital they are used fairly and consistently.

The sanctions, which freeze assets of human rights abusers and ban them from entering the UK, will apply to government officials and private individuals engaged in serious abuses including killing, torture, and forced labor, and in some cases, rape and sexual violence.

The United States and Canada already have similar mechanisms and the European Union and Australia are developing them.

The first people named include individuals from Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Myanmar, and entities in North Korea. The absence of any Chinese officials linked to abuses in Hong Kong or Xinjiang is a shocking omission.

Experience suggests that while individual human rights sanctions can be an important tool, they are not a magic bullet. The UK government’s own guidance indicates they are likely to be pursued when sharper tools like criminal justice are not possible.

Freezing assets and banning travel to the UK may not trouble some abusers, especially those with few ties to the UK. And individual sanctions may not deter abusive governments if they assess that the price to individual officials is worth paying to maintain their abusive policies.

Moreover, if used selectively – for example, only against individuals in less powerful countries or those with whom the UK is in dispute – they are likely to be seen as politicized. There is also a danger they serve as a substitute for a more comprehensive political or economic measures against human rights abusers.

Those shortcomings can be partly ameliorated by coordinating with other states, using them even when politically or diplomatically inconvenient, and ensuring they are part of a broader strategy to champion human rights in UK diplomacy.

So it was deeply disappointing that 24 hours after sanctioning Saudi officials for human rights abuses, the UK government lifted its ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, despite clear evidence of the Saudi-led coalition’s responsibility for war crimes in Yemen.

If the UK government is serious about being a force for good in the world, it needs to make sure that its new sanctions programme is part a broader strategy to consistently champion rights globally.

Another Journalist Arrested in Russia

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Click to expand Image Photograph of Ivan Safronov, from his Facebook page.

Just this week, we celebrated that a journalist in Russia would not be going to prison, despite a guilty verdict against her on bogus charges. But today, news broke that the Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested veteran journalist Ivan Safronov on treason charges. In an apparently related development, the FSB also raided the home of Safronov’s friend, journalist Taisiya Bekbulatova, who is being interrogated as a case witness.

This is a dangerous development. If convicted, Safronov could face a maximum 20-year prison sentence. 

Safronov covered business, politics, and foreign affairs for Kommersant, one of Russia’s most prominent business newspapers until 2019, when he was pressured to resign. After, he started reporting for Vedomosti, from which he resigned several months ago after the arrival of a new editor-in-chief who started censoring certain types of political criticism. He became an advisor at Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, which stated today that his arrest has nothing to do with his work there.

The FSB alleges that Safronov sent classified information to a NATO member state, but it may be some time before we know if any facts lie behind these claims – or if we ever do. The FSB will likely pressure Safronov’s lawyers to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Should the case go to trial, treason cases are tried in closed hearing. Ivan Pavlov, head of Team 29, a legal defense team working on treason and espionage cases, described being barred access to his defendant’s classified case documents, including to regulations governing procedures for accessing documents containing state secrets. Lawyers in treason cases can face barriers to accessing their clients.

Meanwhile, the number of treason cases brought by the FSB has sharply risen over the years. Pavlov has said that in the late 1990s through 2006 there were 2 to 3 such cases every year, but 7 per year between 2007 and 2016. In 2019, Kommersant counted 8.

The FSB has previously used treason charges to go after journalists, environmentalists, and scientists, and even average citizens, accusing them of accessing or transmitting material already available through open sources. Today, Kommersant vouched for Safronov’s “highest professionalism and character” and called the treason accusations “absurd.”

As I write this, Safronov’s lawyers stated on Telegram that the FSB would not allow them access to their client. The FSB should immediately allow access to Safronov, release him from custody, and ensure his legal team can mount a robust defense.

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