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Mourning the Death of Feminist Icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 18, 2020
Click to expand Image US Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen during a public appearance hosted by the Museum of the City of New York at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York, NY, December 15, 2018.  © 2018 Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa via AP Images

My heart is broken. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is almost too much to process. Justice Ginsberg, the second woman appointed  to the US Supreme Court, was more than a feminist icon, she was a collective feminist grandmother to women, girls, non-binary people – to everyone who struggles to imagine themselves as having a powerful voice for change.

She trailblazed what it meant to be a lawyer who was a mom. A lawyer who fought for gender equality. A lawyer who was petite but unyielding. A lawyer who was a person first, with wit and compassion. With a heart so heavy, it’s impossible to articulate what she meant to women's rights, to a movement that is global, that is growing, that is being squeezed and threatened.

Justice Ginsberg founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. She held the unambiguous belief that: "Women's rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy." She brought that belief to the bench – not as a political agenda, but as a constitutional agenda for equality and justice.

Her push for gender equality and for recognizing women's rights as human rights was revolutionary when she began her career. It is heartbreaking that today gender equality has become politicized and framed as part of a radical agenda.

We should work to ensure that Justice Ginsberg’s replacement on the Supreme Court shares that same commitment to gender equality. It will require everyone who believes that women's rights are human rights to raise their voice, no matter how petite, and to continue the fight for equality of all people.

Afghan Women Win Fight for Their Own Identity

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 18, 2020
Click to expand Image Delegates attend the last day of the Afghan Loya Jirga meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, May 3, 2019. © 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Afghanistan’s president has signed a new law that will, for the first time, include mothers’ names on their children’s birth certificates and identification cards. The law is a major victory for Afghan women’s rights activists, who for several years have campaigned for both parents to be named under the social media hashtag #WhereIsMyName.

The reform will have important real-life consequences, making it easier for women to obtain education, health care, and passports and other documentation for their children, and to travel with their children. It will be especially significant for women who are widowed, divorced, separated, or dealing with abusive partners.

It is also part of the important, if slow, cultural shift taking place in Afghanistan toward ending the erasure of women in Afghan society and overturning harmful ideas, like that women and girls should not be seen or spoken about. Denying women the right to be recognized on their children’s identification essentially gave state backing to the idea that children are the property of the father, and that women should not exist in public life. Women in Afghanistan still face enormous barriers to equity, including discriminatory laws, failure to enforce laws that should protect them, and discriminatory barriers to education and employment. The Afghan government has often failed to respect women’s rights, so government support for this law is encouraging.

This is also an important victory at a moment when Afghan women know that their rights could be sacrificed in the upcoming talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and that the 3 women on the 21-member government-backed negotiating team will be hard-pressed to ensure that a final agreement fully respects women’s rights.

The struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan has been long and hard, and many Afghan women fear their rights could be rolled back in the negotiations. Despite changes since 2001 that have seen women gain more rights, discrimination against them remains severe and pervasive. This new law is a confidence boost and reminder of the many battles Afghan women’s rights activists have fought – and won – since 2001. One of their hardest battles is ahead of them, at the negotiating table; the Afghan government owes them its support there too.

Lebanon: New Safeguards for Migrant Domestic Workers

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 18, 2020
Click to expand Image Protestors holding banners calling for the abolishment of Lebanon's controversial kafala sponsorship system. © 2019 Adib Chowdhury / SOPA Images/Sipa via AP Images  

(Beirut) – The new standard unified contract for migrant domestic workers that Lebanon’s Labor Ministry adopted on September 4, 2020 is a step in the right direction toward protecting domestic workers’ rights and abolishing the abusive kafala (sponsorship) system if it is accompanied by a stringent enforcement mechanism, Human Rights Watch said today.

The new contract allows workers to terminate their contract without the consent of their employer and provides key labor guarantees already afforded to other workers, such as a 48-hour work week, a weekly rest day, overtime pay, sick pay, annual leave, and the national minimum wage, with some permissible deductions for housing and food.

“If enforced, the new standard unified contract is a win for advancing the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, as it includes vital safeguards against forced labor,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But new protections mean little unless the government publicizes them widely and sets up and rigorously implements ways to enforce them.”

An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers, the majority of them women from African and Southeast Asian countries, including Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, work in Lebanon. They are excluded from Lebanon’s labor law protections, and their status in the country is regulated by the kafala system – a restrictive immigration regime of laws, regulations, and customary practices which ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employer.

Human Rights Watch and many other organizations have documented for years how the kafala system gives employers huge control over workers’ lives. This has led to an array of abuses, including non-payment of wages, forced confinement, excessive working hours with no rest days or breaks, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Those who left their employers without “permission” risked losing their legal residency in the country and facing detention and deportation. The previous contract only made exceptions for workers in extreme cases of abuse, with the burden of proof falling on the worker, effectively leaving workers trapped, including in situations of forced labor.

Under the new standard unified contract, workers can terminate without notice if they are subjected to any form of abuse or if the employer does not abide by any of the contract’s provisions. Either party can terminate the contract without notice if there are unforeseen events beyond their control that prevent them from completing the contract period.

Either party can also terminate at will with one month’s notice. However, if either the employer or worker terminates the contract without notice and there is no breach of the contractual provisions, they are required to pay compensation of one month’s salary. The employer may also be able to recoup part of their recruitment costs if the domestic worker terminates the contract before the end of the two-year contract, from either the recruitment agency, in accordance with labor ministry decisions, or from the new employer, worked out on the basis of the total amount of recruitment costs divided by the number of months of the contract, in which the new employer pays the equivalent of the number of months remaining in the contract. Domestic workers should not be made to pay any recruitment costs in any circumstance.  

The new contract, if enforced, would finally provide migrant domestic workers in Lebanon many core labor protections that other workers have under the labor law. The new contract recognizes the right of workers to retain their identification documents at all times, to own a phone and communicate freely, and to leave their employers’ homes and move freely during their rest periods. It also protects their right to a healthy and safe working and living environment.

The contract also stipulates that domestic workers are entitled to the national minimum wage, with some permissible deductions for housing and food. The Labor Ministry said in a decision that deductions should not exceed 30 percent of the salary. The Labor Ministry should ensure that the deduction is for the personal use of the worker and their family and that they are fair and reasonable, including ensuring that items directly related to the performance of domestic work are not considered as payment in-kind that can be deducted from their salary, as international labor standards dictate.

“Previously, migrant domestic workers had no clear legal basis to complain about long working hours, low wages, lack of overtime pay and rest, and could get trapped in abusive workplaces with little recourse,” said Majzoub. “This contract – if, and only if, properly enforced – helps fight the conditions that lead to forced labor and servitude.”

The new contract does not allow workers to join and form unions, however. Ensuring the right to freedom of association for domestic workers is vital for strengthening legal protection systems and for combatting rampant abuse. Lebanese authorities should recognize the domestic workers’ union and allow workers to freely join any union of their choice, without negative consequences. They should treat all workers in accordance with international human rights law, which requires them to respect the rights of everyone in their territory to freedom of association, without discrimination.

“Global experience has shown us time and again that workers’ organizations are crucial for spreading information about rights among workers, and supporting them to bring complaints forward to authorities,” Majzoub said. “Supporting freedom of association is essential for turning this contract into changes in domestic workers’ daily lives.”

Labor Minister Lamia Yammine, announced that the new contract will be adopted as of September 21. However, the ministry has not yet disclosed its plans for rolling out the new contract or provided instructions to employers and workers on the procedures for moving to the new contract. The ministry should conduct a public awareness campaign about the new contract provisions and consider mandatory orientation programs for both employers and workers on their legal rights and obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

The ministry should also urgently create an oversight and enforcement system to ensure that employers abide by the contract’s provisions and that employers who violate its provisions are held accountable. The ministry should set clear penalties for common abuses – such as non-payment of wages, forced confinement, excessive work hours, and food deprivation – on a sliding scale of sanctions commensurate with the gravity of the violations. The penalties should serve as effective deterrents to violations and provide redress for workers whose rights are violated.

The ministry also needs to create a complaint system, including fast-track dispute resolution, and ensure that labor inspectors have the authority and training to inspect working conditions. They should be able to enter employers’ homes, with due regard to privacy, and interview domestic workers away from their employers.

The new contract is based on recommendations by a working group established in April 2019 by then-Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman and headed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to dismantle Lebanon’s kafala system. Human Rights Watch is a member. In June 2019, the working group submitted to the Labor Ministry an action plan with steps to abolish kafala and introduce protections for migrant domestic workers.

Implementing a rights-respecting contract is only the first step toward protecting domestic workers rights and abolishing the kafala system, Human Rights Watch said.

The Lebanese authorities should urgently take other steps to dismantle the kafala system by ensuring that migrant workers are not dependent on their employers for their legal status in the country and amending the labor law to include migrant domestic workers. The authorities should also strengthen the labor ministry’s complaints and enforcement system, outlaw detaining migrant domestic workers for lack of legal residency, regularize the status of undocumented migrant workers, and train security forces and the judiciary to respond to and investigate abuses against migrant domestic workers.

Previously, migrant domestic workers had no clear legal basis to complain about long working hours, low wages, lack of overtime pay and rest, and could get trapped in abusive workplaces with little recourse.This contract – if, and only if, properly enforced – helps fight the conditions that lead to forced labor and servitude. Aya Majzoub

Lebanon Researcher, Human Rights Watch

Lebanon is obligated under international human rights law to ensure that domestic workers and migrant workers have protections equal to those for other workers under the law.

“If the labor minister is serious about abolishing the abusive kafala system, she should ensure that the new contract is properly implemented with effective enforcement and move quickly to abolish the kafala system in full so that migrant workers are not left at the mercy of their employers,” Majzoub said. “Migrant domestic workers leave their homes to care for others in Lebanon; they should be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”

Liberia’s President Should Showcase Justice on International Stage

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 17, 2020
Click to expand Image Liberia's President George Manneh Weah addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Richard Drew

One year ago, Liberian President George Weah gave hope to victims of brutal crimes committed during the country’s civil wars when he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly about pursuing a war crimes court for Liberia.

He said consultations with the national legislature were already in motion, and engagement with the judicial system and international partners on the court’s creation was on the way. But since then, there has been little progress.

Liberians suffered tremendously during the wars, which spanned more than 14 years starting in 1989, and left tens of thousands dead. Warring parties gunned down civilians in their homes, marketplaces, and places of worship. Women and girls were subjected to horrific sexual violence including gang rape, sexual slavery, and torture. Villages were destroyed. Children were abducted and forced into armed service.

The government has begun to allow foreign investigators into Liberia to investigate war crimes for overseas prosecutions. But not one alleged perpetrator has faced a court of law in Liberia. While Covid-19 is presenting unprecedented challenges to Liberia, some steps toward accountability should be possible.

Liberian, regional, and international organizations wrote to President Weah on September 10 asking him to use his speech at this month’s General Assembly to request UN assistance in setting up a war crimes court, reviving plans for justice, and rekindling the hopes of victims and their families.

The UN Human Rights Committee in 2018 concluded that Liberia should “establish a process of accountability for past gross human rights violations and war crimes that conforms to international standards” and report back by July 27, 2020. A report has yet to be submitted.

Meanwhile, former warlords are working to block a war crimes court, and last October, the speaker of Liberia’s legislature declined to introduce a resolution on the court, despite strong backing among lawmakers. Human rights activists who have championed accountability have faced increasing threats, as have witnesses to civil wars-era crimes.

President Weah will be on the international stage when he speaks at the General Assembly, even as the debate happens virtually this year. He should send a clear message that he stands with victims and that the brutal crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars will no longer go unpunished.

Mozambique: Alleged Soldiers Execute Woman

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 17, 2020
Click to expand Image Mozambican army soldiers patrol the streets of Mocimboa da Praia in March 2018. © 2018 Adrien Barbier/AFP/Getty Images

(Maputo) – Mozambican authorities should promptly and impartially investigate the apparent summary execution of an unarmed and naked woman by men wearing army uniforms. The killing, which was captured on an unverified video that went viral on social media, comes amid allegations of abuses by government soldiers in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, where they are battling an Islamist armed group.

The Mozambican Armed Defense Forces (FADM) released a statement on September 14, 2020 calling the video footage “shocking and horrifying.” But the military neither confirmed nor denied that the men in the video were government soldiers. The following day, Interior Minister Amade Miquidade, claimed that the video was a deliberate attempt to denigrate the defense and security forces. The previous week, a Mozambican Defense Ministry spokesman had said that “terrorists” operating in Cabo Delgado “pass themselves off as members of the defense and security forces to confuse national and international public opinion.”

“The gruesome execution of an unarmed and naked woman requires swift action from the Mozambican authorities to identify and appropriately punish those responsible,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Mozambican government has a responsibility to protect anyone who is in custody and investigate alleged abuses against them.”

In the video, a group of men wearing army uniforms chase a woman along a deserted road, shouting at her in Portuguese. One of the men can be heard asking another one not to film them. As they walk toward the woman, they refer to her as “al-Shabab” – a local term for the group that has been battling government forces in Cabo Delgado since October 2017. One of the men then hits her on the head and body with a stick. The other men shoot her over 30 times, with AK-47 assault rifles, as she tries to flee. They leave her body on the ground. As they walk back, a man can be heard saying, “We killed the al-Shabab.”

As part of their investigation, the authorities should seek to identify the woman and notify and provide assistance to her family, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch could not verify the authenticity of the video or the exact location where it was filmed. But three people familiar with Cabo Delgado province told Human Rights Watch that the location appeared to be near a power station on the road between Diaca and Awasse town, in Mocímboa da Praia district. A large contingent of soldiers was deployed to the region following recent attacks by insurgents.

Mocímboa da Praia district has been a center of many battles between government forces and insurgents since 2017. At that time, members of the Islamist group, affiliated with the Islamic State, known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a (ASWJ) attacked a string of police stations in the area, causing two days of government lockdowns. In August, the group temporarily took control of the district’s port town, after defeating government forces.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented alleged human rights abuses by both sides in Cabo Delgado, including killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detention, and ill-treatment of detainees. No one has been held to account for these abuses.

International human rights and humanitarian law to which Mozambique is bound prohibits summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions, and torture and other ill-treatment of people in custody.

“The Mozambican authorities should ensure that security forces, including those deployed to areas of conflict, respect human rights and protect everyone in their custody,” Mavhinga said. “Properly punishing those who execute or otherwise harm civilians and captured combatants will send a clear message that Mozambique supports human rights and opposes these horrific acts.”

South Africa: Widespread Xenophobic Violence

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 17, 2020
Click to expand Image A resident of Johannesburg’s Katlehong township runs while smoke arises from the shackles on September 5, 2019 as South Africa’s financial capital is hit by a new wave of anti-foreigner violence. © 2019 Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – Xenophobic harassment and violence against African and Asian foreigners living in South Africa are routine and sometimes lethal, Human Rights Watch said in a report, video, and Witness article released today. Despite the March 2019 adoption of a government action plan to combat xenophobia, the government has done very little to ensure that attacks by members of the public, the police, and government officials are investigated and that those responsible are held accountable.

The 64-page report, “‘They Have Robbed Me of My Life’: Xenophobic Violence Against Non-Nationals in South Africa,” details xenophobic incidents in the year after the government adopted the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Human Rights Watch documented killings, serious injuries, forced displacement, discrimination, and barriers to justice and basic services. The problems include indifference, denial and tacit approval of xenophobic actions by government and law enforcement authorities, barriers to legal representation, and difficulty in acquiring and renewing documents to maintain legal status and to access services including education and health care.

“Non-South African nationals have suffered wave after wave of xenophobic violence and live in constant fear of being targeted solely for not being South African,” said Kristi Ueda, Africa division fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The South African government should hold those responsible accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Impunity only emboldens others and perpetuates xenophobia.”

Witness: Being a Scapegoat for South Africa’s Ills

South Africa might be the place of Keshia's birth and the only country where she has ever lived, but she cannot call it home. How xenophobia has robbed Keshia of her sense of belonging.


Human Rights Watch interviewed 51 people – including 2 children, ages 10 and 11 – who live in Western Cape, Gauteng, and KwaZulu-Natal provinces and reviewed media reports and South African laws, regulations, and decisions. Human Rights Watch has long documented xenophobic harassment and attacks.

Foreigners are scapegoated and blamed for economic insecurity, crimes, and government failures to deliver services and have been targets of nationwide protests and shutdowns characterized by mob violence, looting, and torching of their businesses. In early September 2019, mobs wielding weapons and chanting anti-foreigner slogans attacked and forcibly displaced non-nationals, destroying thousands of their business and homes. None of those interviewed has yet to recover financially or achieve justice. Although the government stated that 10 of the 12 killed in the violence were South Africans, Human Rights Watch has found that at least 18 foreigners were killed during the violence.

South African government and law enforcement authorities have repeatedly claimed that these waves of violence were purely criminal and not motivated by xenophobia.

A refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo told Human Rights Watch: “I was selling clothes on the street when nine South Africans carrying sjamboks and sticks came. They were beating people, shouting ‘You foreigners, go home! We don’t need you here! You are taking our jobs and money!’ I started to run away, but I was beaten, and my two bags of clothes were taken.”

Law enforcement officials have operated in discriminatory and abusive ways against non-nationals, Human Rights Watch found. Raids to crack down on counterfeit goods have targeted foreign-run businesses. During the raids, police have shot rubber bullets into crowds of people then ransacked and destroyed foreigners’ shops. In coordination with the Department of Home Affairs, the police have conducted abusive documentation raids in areas known to have many non-nationals.

The police have detained people arrested for allegedly lacking documentation in police station cells and deportation centers, in some cases denying them court hearings or not bringing them before a judge in the required time period. Officials have frequently claimed to have lost or misplaced the arrested people’s documents or other possessions.

All those interviewed expressed frustrations with acquiring and renewing adequate documentation to maintain legal status in South Africa. Holders of the Section 22 asylum seeker permit must renew their permit every 6 months, which requires arriving at the Department of Home Affairs office by 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. to ensure a good spot in line. Some said they have painstakingly renewed this permit twice a year for years even though banks or hospitals often reject the permits and the police harass them anyway.

The National Action Plan provides a framework to address many of the problems non-nationals face, but it seems to have had very little impact on the lives of Asian and African foreigners living in the country, Human Rights Watch found.

“Launching the National Action Plan was a positive step, but clearly more urgent, concrete measures are needed, particularly to end violence, police harassment, and impunity,” Ueda said. “Protecting non-nationals from further attacks and ending impunity for xenophobic violence requires a long-term strategy and not just words on paper.”

EU: Use Budget to Uphold Democracy

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 17, 2020
Click to expand Image European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 28, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

(Brussels) – The European Union should urgently equip itself with a robust tool tying member states’ access to EU funds to respect for core membership obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. Germany, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency until December 2020, and other EU countries should ensure that a functioning system is established to prevent rights-abusing governments in the EU from exploiting their access to the EU’s budget while flouting the rule of law.

“Without an effective checks-and-balance system, EU funding can be misused and subject to fraud or corruption by rights-abusing governments,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “EU member states should finally act on a 2018 proposal by the EU Commission and create a credible tool to condition funds on respect for the rule of law.”

On July 21, 2020, EU leaders reached an agreement on the EU’s seven-year budget for the EU and the Covid-19 economic recovery plan. They also agreed to establish a process to protect the budget from breaches of core EU principles. But details of the plan, based on the 2018 proposal by the European Commission, remain open to negotiation among EU member states.

In its 2018 proposal, the European Commission recommended a means to suspend, reduce, or restrict access to EU funding proportionate to breaches identified, subject to approval by EU states. Key issues that will be addressed during the upcoming negotiations include the majority required for member states to approve or reject the Commission’s proposed decisions under the system and the scope of violations that could trigger action.

The number of votes required to trigger the process at the EU Council should be designed to prevent a small number of rights-violating governments from shielding one another or from rejecting well-founded EU Commission decisions that a government’s breaches of EU values are sufficiently serious to warrant a cut or suspension of funding, Human Rights Watch said. EU member states should back the EU Commission’s proposal that the EU Council could only reject decisions to cut funds by a qualified majority. This would provide sufficient safeguards against disproportionate decisions, while protecting the process from political bargains.

The process should ensure that a broad range of breaches to EU’s democratic values could lead the European Commission to recommend cutting funds to EU member states. These should include attacks on the independence of the judiciary, as well as state interference in the media and civil society. The process should also seek to ensure that EU funding cannot be used to promote intolerance or discriminatory policies, including against women’s rights and the rights of LGBT people and other minorities.

The process should be carried out in a way that will avoid punishing EU citizens for the actions of their governments by negatively affecting their economic and social rights, Human Rights Watch said. The Commission should conduct human rights impact assessments to determine the risk of individuals’ rights being harmed by any decision and should divert rather than cut funding as required to ensure that beneficiaries’ rights are not affected.

In August 2020, Hungarian officials threatened to withhold their country’s support to the EU budget if the plan to link EU funding and rule of law is not withdrawn.

Hungary is among the largest per capita recipients of EU funding, and Poland is the largest overall net recipient. But both countries are also the only two facing scrutiny under the Article 7 procedure – the EU treaty provision dealing with governments that flout EU values, which can ultimately lead to the suspension of their voting rights in the Council.

The Hungarian government imposed severe restrictions on the work and access to funding of independent nongovernmental organizations, and seriously curtailed media pluralism. The government forced a critical university out of the country and continues to restrict academic freedom in other institutions. The Polish government undermined the independence of the judiciary to the point at which some EU countries may refrain to extradite suspects. Elected officials have ramped up smear attacks against women’s rights and LGBT people, at odds with the EU principles of tolerance and nondiscrimination.

On August 26, key political groups in the European Parliament wrote a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the leader of the country currently holding the EU’s presidency, and the European Commission’s chief, Ursula von der Leyen, repeating calls for a strong conditionality system that maintains the “reverse qualified majority” rule at the Council. According to that rule, states opposing proposals to cut funding should gather a majority to overturn the Commission’s decisions.

In her State of the Union Address delivered on September 16, the EU Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen reaffirmed the importance the Commission attaches to rule of law and committed to ensure that money from the EU budget will be “protected against any kind of fraud, corruption and conflict of interest.”

Chancellor Merkel and leaders of other EU member states should reject Hungary’s blackmail and commit to securing a system setting strong rule of law conditions in the EU budget, translating rhetoric about upholding the rule of law into support for an effective process.

“Authoritarian tendencies in Hungary and Poland do not represent what the European treaties had promised, nor the policies European taxpayers agreed to pay for,” Leicht said. “Merkel and other EU leaders should stand up for the EU core values and ensure that those attacking them face real consequences.”

Venezuela: UN Inquiry Finds Crimes Against Humanity

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Click to expand Image Members the National Police Action Force, or FAES, an elite commando unit created for anti-gang operations, patrol the Antimano neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

(Geneva, September 17, 2020) – The United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela has concluded that Venezuelan authorities and armed pro-government groups committed egregious violations amounting to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today.

The report, published on September 16, 2020, said the independent experts leading the mission had reasonable grounds to hold that “most of the violations and crimes … were part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population … in furtherance of a state policy.” The experts found that “High-level authorities had knowledge of and contributed to the commission of these crimes” and that “Commanders and superiors knew or should have known about them, and … did not take measures to prevent or repress them.” 

“This report is a solid indictment that attributes direct responsibility to high-level authorities, including the head of state, for violations that include extrajudicial executions, politically motivated detention and torture, and abuses against protesters in Venezuela,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The findings also expose the role of the Venezuelan judiciary in contributing to arbitrary arrests and impunity for these egregious abuses and denying justice to the victims.” 

The UN Human Rights Council created the mission through its Resolution 42/25 on September 27, 2019. Its mandate was to investigate human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment since 2014, with a view to ensuring accountability for those responsible and justice for victims. 

The report describes the independent experts’ findings, based on the investigation of 223 cases and the review of an additional 2,891 cases to identify whether there were patterns of violations and crimes. A detailed description of 48 of these cases is included in the 411-page report. The experts’ conclusions are based on interviews with victims and their family members, lawyers, and witnesses, as well as former and current members of the judiciary and security forces, verified images and videos, and government documents, including laws, policies, and directives. Despite repeated requests, Venezuelan authorities did not allow the experts to visit Venezuela.

The experts concluded that they had “reasonable grounds to believe that both the President and the Ministers of Interior and of Defence ordered or contributed to the commission of the crimes documented in this report, and having the effective ability to do so failed to take preventive and repressive measures.” Commanding officers, including high-level authorities within intelligence services, had full knowledge of the patterns that often took place inside their installations, the experts found. They said they had identified more than 45 intelligence officials directly responsible.

In a statement to the media, the experts said that the competent authorities in Venezuela, other national governments, and the International Criminal Court should consider legal actions against those responsible for the violations and crimes they documented. 

The experts documented 53 extrajudicial executions and reviewed 2,552 additional incidents involving 5,094 killings by security forces, although not all were necessarily arbitrary. It found that the investigative police and the Special Action Forces of the National Bolivarian Police were responsible for 59 percent of all killings by security forces.

The experts also found that intelligence agents carried out politically motivated detention and torture. Specifically, in 110 documented cases, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service targeted political dissidents, human rights activists, and others perceived to be opponents, and the General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence targeted military personnel and associated civilians allegedly involved in rebellions or coup attempts, holding them in unofficial or clandestine facilities. The experts identified six of these sites. 

In the case of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, the experts found that orders establishing who would be investigated often came from President Nicolás Maduro or the powerful pro-government politician Diosdado Cabello to the agency’s director, who delivered the instructions to others. 

The experts said that some detentions amounted to short-term enforced disappearances. Detainees were tortured – including with stress positions, asphyxiation, beatings, electric shocks, cuts and mutilations, death threats, and sexual violence – to extract confessions or as punishment. 

In addition, the experts documented 97 cases of human rights violations against protesters, particularly during the crackdowns in 2014, 2017, and 2019. The violations included killings of 36 protesters and torture and other ill-treatment in detention such as beatings and humiliation, sexual and gender-based violence, and mock executions. Protesters were often charged with crimes based on information planted or fabricated by security forces.

Most unlawful killings by security forces have not resulted in prosecutions, and at no stage have officials with command responsibility been brought to justice, according to the experts. Moreover, some public prosecutors and judges played “a direct role” in arbitrary arrests, the experts found.

The lack of judicial independence in Venezuela has led to impunity for human rights crimes, Human Rights Watch said. 

During the current UN Human Rights Council sessions, members will vote on a resolution drafted by Latin American governments members of the Lima Group to extend the Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate. The current draft also says that The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should continue reporting on the situation of human rights in Venezuela, and that Venezuelan authorities should cooperate with both.

Human Rights Watch, together with dozens of international and Venezuelan human rights groups, has said that member states should ensure that the Fact-Finding Mission has sufficient funding and the authority to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyze evidence for future prosecutions or other accountability purposes, including by international justice mechanisms, to avoid impunity for the crimes under international law and gross human rights violations committed in Venezuela.

“This is the closest the victims of the Maduro government have been to seeing their abusers held accountable,” Vivanco said. “It is essential to extend and expand the Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate so victims can eventually exercise their right of access to justice.”

Australia to Appear Before UN Rights Council in January

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Click to expand Image Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly Friday, September 28, 2018, at the United Nations headquarters.  © 2018 Frank Franklin II/ AP Photo

(Sydney)– The Australian government has failed to meet important commitments to protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and Indigenous peoples, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Australia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) has been rescheduled from November 2020 to January 25, 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Australian government hasn’t always followed through on its pledges to the UN Human Rights Council,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “During the review, UN member countries should remind the Australian government that it needs to do much better, especially in safeguarding the basic rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and Indigenous people.”

Under the UPR mechanism, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva reviews each UN member country’s human rights record every five years. During the previous cycle, in 2015, Australia accepted numerous recommendations, including to take steps to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, reduce incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and ensure national security and counterterrorism legislation is subject to strict safeguards to prevent a chilling effect on free expression and overreach. However, the government has failed to show progress on these key issues.

During the previous cycle, Australia supported numerous recommendations to review its immigration laws and policies to ensure compliance with its international obligations. However, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous abuses against asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants, especially for those forcibly transferred to Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Indigenous Australians remain significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like unpaid fines. Death in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners remains a pervasive problem despite the government’s commitment at the 2015 UPR to address high mortality rates in prisons.

UN: On 75th Anniversary, Recommit to Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Click to expand Image U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon


(New York) – United Nations member countries should use the General Assembly session ahead of the world body’s 75th anniversary to recommit to human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The largely virtual high-level session of the General Assembly will begin on September 22, 2020.

UN members should soundly reject China’s apparent long-term efforts to severely undermine the UN’s human rights pillar and the United States attempts to selectively reinterpret international human rights standards. Members should reinforce and recommit to gender equality, including during the session on the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

“The creation of the United Nations 75 years ago should be a moment of unabashed celebration, but abusive leaders still harness every crisis to stomp on basic freedoms and ride roughshod over the rights of women, minorities, and marginalized people,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “The world needs more countries, big and small, willing to demonstrate global human rights leadership and publicly call out abusive governments, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, and democracies like the United States.”

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will be one of the few leaders to speak from the General Assembly podium. He should urge UN members to heed his recent Call to Action on Human Rights. In that appeal, Guterres pledged to rekindle the UN’s attention to rights issues, warning that “disregard for human rights is widespread” around the world.

The secretary-general should drop his aversion to criticizing specific countries. In particular, he should publicly condemn China’s abusive national security law for Hong Kong and its mass detention of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. His reluctance to speak out publicly on China’s abuses runs counter to the spirit of his Call to Action. He has not responded to a June letter from nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urging him to appoint a special envoy to monitor abuses in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China.

The secretary-general should also publicly express concerns about US plans to promote the Trump administration’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to host a side event on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to promote the commission, an exercise to “re-examine” internationally recognized rights.

“The US Commission on Unalienable Rights is a deeply misguided enterprise with the potential to undermine human rights protections that governments find disagreeable,” Charbonneau said. “The commission promotes the false premise that too many people, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and women, are asserting their rights.”

UN members that participate in another possible Trump administration event during the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity initiative should reject the US government’s notion that one can separate women’s economic rights from other human rights, including the right to live free of violence or the right to health. 

While the United States has reduced its influence at the UN – withdrawing from the Human Rights Council, withholding funds from the UN Population Fund, and possibly leaving the World Health Organization – China has been doing the opposite.

The Chinese government has sought to expand and deepen its influence on UN affairs, but it has used that influence to undermine and try to defund mechanisms on human rights, one of the UN’s three fundamental pillars, alongside peace and security and development. China has constantly lobbied the UN budget committee to deny funding or reduce staff for missions that monitor human rights violations or gather evidence of serious crimes in places like Syria and Myanmar.

UN delegations should use the October 1 high-level meeting celebrating the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action to strongly reaffirm their commitment to gender equality. The Covid-19 pandemic, school closures, and economic crisis exacerbate existing inequalities, with profound consequences for women and girls, such as increased caregiving roles, greater exposure to gender-based violence, and increased barriers to education and economic empowerment.

“Many of the hard-fought gains on women’s rights over the past 25 years are under threat, including through stepped-up attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights from the US,” Charbonneau said. “China has harassed and intimidated women’s rights activists and censored social media accounts and posts promoting gender equality.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has killed nearly a million people worldwide this year. Lockdowns and a global economic downturn have disproportionately affected those living in or vulnerable to poverty. The pandemic’s lasting impact on the economic and social rights, including access to adequate health care, of those in precarious situations is of special concern. UN member countries should take advantage of the UN General Assembly session to accelerate discussions on recovery efforts that will permanently reduce economic and social inequalities.

“UN members at the General Assembly should condemn all attempts to turn back the clock and weaken the global human rights framework,” Charbonneau said. “China wants to recreate the UN’s human rights pillar in its anti-rights image. The US is urging the world to cherry-pick the rights they like and reject the ones they don’t. World leaders should respond with a resounding ‘no’ and demand that human rights be respected and expanded, not curtailed or cast aside.”  

Turkey: Lawyers Arrested in Terror Probe

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Click to expand Image Defense lawyers, arrested in dawn raids on September 11 because they represent persons accused on terrorism charges, are handcuffed as they wait with police in the corridor of the Ankara courthouse, September 14, 2020  © 2020 private

(Istanbul) – Turkish police, in dawn raids on September 11, 2020, arrested 47 lawyers at their homes in Ankara and searched their offices, Human Rights Watch said today.

The arrests were a chilling demonstration of the Turkish government’s disrespect for the rule of law and for the role of lawyers in ensuring suspects an effective defense. The arrests and raids, conducted under the guise of terrorism allegations, blatantly seek to identify lawyers with the alleged crimes of their clients in violation of international law, and undermine the right to a fair trial.

“The legal profession, and specifically defense lawyers, are once again being targeted in mass operations of the kind we have sadly seen repeatedly over the past four years,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Beyond smearing the individual lawyers, this latest operation seeks to further erode the legal profession’s ability to uphold the rule of law and to ensure that everyone accused of a crime enjoys their right to a legal defense.”

The Ankara prosecutor’s office briefed Turkish media on the arrests of lawyers in Ankara and seven other provinces, saying that it was connected to a terrorism investigation into 60 suspects. The prosecution accuses the defense lawyers, trainee lawyers, and three dismissed judges, “under the guise of attorneyship activities,” of acting on the orders of a terrorist organization because of the legal work they perform on behalf of their clients. They accuse them of attempting to influence the criminal investigations in favor of the organization.

The group in question is the Fethullah Gülen movement, which the Turkish government refers to as FETÖ and deems a terrorist organization. It accuses the group of masterminding the July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

The arrest of the lawyers comes after a September 1 speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to mark the beginning of the judicial year. He suggested that lawyers deemed to have links with terrorist organizations could be dismissed from the profession and declared that: “We will do what is necessary to cut off the bloody path from attorneyship to terrorism.”

The new criminal investigation is the latest of many similar investigations against lawyers over the past few years, which Human Rights Watch documented in detail in a 2019 report. The Turkish government has an appalling track record of abusing the legal system, and in particular misusing terrorism charges, to pursue government critics, despite the absence of evidence of material connection to violent acts of terrorism. Lawyers have repeatedly found themselves targeted and associated with the crimes of their clients.

Kamile Özbulut, an Ankara lawyer, told Human Rights Watch she was detained at 5:30 a.m. on September 11 by a group of police officers. The officers took her from her home in Ankara, which she was using as her workplace, and confiscated her telephone, three laptop computers, and other electronic devices, such as memory sticks, without taking copies. In violation of the Law on Lawyers, the search and seizure was conducted without a prosecutor or a lawyer present.

Özbulut was permitted to bring her 20-day-old baby with her when she was detained. She and her baby were not placed in a police cell, but she was held at the Organized Crime Department of the Ankara Security Directorate and interrogated later the same day. She was taken before a court on the morning of September 12 and released, subject to conditions. Human Rights Watch learned from other Ankara lawyers that another detained lawyer who was pregnant was also interrogated and released in the same time period.

At least 44 other lawyers were also detained at the Organized Crime Department of the Ankara Security Directorate. The lawyers were taken to the Ankara Courthouse, handcuffed, on September 14, where the court extended their detention for 4 days. On September 15, 5 more lawyers were reportedly interrogated. None have been brought before a court, and the 44 remain in police custody.

In Özbulut’s interrogation, a record of which Human Rights Watch has seen, police showed her a list of 67 lawyers, claiming all were suspects, and asked which ones she knew.

The authorities focused on her financial arrangements with her clients, whether she had contracts with them or had provided them with receipts for payment. They asked about phone conversations she had with relatives of clients and other lawyers, which the police had tapped. The prosecutor’s investigation is ongoing and subject to a secrecy order, but the focus in the questioning on her activities as a lawyer suggests that the prosecution has little if any evidence of Özbulut having committed criminal activity relevant to a terrorism investigation.

Human Rights Watch has seen the interrogation record of another lawyer which similarly focuses on phone calls between him and other lawyers and whether his clients had paid him to represent them. As with Özbulut, it suggests the authorities have no evidence that links the lawyer to terrorism beyond his function as a legal representative.

The Ankara Bar Association’s Lawyers Rights Center has raised multiple concerns about violations of legal procedures in the searches of lawyers’ offices and homes. A representative of the Center also raised the lack of safeguards in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic with Human Rights Watch.

Ankara has a high number of cases of Covid-19 in relation to the rest of the country, according to the government and the Ankara Medical Chamber. While in custody, three of the detained lawyers were found to have elevated temperatures. One tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19 and was released. The risk that others may have been infected during detention remains a concern. The authorities seem to have taken no meaningful precautions to maintain social distancing, although the lawyers were required to wear masks.

When they were detained, they were held together for about two hours on a police bus. They had no individual medical examinations, but the police brought a doctor onto the bus. The doctor shouted: “Was anyone hit?” (“darp edilen var mi?”) before leaving without examining anyone. The lawyers were then transferred to the basement cells of the police department which have no windows and poor ventilation. The Lawyers Rights Center is concerned that the prolongation of custody in airless and insanitary conditions puts the lawyers at further risk of Covid-19.  

Bar associations throughout Turkey, including in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Diyarbakir, have raised strong concerns about the mass arrests of the lawyers and the assault on the legal profession it represents.

Most lawyers targeted in recent years have been accused of Gülenist links, but the crackdown has also targeted lawyers representing Kurds and leftists accused of links to the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or to outlawed revolutionary left groups. On August 27, an Istanbul lawyer, Ebru Timtik, died after a 238-day hunger strike to demand a fair trial. Timtik had been convicted along with 17 other lawyers of membership of a terrorist organization – the outlawed group DHKP-C – and was in detention since September 2017, while her conviction and 13-year-and-6-month prison sentence were under appeal.

The attack on lawyers has also extended to bar associations. In July, the government pushed through a new law aimed at greatly diminishing the authority of bar associations in Turkey’s main cities of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, and curbing their authority on a national level through the Ankara-based Union of Turkish Bar Associations, the umbrella organization representing all provincial bar associations.

“Recent moves against the legal profession in Turkey should be seen in the context of the Turkish authorities’ deep assault on the rule of law and human rights, especially the right to a fair trial,” Williamson said. “Having gained control over prosecutors and judges, the government seems intent on controlling the legal profession too and completing its onslaught on the rule of law.”

India: Arrests of Activists Politically Motivated

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Click to expand Image Activist Umar Khalid speaks at a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in New Delhi, India, January 26, 2020. © 2020 Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

(New York) – The Indian authorities are increasingly bringing politically motivated cases, including under severe sedition and terrorism laws, against critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately drop baseless charges against activists, academics, student leaders, and others, and unconditionally release those in custody.

On September 13, 2020, Delhi police arrested Umar Khalid, an activist, as one of the “main conspirators,” under India’s principal counterterrorism law for his alleged role in communal violence in February that killed at least 53 people and injured hundreds. Police in Delhi have also named academics, activists, and opposition leaders as suspects. On September 7, the National Investigation Agency arrested three members of a Dalit cultural group for giving speeches allegedly inciting caste-based violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state in January 2018. In both cases, supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were implicated in the violence. 

“Indian authorities seem increasingly determined to prosecute without basis peaceful critics of government policies for violence that, by objective reporting, is largely the handiwork of BJP supporters,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “By arbitrarily arresting outspoken activists, the government is not only attempting to silence dissent but also sending a message to supporters that they have free rein to commit abuses against minority communities.”

Dozens of human rights defenders, activists, and academics are already in jail on politically motivated charges. The Delhi police also identified others whose names, they said, had come up during the investigation, including: Sitaram Yechury, a well-known opposition politician; Jayati Ghosh, an economist; Yogendra Yadav, an activist and academic; Apoorvanand, a Delhi University professor; and Rahul Roy, a documentary filmmaker.  

The arrests have been widely condemned in India and abroad, including by retired police officers and judges, and United Nations experts who said they seem “clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated.” In September, over 1,000 activists, journalists, academics, and others condemned the Delhi police’s alleged practice of coercing “confessional” statements to falsely implicate people in the February violence. On September 1, Khalid wrote to the Delhi police commissioner alleging that the investigators were putting pressure on his acquaintances to implicate him in the violence.

Since June 2018, the authorities have arrested 12 prominent activists and academics under the counterterrorism Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in the Bhima Koregaon case: Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, and Hany Babu. The authorities allege that they support a Maoist insurgency and, at a large public rally on December 31, 2017, incited Dalits to violence, leading to clashes with BJP supporters the following day. One person died and several were injured. However, the charges filed by police cite flimsy and contradictory evidence and possible tampering by the police.

Two retired judges, who say they were the “main organizers and sole funders” of the rally, have said that most of the activists arrested in the case had nothing to do with the event. The march organizers said that they wanted to open a campaign against the pervasive ideology in India that leads to attacks on Dalits and Muslims. The authorities are investigating several other academics in this case. Other activists, academics, and students of these professors have called this a “witch hunt,” a deliberate harassment, as one statement said, “which is destroying our democracy, violating civil liberties, and subverting the Constitutional order.”  

While Maharashtra authorities under the former BJP-led state government used the case to jail critics of the government, they did not pursue investigations in cases that implicated Hindu nationalist leaders for inciting the violence.

Similarly, with respect to the February violence in Delhi, the authorities have accused activists, student leaders, opposition politicians, and academics, but failed to act against BJP leaders who advocated violence against those peacefully protesting the citizenship law and policies that discriminated against Muslims in the weeks preceding the violence. Some of these leaders called the protesters “traitors” to be shot. A July report by the Delhi Minorities Commission said the violence in Delhi was “planned and targeted,” and found that the police were filing cases against Muslim victims for the violence, but not taking action against the BJP leaders who incited it.

April 9, 2020 “Shoot the Traitors”

As Human Rights Watch and others have also documented, the authorities have shown clear bias in the investigations, arresting peaceful protesters and filing charges, without evidentiary support, of sedition, murder, and terrorism under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, accusing them of a “conspiracy” to “defame the country in the international arena.”

Indian authorities should uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. The government should act to repeal or substantially revise the counterterrorism law as well as repeal the colonial-era sedition law to end the abuses committed under these laws.

“The Indian authorities are increasingly using authoritarian tactics to punish peaceful protests, while failing to act against violent attacks by its supporters,” Ganguly said. “This is causing lasting harm to India’s justice system and further shielding the police from accountability for abuses.”

Lebanon: Ensure Aid Goes Directly to Those in Need

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Click to expand Image Aid from the European Union is being unloaded from a cargo plane at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport on September 12, 2020. © 2020 Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images

(Beirut) – International donors responding to the August 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port should ensure that their emergency aid directly and immediately protects the rights of those affected, Human Rights Watch said today. They should not disburse emergency aid, including for housing, food, and health care, directly to the Lebanese government given its inability to secure these rights.

Funds should instead be disbursed directly to those in need and to organizations willing and able to immediately provide urgent services on the ground. This could be through a transparent entity with a clear mandate to protect rights, such as a consortium in which independent Lebanese civil society groups have a formal decision-making and oversight role.

“Lebanon’s urgent need for aid should not be an excuse to press international donors to hand over money to the Lebanese government, which has already squandered billions in previous aid and whose staggering incompetence caused this humanitarian catastrophe,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Corruption helped destroy Beirut, so protection of basic economic rights and public oversight need to be the bedrock to rebuild the city.”

Thirty-six countries pledged 253 million euros (around $US300 million) for emergency support to Lebanon during a donor conference led by France on August 9. A second conference is planned for October. The money was pledged to help Lebanon cope with the aftermath of the shipping port explosion that devastated the city, killing 212 people, injuring more than 6,000, and leaving 300,000 people without shelter.

Lebanon imports more than 80 percent of its food, but the explosion, as well as a September 10 fire in the port, also destroyed Lebanon’s main food source, as the port previously handled around 70 percent of Lebanon’s imports. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the September 10 fire destroyed an aid warehouse containing food packages and risked disrupting its humanitarian operations.

The lack of a functioning social safety net in Lebanon ensuring basic rights such as adequate housing and food for everyone has left most Lebanese dependent on the corrupt, sectarian-based “spoils system” for access to basic services, including jobs, education, and health care. Even before the blast, millions of people were struggling to afford food, housing, health care, electricity, and other basic rights due to the double hit of an economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite its resource limitations, the Lebanese government has an obligation to ensure that those affected by the blast have access to adequate housing, food, water, and health care. Yet, it has been noticeably absent from disaster relief efforts and humanitarian assistance, which have instead been led by local civil society groups and volunteers. These groups cleared the debris from the streets of Beirut’s destroyed neighborhoods, conducted needs assessments, fixed homes, delivered essentials like food and water, compiled a missing persons database, and provided survivors with physical and mental health support.

The Lebanese government has not shown any ability to channel aid in a way that would fully protect the economic and social rights of the entire population without discrimination.

Lebanon has received billions of dollars in aid and soft-loan packages since the end of its civil war in 1990, but substantial research has shown that the benefits were not shared equitably and were squandered through corruption and mismanagement. International donors pledged US$11 billion in 2018 during the CEDRE conference, organized by France, but have refused to unlock the aid until Lebanese authorities carry out comprehensive reforms.

In a 2018 study, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) found that 98 percent of Lebanese citizens believe that corruption is a very large or somewhat large problem in Lebanon, with more than 75 percent of respondents stating that corruption had strongly or somewhat increased in the previous two years. Since October 2019, hundreds of thousands of protesters have been demanding accountability and an end to corruption, but they have often been met with unlawful violence.

Despite widespread perceptions about corruption, there has been little accountability for public officials accused of financial misconduct or corruption. Legislation passed by parliament to combat corruption and increase transparency, such as the Access to Information Law (February 2017) and a Law protecting whistleblowers (September 2018), have yet to be fully enforced.

Lebanon remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with 55 percent of the national income concentrated in the top 10 percent of earners. Julien Courson, head of the Lebanon Transparency Association, estimates that Lebanon loses US$2 billion in customs revenue each year due to corruption.

Initial World Bank estimates indicate that the Beirut explosion caused between $3.8 billion and $4.6 billion in physical damages, while losses due to the decline in economic activity are estimated to range between $2.9 billion and $3.5 billion. The most severely affected sectors are housing, transport, and tangible and intangible cultural assets, the World Bank said. It estimated that public sector reconstruction and recovery needs for 2020 and 2021 are in the range of $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion, with between $605 million and $760 million needed in the immediate term by December, and between US$1.18 billion and $1.46 billion in the short term for 2021.

Given credible allegations of corruption among officials and the authorities’ continued failure to address the massive economic and political crises endangering citizens’ access to basic rights, international donors should avoid sending emergency aid through the government and channel it directly to those in need, including through independent Lebanese civil society groups, Human Rights Watch said. Lebanon’s donors should also press Lebanese authorities to adopt and carry out meaningful, wide-ranging economic and political reforms that ensure the protection of basic rights for everyone in the country without discrimination.

Lebanon’s urgent need for aid should not be an excuse to press international donors to hand over money to the Lebanese government, which has already squandered billions in previous aid and whose staggering incompetence caused this humanitarian catastrophe. Corruption helped destroy Beirut, so protection of basic economic rights and public oversight need to be the bedrock to rebuild the city. Aya Majzoub

Lebanon Researcher, Human Rights Watch

As a first step toward accountability and rebuilding trust between Lebanon’s institutions and its people, international donors should urge Lebanese political leaders to invite an independent, international investigation into both the immediate causes of the Beirut blast and the broader government negligence and corruption that led to the disaster. The ongoing domestic investigation lacks public credibility and key due process guarantees. The government referred the case to a special court with no appeals process and appointed a “judicial investigator” to lead the investigation through an opaque process that many contend was politically motivated.   

In the meantime, given Lebanon’s urgent needs, donors should channel emergency funds directly to those in need, or through local organizations providing much-needed services on the ground, including access to shelter, food, water, and health care, as well as international organizations. Lebanon has a robust civil society and organizations have shown they are willing to engage in reconstruction and recovery, as evidenced by the large-scale fundraising and disaster relief efforts they have led following the blast.

Many international donors have already said they will bypass the Lebanese government and provide aid through United Nations agencies instead. Donors should also provide significant support to local groups that are leading recovery efforts on the ground.

The UN usually coordinates and carries out projects through government agencies. Donors should insist that aid received by organizations, including UN agencies, does not end up with abusive government agencies or agencies incapable of protecting basic rights. Donors should conduct oversight of funds disbursed to that end and ensure that the UN and its implementing partners are rights-respecting, effective, and transparent. Donors should also insist on the involvement of independent civil society in providing oversight of project implementation.

UN agencies and other organizations receiving emergency aid should regularly and transparently report on all the funds they receive and spend, including information on primary and secondary implementing partners. They should ensure that their operations advance the economic and social rights of people in need, particularly the rights to water, shelter, health, and food, and publish how this is being accomplished.

“While ordinary citizens and civil society are in the streets of Beirut picking up the pieces, the government is impotently sitting on the sidelines,” Majzoub said. “Lebanon’s donors should empower Lebanese civil society to ensure that aid gets to those who need it the most.”

Recommendations for Donors Create a funding consortium or other entity to pool emergency aid into one fund and disburse it among organizations that meet strict standards of respecting rights and transparency. The governance of this entity should include independent Lebanese civil society groups that are already engaged in providing emergency support and can provide oversight to mitigate the risk that Lebanese government officials use their influence to steer the funds for their own partisan or financial benefit. The entity would ensure the disbursement of funds based on transparent criteria that prioritize access to basic economic rights for all, without discrimination. Ensure diverse governance of any funding entity for emergency aid, with representation from marginalized groups, including women, migrants, and refugees. Members should be selected based on a proven record of effective and independent service to Lebanon, rather than political connections or nominations. This would allow donor governments to avoid duplicating their efforts and ensure consistent standards for due diligence and project selection, as well as more effective and coordinated monitoring and evaluation teams. It would also ensure a formal role for civil society in leading and coordinating recovery efforts, helping to ensure they can hold their government accountable for using public funds in ways that respect and fulfill its human rights obligations. With Lebanese civil society’s lead, conduct a speedy and comprehensive rights-based assessment of emergency needs that can serve as a roadmap for recovery. Using this assessment ensure that all aid interventions are based on a published set of standardized criteria that prioritizes the rights of all residents, and ensures no discrimination, direct or indirect, in access to basic rights. This includes assessing the current access to basic rights of marginalized groups, including residents of low-income neighborhoods, refugees, and migrant workers. Assistance should be allocated to ensure no direct or indirect discrimination, including based on gender, nationality, socio-economic status, refugee status, sexual orientation, and religion, including through understanding existing structural inequalities. It should also ensure that reconstruction funding does not support development schemes that damage cultural property. Develop due diligence criteria to ensure that international and local groups receiving aid, as well as their implementing partners, are not engaged with or supported by government or other entities that are responsible for human rights abuses, and that they are transparent and rights-respecting. Funding rules should prohibit awarding contracts to companies owned in full or in part by government officials. Due diligence can benefit from local expertise on human rights and corruption. Develop a tracking and monitoring platform. Donors should make publishing all contracts, grants, and project documents a condition of receiving aid, along with regular and transparent reporting with sufficient details about the funds and projects, and any restrictions the government/authorities place on implementation. It should also ensure that donors, nongovernmental organizations, and the public have regular access for monitoring and evaluating progress in carrying out projects. To protect rights, diligently ensure that when emergency funds are channeled through the UN due to the scale of the recovery projects, the finances disbursed are used for their specified purpose. In doing so, donors and the system they create should rely on independent auditors as well as local civil society entities that are independent and capable of monitoring funds to ensure that no diversion occurs.


Greece/EU: Bring Moria Homeless to Safety

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Click to expand Image The remains of Moria camp after the fire on September 9.  © 2020 Private

European governments should step up urgent efforts to relocate nearly 13,000 men, women, and children left homeless by fires inside Moria camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the fires at Moria camp on September 8, 2020, the people affected have had limited shelter or access to food, water, sanitation facilities, and health care, including those who have contracted Covid-19. Greek security forces have also used teargas and stun grenades on displaced people protesting the dire living conditions since the fires, and tensions with the local population are high.

“European leaders should act quickly to bring the people stranded on Lesbos to safety,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They also need to fundamentally rethink the failed and inhumane policies that led to the creation of a sprawling, unsanitary, and dangerous refugee camp in an EU country, rather than just building a replica of the same thing.”

The Greek authorities and the European Union (EU) should ensure that the humanitarian response plan to support people in the aftermath of the fires pays particular attention to the needs of at-risk asylum seekers, including children, people with disabilities, those who are pregnant, those with newborns, those with medical and mental health conditions, survivors or those at risk of gender-based violence, and older people, Human Rights Watch said. The plan should address immediate needs for shelter, food, and water, as well as psychosocial – mental health – support and health care, but also provide for swift transfers to appropriate accommodation on the Greek mainland and to other EU countries.

Most former Moria residents are homeless and in dire conditions since the Moria fire. © 2020 Private © 2020 Private © 2020 Private © 2020 Private

Two Syrian men and one woman, and an Afghan man who were living in Moria with their families at the time of the fires, spoke to Human Rights Watch by phone between September 11 and 15. They said that when the fires broke out, they grabbed their children and their documents and fled the area. They did not take any other belongings. They said police blocked the main road to Mytilene, the island’s capital, so they were forced to spend the night next to the road, seeking shelter under some trees.

One of the Syrians interviewed said: “We lost everything in Syria, we came looking for safety, this is not safety. Please take us out of this hell. Right now, we are just waiting here to die.”

Two of those interviewed were able to leave the area the next day with their families, but the other two have remained by the side of the road and shared photos of their surroundings and lack of shelter with Human Rights Watch. They said that the only shops whose access is not blocked off by police, a Lidl and an AB chain store, both large supermarkets, have remained closed.

The Afghan man is part of a group of volunteers bringing assistance to the now homeless. He and two other aid workers interviewed said that while aid groups have been able to hand out food and water, it is impossible to distribute to everyone – including some members of particularly vulnerable groups – because of the large number of families spread out along the road.

“In the camp we had areas where people lined up to get their food, but now the situation is impossible,” he said. “When we arrive, people run to the trucks, grabbing whatever they can. But there are some who get nothing – mothers alone with young children who can’t just leave their babies to run to the truck, and older and people with disabilities. I am sure that not everyone is getting food and water, and we have been hearing from aid groups numerous cases of people suffering from dehydration because they haven’t had anything to drink in days.”

Those interviewed said that the Greek military is doing daily food distributions from trucks that are running into the same problems.

Amanda Munoz de Toro of Fenix, a legal and protection organization, said that only small aid organizations are distributing items such as sanitary pads, wet wipes, or milk formula on an ad hoc basis.

Click to expand Image A nongovernmental organization makes efforts to distribute food to those rendered homeless by the fires in Moria.  © 2020 Private

The Syrian woman, a mother of six children ages 18 months to 9 years, and a Syrian man also sleeping on the road with his family both said that since the fire, they had barely been able to get any food or water and were begging from other displaced people. They had no blankets or any form of shelter.

While the authorities have said that vulnerable asylum seekers including families with young children and single women are being prioritized for transfer to a temporary site, some women living alone and female-headed households and other at-risk people remain on the street, with no clear provisions for their protection. Women who were previously housed in a separate section of the camp due to risk of violence are now in the same area as their attackers, a representative of one protection organization said.

Apostolos Veizis, director of the Medical Operational Support Unit for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Greece, said that the vast majority of people who were still on the streets had no access to toilets or running water for sanitation purposes.

The Migration Ministry told the media that consideration of asylum claims will resume only for homeless asylum seekers who agree to enter and register at the new temporary site.

The EU should fundamentally reconsider its hotspot approach on the Greek Islands and end policies that lead to the containment of thousands of asylum seekers in unsuitable facilities, Human Rights Watch said. The Greek government should urgently transfer people affected to safer and appropriate accommodations on mainland Greece, starting with children and at-risk groups.

The European Commission and the EU should build on the experience of their 2015 Emergency Relocation Mechanism, and like-minded EU member states should, without further delay, urgently relocate asylum seekers from Lesbos, including through family reunification and humanitarian visas. They should urgently establish and support a permanent system to share responsibilities for receiving asylum seekers and processing their asylum applications to alleviate the pressure on Greece and the suffering of migrants.

“In these difficult times, it is of utmost importance for respect for human rights to be at the center of the Greek and EU response to the fire in Moria,” Wille said. “It is particularly important for the authorities to avoid using force or inflammatory language and to take appropriate steps to de-escalate any risk of violence.”

Fire and the Aftermath

Before the fires, security in Moria camp had already deteriorated and tensions were high. Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental groups have long warned European leaders about the dire conditions in Moria. These have been exacerbated by Greek authorities’ containment policy, which has blocked transfers to the mainland. For years, residents were crammed into overcrowded, inadequate tents, with limited access to food, water, sanitation, and health care, including during the pandemic and despite the risk of Covid-19.

On the night of September 8, fires broke out inside Moria, the Reception and Identification Center (RIC) built to house 2,757 migrants but at the time housing 12,767, mostly women and children. More fires on September 9 burned to the ground the parts of Moria camp remaining after the first blaze. The cause of the fires remains under investigation. 

Click to expand Image The remains of Moria camp after the fire on September 9.  © 2020 Private

Nearly 13,000 people who had been living in and around Moria were left homeless by the fires, with most living for days without any shelter beyond makeshift structures constructed with blankets and sticks in fields and along roadsides, with limited access to food, water, and sanitation, and threatened by a possible spread of Covid-19 and growing anger among locals, some of whom have threatened the migrants with violence.

As of September 15, the government had set up at least 600 tents, sheltering at least 700 people, with plans to erect enough tents to house the full group. At the same time, opposition from locals to establishing temporary sites has been intense, with residents setting up roadblocks and demanding the immediate transfer of all people to the mainland. 

Click to expand Image Rows of new tents that the government set up to temporarily house the Moria population. © 2020 Thanasis Voulgarakis/freelancer

Additional government plans include potentially housing a few thousand people on a passenger ferry and two navy ships at the island’s port of Mytilene, authorities told aid workers. In March, the authorities held over 450 migrants, including people with disabilities, those who were pregnant, and unaccompanied children, on a naval vessel in overcrowded conditions before transferring them to a closed camp on the Greek mainland.

The Pandemic Situation

Since a lockdown was put in place in the camp in March, the authorities have not provided sufficient access to health care, hygiene products, running water, and testing. On September 2, after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the camp, the authorities imposed a more rigid lockdown that forbade people from entering or leaving the camp.

At the time of the fire, 35 people inside the camp had tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19, according to authorities, who had isolated them with about 45 close relatives. They, like everyone else from the camp, have been left homeless and without access to adequate health care. In the chaos following the fires, the authorities lost track of the people who had tested positive. The authorities began rapid testing on everyone entering the new temporary site. As of September 15, out of 1,000 people tested they had confirmed 37 cases of Covid-19, including a newborn.

Aid workers estimated that the new site had about 37 toilets, none of them adaptable and accessible for those with disabilities, and no other sanitation facilities.

Veizis of MSF said that many people living in Moria already had limited access to health care and support for acute and chronic health conditions, including mental health conditions. The living conditions in the camp had been nowhere near adequate to meet the Sphere Standards, a set of principles and minimum humanitarian standards developed by humanitarian groups for application in humanitarian crises, including protracted situations. Veizis said that now the system had completely collapsed though his organization was still trying to provide medical care. MSF continues to provide pre- and post-natal care services, which were already overstretched, but reaching patients is now even more difficult.

Greek Government Response

Following the fires, the Greek government blamed camp residents for the situation and responded by referring to a plan already in the works to lock people up in closed facilities on Lesbos and the other Aegean islands hosting asylum seekers. “Some [people] do not respect the country that is hosting them,” a government spokesperson, Stelios Petsas, said on September 10.

That day, one of the Syrian men who spoke to Human Rights Watch attended a meeting with local authorities, as a representative of his community, to discuss the what would happen to the homeless migrants: “At the meeting they told us they will build a new closed camp where Moria used to be, which will take five or six months to construct.”

On September 13, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “I want to say with absolute certainty that there will be a permanent reception and identification center – I want to send this message in all directions.” The authorities are calling for joint EU management of the new facility.

All of the migrants who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they were concerned for their safety on the island. Six riot police units as well as four Crime Prevention and Suppression Teams and two water cannon vehicles arrived on Lesbos on September 10. On several occasions on the night of the fire and since then, Greek forces have used teargas and stun grenades on groups of people, including children, either to prevent them from reaching Mytilene, the island’s capital, or to disperse protests over their dire conditions. 

One man shared photographs of what appears to be a teargas grenade that police used on protesters on September 12. 

Click to expand Image A teargas grenade used against protesters by police on September 12.  © Private 2020

An aid worker who was at the September 12 protest said that members of the Crime Prevention and Suppression Squads dressed in protective gear arrested a young man, and his mother reacted by hitting them. They violently pushed her and a man who was defending her, the aid worker said. The aid worker and one of the Syrian men shared two separate videos of the incident with Human Rights Watch.

Feelings of insecurity were also heightened by threats of violence and intimidating behavior by some groups of local residents. In some cases, police protected the migrants from possible attacks.

Click to expand Image Former Moria residents protesting their dire conditions.  © 2020 Private

“Whatever the immediate cause, this fire is a clear result of the Greek government and the European Union’s own failed policies and management of the situation,” Veizis said. “It is absolutely shocking that in a European setting, a week after this fire, the majority of people still are without shelter and running water.”

Despite calls from nongovernmental groups for immediate transfer of those affected by the fires, among them many children and at-risk groups, to safety on the mainland, the government said only unaccompanied children will be evacuated. The authorities flew 406 unaccompanied children to Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, on three flights, where they will either be relocated to other EU countries or placed in long-term shelter facilities in Greece. Several countries, including Germany, France, and the Netherlands, have pledged to take in unaccompanied children. A broader relocation effort had already begun in March, when EU member states pledged to relocate 1,600 unaccompanied children from the Greek islands. On September 15, Germany said it also plans to relocate an additional 1,553 people from the Greek islands hosting asylum seekers, including Lesbos.

However, those pledges do not address the immediate needs of the thousands of others who are not unaccompanied children, still on the island and in need of appropriate accommodation, Human Rights Watch said.

Many existing facilities for refugees and asylum seekers on the mainland are already full, with homeless refugees and asylum seekers living on the streets of Athens.

In addition to the newly homeless on Lesbos, an estimated 12,300 asylum seekers and migrants are contained in inhumane and degrading living conditions on Chios, Samos, Kos, and Leros islands. 


The EU Commission and like-minded member states should collaborate closely with Greece in the coming weeks to establish an emergency decongestion plan for Lesbos and other Greek islands with a public and ambitious timetable to find appropriate solutions for those left homeless.

Until such a plan is carried out, the Greek authorities should ensure adequate conditions for those affected by the fires, including in the temporary shelters, and ensure that everyone has access to sanitation facilities, food, water, and basic health care, in accordance with international standards. Secure temporary shelters, food distribution, and sanitation should be accessible to women, families headed by a single person, and people with disabilities. The authorities should also secure enough interpreters, human resources, and technical capacity to support people’s needs, including through psychosocial support outreach.

The authorities should provide appropriate accommodation for at-risk people, including families with young children, people with disabilities, women traveling alone or heading households, those who are pregnant and have newly given birth, and those at higher risk of severe illness or death from Covid-19, including older people and those with underlying health conditions.

The authorities should supply adequate sanitary and hygiene products, including for menstrual hygiene management, and ensure that people can follow the guidelines of the National Public Health Organization for protection from Covid-19. People who tested positive for the virus that causes Covid-19 should be given safe housing for the quarantine period and health care, and transferred to hospitals for treatment if necessary.

The European Commission should ensure that its new “Pact on Migration and Asylum,” expected on September 23, reflects the right lessons learned from the devastation and human misery on Lesbos. The Commission and EU member states should commit to border governance that respects human dignity and the right to seek asylum while ensuring a fair distribution of responsibility among EU member states.


Singapore Should Rehabilitate, Not Execute, Drug Users

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Click to expand Image People walk past the Supreme Court in Singapore January 22, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

The Singapore authorities should immediately halt the planned execution of Syed Suhail Bin Syed Zin this Friday, September 18 for drug trafficking offenses dating back to August 2011.

Singapore’s High Court found Syed guilty of drug trafficking in January 2016 under the country’s draconian Misuse of Drugs Act. Under that law, the court must apply the death penalty for drug offenses involving certain quantities of listed narcotics. While there are some extremely limited exceptions to this offense, none were found to apply to Syed. The Court of Appeal upheld the verdict, without providing a written ruling, in October 2018.

Syed began using heroin in 1999, and spent two extended stints in a drug rehabilitation center trying to recover from his addiction.

On September 10, Syed’s family received a letter notifying them that Syed would be executed at the Changi Prison and encouraging them to make funeral arrangements. His family was only given eight days’ notice of his planned execution. They may only visit Syed for four hours per day, and because many of his close relatives live in Malaysia, they are barred from seeing him due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a poignant handwritten letter to a lawyer this week pleading for help, just 72 hours before his scheduled hanging, Syed wrote: "I dream of better days because hope is my only possession."  He added: “I love Singapore. Everything I love is here. Being Singaporean, though, has expedited my execution.”

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and irreversibility. The use of the death penalty is diminishing globally, particularly in many countries in Asia. In its December 2007 resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, the United Nations General Assembly stated that “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.” Governments around the world should call on Singapore to impose a moratorium on capital punishment, and join the other 106 countries that have abolished the death penalty.

Ahead of Singapore’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next year, the Singapore government should end the death penalty and make Syed the first survivor of this new policy. People like Syed belong in rehabilitation centers, not coffins. 


Update (September 16, 2020): The quotes from Syed Suhail Bin Syed Zin were added to this article after its initial publication.

UN: Release Saudi Dissidents, Activists

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Click to expand Image Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman arrives to attend the first meeting of the defense ministers and officials of the 41-member Saudi-led Muslim counter-terrorism alliance in the capital Riyadh on November 26, 2017. © 2017 Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

(Geneva) – Saudi Arabia should release all political dissidents and women’s rights activists, provide accountability for past abuses, and end persistent discrimination against women, 29 countries said today. The statement, delivered by Denmark at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, noted that while Saudi Arabia has made some reforms on women’s rights and limited use of the death penalty against child offenders in recent years, the overall human rights situation remains a matter of concern.

Under the government effectively headed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi authorities have arbitrarily detained dozens of political dissidents, human rights activists, and others since 2017. Countries at the Human Rights Council should support the joint statement, which is a rare and significant opportunity to press Saudi Arabia over its human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The statement remains open for further endorsement until two weeks after the session, scheduled to end on October 6, 2020.

“Saudi Arabia would like the world to forget about its ongoing arbitrary detention of dozens of political dissidents and human rights activists, but the joint statement sends a strong signal that Saudi Arabia needs to halt its abusive treatment of these individuals,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia’s aspiring membership in the Human Rights Council is at odds with its record of impunity for torture and other abuses in recent years.”

Two previous joint statements have been delivered on Saudi Arabia at the Human Rights Council, one by Iceland in March 2019 and another by Australia in September 2019. Saudi Arabia has failed to address serious human rights concerns raised in those previous joint statements, and continued council attention is needed, Human Rights Watch said.

In a public joint letter addressed to foreign ministers earlier this month, 30 nongovernmental groups detailed Saudi Arabia’s continued detention, persecution, and harassment of human rights defenders, new waves of arrests, allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and deaths in detention, and its continued climate of impunity.

At the council’s June 2019 session, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions presented a damning report following her investigation into the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. She said that the killing reflected a broader crackdown against human rights defenders, journalists, and dissenters, as well as a culture of impunity at the highest levels. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the Saudi authorities’ campaign of repression against independent dissidents and activists, including waves of mass arrests, marred by lack of due process and by credible torture allegations. Numerous Saudi dissidents and activists, including prominent women’s rights defenders, remain in detention while they and others face unfair trials on charges tied solely to their public criticism of the government or peaceful human rights work. In September, Human Rights Watch issued a news release expressing concern at Saudi Arabia’s incommunicado detention of women’s rights activists and other defenders, prison overcrowding, including in the context of Covid-19, denial of access to health care, and deaths in custody under suspicious circumstances.

“Council members should be subject to more scrutiny, not less,” Fisher said. “We urge the council to keep Saudi Arabia on its agenda – and create a monitoring mechanism – until we see an end to the brutal targeting of defenders and dissidents, the release of women’s rights activists and others arbitrarily detained, and genuine reform.”

Countries signing the joint statement on Saudi Arabia include Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Focus on Merit in International Criminal Court Elections

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Click to expand Image Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. © 2018 Marina Riera/Human Rights Watch

The 123 member countries of the International Criminal Court (ICC) face critical decisions in elections this December for the court’s next prosecutor and six new judges. The ICC is a court of last resort for the world’s worst crimes and is often victims’ only hope for justice. It is facing unprecedented threats to its independence, as the United States continues its efforts to thwart certain investigations. This – along with a review to strengthen the court’s delivery of justice – mean it’s crucial that these elections result in the strongest possible leadership for the ICC.

To achieve this, member countries will need to elect candidates based on merit, and reject vote-trading or other deal-making that often mars elections for international positions.

To help countries assess candidates, human rights groups have issued questionnaires to the 4 candidates shortlisted for ICC prosecutor and the 20 candidates nominated by governments for judgeships. It is hoped that the questionnaires – which more than two dozen groups have endorsed and which probe candidates’ vision, background, experience, and views on international justice – will help ensure fair, merit-based, and transparent elections.

Similar questionnaires have attracted responses from nearly all candidates for ICC positions in past elections. Responses to the questionnaires are expected later this month and will be made public. Together with public hearings with the candidates and reports from specialized committees, they can add to the information countries have at their disposal as election processes advance.

For the all-important prosecutor’s election, ICC countries are seeking to identify a consensus candidate from those shortlisted in June. The list has attracted controversy and it’s unclear if countries will reach beyond those short-listed to additional candidates. If so, they risk sidestepping an important, albeit imperfect, innovative process put in place to guard against politicization of this election. If they seek additional prosecutorial candidates, they will need to adhere to fundamental principles of transparency and fairness. Countries should do all they can to root their decisions in merit, not politics. We and others will be following closely to check they do. 

Australia: Deaths of Prisoners with Disabilities

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this report contains images and names of people who have passed away. In many areas of Indigenous Australia, it is common practice that when a member of the community passes away, the person’s name is changed in accordance with cultural beliefs. Names and photographs in this report are used with the permission of the families.

(Perth) – Three suspected suicides in the last four months in Western Australia’s prisons have highlighted the urgent need for better mental health services and support for prisoners with mental health conditions, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 57-page report, “‘He’s Never Coming Back’: People with Disabilities Dying in Western Australia’s Prisons” examines the serious risk of self-harm and death for prisoners with mental health conditions, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, in Western Australia, nearly 30 years after the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. A Human Rights Watch analysis of coroners’ inquest and media reports between 2010 and 2020 found that about 60 percent of adults who died in prisons in Western Australia had a disability, including mental health conditions. Of the 60 percent, 58 percent died as a result of lack of support, suicide, or targets of violence – and half of these deaths were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners.

September 15, 2020 “He’s Never Coming Back”

“Western Australia’s prisons are damaging and at times deadly for people with mental health conditions, particularly Aboriginal people,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “People with disabilities often fall prey to violence or resort to self-harm because proper support is lacking.”

The 1991 Royal Commission found that Aboriginal people were more likely to die in custody in part because they were incarcerated at disproportionate rates. This remains true. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitute just 4 percent of Western Australia’s population but make up 39 percent of the state’s full-time adult prison population. Within this group, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities are even more likely to end up behind bars.

Since September 2019, Human Rights Watch has examined eight emblematic deaths in custody that exposed inadequate mental health support in prisons in Western Australia. Human Rights Watch interviewed 40 people including prisoners, family members, mental health professionals, lawyers, Aboriginal leaders, and disability rights and death-in-custody experts in the cities of Perth and Broome. Human Rights Watch also conducted an extensive study of the 102 cases of deaths in prisons, police custody, and immigration detention in Western Australia between 2010 and 2020.


After three suspected suicides in the state’s prisons since the beginning of the year, on August 18, 2020, the Western Australian government announced a task force to assess the current management of at-risk prisoners. The task force should examine the conditions of solitary confinement for prisoners with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners and meaningfully consult at-risk prisoners, particularly prisoners with psychosocial or cognitive disabilities and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander prisoners.

Even in cases in which the prisoner’s disability or mental health history was well known and documented by the prison, staff failed to provide adequate and timely support that could have prevented the prisoner from taking their own life or from an attack by fellow prisoners.

The brother of a murdered Aboriginal prisoner with disabilities described an earlier prison stay: “When he had come out we knew there was something wrong. Because his life just went downhill. When he spoke out about it to us, then we have seen the signs, the pattern, of how his life changed…. That justice was never even done about it.”

Due to limited resources, mental health services in Western Australian prisons are inadequate. At times, they are reduced to distributing medication through a slot in the cell door, monitoring prisoners to prevent self-harm, and acute crisis counseling. The quality of counseling varies across prisons and can often be limited to a perfunctory, “How are you doing?” through closed cell doors, allowing for the response to be heard across the unit, including by prison guards.

The Western Australian Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services stated in 2018, “The State is not meeting the mental health needs of prisoners” and “Daily management of people with serious mental health needs is left to custodial staff who have limited training, few management options and poor access to information.”

The Western Australia Department of Corrective Services has taken several measures to reduce the number of deaths in custody, but it has largely focused on reducing access to tools that can be used for self-harm and keeping at-risk prisoners under strict observation. Little has been done to address the deteriorating conditions of confinement, the inadequate access to support or mental health services, and the overuse and harm of solitary confinement. The 1991 Royal Commission found that solitary confinement causes “extreme anxiety” and has a particularly detrimental impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, many of whom are already separated from their family and community.

Corrective services should immediately improve long-overdue training of custodial staff about disability and mental health, recruit adequate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, and ensure that services are culturally sensitive, Human Rights Watch said. They should also overhaul mental health care, in close collaboration with Aboriginal health services, to ensure that they are meaningful as opposed to a suicide assessment checklist.

The current Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability should investigate the multiple and compounding forms of disadvantage and abuses people with disabilities, particularly those who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, experience on a daily basis in prison.

It is crucially important for the government to end solitary confinement for prisoners with disabilities, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, Human Rights Watch said.

“Australia's warehousing of at-risk prisoners with disabilities in solitary confinement causes severe psychological distress that pushes many over the edge,” Pearson said. “This dehumanizing practice has no place in Australian society.”




If you or someone you know needs mental health support, these organizations can offer advice. In Australia, Lifeline WA and Lifeline can be contacted on 13 11 14, and Beyond Blue can be contacted on 1300 22 4636. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, and other international helplines are available at Befrienders Worldwide.

Bangladesh: Reunify Rohingya Refugee Families

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Click to expand Image Refugees held on Bhasan Char island protesting to return to Cox’s Bazar during a 3-day “go and see visit” to the island for 40 refugees from the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 5, 2020. Screenshot from a video recording.  © 2020 Private

(New York) – The Bangladesh government has failed to honor its pledge not to involuntarily hold Rohingya refugees on the remote, unprotected island of Bhasan Char, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 5, 2020, the government arranged a three-day “go and see visit” to Bhasan Char for 40 Rohingya refugees, including camp leaders, during which those on the island begged to be allowed to return to their families in Cox’s Bazar camps.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 Rohingya refugees from the visiting delegation after they returned to Cox’s Bazar from Bhasan Char on September 8. Some said they wanted the refugees detained on the island to be allowed to return with them. Others expressed serious concerns over the quality of medical facilities on the island, the lack of livelihood opportunities, and the safety of the island during monsoon season.

“The Bangladesh government is detaining refugees on a remote island, separated from their families, in a callous attempt to claim that that it is safe and habitable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Only by allowing UN experts to conduct a long-promised independent assessment would it be possible to determine the feasibility, safety, and sustainability of the arrangements at Bhasan Char.”

The visit was arranged without consultation with United Nations agencies or nongovernmental organizations. The government has yet to allow UN refugee agency officials to conduct a protection visit for the 306 refugees detained on Bhasan Char, including at least 33 children.

The Bangladesh government has repeatedly promised that it would await clearance from UN agencies and independent technical experts on emergency preparedness, habitability, and safety of the island before relocating Rohingya to the island. One camp leader who visited the island said that the refugees were also awaiting an expert assessment: “We want international experts from UN and other international agencies to visit Bhasan Char to tell us if it is safe.” Yet refugees in Cox’s Bazar said they are feeling pressure from local authorities to move to the island if they ever want to see their families again.

Visitors, who were allowed to meet with their relatives on the island only once, said that those being held appeared desperate to return to the Cox’s Bazar camps. Two visiting delegation members said that when one woman became frantic about seeing her brother again, Bangladesh navy officers beat her, causing her head to hit a wall. Her brother, who was part of the delegation, said: “When we met, they were all begging and crying, asking us to bring them back to their families. I felt helpless, leaving my sister on that prison-like island alone.” One woman from the delegation said: “Most of the women I talked to said that their only wish was leave Bhasan Char and return to their families.”

A delegation member said the Bangladesh authorities “entertained [the visitors] with the highest hospitality during the entire trip, with good food and nice living spaces.” But members said it felt like a show to make voluntary relocation attractive, when those already on the island have reported ill-treatment.

Another delegation member said, “Our people who were there complained to us that they have never been treated so well and now that we have returned to Cox’s Bazar, those brothers and sisters are being treated like they were before.” Previously, refugees on the island have said that they were not allowed to move freely and did not have adequate access to food or medical care. Some refugees have alleged that Bangladesh authorities on the island had beaten and ill-treated them.

Visitors corroborated that those on the island were being denied freedom of movement. “You will not find the ‘jail’ word over there, but everything looks like a jail,” a delegation member said. “Most of the refugees held at Bhasan Char said to us that they weren’t allowed to move freely on the island and most of the time they have to remain inside shelters that look like jail cells.”

Refugees told another Rohingya delegation member that the authorities on the island do not allow the refugees to gather to say their prayers at the mosque, claiming that it would risk spreading Covid-19, even though the authorities had isolated everyone on the island for over four months. “If they built the structures for the Rohingya refugees, then why are they not allowed inside the mosques,” he said.

Visiting refugees expressed serious concerns about the lack of adequate medical care on the island. “Many of Rohingya people being held on the island told us that they don’t get proper medication from the camp authorities and that the health facilities on the island are inadequate,” one man said. “If anyone becomes critically ill, the closest option is a hospital that is a minimum three-hour journey by boat.” He said some refugees told him that a few days earlier, one of the refugees had fallen unconscious, and the authorities had transported him by naval helicopter to the port of Chattogram for medical care. “I don’t think Bangladesh authorities will arrange a military chopper for the Rohingya all the time,” he said. “We can also fall ill in the [Cox’s Bazar] camps but at least there are health facilities and organizations there that provide health care.”

Some of the refugees who visited Bhasan Char said that women and girls on the island do not have access to proper sanitary supplies to maintain safe menstrual hygiene. Others said that they were concerned about the apparent lack of sustainable livelihoods on the island. One of the visitors said: “I can never choose Bhasan Char as a livable place. I saw with my own eyes that there is nothing to do for a livelihood. How come the authorities are promising Rohingyas agriculture and farming in an area surrounded by an embankment on every side.”

“Go-and-see” visits, when arranged by the UN refugee agency, are usually organized as one of a number of steps to facilitate the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of refugees to their countries of origin. They are not employed as a standalone measure and are accompanied by a range of humanitarian assessments to ensure protection of returnees. If the Bangladesh government wants to borrow this concept for the relocation of refugees to Bhasan Char, it should allow UN and international experts to visit the island, Human Rights Watch said.

The arbitrary detention of hundreds of refugees on a possibly uninhabitable remote island without access to humanitarian assistance or basic services violates Bangladesh’s international human rights obligations to provide security, freedom of movement, access to medical care, education, and the right to work.

“Instead of putting on a show for visitors and laying out fancy feasts, the Bangladesh government should listen to refugees’ most basic plea: to be safely reunited with their families,” Adams said. “Bangladesh authorities should follow through with their original promise by bringing the refugees back to their families in Cox’s Bazar and moving forward with the planned independent UN assessment of the island.”

Belarus: Systematic Beatings, Torture of Protesters

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Click to expand Image Protesters objecting to the flawed August presidential election and the government's brutality, in march along the Independence Prospect during the "March of Unity" rally in Minsk, Belarus on Sunday, Sep. 6, 2020, Belarus. © 2020 SIPA USA via AP

(Berlin) – Belarusian security forces arbitrarily detained thousands of people and systematically subjected hundreds to torture and other ill- treatment in the days following the August 9, 2020 presidential election, Human Rights Watch said today.

The victims described beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks, and in at least one case, rape, and said they saw other detainees suffer the same or worse abuse. They had serious injuries, including broken bones, cracked teeth, skin wounds, electrical burns, and mild traumatic brain injuries. Some had kidney damage. Six of the people interviewed were hospitalized, for one to five days. Police held detainees in custody for several days, often incommunicado, in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.

“The sweeping brutality of the crackdown shows the lengths to which the Belarusian authorities will go to silence people, but tens of thousands of peaceful protesters continue to demand fair elections and justice for abuses,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) should urgently set in motion inquiries to ensure that evidence is collected that could contribute to accountability for grave human rights violations.”

The UN Human Rights Council, which will hold an urgent debate on Belarus during the session that will run from September 14 to October 6, and the OSCE should promptly open inquiries.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 former detainees, 21 men and 6 women, nearly all of whom said they were arrested between August 8 and 12. Some were arrested as they took part in demonstrations that they described as peaceful; others were grabbed off the streets or from their cars. Many shared medical documents and photographs of injuries. At least five still had bruises and/or wore casts at the time of the interview. Human Rights Watch also spoke with 14 people with knowledge of the arrests and abuse, most between August 20 and 29, in Minsk, Hrodna, and Homiel, including witnesses to arrests, healthcare workers, and detainees’ relatives. Human Rights Watch also examined 67 video recordings and written accounts by former detainees and their relatives, either from public sources or shared directly with researchers.

Tortured in Belarus

What Detained Protesters Endured at the Hand of Police.


On the basis of Human Rights Watch’s findings, much of the physical abuse by riot police and other law enforcement agents constitutes torture, as do the detention conditions that interviewees described.

From August 9 to 13, police arrested nearly 7,000 people amid an unprecedented wave of popular and largely peaceful protests. They alleged widespread election irregularities that led to the contested re-election of the incumbent, Aleksander Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994.

With protests in their sixth week, Belarusian authorities have expelled, harassed, or stripped of accreditation dozens of foreign journalists and local journalists working for foreign and local independent outlets. Starting the first week of September, they have begun to again arrest protesters in large numbers, with the Interior Ministry reporting more than 600 detained on September 6 alone, and more than 300 in custody.

Detainees said that police, riot police (known as OMON, or Special Task Police Force), and special designation forces (Spetznaz) picked them up off the streets, in some cases using extreme violence, then beat them in dangerously confined spaces in vehicles where they had trouble breathing.

The security forces transported the detainees to police precincts and other detention facilities where they kicked, punched, and beat them with truncheons, forced them to stand, kneel, or lie in stress positions for hours, then held them for days in overcrowded cells. Police often denied detainees food and water and denied their requests to go to the toilet. All said they saw dozens of others subjected to similar or worse treatment.

In Hrodna, a 29-year-old journalist said that when he was arrested, despite displaying his press credentials, an OMON officer broke both his wrists. A medic described witnessing an incident in Minsk on August 11, in which an OMON officer trying to arrest a motorist who had stopped his car shot a rubber bullet point-blank at him. The medic said she treated the victim on the side of the road, but he ended up needing surgery to extract the bullet from his lungs.

Kim Mazur

31, financial technology specialist, Minsk
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× Kim Mazur 31, financial technology specialist, Minsk

On the evening of August 10, riot police dragged Kim and his friend out of their car near a shopping center in Minsk and took them to the Partizansky precinct. “They put us on our knees, hands in the back, face to the floor. At midnight, riot police rushed into the room and started beating everyone,” Kim recalled. “We’ll teach you how to respect the police,” the officers yelled. Fifteen hours later, Kim was stacked on top of other detainees on the floor of a truck which took them to Zhodino prison, some fifty kilometres from Minsk. “You have to crawl like a worm on top of the others while the OMON guys are beating you to go faster, but you slow down so you don’t squash someone’s head as you move… They walked on top of us… One sat on me and took selfies. Another put his boot on the neck of my friend, choking him.” At Zhodino, Kim shared a cell meant for ten with 36 detainees, all of them arrested in connection with the protests. “I was doing push-ups and making jokes, trying to cheer up people. We got porridge in the morning, tea at lunch and fish at night. I think that fish was tortured too before they served it to us. After three days, on the night from the 14 to the 15, they threw us out, with no explanation, no papers, nothing.”

Pavel Pogartsev

20, student, Homel
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× Pavel Pogartsev 20, student, Homel

Pavel and a friend were on their way to Homel’s main square on the evening of August 11 when they saw a group of OMON officers heading towards them. They dragged Pavel into a van and drove him and other detainees to Tsentralny precinct, where riot officers were standing on both sides of a dark corridor on the fourth floor. “They told me to crawl and beat me with truncheons... [and kicked] me in the head.... My head hit the wall,” he said. During the interrogation after the beating, an OMON officer crushed Pavel’s hand, threatening to break his fingers and toes if he didn’t tell him who coordinated protests. Once a rubber-stamped charge sheet alleging Pavel’s participation in an unsanctioned mass gathering was drafted, the police took him to a big hall and ordered him to lie on the floor face down, next to other detainees. Eighteen hours later they finally moved him to a cell. “When I was freed three days later, I went to the hospital. I had a concussion and the doctors kept me there for two days. " Pavel said the experience of abusive detention actually “made [him] braver” and that he’ll be seeking justice for the abuse.


28, engineer, Minsk
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× Sasha 28, engineer, Minsk

On the evening of August 10, Sasha and some of his neighbours, including women and children, joined a peaceful protest in central Minsk. Police beat the protesters with truncheons and grabbed “anyone they could lay their hands on.” They took Sasha to Moskovsky precinct. “Going up the stairs, I could hear the screams of people being beaten,” Sasha said. “When we got to the fourth floor, riot police greeted each [new detainee]with a different kick... I got a knee in the stomach. They were laughing, like it was a game.” The police forced the detainees to lie on the floor in a hall, face down, hands behind their backs. “The floor was dirty with blood and mud... It was difficult to breathe. If we put our head to the side, they beat us...” Beatings continued throughout the night; some of the men lost consciousness, were revived and then beaten again. Then the police locked the detainees in a small cell. “It was just four bare walls, no beds, no toilet.... One guy had been so badly beaten up that he lost his bowels.” Finally a police van took them to Zhodino prison. “They stacked us on top of each other between the benches of the van... I was... on top of another guy and had two more on top of me... We were beaten constantly.” At Zhodino Sasha shared a cell for 12 with 34 people. He had a perfunctory court hearing on August 12 and was released on the evening of August 15. “The guards kept playing Russian pop music from dawn to late at night. I will hate [it] for the rest of my life,” Sasha laughed.

Alexander Gazimov

35, construction worker, Minsk
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× Alexander Gazimov 35, construction worker, Minsk

Alexander did not vote on August 9 – he had a party that night and he was not into politics. But the next day he stumbled upon a crowd of protesters close to a Minsk shopping mall, after he had grabbed a kebab with a friend. When riot police arrived, protesters started fleeing and Alexander ran too, stumbled and broke his left leg. Police officers dragged Alexander into a truck and showered him with blows, on his body and head. “They stepped on my broken leg and kicked it [laughing] ‘Is this leg really broken?’” In the truck, officers also threatened to rape Alexander with a truncheon. They eventually passed Alexander to another group of police officers who beat him again inside their van, splitting his lip. They drove Alexander to Tsentralny precinct and forced him to stand against the wall, his legs spread wide. “I started to lose consciousness and so they laid me faced down on the ground. But they kicked my broken leg again… four or five times.” After an hour and a half, the police had rubber-stamped charge sheets ready for the detainees to sign. Alexander could not walk, so they carried him in. He and the other detainees spent the rest of the night in the yard and were transferred to Zhodino prison the next day. At Zhodino, the guards took him to the infirmary. “There were around 150 [detainees] there… [many ]with with injured faces, broken jaws and ribs, blood over them. Some were afraid to speak to the doctor and said they were ‘OK.’ Alexander spent two days at the prison hospital before being transferred to the Minsk Emergency Hospital for surgery.

Alexander Brukhanchik

18, college student, Minsk
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× Alexander Brukhanchik 18, college student, Minsk

Police stopped Alexander and his two friends, also students, on the evening of August 11 in Minsk, searched their backpacks and found a respirator. The police handed the friends over to riot police officers, who took the three inside a minibus, kicked them repeatedly, cut up their shorts in the buttocks area and threatened to rape them with a hand grenade. One officer chopped off Alexander’s shoulder-length hair, cackling “you’re ready for the army now.” The officers transferred the detainees to a police van, forced them to crawl on the blood-splattered floor, and beat them. One kicked Alexander with a booted foot close to [both eyes] and on the nose. “These blows caused the most pain, and my nose squirted blood. Most likely, that’s when it was broken,” said Alexander, who was later diagnosed with a nose fracture, cranial trauma and multiple hematomas. The three were delivered to Frunzensky precinct where riot police beat them brutally, gave them electric shocks, and threatened rape with a truncheon. “We won’t leave a single intact spot on your body, you’ll be lying here in your own [filth]!” an officer yelled. The next day, the authorities transferred the young men to the Okrestina detention facility, subjecting them to more abuse on the way. When Alexander was released on August 13 he went to the Minsk emergency hospital by ambulance for treatment. He is now seeking justice for torture in detention.

Yulia Bolievskaya

28, patternmaker, Minsk
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× Yulia Bolievskaya 28, patternmaker, Minsk

Yulia was an independent election observer and the police detained her on August 9 next to a polling station. They took her straight to the Okrestina detention facility where riot police officers shouted abuse and threatened her. The Okrestina staff took her medicine away along with her other belongings, although she flagged that because of a chronic condition she needed to take the pills daily. Yulia spent the first night with 12 other women in a cell designed for six. Throughout the night, they heard sounds of blows and screams of tortured men. Some of the women were menstruating and begged for sanitary napkins but didn’t get any. The next evening, the guards moved them to another cell meant for four with 20 women already in it. The women, crammed inside so tightly they had no space to move and no air to breathe, repeatedly called out to the guards asking to split them up. “Finally, they opened the door and poured a pail of cold water over us – so, we had to sit on the wet floor in wet clothes,” Yulia said. One woman fainted, a doctor arrived but “didn’t do anything.” Until Yulia was transferred to Zhodino prison late at night on August 11having received a four-day custodial sentence at a perfunctory court hearing, she had only been given a few pieces of bread to eat. At Zhodino, she shared a cell meant for eight with 12 women. On her second day there, guards brought them a pack of sanitary napkins, which they apparently “bought themselves.” Released on August 14, Yulia is seeking justice for abuse.

Vitaly Dubikov

33, journalist, Minsk
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× Vitaly Dubikov 33, journalist, Minsk

Vitaly, a correspondent with Belsat, an independent broadcaster, was on his way to a work assignment in central Minsk on August 10 when two police officers searched his backpack and found his camera and a microphone with the Belast logo. They crammed him into a tiny compartment in a police van – “literally pushed me in there with their feet, because there were already four people inside, on top of one another, unable to move.” At Zavodskoy precinct riot police beat him and his fellow detainees with truncheons, ordered them to drop to the ground, and tied their hands behind their backs. A man next to Vitaly called out that he had a kidney transplant and couldn’t lie on cold ground – the police beat him. Those who moved or asked for medical assistance were beaten. Police processed rubber-stamped charge-sheets, which the detainees didn’t even get to read. They spent the night outside, first flat on the ground, then kneeling by the wall. The next day, police shoved them into prison vans. “We were crammed in, like fish in a barrel, drowning in our own sweat, some on their knees, some flat on the floor on top of one another... The queue by the gates [of Zhodino prison] was two-three hours long. The sun was burning through the van, it was suffocating. When we asked for water or to open the door even by a crack, all we got were threats and curses. [Eventually] one guy started having seizures… they relented and gave us some water, let some air in,” Vitaly said. At Zhodino, a staff doctor called an ambulance for a man with fractures but waved away the health complaints from other detainees, saying, “You should’ve stayed home.” Vitaly was released on August 14 having never been brought to court.

The aim of the abuse, former detainees said, appeared to be to punish and humiliate. Most reported that OMON and other security forces singled out detainees with so-called “atypical” looks, such as men with long or dyed hair, and people with dreadlocks, piercings, or tattoos, for worse treatment and more insults.

Detainees said that police and guards confiscated detainees’ medications, frequently ignored calls for medical care, and in some cases denied it altogether. In one case, a detainee with a pre-existing medical condition was ill-treated and denied timely medical attention. He fell into a coma in custody and was clinically dead by the time he was transferred to a hospital. Three healthcare workers said they treated numerous demonstrators and former detainees injured by police. Some of those tortured asked the health workers not to file the violent injury reports that are required by law, for fear of retaliation.

All of those interviewed said they were denied access to a lawyer. Those taken before a judge said the proceedings lasted only a few minutes and ended with short arrest sentences for administrative offenses. Some of them said they were released early, most likely because of overcrowded detention facilities.

Those who had no court hearing said they were released within 72 hours, the maximum period allowed under Belarusian law before a court hearing is required. All said that when released, they had to sign a document promising not to participate in “unsanctioned assemblies,” and were given a written warning of criminal charges if they did.

Police and detention center officials failed to keep track of the thousands of people arrested, and detainees’ family members said they struggled, in many cases for days, to find out where their relatives were or what happened to them.

Dozens of former detainees lodged complaints with the authorities alleging cruel and degrading treatment by police. Human Rights Watch is aware of several preliminary inquiries launched by the authorities, but they have not yet opened a single criminal case at time of writing.

Belarusian human rights groups have filed a submission in the interests of 47 former detainees with the UN Committee Against Torture alleging cruel and degrading treatment by police.

On August 14, the deputy internal affairs minister denied that anyone had been beaten or tortured. On August 26, the prosecutor’s office announced the creation of an inter-agency commission to “objectively and fully” gather facts about any criminal acts by law enforcement, both during arrests and in detention facilities.

The torture and other ill-treatment Human Rights Watch documented violate many of Belarus’ international human rights obligations and commitments, including as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN Convention Against Torture, as well as a participating OSCE state.

The UN Human Rights Council decided on Monday that it will hold an urgent debate on Belarus. The council should pass a resolution asking the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor and publicly report on violations before, during, and after the elections, and to determine the facts and circumstances of such violations, with a view to pursuing accountability.

The resolution should also condemn the human rights violations in Belarus, including the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, and torture. The council should call for the immediate release of those who remain in arbitrary detention, including journalists, protesters, opposition leaders, and their supporters.

OSCE countries should also trigger the so-called Moscow Mechanism for an investigation by an independent expert to establish the facts and present the results and recommendations to the OSCE.

“Torture survivors are courageously pressing for justice, and the UN and OSCE should play their part in ensuring justice for victims and accountability for those responsible for human rights violations in Belarus,” Williamson said.

For detailed accounts, please see below.

Abuse Immediately Following Arrest

Click to expand Image Police use truncheons on protesters on Monday, August 10, 2020, during the second straight night when thousands protested in Minsk, Belarus after official results from weekend elections gave an overwhelming victory to authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, extending his 26-year rule. © Sergei Grits/AP Photo

All former detainees interviewed described their arrest and transfer to police stations as fraught with abuse. Several people said that they experienced the worst abuses in police vans and other vehicles. In 10 cases, the security forces used violence when arresting the protesters. Thirteen said that OMON officers forced them and up to three other people into the vehicles’ small, locked compartments, designed for one to two people. Detainees held in such compartments, sometimes for hours, recalled difficulty breathing. In seven cases, OMON forced detainees to lie on top of each other on the floor of the vehicles, beat them, and humiliated them.

Seven male and two female detainees said OMON officers threatened them with rape, in most cases while they were in transit. Human Rights Watch documented four cases in which police cut male detainees’ clothing in the buttocks’ area to reinforce the threat. One of these men said a police officer subsequently raped him.

Security forces kicked, punched, and used truncheons to strike men in police vehicles. Women said they were threatened, humiliated, pushed and shoved, and beaten, albeit less severely than men, and otherwise ill-treated. Some of those interviewed asked not to have their real full name used.

Ales, a 30-year-old IT worker, said he was raped by a senior OMON officer with a truncheon after his arrest at a protest in a police van on August 11 in central Minsk:

[Riot police] demanded that I unlock my phone. I refused. They called a senior officer. He threatened that unless I cooperate, he’d stick his truncheon up my [ass]. He then cut my shorts and my underwear on the back, crosswise, and called out to his officers asking whether anyone had a condom. I was on the floor, face down, but I could see him pull the condom on the truncheon – and then he just pushed the stick into my anus…. Then, he pulled it out and demanded the password again. He kicked and punched me on my ribs, on my face, on my teeth – my two front teeth cracked a bit.

Medical documents he shared with Human Rights Watch confirm hematomas to his scrotum, perianal area, and left eye, and a concussion. Human Rights Watch examined photographs of his injuries and observed during the interview, 17 days after his detention, a large fading hematoma under his eye, and damage to his teeth.

Alexander Brukhanchik, 18, a college student from Minsk, said that police detained him and two friends, also students, on August 11 as they walked at night in a residential area, and handed them over to a group of OMON officers. He said the officers took the three inside a minibus, kicked them repeatedly, cut their shorts in the buttocks area and threatened to rape them with a grenade. One officer cut off Brukhanchik’s shoulder-length hair.

The officers transferred the three to a police van, forced them to crawl on the blood-splattered floor, and beat them. “I particularly remember being kicked with a booted foot close to [both eyes] and on my nose,” he said. “These blows caused the most pain, and my nose squirted blood.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed medical documents with Brukhanchik’s diagnosis of multiple hematomas and a nose fracture.

Alexander Gazimov, 35, a construction worker, said he was detained in the aftermath of a protest on August 10 in northern Minsk. Gazimov initially tried to evade arrest but broke his leg in the effort. When the officers caught him, they threw him into a van and showered him with blows for about 10 minutes “all over” his body and head, he said. The police repeatedly stepped on and kicked his broken leg, inquiring with fake concern, “Is this leg really broken?” Gazimov said the officers also threatened him with rape.

Sergiy Melyanets, 40, a sales manager and an active member of a Baptist congregation, said that riot police pulled him out of his car in central Minsk on August 10 and forced him into a van, where they beat him and prodded him with an electroshock weapon:

They opened the [van’s] side door and I saw people lying between the seats, face down. The officers told me to crawl over them.... I was slow and they started to beat me.... One officer was yelling, ‘Who’s the organizer? What were you doing [at] this demonstration?’… [when] I was saying I was only there to pray for Belarus, he would hit me with an electric shocker on my arms, legs, and back.

Human Rights Watch reviewed Melyanets’ medical reports, which note “electricity trauma – the result of electric shock impact.”

Riot police detained Pavel, 22, as he walked toward the center of Hrodna with a friend on August 10, and forced them into a minivan. Pavel said that two officers hit him in the ribs three times. When his friend asked why they were detained, the officers hit him too. During the drive to the station, the officers “ordered us to raise or lower [our] hands and beat us if we didn’t,” Pavel said.

Andrei Torgonsky, 32, a repairman, was detained on August 9 while walking toward a monument in central Minsk to see whether a demonstration was taking place. He said that riot police pushed him and two other men into a small cell inside a stifling van:

After 30 minutes, we were completely drenched in sweat. It was hard to breathe. [The van] started moving immediately but stopped two more times to take in more people. Then one man in another cell started fainting, so they pulled him out of the cell and put him on the floor.

Ekaterina Novikova, 34, was detained in central Minsk as she attempted to cross the street:

Riot police were blocking the road and wouldn’t let me through, so I asked for their superior, [who] grabbed me by the neck and dragged me into this regular-looking yellow bus. Inside, he hit me on the head, calling me names, pulled my hair, and then shoved me to the floor.

She said that police brought three other women onto the bus, and the superior shouted abuse and threatened her and the other women, saying that they would “rot in jail.” When one of the women started crying uncontrollably, he drenched her with water.

Diana, 24, a web designer, was detained on August 11 with four female friends and one male friend in central Minsk, while putting up opposition posters at a bus stop. She said that riot police forced her to kneel inside a minibus, hands tied behind her back with zip-ties and head against the back of the person in front. She said her hands were bound so tightly her wrists bled. The officers shouted, “We’ll make sure you get 10 to 15 years in prison. You’ll be gang-raped there, and you’ll come out old and decrepit with useless vaginas.” She said that officers hit her and the young man with truncheons, once on the head and once on the hands.

Beatings, Torture, and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment in Detention Facilities

Once arrested, detainees were mostly first taken to police precincts, also known as RUVD (the local acronym for district department of internal affairs), to be registered, and then onward to short or long-term facilities, such as the Okrestina Detention Facility in Minsk or Zhodino Prison located about 50 kilometres away from Minsk.

Click to expand Image Friends and relatives of those detained during a mass rally following the disputed results of the presidential election gather at a detention center as a police bus drives out of the gate in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.   ©2020 AP Photo

Human Rights Watch documented beatings at seven police precincts in Minsk, one in Homiel and one in Hrodna, as well as at the Okrestina Facility at the Hrodna Prison. Detainees said that when they arrived, OMON officers continued to beat them, sometimes forcing them to walk through two lines of officers with batons, hitting or kicking and punching them on the head, back, chest, and abdomen. All the male detainees and some of the female detainees said that before detainees were transferred to cells, they were forced to kneel or stand, with their tied hands behind their heads, or lie on the ground, hands tied tightly behind their backs, for several hours, and were beaten if they complained or shifted position.

Detainees were held in severely overcrowded cells. A 28-year-old man held at the Moskovsky RUVD, for example, said he was held in a 3-by-5 meters cell with about 30 other men and no toilet.

Two men said police shocked them with an electroshock weapon and saw other detainees stunned with similar weapons. Four had bone fractures due to police abuse.

Minsk Police Precincts

After his arrest, police took Brukhanchik and his two friends to Frunzensky RUVD. There, Brukhanchik said, police beat all three brutally, gave them electric shocks, and threatened to rape them with a truncheon. At one point, an officer yelled, “We won’t leave a single intact spot on your body, you’ll be lying here in your own shit and pee.”

Melyanets said that OMON took him to Leninsky RUVD, driving him into a yard containing several garage-like structures, surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire. He said:

They shouted, ‘Out, out!’ and a corridor of OMON officers [surrounded and] beat us all the way into the garages. Then we had to stand against the wall for hours, with our forehead pressed against the wall, our legs spread, and our hands behind our backs.

Diana was taken to Moskovsky RUVD on August 11. She said that with each new group of detainees police brought into the main hall, the beatings increased in violence. “They forced people to crawl on the floor, and only after the beatings did they ask questions,” she said. “We tried to cover our ears because of the screams.”

On August 10, OMON arrested Kim Mazur, a 31-year-old financial technology specialist, with a friend while they were parked next to a Minsk shopping center where a protest had taken place the day before. The officers took the two to Partizansky RUVD. There they forced Mazur to kneel, hands behind his back and his head to the ground, overnight.

Around midnight, he said, officers rushed into the room and started beating everyone, while a commander instructed the guards not to let anyone sleep. The next day, as detainees were waiting for their transfer to Zhodino Prison, Mazur said, an officer instructed police to “beat him as much as possible and break his legs.” He said they punched him in the jaw and kicked him in the back and legs.

Konstatin Reutsky, a Ukrainian journalist arrested while filming OMON detaining people on Independence Avenue on August 12, was taken to Sovetsky RUVD. There, he said, he and dozens of others were kept in stress positions for 17 hours. Reutsky said OMON officers repeatedly punched and hit them with batons whenever they would move or shift weight and that he saw them hose some detainees with cold water.

After arresting Gazimov, OMON drove him to the Tsentralny RUVD. There, he said, he was forced to stand against the wall, despite his broken leg: “I started to lose consciousness and so they laid me face down against the ground. But they kicked my broken leg four or five times while I was flat on the ground.”

Vitaly Dubikov, a 33-year-old journalist arrested on August 10 while on his way to cover a protest, was taken to Zavodskoy RUVD. Dubikov said about 50 detainees were herded into the courtyard there while OMON officers kicked and hit them with truncheons and ordered them to drop to the ground, face down. Dubikov said that officers then tied detainees’ hands with construction zip-ties and left them on the ground for several hours, beating anyone who complained.

Abuses at Okrestina Street Detention Facility

Once processed at the police stations, detainees said, they were taken either to Zhodino Prison, which they described as overcrowded but less abusive, or to the Okrestina Street Detention Facility.

All male and some female interviewees held at Okrestina said they first had to stand or kneel in stress positions for several hours against the walls of the courtyard.

Click to expand Image Women walk through a gate on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, after being released from a detention center where they were detained following protests of the disputed presidential election in Minsk, Belarus. © 2020 AP Photo

Olga Pavlova, 32, was arrested during a protest and taken to Okrestina on August 9. She said that an officer there hit her head against the wall several times while yelling, “You don’t have any rights, you bitch! What do you think you are, whore, a straight-A student, smarter than everyone else?” She asked for a doctor and he hit her head against the wall once again.

Alia, 22, arrested on August 9, said she was held in a roofless cell with about 40 women and that they had to use a hole in the floor as a toilet and to share 1 liter of water for 6 to 8 hours.

Kirill Tsiukulman, 27, whom OMON arrested while he tried to join a protest, recalled being held in a similar roofless cell on August 13 for 17 hours, with about 120 other men:

They brought us a two-liter bottle of water... Some of the guys had been tear-gassed and ... were parched. Others were severely injured. One guy had his head split like the Grand Canyon. Some couldn’t walk.

Once processed, detainees said, they were taken to various cells inside the facility. Five women held at Okrestina at varying times from August 9 to 11 said they were taken to cells with 4 beds that held 20 to 50 detainees.

Maria, an independent election observer who was arrested by security forces as she left a protest on the night of August 9, said:

When the door of the cell opened, I thought that this would probably be the end for us. The cell was for 4 people. There were already 23 girls sitting there. There was no air. There was no food. No toilet paper. Some girls started menstruating. And when we asked for sanitary napkins, guards would say, ‘Use your t-shirt.’

From their cell, the women could hear men being subjected to horrendous beatings in neighbouring cells. “One of the men was beaten to such a state that he [was urinating] blood and the [guards] yelled at him to clean up after himself,” Pavlova said. “The man cried … but they continued beating him and shouting.”

Abuses in Hrodna and Homiel

Four men who were held in three different detention facilities in Hrodna and Homiel described riot police using similarly abusive methods against detainees.

In Hrodna, Pavel said, OMON beat him when he arrived at the town’s prison on August 10. “We had to run through two lines of [security forces] trying to make us trip, and we had to dodge their blows,” he said, adding that he was hit three times.

In Homiel, two interviewees were taken to the fourth floor of Tsentralny RUVD, where OMON brutally beat them. Dmitry Lukowski, arrested on the street by police on August 11, described a corridor full of OMON officers waiting to beat him and the other detainees. “At first I kept silent, but then I started screaming,” he said. “I fainted, but they splashed water into my face and continued to beat me. There was blood everywhere and I saw a few teeth on the floor [not his own].” At some point, he said, a policeman grabbed him by the hair and said, “So, Lukowski, you want a lawyer?” When he answered, “Yes,” the officer beat him again and asked, “So, Lukowski, you still want a lawyer?”

Transfer from Police Stations to Okrestina and Zhodino Detention Facilities

Many of those interviewed said that OMON officers abused them when transferring them from police stations to either Okrestina or Zhodino in windowless, overcrowded vehicles with practically no ventilation. In some cases, they said, riot police kept detainees in stress positions for hours and beat them for shifting position or complaining. Those transferred to Zhodino, 50 kilometers from Minsk, had to endure more due to the long drive.

Dan Peleschuk, 34, a freelance journalist and United States national, said his transfer from the Pervomaisky Police Station to Zhodino on August 11 was “the worst part” of his traumatic detention experience:

[Riot police] piled us into what looked like a military truck with benches on the sides, and made us kneel on the metal floor, foreheads under the bench, hands behind the back. The drive probably took [90 minutes], but it felt like an eternity. Soon, I couldn’t feel my legs and was crying out in pain. Those who asked to be allowed to get up were kicked and punched. When we arrived … there must have been other vehicles in front of us. We would move, then stop, then move again, and the whole time the police were saying, ‘You wanted a revolution, now you’ll see what it’s like! Welcome to the worst place on earth.’

Mazur said that during his transfer from Partizansky RUVD to Zhodino, riot police piled him and 19 other detainees on top of each other in a van and beat them. “You had to crawl like a worm on top of the other detainees while they are beating you to go faster, but you have to slow down so you don’t squash someone’s head as you move,” he said. “They also walked on top of us.” One officer put his boot on Mazur’s friend’s neck, nearly choking him. Police also cut off one of the detainee’s dreadlocks, he said.

Alexei told a similar story, regarding his transfer from Leninsky RUVD to Zhodino, during which OMON officers struck him with a truncheon five times and hit the young man next to him for shifting his body position. Alexei also said that officers beat a green-haired detainee and “looked for scissors to cut it off but did not find any.”

Sasha, 28, an engineer, was detained on August 10 during a peaceful demonstration in central Minsk and taken to Moskovsky RUVD. He said that during the transfer to Zhodino, he suffered “the worst beating [I] went through [during detention]”:

Everyone was hit on the way there, and then they started to stack us on top of each other between the benches of the van. They were saying “faster” and hitting us.... I thought [my legs] [would] break from the weight. I thought I’d be crushed.... Then they tried to fit in five more people, so they told us to get on our knees and they tied our hands behind the neck with zip-ties, very tightly.... After a while, I stopped feeling my left leg.... They made us sing the national anthem. Most people know [only] the first lines … so they beat them.

All said the vehicles became stiflingly hot. The heat worsened when the vehicles arrived at the detention facility gates, parked in the sun, sometimes for hours, waiting to be admitted.

Dubikov, who was transferred from Zavodskoy RUVD to Zhodino on August 11, said:

We were crammed in, like fish in a barrel, drowning in our own sweat.... When the van arrived at Zhodino, the queue by the entrance was two to three hours long. There was no air at all.... One guy had either epilepsy or asthma and he started having seizures after about 1.5 hours. Then they relented, gave us some water, let some air in.

Denial or Delay of Medical Care

Under international norms for the protection of detainees, every detainee is entitled to a free and proper medical examination as promptly as possible after their admission to the detention site and appropriate medical care and treatment as required, including transfer to a hospital or medical facility when necessary.

All former detainees said the authorities either denied them medical care or that they witnessed authorities deny other detainees medical care. In some cases, they said officers responded to requests with threats or ill-treatment. With few exceptions, police called ambulances only when a detainee lost consciousness. When police confiscated detainees’ belongings, they took away medications from people with chronic conditions, including diabetes, and did not return the medications unless the detainee’s condition deteriorated dramatically, those interviewed said.

Police at Zavodskoi RUVD ignored repeated requests by Ales, who was in severe pain after being beaten and raped with a truncheon, to see a doctor.

Ales said police called an ambulance for another man who had diabetes and whom Ales saw collapse after authorities denied him insulin but refused to put Ales in the ambulance as well.

“When I was allowed to go to the toilet [several hours later] I saw the [scope of the] bruising and swelling [in the perianal area] and again, asked to see a doctor. They refused again,” Ales said.

Only after Ales was transferred to Okrestina did a doctor finally examine him and called an ambulance that took him to an emergency ward around 2 a.m. on August 13, more than 30 hours after his rape.

Nikolai Novoselsky, 21, said that his arm was broken and became swollen and throbbed with pain. Although he repeatedly flagged it to the police and to guards at Okrestina, he received no medical care. His cellmates pleaded unsuccessfully with the guards to call him an ambulance. Noveselsky spoke of a cellmate at Okrestina, who had diabetes. “He needed his insulin shot and was lying in the corner, all bluish-yellow, and moaned, but no one examined him,” he said.

When Novikova persistently asked wardens at Okrestina for a doctor, an officer threatened her: “If you continue with the yelling, you’ll have this [truncheon] up your …” Novikova also said that one of the many women in her cell was diabetic. “It took an hour to convince the guards to return her insulin, and “[by] the time they finally brought it, she was barely conscious,” she said.

Missed insulin doses or denial of insulin therapy can lead to life-threatening complications for some people with diabetes.

Three women described their experience in their overcrowded cell in Okrestina, where 35 women were crammed into a cell with 4 beds. Maria said that two young women struggled to breathe and began to vomit, but when they made repeated requests for a doctor, the wardens poured a bucket of cold water over all of them.

Olga Pavlova and Yulia Bolievskaya were in the same cell and corroborated the story. Pavlova said that cuts on her arm and leg, sustained when police brutally dispersed a protest she was at on August 9, were festering, but the guards ignored her requests for medical care. Bolievskaya, 28, said that when she was arrested, police confiscated the medication she takes daily for a chronic condition and did not return it until after she was released, ultimately from Zhodino, on August 14.

On August 10, riot police at Zavodskoy Police Station forced Dubikov and many others to lie on the ground outdoors. A man next to Dubikov called out that he had a kidney transplant, that lying on the cold ground was dangerous for him, and that he needed medical care. In response, they kicked and hit him with truncheons.

Dubikov also said that when he and other detainees arrived at Zhodino on August 11, a staff doctor made a quick appearance and “arranged for an ambulance for a man with fractures.” However, he waved away all health complaints by other detainees, some of whom had been severely beaten, saying: “You should’ve stayed home.” Dubikov said that one of the detainees complained of nausea and dizziness and believed he had a concussion, but the doctor did not examine him.

Peleschuk said that when he arrived at Zhodino, a doctor asked whether anyone had any complaints. Given the police presence and abuse everyone had endured, not a single detainee dared complain. The doctor did not examine anyone, though several had visible bruises.