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IMF: Scant Transparency for Covid-19 Emergency Loans

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Click to expand Image International Monetary Fund (IMF) headquarters building is seen during the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Washington, U.S., October 14, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

(Washington, DC) –  The International Monetary Fund (IMF), despite overall progress in its anti-corruption efforts, has not ensured sufficient oversight of its Covid-19 emergency loans, Human Rights Watch and Transparency International said today. As a result, it is hard for members of the public in many countries to track the governments’ Covid-19 spending, to identify potential corruption, or to determine whether the deprivation of basic rights connected to the pandemic is being addressed.

Since March 2020, the IMF has provided about US$108 billion in financial assistance to 85 countries to support their response to the pandemic. Due to the IMF’s improved attention to combating corruption, about half of these loan agreements included specific anti-corruption measures related to Covid-19 spending and procurement. In some cases, the IMF obtained strong transparency commitments that spurred the publication of valuable information. Some governments amended procurements rules to enable publication of the names of beneficial (that is, real) owners of companies awarded contracts. This information is key to preventing conflicts of interest and tax evasion and allowing the public to track who benefits from public contracts. However, weak implementation impeded the potential of this progress.

"The IMF’s call to governments during the pandemic to ‘spend as much as you can but keep the receipts’ showed concern for corruption risks,” said Sarah Saadoun, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But this approach will only be effective in addressing rights issues if it ensures that those ‘receipts’ are publicly accessible, comprehensive, and credible.” 

Robust IMF lending is critical for many governments to have sufficient resources to respond to the pandemic by providing adequate and accessible health care as well as addressing its economic impacts. It is equally critical for governments to spend these funds transparently and accountably so they reach those in need.

Human Rights Watch and Transparency International assessed the effectiveness of the IMF’s approach during the pandemic by analyzing how well four governments – Egypt, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ecuador – carried through on the measures included in their loan agreements. Between January and March 2021, the organizations analyzed documents published by these governments, as well as loan agreements and other documents published by the IMF.

Transparency International also conducted a comprehensive review of anti-corruption measures included in emergency loan agreements prior to July 23, 2020, at which point most of the IMF’s immediate Covid-19 support had been approved. In Nigeria and Cameroon, Human Rights Watch interviewed medical staff and people who lost earnings due to the pandemic. Human Rights Watch, in March 2021, wrote to the finance ministries of each of the four governments and the IMF. Only the IMF responded, which is reflected below.

The IMF’s approach to stemming corruption for its emergency lending relies heavily on public oversight, particularly from civil society groups and the media. To facilitate oversight, the data needs to be accessible and sufficiently detailed to assess and track spending, and conditions need to be in place to ensure that concerns can be raised safely. The IMF also needs to remain actively engaged to ensure robust implementation by governments, including through future surveillance and lending programs.

To its credit, the IMF has increased engagement with civil society groups since the onset of the pandemic, including by initiating workshops and calls with IMF staff. The IMF also met with civil society groups, though typically after loans were already approved.

A View from Four Countries

An in-depth analysis of Egypt, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Cameroon found mixed results in meeting the IMF’s transparency commitments. There remained inconsistencies in the types of measures to which governments committed, their implementation, and the role of the IMF in ensuring compliance. The transparency commitments in the emergency loans spurred all four governments to produce information about their spending and contracts that they would have otherwise not published. However, the amount, accessibility, and quality of the disclosed information varied widely and was inadequate for meaningful oversight for any of the four countries.

The review identified several factors that weakened the effective implementation of commitments:

Transparency commitments lack adequate specificity. As a result, the types of information the four governments disclosed, the time period covered, and the level of detail varied widely. Relevant information is hidden, hard to find, and inaccessible. In all four cases, finding published information was difficult. For example, Egypt’s procurement website is not accessible outside the country, even using VPN servers. Cameroon published a list of companies that were awarded government contracts and some beneficial ownership information, but the only link to the document accessible online is on page 47 of an IMF report, not on any government site. And the documents Ecuador published are scattered across three government websites and not necessarily available. Beneficial ownership information is inadequate. In almost all cases, there was not sufficient identifying information about beneficial owners to ensure that people were not illicitly profiting from government contracts. Moreover, governments did not specify how they would provide the information they committed to disclose. Inconsistency in the IMF’s approach to measures and follow-up. The specific measures the IMF required varied widely from one government to another and only in certain cases did the IMF tie compliance to future lending. Significantly, Cameroon and Ecuador only followed through on their initial commitments because the IMF made approval of a second loan request dependent on their doing so. The IMF did not do so for Egypt, despite Egypt’s poor implementation of its commitments.


Recommendations

Good governance, including anti-corruption efforts, should be at the heart of rebuilding resilient and inclusive economies, particularly as governments are looking to bolster spending on health, social protection, and other fundamental rights, while reducing inefficiencies in spending and raising revenues. Corruption alone costs governments as much as $1 trillion in lost tax revenues.

To build on its progress and ensure an effective approach to anti-corruption, the IMF should:

Ensure that governments receiving the money make specific, concrete, and time-bound commitments as part of the loan agreements. Work with governments to clarify and detail best practices for fulfilling transparency commitments, including those related to user access, and beneficial ownership information. Host a database of relevant documents to standardize the format and facilitate universal access. Pursue a consistent approach to assessing government implementation and linking findings to surveillance and lending transparency.   Demonstrate how its spending secures basic rights for all without discrimination, including the right to health and to an adequate standard of living. It should consult with civil society as part of its assessment and publish the results. Publicly report on the level of implementation of the transparency/anti-corruption commitments that governments made as part of the loan agreements. Revise its 2011 policy on emergency assistance or separately develop guidelines for addressing corruption risks in crisis situations. Ensure that governments credibly carry out commitments to conduct and publish audits in a timely manner.

“The IMF has made progress ensuring greater transparency in its loan agreements, but this needs to go much further,” said M. Emilia Berazategui, Global Advocacy Lead at Transparency International. "Successful anti-corruption outcomes take time and perseverance. If the IMF wants to ensure that the most vulnerable communities receive the support and resources they are promised, it is critical that they continue to press governments to prioritize integrity and transparency. The Covid-19 pandemic has made clear that this is a matter of life and death.”

For additional information on each of the four governments’ implementation of anti-corruption measures in their respective loan agreements and on the need for greater IMF oversight of emergency loans, please see below.

IMF’s Covid-19 Emergency Loans

The IMF initially pledged to use its $1 trillion lending capacity to help countries cope with the most serious health and economic crisis in recent history. It has approved only 10 percent of this amount, in part due to technical restrictions as well as many countries’ mounting debt. Recent developments in the G20 and G7 are likely to help boost countries’ reserves, and the G7 has specifically pledged to “work with the IMF to make progress on enhancing transparency and accountability.” Moreover, the $100 billion the IMF has spent thus far has disproportionately targeted just a few countries. According to a Transparency International analysis, 80 percent went to 10 countries, including Egypt and Nigeria, as of July 23, 2020, at which point the majority of these loan agreements had already been approved.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on human rights has made many people acutely dependent on IMF funds and has also increased the risk of funds being lost to corruption or captured by elites. Powerful actors may use the crisis for their own benefit because of dramatic increases in spending and possible pandemic-related interference with oversight mechanisms.

Those risks are exacerbated because the IMF’s emergency loans are single, up-front payments deposited into governments’ central accounts, limiting the IMF’s ability to ensure oversight. To address this, the IMF took a back-end approach by retroactively assessing the use of funds, which IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva described as asking governments to “keep the receipts.”

In practice, the IMF’s expectations of governments have varied. Roughly half of all emergency loan agreements included specific measures related to governments publishing information on Covid-19 spending and procurement, as well as conducting audits. The specifics of these commitments also varied. Many governments pledged to publish procurement contracts and the beneficial owners of companies awarded contracts – a significant advance in the IMF’s approach to governance. Some governments pledged to conduct independent audits of crisis-related spending and publish the results, while others said they would rely on state agencies.

In a March 24 letter to Human Rights Watch, the IMF said it is monitoring the implementation of transparency commitments and that “analysis of this implementation has been and will continue to be published in IMF staff reports for these countries.” It also noted that “capacity to implement governance measures varies across countries” and that anti-corruption measures in emergency loans, as well as other measures to address governance vulnerabilities, are included in subsequent loans.

Egypt

Even before the pandemic, IMF-driven economic reforms had made it harder for the 32 million Egyptians living under the poverty line – one-third of the country – to make ends meet. The principal social protection program, Takaful wa Karama (Dignity and Solidarity), already stretched thin, reached only 15 million people even after it was expanded to soften the blow of the pandemic’s devastating economic impact. Chronic underfunding of health services made Egypt ill-prepared for the pandemic, a problem authorities sought to obscure by detaining healthcare workers who publicly disclosed key deficiencies such as lack of personal protective equipment.

To address these problems, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in March 2020 announced a 100 billion Egyptian pound (US$6.4 billion) package, including 40 billion pounds ($2.3 billion) in health spending. The IMF approved two loans to help finance this response: a $2.77 billion Rapid Credit Facility (RCF) on May 11, and, on June 26, a 12-month Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) worth $5.2 billion.

While the dire need for these resources is clear, in recent years the Egyptian government has undermined the independence of its anti-corruption institutions and weakened the role of the judiciary, significantly exacerbating corruption risks. For example, in 2015, the president amended the law to grant himself the authority to fire Hesham Geneina, the head of the Central Auditing Agency, the country’s main anti-corruption institution, after Geneina reported that corruption had cost the country $76 billion over three years. Authorities also prosecuted Geneina for his statements and a court handed down a one-year suspended sentence in 2016.

As part of its RCF agreement, the Egyptian government committed to publish all Covid-19-related spending; publish procurement plans and awarded contracts, including the names and beneficial ownership information of companies awarded contracts; and to conduct an audit, including ex-post validation of delivery and publish the results. The subsequent SBA includes anti-corruption requirements that go beyond Covid-19 spending.

In a signal of the Egyptian authorities’ difficult relationship with transparency, they did not authorize the IMF to publish the loan agreements until several months after signing them. In most cases they are published within days of approval, recognizing that the terms they include are indispensable for public oversight. The Egyptian government has published only sparse information on Covid-19 spending on the Finance Ministry’s website. This includes a broad overview of 81.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($5 billion) worth of measures the government took in response to Covid-19; a similar document totaling 110 billion pounds ($7 billion) is available as an Annex in an IMF document.

The government published several procurement documents, which cover $280 million spent on Covid-19 tests, medical supplies, and other Covid-19-related materials and include only the names of companies awarded contracts, the contract amount, and the entity receiving the goods, which, for the vast majority of contracts, is the Health Ministry. Some of these documents explicitly only cover contracts awarded prior to October, and the total amount covered is far less than the $2.3 billion allocated to health spending. Human Rights Watch and Transparency International have not been able to find published contracts or beneficial ownership information, despite the government’s commitment in the emergency loan agreement to publish this information. In its letter, the IMF said authorities had “amended the procurement law’s executive regulation with the view to publish information on beneficial ownership for awarded contracts on the procurement portal.”

In October, Human Rights Watch found that the government had at some point earlier in the year blocked access to a website (etenders.gov.eg) for publishing public tenders available to people outside of Egypt. Procurement notices could provide valuable information regarding the nature of the contracts awarded to companies listed in other documents.

Beyond the lack of transparency, the Egyptian authorities’ relentless, nationwide repression and reprisals against perceived government critics makes it unsafe for journalists, civil society organizations, or others to expose spending irregularities, report on corruption allegations, or question military spending and finances.

Nigeria

In April 2020, Nigeria received US$3.4 billion in emergency financial assistance from the IMF to support its Covid-19 response. Two months later, Nigeria’s federal government announced a 2.3 trillion Naira ($6 billion) stimulus.

But according to official figures, many of Nigeria’s poorest citizens have yet to see the benefit of this assistance. Nationwide surveys by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) found that by July 16, just 12.5 percent of the poorest quintile of respondents had received some form of food assistance since the pandemic began. By August, the NBS found that 32 percent of respondents nationwide were experiencing severe food insecurity, compared with 14 percent in the same period in 2018.

Human Rights Watch and Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, a Nigerian nongovernmental organization, interviewed urban families experiencing poverty in Lagos State between March and December. They said that they had survived the impact of the pandemic on their jobs and livelihoods by skipping meals, incurring debt, and relying on handouts from neighbors and local groups. “We heard about all the money the government was supposed to be getting for Covid-19 – billions of Naira – and the government talked about the food they were distributing, but most of the communities never got any,” said one community health worker.

Against these difficult conditions, civil society groups have highlighted how crucial it is to keep governance safeguards from slipping through the cracks, leaving life-saving resources at risk of theft or malfeasance. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, 20 percent of people in the country had to pay a bribe in order to access public clinics and health centers.

In its request for IMF assistance, the Nigerian government committed to several transparency and governance measures, including publishing monthly reports on its Covid-19 spending in its transparency portal, opentreasury.gov.ng; publishing procurement plans and notices for all emergency-response activities, including the names of awarded companies and beneficial owners; and conducting an independent audit of crisis-mitigation spending and related procurement processes. Despite civil society’s call for the inclusion of a specific commitment in the loan linked to ensuring the set-up of safe reporting mechanisms for whistleblowers, this was not taken into account.

In a positive step, the federal government established a publicly accessible procurement register related to emergency Covid-19 processes. The register is a valuable public resource on Covid-19 spending and includes information on the stated purpose of a contract, amount paid, company name of the award winner, duration, source of funding, and items procured. In August, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the reenacted Companies Allied and Matters Act into law, which among other things, provides a legal framework for the establishment of a federal beneficial ownership registry. Companies are required to disclose this information to Nigerian Companies Register by March 31, 2021. Reports have emerged of anti-corruption agencies proactively investigating allegations of procurement fraud and misuse of Covid-19 funds. In addition, a Covid-19 response data hub has been established, which includes a resource and donations tracker updated by the Ministry of Finance.

Despite signs of progress, gaps in the implementation of transparency commitments agreed to in the June 2020 loan remain. A review of select completed procurement processes worth over $10,000, as well as an open data platform and Nigeria’s corporate registry, found no beneficial ownership information for awarded companies or contract documentation as of March 5, 2021. An IMF Article IV report highlighted this weakness and that users have found it difficult to access the expenditure information that is being published. Several links under the Covid-19 reports tab on opentreasury.gov.ng, including a link to the Covid-19 Comprehensive Financial Report, appear broken. The Nigerian government did not respond to a letter, but the IMF blamed “challenges to the Internet Service Provider” and said the Nigerian authorities are currently working to resolve them. The IMF also said that while authorities are “increasingly providing the needed information,” it understands some procurement requirements “were relaxed” due to Covid-19 and “it is not clear when the additional information will be made public.”

In October 2020, the government announced it would release a first interim audit report of its Covid-19 spending. This report was never released to the public, despite an official from the Auditor-General’s office indicating the report was already submitted to the National Assembly in September 2020. An interim report was produced by January 15, 2021; however, this report does not appear to be publicly available. In its letter, the IMF noted that the Auditor-General’s office commissioned an audit but the “timeline for final publication is not yet clear.”

Ecuador

The IMF approved an emergency loan of US$643 million on May 1, 2020, providing Ecuador a much-needed source of revenue to combat the immense financial and human costs of the pandemic. In October, the IMF approved a $6.5 billion 27-month program under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) to support the stabilization of the economy, expand social protections, and strengthen domestic institutions.

As part of the emergency loan, Ecuador committed to publish Covid-19 spending reports; Covid-19 public procurement contracts, as well as the names and beneficial ownership of companies awarded contracts; validate delivery of products and services; conduct a Covid-19 specific audit and publish the results. Since the government had yet to publish beneficial ownership information when it requested an EFF, the IMF made approval of that loan contingent on Ecuador revising its procurement law to enable it to collect and publish this information.

In September, the government adopted a resolution requiring all public contractors and subcontractors to provide beneficial ownership information and mandating authorities to publish the information on an unspecified website. It further mandated that bank accounts and their movements linked to beneficial owners of entities engaged in public procurement laws would no longer have the same secrecy protections as those of ordinary entities. To ensure the sustainability of the requirements, it is important that they become part of the national Public Procurement Law.

To assess the implementation of this law, Transparency International analyzed procurement contracts in the public procurement website with a total value of $500,000. Some of these contracts, all of which were valued at over $10,000, were related to Covid-19 and were awarded within a six-month period after the emergency loan; others were unrelated to Covid-19 and were awarded after the EFF was approved in October.

While the public procurement website contains a wealth of valuable information, the analysis found some gaps. Most awarded contracts were available in the register, making Ecuador the only government of the four analyzed to publish at least some contracts. However, some were absent; for example, in one set of procurements grouped in an emergency resolution, only 17 of the 32 contracts had been uploaded.

Only one procurement process contained a section dedicated to beneficial ownership – which was labeled “optional” and left blank. A separate database did include beneficial ownership for companies awarded contracts, but getting this information required cross-checking multiple databases, hindering ease of access. In addition, in some cases, the listed beneficial owner was another corporate entity, and in some cases, companies were not registered in the system at all.  

In December, the IMF released its first review of the EFF. It stressed the importance of transparency for Covid-19 funding and praised Ecuador’s amendments to the national anti-corruption framework as well as the examination by the Comptroller General’s Office of more than 300 Covid-19-related procurement processes. However, it did not note the missing contracts, problems with beneficial ownership information, or the lack of a consolidated website for procurement-related information.

In its letter to Human Rights Watch, the IMF praised Ecuador’s “significant progress towards the fulfillment of commitments on procurement transparency,” including a “procurement website centralizes information providing access to relevant procurement documents, including contracts.” However, it acknowledged that “while information on beneficial ownership of awarded companies and ex-post validation is technically available, it is not yet easily and consistently accessible to the public in the procurement website.”

Cameroon

Cameroon’s health sector is among the most underfunded in Africa. Two-thirds of total spending on health in the country comes from people seeking treatment – double the regional average – and studies have shown that the majority of families do not seek health care because costs are too high. The country also lacks a social safety net, and nine out of ten workers are employed in the informal economy.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought fresh urgency to increasing funding for healthcare centers and supporting people who lost earnings. In April 2020, the health minister announced a 58 billion XAF (US$105 million) response plan, and on May 4, the IMF approved a $256 million emergency loan to help finance it. In October, the IMF approved a second $156 million loan to finance a more robust $825 million three-year package to support the country’s health system and help businesses and households affected by the pandemic.

As part of the May loan, the Cameroonian government pledged to use the funds transparently and committed to issuing semiannual reports on Covid-19 spending; commission an independent audit; and publish “documents related to results of public procurement and [beneficial ownership information] of companies awarded contracts.”

From the beginning, virtually no public information was provided regarding the government’s Covid-19 spending. Healthcare centers made urgent appeals for support from an emergency health fund into which they have been paying 10 percent of their revenues since 1993, according to medical staff whom Human Rights Watch interviewed from various regions in April and May, but they said they had received no support. The government does not publish any information about the fund and did not respond to a Human Rights Watch letter regarding it. The president established a second solidarity fund and appealed to private companies and citizens to contribute, but that fund was also not transparent.

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, medical staff reported shortages in basic hospital goods, including thermometers, disinfectants, and medicines, as well as ventilators and oxygen, and protective gear for doctors and nurses, such as masks, gloves, and glasses. One doctor said his hospital only received 12 masks, 20 boxes of gloves, and 4 full body gowns for its 50 employees until his district’s 10 medical facilities finally received a combined total of 10 million CFA ($17,000) in August.

People who lost jobs or wages due to the pandemic told Human Rights Watch that they received little or nothing to stave off hunger. One woman, who works as a secretary at a hotel in Douala and now earns one-third her usual salary, reported in December that she was having trouble paying for her children’s food, school fees, and other costs, stating, “The state hasn’t helped us.” Another woman, an events manager at a hotel whose salary was cut, said she had to ask her brother to take care of her two children because she could no longer afford to do so. Both women worked at hotels that the government had requisitioned between March and May to house people who may have been exposed to Covid-19.

Based on over a dozen interviews Human Rights Watch conducted, the hotels received only very partial or no compensation for their costs, adding financial strain at a time when the industry was already struggling with pandemic-related restrictions leading to layoffs and steep wage cuts. The government has not published any information regarding its contracts with or reimbursements to such hotels.

After public pressure, the Health Ministry, citing the “urgency of transparency,” published a two-page statement on July 29 about how it spent about 22 billion FCA ($40 million), which it said was its total expenditure to respond to Covid-19 in the preceding five months. It included only vague categories that provide no real possibility for the public to verify. In its letter, the IMF said that the Ministry of Finance is preparing a report on its Covid-19 spending, which it expects the government will share “in the near term.”

Before the IMF approved a second emergency loan, it required the government to change its rules to enable it to publish beneficial ownership information of companies awarded contracts, and to publish “the backlog of all Covid-19 related contracts awarded since May 4, including the beneficial ownership.” In a positive step, in October the government issued a circular requiring companies to include beneficial ownership information in their contract bids and mandating adding the information to a national register once a contract is awarded.

In practice, however, the government never uploaded this information into a central database. Instead, it produced a list of the names of companies awarded contracts, beneficial owners, and the contract amount, but there are no links to that document on any government website. The only link appears to be on page 47 of an IMF loan agreement. In addition, for nearly all companies, only one beneficial owner is listed, making it highly unlikely that the information is complete.

The government has not published the contracts themselves, and the IMF revised – it says “clarified” – the terms of the November loan agreement to no longer require the government to do so. With regard to the commitment to conduct an independent audit, the state agency, Contrôle supérieur de l'État du Cameroun (CONSUPE), has reportedly begun an audit and the finance minister has called for tenders for an independent audit.

Rwanda: Arrests, Prosecutions over YouTube Posts

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Click to expand Image From top left to right: Innocent Bahati, Yvonne Idamange, Dieudonné Niyonsenga (alias Cyuma Hassan), Aimable Karasira, and Theoneste Nsengimana. YouTube bloggers and commentators have recently found themselves in the crosshairs of the authorities for using the platform to discuss issues deemed politically sensitive or critical of the government. © 2021 Human Rights Watch

(Nairobi) – Rwandan authorities have threatened, arrested, or prosecuted at least eight people reporting or commenting on current affairs on YouTube over the past year, Human Rights Watch said. A poet who published his poems on YouTube has been missing since February 7, 2021.

As Rwanda prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June, authorities should stop harassing, immediately release, and drop all charges against YouTube commentators and bloggers facing abusive prosecutions that violate freedom of expression. The authorities should also open credible, independent, and transparent investigations into suspicious deaths and disappearances of critics, opposition members, civil society actors, and journalists, and prosecute those responsible.

“Rwanda’s track record of intolerance and abusive reprisals against critics raises serious questions regarding the safety of a new generation of bloggers and commentators,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Commonwealth should not turn a blind eye to the repression of fundamental democratic guarantees and should press Rwandan authorities to introduce much-needed reforms to protect free speech.”

In February and March, Human Rights Watch interviewed seven Rwandan commentators, bloggers, and journalists, and nine other witnesses, family members, or sources with direct knowledge of the cases. Human Rights Watch researchers also reviewed laws, trial documents, public speeches, and social media posts relating to the cases. This report is not exhaustive but focuses on recent cases that Human Rights Watch has verified. Identifying information has been withheld to protect sources from retaliation by authorities.

YouTube has emerged as an increasingly contested space for free speech in Rwanda. In recent years, frustrated by the absence of critical debate in the media, some Rwandan bloggers and commentators have taken to the platform to publish videos on sensitive issues and discuss current – and sometimes controversial – matters. Such matters include evictions from poor neighborhoods of the capital Kigali and the strict lockdowns imposed and shutdown of schools from March to November 2020 in response to Covid-19.

On February 9, 2021, Innocent Bahati, a 31-year-old singer and poet, was reported missing to the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB), two days after he was last seen in Nyanza, Southern Province. His poems, which he recites in videos posted on YouTube, have focused on social issues such as growing poverty or criticism of the lockdown and its impact. Two people who saw him before he disappeared told Human Rights Watch that he had traveled to Nyanza district on February 7 to research material for a new poem. The RIB spokesperson told the media an investigation into his whereabouts was ongoing.

Several sources said that Bahati was previously detained in 2017 for criticizing the decision to move the Kigali Institute of Education campus from Kigali to Rukara, Eastern Province. Given Bahati’s previous detention, his recent criticism of government policies, and the pattern of mysterious disappearances of government critics in Rwanda, his disappearance should be treated as suspicious, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 19, 2021, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Justice Minister Johnston Busingye to share information about the cases it has documented, including Bahati’s disappearance, and to request information on the Rwandan authorities’ steps to address violations of the right to freedom of expression. The government has not responded.

In April 2020, police arrested four bloggers and one driver working with Rwandan YouTube channels that reported on the impact of the Covid-19 guidelines on vulnerable populations. The arrests appeared retaliatory, and charges were brought against three of them. Dieudonné Niyonsenga, known as “Cyuma Hassan,” the owner of Ishema TV, and his driver Fidèle Komezusenge were accused of forgery, impersonating journalists, and hindering public works but both were acquitted on March 12, 2021. Théoneste Nsengimana, the owner of Umubavu TV, was held in pretrial detention on accusations of fraud but released in May 2020 for lack of evidence.

While it is positive that none of the cases have resulted in convictions, the threat and fear of prosecution for reporting on sensitive issues has a persistent chilling effect. Rwanda’s narrow definition of journalists as “a person who possesses basic journalism skills and who exercises journalism as his/her first profession” runs counter to international standards and has allowed the state to prosecute bloggers doing important public interest reporting on the government’s response to Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the World Bank, the Rwandan economy is one of the most affected by the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa due to the stringent lockdown measures, and this crisis is “dramatically increasing poverty,” particularly affecting people in urban areas, children, and women. The police has arbitrarily detained tens of thousands of people accused of violating the public health measures, without legal grounds or due process, holding them in stadiums, and the government perceives criticism of its response as particularly sensitive.

Other bloggers detained or arrested in the last year include Yvonne Idamange, an online commentator who has also discussed growing poverty in Rwanda and criticized the lockdown; Agnès Uwimana Nkusi, editor of Umarabyo news site and YouTube channel, who was detained for several hours after recording one of Idamange’s pretrial hearings; and Valentin Muhirwa and David Byiringiro, bloggers with Afrimax TV who distributed food after people they interviewed said they were going hungry, and were released 12 days later.

Commentators such as Idamange and Aimable Karasira, a former professor and the owner of a YouTube channel, who used their videos to discuss the 1994 genocide or crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in its aftermath, have also faced threats and accusations of denying or minimizing the genocide.

In recent years, several people who have been victims of abusive detentions or prosecutions told Human Rights Watch that during interrogations or in pretrial detention, they were beaten and told to confess to crimes they had not committed. Some also said officials working in the president’s office threatened them and told them not to speak about the abuse they have faced.

During the January 2021 Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the United Nations, Rwanda received numerous recommendations from other countries to amend its domestic legislation to protect freedom of expression and opinion.

“In Rwanda, being consistently critical of the government almost guarantees some form of reprisal – whether arrest, harassment, or a mysterious disappearance,” Mudge said. “Threats by ruling party or government officials and fear of prosecution have created an environment that can only be described as hostile to free speech and demanding self-censorship.”

Regulation, Threats, Prosecutions

Rwanda’s judicial authorities operate in a political context in which the executive dominates the judiciary and there is an official antipathy to views diverging from those of the government and the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The extensive limitations on and criminalization of freedom of expression in the law provide ample opportunities for abusive prosecutions.

In recent years, plans to regulate social media and online expression have threatened to further curb free speech. On May 8, 2019, President Kagame gave a chilling warning to those using online platforms: “Those that you hear speak on the internet, whether they are in America, in South Africa, or in France, they think they are far. They are far, but they are close to the fire. The day they get closer, the fire will burn them.”

A few days later, the information communication technology (ICT) and innovation minister, Paula Ingabire, told the Senate parliamentary Standing Committee on National Budget and Patrimony of plans to regulate content shared on social media, because “it has to be information that is building the people, that is building a country, but not just really circulating misinformation, defamation.”

In December, the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a self-regulatory body, came under fire when it announced plans to register YouTube channels operating as media. The RMC executive secretary, Emmanuel Mugisha, told the media that the move was in response to complaints received, and that: “We are not doing this for regulatory purposes, rather we are doing this for recognition purposes. When a YouTube blogger offends a certain group of people, we have to hold them accountable.”

The registration process required journalists to provide employer details, a press accreditation, criminal records, the media’s “editorial line,” and to pay a fee of 50,000 Rwandan Francs (US$50). Following criticism from bloggers, the RMC suspended the planned registration of YouTube channels later that month.

Registration or regulation proposals may ostensibly aim to ensure that those practicing journalism are competent to do so. However, in Rwanda, given the existing climate of fear and levels of self-censorship practiced by the media, this confers additional power on the authorities to target those perceived as critics and violates the right to freedom of expression.

Prosecutions of Bloggers and Commentators

Since 2018, over a dozen YouTube bloggers, journalists, and commentators have been detained, arrested, or put on trial.

In April 2020, four bloggers working for Afrimax TV, Ishema TV, and Umubavu TV were arrested in circumstances that appeared retaliatory and accused of a range of offenses, including violating Covid-19 lockdown measures. They had been doing sensitive reporting on a range of issues, including the impact of the lockdown on the population. In previous months, they had also shared testimony about a longstanding dispute with the authorities over land evictions in “Bannyahe,” a poor neighborhood in the capital.

Dieudonné Niyonsenga, the owner of Ishema TV, and his driver, Fidèle Komezusenge, were arrested on April 15, while on a reporting trip. The prosecution had accused them of working without accreditation from the RMC and sought an eight-year sentence for Niyonsenga and five-year sentence for Komezusenge.

On March 12, 2021, the Gasabo Intermediate Court in Kigali acquitted Niyonsenga of forgery, “claiming to be attached to a profession,” and “hindering public works,” and Komezusenge of complicity in forgery and impersonation. Both were released on March 13. On March 13, Niyonsenga said in an interview on Umubavu TV that after his arrest, he was held in multiple locations, told to confess to working with the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an exiled opposition party with reported ties to armed groups, and accused of taking drugs and attacking law enforcement officers.

On April 12, 2020, RIB tweeted confirmation of the arrest of Théoneste Nsengimana, the owner of Umubavu TV, for alleged fraud. RIB accused him of promising 20,000 Rwandan Francs ($20) to people to say they were receiving assistance from abroad “for the purpose of soliciting the story for his own benefit.” A Kicukiro court ordered Nsengimana’s release from pretrial detention in May due to the prosecution’s lack of evidence against him, but the charges had not been dropped at time of publication.

On April 8, 2020, RIB and police agents arrested Valentin Muhirwa and David Byiringiro, two bloggers with Afrimax TV, in Kangondo II, Kigali. A witness told Human Rights Watch at the time that after interviewing the population about their concerns, including not having enough food, the journalists had returned with food and supplies. Two residents said that after 30 minutes, RIB and police agents appeared, accused them of violating the government directives and organizing an unauthorized distribution, confiscated the goods, and arrested them. Muhirwa and Byiringiro were released later that month.

The RMC said in a statement on April 13, 2020 that the detained bloggers were not arrested in retaliation for their work and that online bloggers, such as those using YouTube, are not journalists and are “not authorized to interview the population.” Despite the RMC’s efforts to dispute the status of bloggers, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has issued authoritative guidance to governments on their obligations with respect to freedom of expression confirming that journalism is a function shared by a variety of actors, including bloggers.

Flying in the face of the facts, during Rwanda’s 2021 UPR, Justice Minister Johnston Busingye said that “there are no prosecutions that target persons simply because they are politicians or journalists or human rights defenders, and the so-called political trials do not exist.” The justice minister’s statement raises serious questions over the government’s willingness to carry out the necessary reforms to protect free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

Accusations of Genocide Denial

Over the last 27 years, a campaign allegedly to combat “divisionism” and “genocidal ideology” has in fact created the risk of serious consequences for anyone who questions official interpretations of Rwanda’s past. Talking about the victims of violence by the soldiers of the ruling RPF as they took over the country in 1994 is seen by many as a red line that will most likely lead to retaliation.

Yet, in recent years, some commentators have taken to YouTube to discuss the 1994 genocide and the war crimes committed by the RPF in its aftermath. One example is Aimable Karasira, a former information communication technology professor at the University of Rwanda, who has spoken about losing family members both to Hutu extremists and to the RPF in 1994 on his YouTube channel called “Ukuri Mbona” (“the truth I see” in Kinyarwanda).

In July 2020, Edouard Bamporiki, culture and youth minister, attacked Karasira on social media and said he should not be allowed to teach. Karasira was dismissed from the University of Rwanda on August 14 for “the expression of attitudes and opinions through controversial statements” and “spreading information intended for inciting people to dislike or dishonor your institution and public institutions in general.” He later said in a YouTube video that he was summoned to the RIB office on December 8, where he was told to stop talking about the genocide.

Yvonne Idamange, an online commentator who has criticized the lockdown and the government-organized genocide commemorations, was arrested on February 15, 2021, after posting a video in which she falsely claimed that President Kagame was dead, and called for the army to serve the people or face the wrath of God, and for Rwandans to march with their Bibles toward the office of the president. Policemen forced their way into Idamange’s home without an arrest or search warrant and took her into custody, two well-informed sources said.

Rwanda National Police accused her of “exhibit[ing] behavior that mixes politics, criminality, and madness.” Idamange has been denied bail and faces charges including “inciting public disorder,” and “publication of rumours.” She remains in detention. On March 9, a journalist and editor of Umurabyo news site and YouTube channel, Agnès Uwimana Nkusi, was detained for several hours and her phone apparently searched after recording one of Idamange’s pretrial hearings.

In her first video, Idamange criticized the monetization of genocide memorials for tourism, in which “the bodies of our relatives are being sold” and questioned notions of collective guilt and commemorations. She has been charged with “disposing of or degrading evidence or information relating to genocide.”

On February 5, the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (Commission nationale pour la lutte contre le genocide, CNLG) in a statement warned against speech on social media that is criminalized under the 2018 genocide ideology law, and later named Idamange on national radio. The commission is an ostensibly independent body that defends the official narrative on the genocide. On February 14, the commission’s executive secretary, Jean Damascène Bizimana, in a Voice of America interview, cited a number of YouTube channels he considered to be “crossing a red line” and to be providing a platform for genocide denial or minimization.

Idamange also said in her last video that Bamporiki visited her home twice, threatened her, tried to bribe her to stop posting videos, and told her that if she did not stop, she would die. Bamporiki later confirmed his visit to Idamange’s house but denied her allegations. Two of Idamange’s domestic workers and two of her friends, who were detained at the time of her arrest, were released one week later.

In Rwanda, government officials often issue warnings and threats against those who speak out on sensitive issues.

The combination of threats, vaguely defined offenses, and the risk of incurring disproportionate prison terms or fines has created an environment in which the threat of prosecution looms over anyone who dares to speak out about controversial or sensitive issues, Human Rights Watch said.

It’s legitimate for the government of Rwanda to seek to restrict the kind of dangerous, vitriolic speech that led to the deaths of over half a million people in 1994, but current laws and practices go far beyond this purpose and effectively stifle opinions, debate, and criticism of the government, Human Rights Watch said.

Domestic Law Hostile to Free Speech

Rwandan law allows for overly broad and vague limitations on free speech, which violate the right to freedom of expression and media freedom protections afforded by international law. Article 38 of the 2015 Constitution nominally protects freedom of expression but claws back that protection through ill-defined restrictions on the basis of “public order, good morals, the protection of the youth and children, the right of every citizen to honor and dignity and protection of personal and family privacy.” These restrictions are incompatible with Rwanda’s regional and international obligations.

Rwanda’s 2018 Penal Code contains several provisions that can enable abusive prosecutions and have fostered a culture of self-censorship. Although the Supreme Court ruled in April 2019 to repeal articles that criminalized “public defamation of religious rituals” and the “humiliation” of authorities and public servants, several provisions remain that place disproportionate and unwarranted sanctions on speech deemed defamatory or false. For example, article 236 criminalizes “insults or defamation against the president,” punishable by up to seven years in prison and fines of up to 7 million Rwandan Francs ($7,050).

In recent years, Human Rights Watch has also documented several cases of abusive prosecutions of people who spoke out about human rights abuses and were convicted of “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state.” The Law on the Prevention of Cybercrimes also prohibits the publication of “rumors,” punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Rwandan Francs ($3,000). Falsity of information alone does not constitute legitimate grounds to criminalize free speech under international law.

Rwanda’s 2013 Media Law narrowly defines journalists and the activities they can carry out, yet the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (ACHPR) Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa broadly protects journalists and online media. The Media Law also introduced a self-regulatory body, the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), which is tasked with regulating “the conduct of journalists.” During Niyonsenga and Komezusenge’s trial, the prosecution accused them of working without registration from the RMC and cited the Media Law’s narrow definition of journalists to justify its charges of “impersonation” and “forgery.”

In the Media Law, the national utilities statutory regulator – the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) – is tasked with the regulating “audio, audiovisual media and internet.” Under Rwanda’s ICT Law, communications deemed “grossly offensive,” “false” or “causing annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety” are prohibited and the government can direct RURA to ensure the suspension of networks or services “to protect the public from any threat to public safety, public health or in the interest of national security.”

Article 126 of the ICT Law also allows the government to interrupt private communications deemed contrary to “existing law, public order or good morals.” In its general comment 34, the Human Rights Committee has affirmed that imposing a general ban on operating some websites and systems is inconsistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Finally, Rwandan laws on the genocide, which may have been intended to prevent and punish hate speech of the kind that led to the 1994 genocide, have in fact restricted free speech and imposed strict limits on how people can talk about the genocide and other events of 1994. Rwandan law defines genocide ideology as a public act that manifests an ideology that supports or advocates for destroying – in whole or in part – a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.

The latest revision of the law adopted in 2018 removed language requiring evidence of a “deliberate” act. “Affirm[ing] that there was a double genocide,” which could be interpreted to refer to crimes committed by the RPF, “providing wrong statistics about victims of the genocide” and “distort[ing] the facts about genocide for the purpose of misleading the public” are punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine of at least 500,000 Rwandan Francs ($500).

Rwandan authorities’ efforts to combat genuine genocide denial should not involve criminal penalties for mere speech and should not attempt or aim to stifle discussion and debate on historical events. The criminal law, or any laws that create vaguely defined offenses, should not be used to prevent people challenging official versions of events, Human Rights Watch said.

Recommendations

Rwanda’s international partners, particularly those traveling to Kigali in June for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, should use the opportunity to press Rwanda to make tangible progress toward reforming laws and ending abusive prosecutions and harassment of bloggers and commentators ahead of the meeting.

Click to expand Image Then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (left) during bilateral talks with President Paul Kagame, at the Intercontinental in central London, during the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. © 2018 Aaron Chown/PA Wire (Press Association via AP Images)

Rwanda should urgently implement the recommendations it received during its 2021 Universal Periodic Review to amend its penal code and media laws, ensure the independence of the Rwanda Media Commission in law and practice, and take measures against the legal ambiguity of media regulatory bodies. Rwanda should conduct a comprehensive review of its legal framework, including its genocide ideology and ICT laws, resulting in amendments to laws that are contrary to Rwanda’s regional and international obligations.

Rwandan authorities should allow the BBC Kinyarwanda service, suspended in 2014, to resume its broadcasts. RURA orders to block websites and platforms that are inconsistent with international standards should be lifted to enable the population to access information or express views online. Rwanda should also issue an open invitation to the special rapporteurs on freedom of expression from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN to assess the situation and provide recommendations on ways to create an enabling environment for freedom of expression both in law and in practice.

To uphold the Commonwealth’s commitment to promoting media freedom and open societies, Rwandan authorities should guarantee the right of all independent civil society organizations and journalists to operate freely, to investigate and to publish information on sensitive subjects, including allegations of human rights abuses.

Jordan: Yemeni Asylum Seekers Deported

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Click to expand Image A Yemeni asylum seeker who arrived in Jordan in 2014, overlooks the city in the neighborhood of Abu Nseir, North of Amman, Jordan on March 25, 2021. © 2021 Human Rights Watch

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities have deported at least four Yemeni asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and have issued deportation orders against others who made asylum claims, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities handed down most of the deportation orders after the Yemenis attempted to apply for work permits and regularize their immigration status in the country.

As of March 16, 2021, Jordan hosted 13,843 Yemeni refugees and asylum seekers, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since January 2019, a Jordanian regulation has effectively prevented UNHCR from recognizing anyone but Syrians as refugees, leaving many without access to humanitarian services and at risk of deportation.

“Jordan’s reputation for welcoming refugees is tarnished if it sends people back who are at serious risk of harm in their home countries,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Jordanian authorities need to match words with deeds by allowing individuals to safely make asylum claims and get services available to other refugee groups such as work permits.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 Yemeni asylum seekers and refugees between late January and mid-March, including 4 deported to Yemen since November 2020 and 8 in Jordan who face deportation orders, which can be enforced at any moment. Eight said the deportation decisions were handed down after they applied to the Interior Ministry for work permit approvals.

Human Rights Watch also spoke in February with a Yemeni refugee who volunteers to help detained asylum seekers obtain legal aid. The volunteer said that detentions, deportation decisions, and actual deportations have all increased since mid-2020.  The volunteer said that prior to mid-2020, the authorities usually did not require Yemenis to drop their refugee or asylum seeker status to obtain a work permit.

Those who were deported said they were held in detention for at least a month, and that they were deported even though they showed the authorities their UNHCR asylum seeker certificates which are renewed annually. One said his certificate had expired, though he had not sought a change in status.

Two of those now in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, said they are living in fear. One, who entered Jordan just before he turned 18, said that he applied for a work permit a few times prior to his arrest in July 2020, but his applications were rejected. The authorities arrested him while he tried to cross into Aqaba city in southern Jordan, telling him he was in the country illegally.

He remained in detention for eight months, during which his family, who are in Jordan, submitted a request to the Interior Ministry to cancel the deportation order, but it was rejected. The authorities then insisted that he leaves the country at his own expense even though he showed them his asylum seeker certificate. His family was only able to afford his flight back to Yemen in March. He said he feared forced conscription by the Houthi armed group, also known as Ansar Allah, that has controlled Sanaa since 2014.  “I haven’t left my house since I came back to Sanaa,” he said. “People don’t know that I am back here. I was in a prison in Jordan and I am in a prison in Yemen - it’s the same thing.”

Another Yemeni deportee who first registered as an asylum seeker in Jordan in 2016 told Human Rights Watch over the phone in February that he applied for a work permit in late 2019 but that it was rejected. He said that an Interior Ministry official said that he must give up his asylum seeker certificate to apply for a work permit, but he refused. In December 2020, police arrested him on the street in Amman. He spent about 25 days in a detention center in Amman before he was able to borrow money to pay for his flight back to Yemen. He said his life is at risk in Yemen.

Four of those still in Jordan said that they were detained after they were stopped by police patrols to show identification and were told there were deportation orders against them. Four said that they were able to find Jordanian sponsors to bail them out of detention, but their deportation orders remain in place.

Article 37 of the Law on Residence and Foreigners’ Affairs on 1973 states that the interior minister can order deportations without explanation, but people can appeal to Jordan’s Administrative Court. A lawyer working in an organization providing legal aid for some detained Yemenis told Human Rights Watch that the court almost never overturns these decisions.

In two other cases, Jordanian employers applied for work permits for their Yemeni employees but were told by the Interior Ministry two weeks after submitting their applications that they were rejected and that the Yemenis were subject to deportation orders.

One Yemeni woman in al-Salt city said that the registration ban has prevented her and her family from registering as asylum seekers with UNHCR. She said that the police arrested her husband on a bus in January after asking for his ID as part of a security inspection and was told that he has a deportation order.

Her husband was detained for two days before his family was able to bail him out by signing a document pledging that he would leave Jordan within a month. The woman said she submitted a request to the Interior Ministry in mid-January to cancel the deportation order but was unsuccessful: “They said he needs to leave the country, but where will we go? We do not have money. We sold everything to come seek protection in Jordan. Where will I get the money to travel?” 

Another man from Yemen’s Taiz governorate who has lived in Jordan since 2014 said he has had an asylum seeker certificate since 2015 and was also able to obtain a work permit in late 2019. In November 2020, when he tried to renew his work permit, he said, the Interior Ministry told him to visit General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Jordan’s main intelligence agency, where officials told him to “pack [his] things and hand himself to authorities within two weeks.”

The international legal principle of nonrefoulement prohibits countries from returning any person on its territory or under its jurisdiction to a country where they may face persecution, torture, or other serious harm.  This principle is part of international human rights law through treaties Jordan has ratified and customary international law and is binding on all countries.

Under the Jordan Compact, a 2016 agreement between the Jordanian government and donor countries to improve the livelihoods of Syrian refugees, the authorities have issued thousands of work permits for Syrian refugees since 2016. A legal paper by The Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD), a local nongovernmental organization, states that Jordan created the so-called “free work permit” as part of the Jordan Compact,  which Syrians could obtain without fees to work freely in the agricultural and construction sectors.

As of September 2019, the prime minister approved extending the same system to all non-Jordanian workers in the country for a minimum fee of JD 600 ($846), depending on the type of permit, excluding visa overstay fines and the cost of a medical exam. Most Yemenis have been applying for “free work permits.”

Almost all funding in the Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis has been directed to Syrians and vulnerable Jordanians. Refugees from countries other than Syria do not have the same access to basic health, education, shelter services, and have fewer legal rights. In late 2015, Jordan imposed a pre-arrival visa on Yemenis wishing to enter the country.  

Over six years into an armed conflict that has killed and injured over 18,569 civilians, Yemen is facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Human Rights Watch has documented a wide range of serious violations and abuses committed by parties to the conflict in Yemen.

“By banning registration of new asylum seekers and retaliating against Yemenis who apply for work status, Jordan appears to be closing off legal avenues for Yemenis to seek protection,” Page said. “Jordan’s actions are leaving people vulnerable to forced return and harm back in Yemen.”
 

Lebanon: Tripoli Detainees Allege Torture, Forced Disappearance

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Click to expand Image  Security forces force anti-government protesters away from al-Nour square in the center Tripoli, Lebanon, on January 31, 2021 amidst clashes. © 2021 FATHI AL-MASRI/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Lebanese Military Intelligence forcibly disappeared and allegedly tortured detainees who were participating in protests against the Covid-19 lockdown and deteriorating economic conditions in Tripoli, Human Rights Watch said today. These individuals face apparently unsubstantiated terrorism charges before the country’s military courts, which are inherently unfair, and under international law should not have jurisdiction over civilians.

On February 22, 2021, Lebanon’s military prosecutor charged at least 35 people, including at least 2 children, with terrorism, forming criminal associations, and stealing public property during protests in the northern city of Tripoli during the last week of January 2021. The defendants also face other charges, including using force against and trying to kill members of the security forces, arson, vandalism, and protesting without permission.

“Lebanese authorities should address the legitimate grievances of people in Tripoli but instead they’ve escalated repression against a population fighting for a dignified life,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to answer for disappearing and any torture of detainees and drop all unsubstantiated terrorism charges against them.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with five detainees, the families of five protesters, two lawyers involved in the case, a judicial source, and Police Commander Major General Imad Othman. The army did not respond to a Human Rights Watch request for comment. Those interviewed said that there were some incidents of violence during the protests, and some participants threw Molotov cocktails at security forces and set government buildings on fire. But the people interviewed said the defendants in the terrorism case had not been engaged in such serious violence and were not shown any evidence to the contrary. One family member said that her son, then 15, was tortured into confessing to crimes he did not commit.

Four of the 35 people charged in the case remain in detention and 19, including the children, were released. The authorities have refused to identify the other 12 defendants, citing the “secrecy” of the investigations, lawyers working on the case told Human Rights Watch. Ayman Raad, who represents six of those charged, said that the military investigative judge told him that “the defendants will know they are charged when they are called in for interrogation.”

The lawyers said that 19 people were arrested at their homes, workplaces, or on the street, and four were summoned to the Defense Ministry. Most of those arrested were forcibly disappeared for periods of one to five days in Military Intelligence facilities, lawyers said. The lawyers said that families and lawyers sought information about them at intelligence and police stations in the Bekaa and Tripoli where they were last seen, but that security agencies denied having any information about them.

“I didn’t leave a person or a place that I didn’t ask,” said the mother of Tarek Badawiyyeh, 28, one of the detainees. “But no one knew … I thought maybe someone beat him or killed him, you know the situation in the country. For three days, I was living in hell. I thought my child was gone.”

Enforced disappearances, when state authorities detain a person but then refuse to reveal their whereabouts or fate, are serious crimes under international law and prohibited at all times. The prohibition includes a duty to investigate allegations of enforced disappearance and prosecute those responsible.

All the detainees, except the four summoned to the Defense Ministry, were interrogated without a lawyer present, the lawyers and their families said, violating Article 47 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Thirteen of the detainees were interrogated by Military Intelligence, the lawyers said, and two were interrogated by the Internal Security Forces (ISF) Information Branch officers, Major General Imad Othman said. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have routinely documented the violations of Article 47, especially during Military Intelligence interrogations.

Ali Hashem, 34, said that officers from the Military Intelligence branch in Chtoura beat, slapped, and kicked him while he was blindfolded and handcuffed, hurling insults at him: “They told me, ‘You want freedom? Fuck your freedom.’” Hashem said he described his torture to the military investigative judge.

Another detainee said that Military Intelligence officers beat him at one of their branches and at the Defense Ministry. At the Defense Ministry, “they threatened me and started beating me and telling me that we want to torture you so that you implicate [another protester]. They said we will hang you in the balance,” a reference to hanging a torture victim by their wrists tied behind the back. The detainee said that he told the military investigative judge that he falsely implicated another protester due to the torture.

A 15-year-old protester who was arrested at a gas station while filling a container with gasoline was taken to Military Intelligence in Qobbeh, where he was beaten, subjected to falaka (beating on the soles of the feet), and threatened with electric shocks, his mother said. She said her son just started saying “yes” to whatever was asked of him, even things he knows nothing about. Later at the Defense Ministry, she said, an officer kicked him and punched him in the stomach. He spent his sixteenth birthday in detention, she said.

Lebanon passed an anti-torture law in 2017. But Human Rights Watch has routinely documented credible reports of torture in Lebanon since then. The authorities have failed to properly investigate the allegations, and justice for torture in detention remains elusive.

Lawyers and the judicial source said that the military prosecutor charged all the suspects with the same crimes, including terrorism and theft, without specifying the evidence against each individual. They said their clients were not shown any video or other evidence implicating them in the crimes, and that the allegations were based only on “information” and “informants or other confessions.” Under Lebanese law and international human rights law, defendants have the right to know the criminal charges against them and the evidence on which charges are based, including exculpatory evidence.

“If the Lebanese authorities think there is any substance to these charges, they should refer the case to the civilian courts, ensure that the accused receive a fair trial, and investigate the serious allegations of enforced disappearance, torture, and denial of due process,” Majzoub said. “States that provide support to Lebanon’s security agencies should ensure that they are not funding serious abuses.”

Due Process Violations

Defendants, lawyers, and family members said that only the four detainees who turned themselves in to the Defense Ministry had a lawyer present during their preliminary interrogations. The other 19 detainees were denied this right, with security agencies falsely claiming that the defendants said that they did not want a lawyer.

The sister of one detainee interrogated by Military Intelligence officers said that the first thing he told his family when he called and informed them of his whereabouts, more than 24 hours after his arrest, was that he wanted a lawyer. Another detainee said that Military Intelligence officers at the Defense Ministry made him sign a statement that he did not want a lawyer.

Two of the defendants who turned themselves in to the Defense Ministry said that the four of them had an “unofficial interrogation” without their lawyers. “In the middle of the night, they called us,” said Ibrahim Bosot, 25. “It was an interrogation, but not the formal kind where you sign … We couldn’t see anything inside, they blindfolded and handcuffed us. They gave us advice that we should leave the streets and that we were arrested this time and the treatment was good, but next time it could be different … The next day, they took us to [the Military Police headquarters in] Reyhaniyye to do the formal investigation in the presence of a lawyer, but in reality, the interrogation was done.” Lawyers said that nothing that the defendants said during this “unofficial interrogation” can be used against them in court.

Parliament amended Article 47 on September 30, 2020, guaranteeing defendants the right to have a lawyer present during preliminary interrogations at security agencies. Article 47 also guarantees defendants the right to remain silent, to contact a person of their choosing, such as a family member, a lawyer, or an employer, and to be examined by a forensic doctor. Arresting officers must inform all detained suspects of these rights promptly upon arrest. Under Lebanese law, officers breaching the guarantees of Article 47 are liable for prosecution for unlawful detention.

Security agents searched through the contents of defendants’ phones and used the information they found to add charges, including those outside the jurisdiction of the military court, lawyers and protesters said. “This is illegal,” Raad said. “The law stipulates that security agencies can only look for evidence directly related to the crimes they are investigating.” In one phone, Raad said, security agencies found a WhatsApp message that they claimed was insulting to the president, and added the crime of “insulting the president” against all the accused.

On February 4, the Tripoli Bar Association submitted a complaint to the Cassation Public Prosecution regarding the crimes of enforced disappearance, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and violations of the Code of Criminal Procedure and Articles 47 and 32 during the protesters’ arrests.

Detention Conditions

Five of the defendants who were detained in Military Police headquarters in Reyhaniyye said that the prison was very cold, dirty, and not well ventilated. They said they were not given adequate material to clean themselves or their cells and bathrooms, creating conditions conducive to the spread of Covid-19. They were only allowed to shower once or twice a week. They said the food was inedible and insufficient; their food trays were moldy, and their water had a strange color. Prison guards humiliated them and often referred to them as “animals,” they said.

Omar Bekai, who was subsequently moved to the Fakhreddine Military Police facility, remarked that he “felt like a human again.” He said the prison was very clean, the food was sufficient, and the officers were respectful.

International norms regarding prison conditions, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Mandela Rules”) require that “[a]ll accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.” The Mandela Rules state that “sanitary installations shall be adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner” and that “[a]dequate bathing and shower installations shall be provided.”

The Terrorism Charges

The case is the first since the October 17, 2019, nationwide uprising in which Lebanese authorities charged protesters with terrorism. The October 2019 anti-government demonstrations were prompted by the government’s announcement of new taxes but quickly devolved into expressions of anger against the entire political establishment, whom protesters blamed for the country’s dire economic situation.

These terrorism charges, applied summarily to all 35 defendants, could have a chilling effect on free speech and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

Lawyers and the judicial source said that the military prosecutor charged the defendants under Article 335 of the criminal code, on criminal associations, and Articles 5 and 6 of the draconian Law of 1958, which was enacted as an emergency measure during the 1958 political crisis but never repealed. Article 5 of the law carries punishments of hard labor for life for crimes such as using explosives to carry out an armed uprising, and Article 6 carries hard labor for life or the death penalty for acts of terrorism. Lebanon has an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty and has not executed anyone since 2004, but courts continue to hand down death sentences.

Article 314 of the criminal code defines terrorism as “all acts designed to foment terror” through means including the use of explosives or inflammable materials that are “liable to create a public emergency.” The definition is overly broad as it does not require, among other elements, an intent to cause death or serious bodily harm to members of the public or an ideological or political motive. That leaves the authorities latitude to characterize as “terrorist” acts that may be serious crimes but are more appropriately classified as vandalism, damage to or destruction of property, riots, or arson.

Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and is plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. Most countries have abolished the practice, while dozens have adopted a de facto moratorium.

Trials of Civilians in Military Courts

The Lebanese government and security agencies are using the overbroad jurisdiction of the military courts to intimidate and retaliate against political speech and activism. Human Rights Watch has documented the cases of two demonstrators who were taken before the military courts since the October 17, 2019, uprising on charges related to their involvement in the protest movement.

A 2017 Human Rights Watch investigation revealed the many due process and international law violations inherent in trying civilians before military courts in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s military court system is an exceptional judicial system under the Defense Ministry. Civilians can end up in military courts for any interaction with security services or their employees. Children accused of these crimes have been tried before the military courts.

Military court composition and the system for appointing judges undermine the courts’ competence, independence, and impartiality, Human Rights Watch said. The defense minister appoints military judges, who are not required to have a law degree or legal training. Military personnel serving as judges remain subordinate to the defense minister. Access to military court proceedings is restricted, so that human rights organizations and journalists cannot freely monitor the trials.

People tried before the military courts and lawyers described a range of fair trial violations that they or their clients suffered, including interrogations without the presence of a lawyer, ill-treatment and torture, incommunicado detention, the admissibility of confessions extracted under torture, lengthy pretrial detention, decisions issued without explanation, seemingly arbitrary sentences, and a limited right to appeal.

The Tripoli Protests

Protests swept Tripoli during the last week of January over the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, exacerbated by Covid-19 lockdown measures. Tripoli is one of Lebanon’s most impoverished cities, yet aid that the government promised has not materialized, pushing the majority of the city’s residents into abject poverty.

Most protesters and families interviewed cited unbearable economic conditions as the reason for participating in demonstrations.

The mother of Tarek Badawiyyeh, a 28-year-old taxi driver who was detained, said: “You should have seen how my son looked when he was arrested. He was wearing ripped shoes … He can barely eat, drink, and clothe himself … my heart is burning. They denied us everything … they didn’t leave us anything to be able to live … But if you go ask for your rights, they make you out to be a terrorist.”

Rabie Chemali, a 22-year-old electrician, “has been without work for almost two years,” his mother said. “He and I live alone in the house. Who will feed us? … This is the reality of the country, they [rulers] have no conscience. There is no more corruption than this.”

Around noon on January 25, protesters angered by the strict Covid-19 lockdown measures began to gather around Al-Nour Square and to block roads with burning tires. By nightfall, clashes had erupted between security forces and protesters, who threw stones at the Tripoli Serail (administrative building).

Internal Security Forces (ISF) Riot Police violently beat protesters, including a reporter for Sawt Beirut International, and fired teargas and rubber projectiles at protesters in Al-Nour Square. By around 10 p.m., army units were heavily deployed and protesters dispersed. Several people were reportedly detained, including a child. The Lebanese Red Cross treated 29 people on site and transported 12 to nearby hospitals.

On January 26, protesters gathered in front of the Serail, demanding the release of those detained the night before. Local media reported that protesters threw stones at the Serail, tried to remove the barbed wire fence outside the building, and set a car on fire. Security forces fired teargas and rubber projectiles to disperse protesters. The Lebanese Red Cross treated 17 people on the scene and transported 6 to nearby hospitals.

Protests became increasingly violent on the third night. Media reported that people set fire to dumpsters in Al-Nour square, again threw stones at the Serail, and torched the guard room at the Serail’s entrance. Some protesters reportedly breached the parking lot of the Justice Palace, behind the Serail, and Major General Imad Othman told Human Rights Watch that some people among the protesters were firing live ammunition.

In a statement issued the next morning, the ISF said that some people in the protests lobbed firecrackers, stones, and Molotov cocktails at security forces inside the Serail, who responded with teargas and water cannons. The ISF also alleged that three grenades were thrown toward the Serail’s entrance, two of which exploded. Major General Othman later said that between January 25 and January 30, 17 grenades were thrown toward the security forces, all but three of which exploded. Major General Othman  provided Human Rights Watch with photographs showing the damage allegedly caused by the grenades.

Security forces pushed people from the Serail’s entrance to Al-Nour Square. Othman said that ISF members fired live ammunition into the air in “self defense.” He said that one ISF member who was being attacked by protesters fired into the ground.

Live footage from Al-Jadeed captured at around 9:50 p.m. on January 27 shows people pelting the Riot Police with rocks as the police retreat toward the Serail. An officer fires warning shots over their heads with his handgun, and many protesters appear to run away. Some protesters continue to throw rocks, and the officer shoots at the ground a few meters from the people and then aims into the crowd. As most of them flee, another officer fires directly at them with an AK-47-pattern assault rifle.

The video shows two people lying on the ground, one of whom has a visible injury to his left hip. A protester grabs a handful of bullet cartridges from the pavement and holds them up in front of the camera. The Omega Research Foundation, a UK-based independent organization that analyses security technology, told the Beirut-based media outlet The Public Source that the cartridge cases held by the protester resemble those of an AK-47-pattern rifle.

Based on footage and interviews analyzed by The Public Source, it appears that Omar Tayba, who died from his wounds the next morning, was one of the two protesters who fell to the ground after the ISF fired directly at protesters.

The National News Agency reported that 226 people were injured, including 41 ISF officers.

Major General Othman told Human Rights Watch that the ISF’s Northern Command investigated this incident under the supervision of the military public prosecution, which showed that Omar Tayba was injured by an “unidentified bullet” in his back. On January 30, the military prosecutor, Judge Fadi Akiki, conducted a field visit to Tripoli and personally oversaw the investigation. Based on the instruction of Judge Akiki, on February 8, the ISF’s investigation was closed and transferred to the military prosecution to continue the investigation and the case’s legal course, the ISF said.

In April 2020, Human Rights Watch found that the Lebanese Armed Forces unjustifiably used excessive, including lethal, force against protesters in Tripoli, killing one and injuring scores more. The military public prosecution has not taken any serious measures to investigate the killing of Fawwaz Samman in that incident. Abuses against protesters, including killings, have gone largely unpunished in Lebanon.

Protests in Tripoli resumed for a fourth day on January 28, and also quickly turned violent. Some people threw firecrackers and Molotov cocktails at the Serail, sparking a fire in the Sharia court within the building at around 9:20 p.m. Just before 11 p.m., protesters torched the Tripoli municipality building. Security forces fired teargas to disperse protesters. The Lebanese Red Cross treated 106 injured people at the scene and transported 6 to nearby hospitals.

The ISF said that between January 25 and January 30, 70 ISF members were injured.

One detainee arrested on January 28 and forcibly disappeared for four days, then released from the Defense Ministry, was severely tortured. Human Rights Watch viewed a medical report that detailed injuries to his head, shoulders, and neck, and noted signs of severe beating on his body. He is not one of the protesters charged with terrorism.

In one case, the ISF put out a missing person report, but it later surfaced that the protester, a child, had been detained at the Military Intelligence branch in the Qibbeh neighborhood of Tripoli. That child has since been released, the lawyers said.

 

The Lebanese authorities’ documented corruption and failure to address the country’s massive political and economic crises have resulted in the most drastic deterioration of rights in decades, Human Rights Watch said. On March 8, the army commander, Joseph Aoun, in a rebuke of the political class, warned that “members of the military are suffering and getting hungry like the rest of the people.” The caretaker interior minister, Mohamed Fehmi, announced on March 11 that Lebanon’s security forces are drained and unable to perform 90 percent of their duties.

Recommendations

Security forces and prosecutors should respect due process guarantees enshrined in Lebanese law, including Article 47 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, as well as Lebanon’s anti-torture law. Security agencies and the judiciary should investigate the conduct of officials found to be violating these laws and hold them accountable.

To combat impunity and avoid inflaming tensions, the authorities should conduct prompt, fair, and independent investigations into killings of protesters, make the results public, and prosecute anyone found to have broken the law.

Lebanon should urgently reform the military court system by removing civilians and children from their jurisdiction and ensuring that judges deem inadmissible all confessions and evidence obtained under torture. The Defense Ministry should refer all torture allegations to the public prosecutor and put in place a policy of zero tolerance for all forms of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. It should ensure that all serving judges are fully independent and impartial, including ensuring that no judge is within the military chain of command.

Lebanese courts should refrain from handing down death sentences, and parliament should abolish the death penalty.

International donors to Lebanese security forces, including the United States and the United Kingdom, should investigate whether their support is going to abusive units, and if so, halt it immediately.

Russian Court Extends Activist’s Pretrial Detention

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 29, 2021
Click to expand Image Mikhail Iosilevich, head of the local branch of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Pastafarianism), an independent group,  November 2020. © Private/Facebook

A Russian court extended the pretrial detention of activist Mikhail Iosilevich, the first person put behind bars in connection with his prosecution under Russia’s abusive “undesirable foreign organization” law.

The court, based in Nizhniy Novgorod, made its ruling last week. By the time the extension ends on April 28, Iosilevich will have spent three months behind bars without being convicted of something that should not be a crime in the first place. Iosilevich’s pretrial detention is a violation of his right to liberty and of Russia’s obligations under regional and international human rights treaties.

The authorities charged Iosilevich for providing space in his café, which hosts civil society events, for an event on election monitoring. He provided the space to election monitoring watchdog Golos, but the authorities claim he provided it to Open Russia, a group banned by the authorities as “undesirable.”

Once designated “undesirable”, an organization must cease all activities in Russia, and anyone deemed to be involved with it can be charged with an administrative or even criminal offence.

Local law enforcement said, ludicrously, that providing the venue amounted to an “attempt on the foundations of [Russia’s] constitutional order and state security”.  

In January, police arrested Iosilevich, claiming that he threatened a prosecution witness over the phone. But a few months before his arrest, the witness had recanted his statement against Iosilevich.

The court that ruled to extend Iosilevich’s time in custody refused to consider a defense motion to enter into evidence a conclusion by three independent experts, all of whom examined a recording of the threats made over the phone, that the voice was not Iosilevich’s.

Earlier in March, a group of Nizhniy Novgorod musicians and music producers, who work extensively with sound, posted a video stating that they analyzed the recording and were all confident that it was not the voice of Iosilevich.

Iosilevich’s friend, German Kniazev, told me that Iosilevich felt unwell during the court hearing, and an ambulance had to be called for medical assistance.

The proceedings against Iosilevich are beyond unwarranted. The very fact that he is facing criminal charges is outrageous. The prospect that he remains in detention and in another month, the prosecutor can request another extension is a travesty of justice.

Hundreds Missing After Mozambique Attack

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 29, 2021
Click to expand Image Mozambican army soldiers patrol the streets of Mocimboa da Praia in March 2018. © 2018 Adrien Barbier/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of people remain missing five days after an Islamic State (ISIS)-linked armed group known as Al-Shabab raided the town of Palma in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians and causing thousands to flee.

On Sunday evening, the government gave only its second update since the March 24 attacks, but added few details. The Defense Ministry spokesman, who took no questions from reporters, said security forces were committed to clearing areas around Palma to ensure the local population’s safe return. But little information was provided about the whereabouts of the natural gas-rich town’s residents, many of whom evacuated by boat from the town’s port.

Dozens of civilians were killed when the armed Islamist group raided the town and fired on people and buildings. Seven more people were killed in an ambush on a convoy of vehicles as it attempted to leave the town, the government said.

Media reports and witnesses said bodies, some of them beheaded, were lying on the streets and beaches of Palma. Phone lines to Palma have been down, making it hard to obtain information.

Local authorities and private oil companies, such as the French multinational Total, have rescued over 1,300 people who arrived by boat in Pemba port on Sunday morning. The authorities were not allowing journalists to speak with evacuees, most of them workers from oil companies operating in Palma.

Outside the port in Pemba, dozens of people were desperately waiting to see if friends and family members had made it onto rescue boats from Palma. A woman told local STV news that most of her family members lived in Palma and she had not heard from them since Wednesday. “I am not waiting for one or two persons. … I am waiting for many, many people, my entire family,” she said before accusing the government of failing to provide clear information about events in Palma.

The Mozambican authorities need to be more forthcoming about ongoing violence in Palma, and Cabo Delgado province more generally, and the actions they are taking to keep civilians safe and protect their human rights. Greater transparency is needed to avoid placing civilians at unnecessary risk and help the families of the victims of heinous attacks.

Belarus: Crackdown on Independent Journalism

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 29, 2021
Click to expand Image Katsiaryna Barysevich, a journalist for the independent TUT.BY news website enters a court room during a trial in Minsk on 19 February, 2021. © 2021 RAMIL NASIBULIN/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

(Moscow) – Belarusian authorities have escalated repression against independent journalists in the past five months, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have arbitrarily detained and beaten journalists, imposed fines and prison sentences on politically motivated charges, revoked their media credentials, and raided their homes and offices.

The crackdown on journalists is part of the government’s efforts to silence media reporting on human rights violations and peaceful, countrywide protests. Protesters have been demanding fair elections and justice for abuses since August 9, 2020, when the official results of the presidential election were announced.

“Instead of ensuring justice for sweeping police brutality and other abuses, Belarusian authorities are prosecuting journalists reporting on sensitive issues,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should guarantee that all journalists in Belarus are able to carry out their work without fear of reprisals and without abusive restrictions.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 independent journalists reporting on Belarus, their lawyers, and relatives.

Reporters without Borders, an independent media rights group, has called Belarus Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists due to the government repression against independent journalists peacefully doing their legitimate work.

Several journalists told Human Rights Watch that “press” vests felt like a target on their backs rather than a symbol of protection.

Witness: Journalists Wait for Justice in Belarus

Personal stories told by the families of independent journalists arrested in retaliation for their peaceful legitimate work.

Read

Between late September and March, Belarusian authorities opened at least 18 criminal cases against journalists, apparently in reprisal for their work. Three journalists – Katsiaryna Barysevich, Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalava), and Darya Chultsova – were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years. Seven journalists – Andrei Aliaksandrau, Yulia Slutskaya, Siarhei Alsheuski, Ala Sharko, Piotr Slutsky, Kseniya Lutskina, and Dzianis Ivashyn – are awaiting trial behind bars on criminal charges of violating public order, tax evasion, and interfering with police work. One journalist is under house arrest, accused of insulting the president.

The authorities coerced lawyers representing many of these journalists into signing vaguely worded non-disclosure agreements, barring them from sharing any information about their clients’ cases. Several lawyers who in similar cases refused to sign have faced disbarment.

Belarusian authorities should immediately and unconditionally free Andreyeva, Chultsova, and Barysevich, and quash the verdicts against them, and free Slutskaya, Slutsky, Sharko, Alsheuski, Lutskina, Aliaksandrou and Ivashyn and drop all charges against them.

In some criminal cases involving bogus charges, the authorities have designated journalists as witnesses and then proceeded to subject them to police and judicial harassment. The journalists reported being summoned for police questioning, threatened with criminal charges, and subjected to home and office searches and seizure of their equipment. At least one newspaper had to temporarily close due to a threat of criminal prosecution, raids, and confiscated equipment.

On February 16, law enforcement officials carried out a nationwide wave of raids, targeting human rights groups and at least five journalists and seizing their devices. Officials said the raids were part of a criminal investigation into unsanctioned protests and appear to equate providing legal assistance to detained protesters with organizing protests.

The raids also targeted the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a human rights organization providing assistance to journalists in Belarus. In March, the authorities questioned the group’s leader, Andrey Bastunets, and its deputy director, Barys Haretski, as witnesses in a case. Bastunets had previously been questioned as a witness in December in relation to another investigation into alleged calls for action aimed at damaging the national security of Belarus. There are serious and credible concerns that the February raids foreshadow potential new bogus criminal charges against journalists.

Belarusian authorities wrongly equate reporting on unauthorized demonstrations with participation in them, particularly if the reporter works for an outlet that the authorities refuse to grant accreditation, Human Rights Watch said. In December, Information Minister Igor Lutskiy went so far as to claim that Belarus is fighting an information war aimed at destroying the state, smearing independent media working in the country.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said that between August 2020 and March 2021, the authorities detained about 400 journalists on administrative charges. At least 100 were given short administrative jail terms between December and March, while others were fined on administrative charges of “violating the rules on mass gatherings,” “disobeying the police,” and “violating the laws on mass media.”

At least four journalists told Human Rights Watch that they were ill-treated during and after detention. They were brutally beaten, denied medical assistance, and held in poor detention conditions. Some said their equipment was destroyed.

In recent months, Belarusian authorities deported at least two journalists with Russian citizenship, apparently in retaliation for their work in Belarus.

The authorities threatened to deprive at least three journalists of custody of their children. All three fled Belarus with their families.

The authorities also warned media outlets about alleged mistakes in their reporting and criticism of the government. At least one media outlet was unjustly stripped of its media credentials for violating the media law.

Belarusian state-owned printing houses refused to print at least five independent newspapers. At least one newspaper that switched to printing on its own said that on one occasion, law enforcement confiscated an entire print run without any legal documents sanctioning such action.

On October 2, the Foreign Affairs Ministry adopted new rules on foreign media accreditation in Belarus, canceling all existing accreditations and making the accreditation process significantly more complicated.

On March 24, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning the “arbitrary arrests and detention of opposition members, journalists and media workers,” and the “prison sentences handed down to media workers for performing their professional duties” and calling for the immediate release of “all political prisoners, journalists and other media workers.” Belarus’ international partners should continue to press the government to end threats, attacks, and reprisals against journalists and should call for those responsible for grave violations, including torture and ill-treatment, to be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said. They should also continue to protect journalists, including by providing greater assistance to journalists under threat.

The Belarusian authorities should respect freedom of expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Belarus has an obligation under international law not to unduly prevent journalists from doing their job, including reporting on unsanctioned protests.

“Belarusian authorities should stop pretending that freedom of expression is a threat to national security,” Williamson said. “They should drop bogus criminal charges and immediately free those behind bars. They should stop prosecuting, harassing, and otherwise pressuring journalists who are carrying out their work.”

For detailed accounts, please see below.

Criminal Charges

Breaching Medical Confidentiality (Article 178)

Click to expand Image Belarusian journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich, right, and Dr. Artsiom Sorokin attend a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, 19 February, 2021. © 2021 Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA pool photo via AP

On November 19, the Prosecutor General’s office opened a criminal case against a TUT.BY journalist, Katsiaryna Barysevich, and Artsiom Sorokin, a doctor, who spoke up about Raman Bandarenka, a protest activist beaten to death in November in Minsk, allegedly by plainclothes police officers. After his killing sparked nationwide protests, Belarus’ chief investigative agency claimed the police had found Bandarenka drunk and already beaten. Medical documents leaked to TUT.BY, a major independent news outlet, proved he had not been intoxicated, and videos shot the day of Bandarenka’s killing showed men chasing and beating Bandarenka and bundling him into a van.

On November 29, Barysevich and Sorokin were indicted for “breaching medical confidentiality that led to grave consequences.”

Bandarenka’s sister said that during the trial, which was closed, relatives testified that they had given Barysevich permission to publish the medical data. But on March 2, the Moscow District Court sentenced Barysevich to six months in prison and a fine and handed Sorokin a two-year suspended sentence and a fine.

Organizing Activities Violating Public Order (Article 342)

Click to expand Image Journalists Ekaterina Andreyeva (Bakhvalova), right, and Daria Chultsova embrace inside the defendants' cage during a court hearing in Minsk, Belarus, February 9, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo

On November 15, Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Bakhvalava), a journalist with the Poland-based broadcaster Belsat, and her colleague and camerawoman, Darya Chultsova, livestreamed a protest in Minsk demanding an investigation into Bandarenka’s death. They ran the livestream from an apartment with the owners’ permission. Two days later, a court sentenced them to seven days in detention on administrative charges of “participating in an unsanctioned mass gathering” because they livestreamed the gathering. On November 20, the authorities opened a criminal investigation against them on charges of coordinating “activities violating public order,” and the women remain in custody.

On February 19, a court sentenced Andreyeva and Chultsova to two years in prison.

On January 12, police searched the house of Andrei Aliaksandrau, a journalist and media manager, confiscated equipment and money, and arrested him and his partner, Irina Zlobina, on criminal charges of “organizing activities violating public order.” On January 14, investigators also searched the office of BelaPAN, the outlet where Aliaksandrau worked as a consultant, seizing equipment.

On January 15,  First Deputy Interior Minister Gennady Kazakevich claimed that Aliaksandrau and Zlobina had been financing protesters by paying their fines with money from BYHELP, a fund established to assist victims of repression in Belarus.

On January 21, the investigative committee indicted Aliaksandrau and Zlobina. The couple remains in custody pending the investigation. If convicted, they face a maximum three-year prison sentence.

Tax Evasion (Article 243)

On December 22, police detained five employees of the Belarus Press Club, an independent organization working to protect press freedoms, in relation to a criminal tax evasion investigation. The authorities searched and seized computers and phones from the group’s office and homes of its founder, Yulia Slutskaya; its financial director, Siarhei Alsheuski; and two program directors, Sergei Yakupov and Ala Sharko.

On December 31, Slutskaya, Alsheuski, Sharko, and cameraman Piotr Slutsky were charged with “grand tax evasion,” and they remain in pretrial custody. Yakupov, a Russian citizen, was deported to Russia that day and forbidden entry to Belarus for 10 years.

Also on December 31, mass media reported that the authorities indicted Kseniya Lutskina, a journalist, on charges of aiding tax evasion. A week earlier, police had searched her home, seized her electronic devices, and detained her. She remains in custody.

Lutskina worked at Belarus One, the state television channel, but quit in August and joined the Coordination Council, the political opposition body. Lutskina helped the Press Club create an online alternative to state television. The project was scheduled to begin operating in January, but it did not.

Insulting the President of Belarus (Article 368)
On December 22, law enforcement officers detained Siarhei Hardziyevich, a journalist with 1reg.by, an independent outlet that covers news in the Brest region. They searched his home and confiscated all devices for allegedly insulting the president in a message to a public Viber group with 5,000 members. On December 25, the police placed him under house arrest. On December 31, he was indicted. If convicted, Hardziyevich faces a maximum two-year prison sentence.

The authorities summoned the editor of 1reg.by, Pavel Daylid, on December 24 for questioning about the case, which 1reg.by had covered. After Daylid left the police station, he realized that the Viber group he administered, where Hardziyevich had allegedly posted the insult, had been deleted from his smartphone, which had been in a locker at the police station during the interrogation. In March, the investigative committee refused to investigate the incident. On December 29 police searched the home and seized the laptop of Piotr Huzayeuski, chief editor of 1reg.by and “Hantsavitsky chas” newspaper, as well as the office these two media outlets share. In January, police searched the homes of two more 1reg.by journalists in connection with the case.

Libel (Article 188)
On September 23, law enforcement officers searched the apartment of Yahor Martsinovich, chief editor of the longstanding weekly newspaper Nasha Niva, seizing his laptop, phone, and memory sticks. Martsinovich told Human Rights Watch that the police questioned him and transferred to Okrestina detention center and released him on September 26. The police notified him he was a suspect in connection with a criminal libel case.

The investigation springs from an interview in Nasha Niva with Vlad Sokolovsky, one of two DJs prosecuted for playing the song “We Want a Change!” at a public event before the August 9 election. In the interview, Sokolovsky alleged that the first deputy interior minister, Aleksander Barsukov, had punched him twice when he was in detention. In early September, investigators summoned Martsinovich for questioning, demanding that he reveal the author of the article. He has refused.

Grave Hooliganism (Article 339)
On 20 January, Yury Dziashuk, a freelance journalist, was detained for 72 hours in Lida and charged with “disturbing public order” for allegedly shouting in a courtroom. Two days earlier, Dziashuk was filming at the trial of an activist, Vitold Ashurko, when spectators started shouting “Shame!” in response to Ashurko’s sentence. A video clip from the courtroom captured Dziashuk filming the room, and when his face is visible he is not shouting. Several observers were detained for shouting, but Human Rights Watch does not have information as to whether they face criminal charges.

Interference with the Work of a Law Enforcement Officer (Article 365)
On March 12, law enforcement officers detained Dzianis Ivashyn, an investigative journalist working with Navy Chas newspaper, and searched his apartment, seizing all his devices. The police also searched the homes of his mother and grandmother. Ivashyn’s wife told Belarusian Association of Journalists that the search warrant was issued on allegations of spreading an officer’s personal data. Although no one could confirm the basis for the charge, it is possibly connected to Ivashyn’s last published article about former Ukrainian "Berkut" (riot police) officers working in Belarusian law enforcement. On March 19, Ivashyn was indicted and will be held for at least two months in pretrial detention.

Beatings and Ill-Treatment in Detention

On October 9, law enforcement officers detained a REFORM.by journalist, Evgeniya Dolgaya, next to her house, in front of her eight-year-old daughter. She said that the police questioned Dolgaya about her work as a journalist, threatened her with criminal charges, and issued her a citation for allegedly participating in two unsanctioned mass protests, one of which she was reporting on. Dolgaya said she spent at least two days in a cold cell, awaiting trial. She was not given a mattress, pillow, or a blanket until the following evening:

The nurse checked my blood pressure in the neighboring empty cell that was packed with mattresses, pillows, and blankets. And I was told, “You are not allowed [to have them].”

Click to expand Image Journalist Evgeniya Dolgaya holds a poster “hands off pandas” in support of the defendants in the so-called PandaDoc case. The court’s ruling says Dolgaya “called for fair elections while wearing a panda costume.” August 29, 2020. © Private

While she was in detention, an unidentified official questioning Dolgaya accused her of being a bad mother and threatened that her daughter would be sent to an orphanage. On October 12, after she was fined, a court released her and Dolgaya fled Belarus fearing criminal prosecution in retaliation for her work.

On November 1, a Novy Chas photographer, Dmitry Dmitriyev, was reporting on a peaceful Sunday protest in Minsk when officers in civilian clothes, military vests, and helmets brutally detained him, pushing him to the ground. They took Dmitriyev to a police vehicle, where riot police officers beat and kicked him. He said he was later diagnosed with a perforated eardrum and a severe ear infection that resulted from it:

The entire time I had my “press” badge dangling around my neck, and I kept showing it to them, but they reacted with a fair amount of profanity. They said they did not care, to put it mildly.

When police took Dmitriyev to the station, he reiterated that he was a journalist and asked to notify the Central Internal Affairs Department’s press service about his detention. The police claimed the department’s response was that they should prosecute him.

Later that day, the investigator notified Dmitriyev that he was a suspect in a criminal case on violating public order charges in relation to the protest he was reporting on. On November 2, he was sentenced to 10 days in detention for violating administrative rules on mass gatherings and disobeying the police. A few days after his release, police searched his apartment in relation to the criminal case. On March 4, the investigator questioned him again. The investigation is pending.

Click to expand Image Dmitry Soltan shows bruises still visible on his stomach sustained during his 15 days in detention. Soltan says he was beaten on the stomach and lower back with a truncheon by a guard at the detention facility Okrestina. © 2021Mariya Artsybasheva for Belsat

On November 1, a Belsat cameraman, Dmitry Soltan, was reporting on the same protest, wearing a press vest, when the police knocked him down, kicking and beating him with truncheons while the camera continued recording. The officers destroyed the camera and confiscated the memory card. Soltan was later diagnosed with a dislocated clavicle, torn ligaments in the left shoulder, and bruises on the head.

On November 2, a court in Minsk sentenced Soltan to 13 days in detention for violating rules on mass gatherings and disobeying the police for reporting on the November 1 protest. He was also notified that he was a suspect in a criminal case on charges of organizing activities violating public order.

Click to expand Image Liubov Luniova. © Private/Facebook

On February 8, the police again detained Soltan, together with a Belsat journalist, Liubov Luniova, when they were interviewing passers-by in Minsk. Both were charged with hooliganism and sentenced to 15 and 10 days in detention, respectively, for allegedly insulting officers at the station.

While serving his sentence at Okrestina, Soltan was taken for a “preventive conversation” with a prison official. During this conversation, a guard beat Dmitry with a truncheon on his lower back and stomach. The official blamed Soltan for allegedly provoking the guard.

Luniova, a journalist with 25 years of experience, was previously arrested by riot police on December 7 while reporting on a protest in Minsk. She felt unwell after she was taken to Okrestina. But the staff only called an ambulance after Luniova’s cellmates pressed the emergency button more than five times:

Women were saying, “We have a journalist, she feels unwell. Call the ambulance.” And the guard replied, “Yeah, but she was not feeling bad when going to the [protest on the] square? So just let her croak.”

When she finally was taken to a hospital, Luniova was diagnosed with a hypertensive crisis. On December 28, after two weeks of treatment, a court sentenced her to a fine for “violating the rules on public gatherings.”

Judicial and Police Harassment

On November 9, a Slonim investigator notified Anna Volodashchuk, chief editor of Slonimskaya newspaper, that she was a witness in a criminal case on insulting a public official on a Telegram channel. Investigators searched her apartment, seizing laptops and memory sticks, she said. Law enforcement officials also raided the newspaper’s office that day, seized all the equipment, and froze its bank accounts. Volodashchuk said she did not know what the alleged insult was. She temporarily fled Belarus, fearing prosecution.

In November, the newspaper announced it was closing temporarily after 24 years of work due to pressure from the authorities. The newspaper’s staff continues to publish online, without receiving salaries, Volodashchuk said:

[After the death of] the chief editor, publisher, and my husband Viktor Volodashchuk, my son and I have been leading this business together – our newspaper, our brainchild… which was taken from us in one day. Readers keep calling us, saying they really miss the newspaper.

On November 24, Belarusian migration police deported a Russian citizen, Roman Popkov, a MBKh Media journalist, “in the interests of public security.” On November 7, law enforcement had detained Popkov while he was reporting on a women’s protest in Minsk. He was later sentenced to 15 days of detention for alleged participation in an unsanctioned mass gathering that he had filmed as a journalist on October 11. His wife, Elena Borovskaya, also a journalist, left Belarus, fearing prosecution.

In October, the Department of Financial Investigations opened a tax evasion investigation against the owner of the Orsha.eu website, Ihar Kazmerchak, in relation to a shop he owns. They searched Kazmerchak’s shop and apartment. On December 30, they closed the case. But on January 29, the department summoned for questioning three people who were working for Orsha.eu in relation to a criminal investigation. According to Orsha.eu, they were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Stripping Accreditation or Registration

From August to September, the Information Ministry issued four warnings to TUT.BY for “spreading false information” over its reporting on such issues as election fraud and a police raid at the apartment of TUT.BY’s editor. Under the Belarus’s Law on Mass Media, after two warnings in one year, a court can strip a media outlet of its accreditation. On October 1, the Information Ministry suspended TUT.BY’s accreditation. Court hearings started in November and were suspended pending TUT.BY’s appeals about the warnings. After TUT.BY lost these appeals, hearings resumed. On December 3, a court stripped TUT.BY of its media credentials.

On January 19, Information Minister Igor Lutsky said that the authorities continue monitoring TUT.BY’s website and warned that it could be blocked if it violates media or other laws.

On October 2, the Foreign Ministry adopted new rules on foreign mass media accreditation in Belarus and annulled all previously issued accreditations. Under the new regulations, foreign journalists can work in Belarus, even on short reporting trips, only if they are newly accredited. Accreditation is available only to journalists who are on staff at a foreign media outlet, making it very difficult for freelance journalists to work in Belarus. Foreign reporters must be citizens of the country where their media employer is registered, posing challenges for some international media outlets.

All journalists without media credentials in Belarus risk administrative and criminal prosecution for organizing or participating in mass gatherings on which they are in fact reporting and risk prosecution for “illegal production and distribution of mass media products.” Media outlets without accreditation are also banned from covering state-organized events.

Print and Post Subscription Refusals

In October, Belarusian Post, the country’s postal service, refused to include in 2021 subscription packets the independent news outlets BelGazeta, Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, Narodnaya Volya, and Svobodniye Novosti Plius. Postal subscriptions are a prime source of income for print media in Belarus. In August, the state-owned Belarusian Print House refused to print these outlets, allegedly due to technical issues.

On November 13, the deputy chief editor of Narodnaya Volya stated that riot police confiscated all print copies of the newspaper. In December, Belarusian Post sued Narodnaya Volya for failing to supply the printed issues since the end of August, when the printing house refused to print the newspaper, despite the Narodnaya Volya offered to supply their issues printed by a private printing house.

On November 11, the Brest printing house stated that it would refuse to print Brestskaya Gazeta starting January 1 after 18 years of cooperation, allegedly for technical reasons. All other Belarusian printing houses, the vast majority of which are state-owned, also refused to print the newspaper. This forced the outlet to switch to online reporting, causing it to lose 70 percent of its income. Since the presidential election, Brestskaya Gazeta’s employees also faced arbitrary detentions, online threats, and police harassment:

Even now people keep calling us, asking whether the newspaper will get printed. They say, “We are worried about you, hold on there. We are waiting for you.

Why Are Some African Governments Shielding China Over Xinjiang?

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 29, 2021

Africans have endured more than their fair share of atrocities where the perpetrators got off scot-free, a history that has helped inspire a commitment to global solidarity for human rights and justice. As prominent Tanzanian jurist Fatma Karume said, “Those who suggest that there is a democracy for the West and one for Africa, have failed to understand the universality of the human condition.” This was eloquently demonstrated by Gambia’s spirited effort to draw international attention to the plight of the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar.

Click to expand Image Photo from a recent conference in Beijing with African and Chinese government officials.  © Twitter @WuPeng_MFAChina

So why are some African leaders helping the Chinese government cover up serious human rights violations against Turkic Muslims in the northwest Xinjiang region of China? 

This March, the ambassadors to China from Burkina Faso, the Republic of Congo, and Sudan spoke in Beijing at an event entitled “Xinjiang in the Eyes of African Ambassadors to China.” They extolled Chinese authorities’ success in raising the standard of living in the region and dismissed Western criticism of China as driven by ulterior motives.

There is little evidence that the ambassadors discussed Beijing’s strategy of mass arbitrary detentions, which have seen around one million Turkic Muslims detained simply based on their identity. 

The event might be routine diplomacy, but African governments’ willingness to remain silent on Beijing’s suppression of rights has real-world consequences. Some have helped defend China’s Xinjiang policies at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where Burkina Faso and Sudan are members, while introducing a resolution to bring systemic racism in the US and around the world under international scrutiny.

African leaders should try seeing Xinjiang through the eyes of the Turkic Muslim population that has  endured torture, enforced disappearances and cultural persecution. African governments have often justifiably decried other countries’ indifference to their plight and sought global solidarity with human suffering. Yet, the economic benefits gained from China appear to be undermining that resolve and bring into question African governments’ commitment to international assistance and cooperation. They should refocus and reflect on the principles, norms and values of freedom and equality laid out in the African Union Charter.

Only then will they be able to show their support without appearing to endorse Beijing’s oppression.

Qatar: Male Guardianship Severely Curtails Women’s Rights

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 29, 2021
Click to expand Image A girl and a woman fly a kite along the promenade by the Doha corniche in the Qatari capital on March 16, 2020. © 2020 AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut, March 29, 2021) – Qatar’s discriminatory male guardianship system denies women the right to make many key decisions about their lives, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 94-page report, “‘Everything I Have to Do is Tied to a Man’: Women and Qatar’s Male Guardianship Rules,” analyzes official male guardianship rules and practices. Human Rights Watch found that women in Qatar must obtain permission from their male guardians to marry, study abroad on government scholarships, work in many government jobs, travel abroad until certain ages, and receive some forms of reproductive health care. The discriminatory system also denies women the authority to act as their children’s primary guardian, even when they are divorced and have legal custody. These restrictions violate Qatar’s constitution and international law.

March 29, 2021 “Everything I Have to Do is Tied to a Man”


“Women in Qatar have broken barriers and achieved significant progress in areas such as education, yet they have to still navigate state-enforced male guardianship rules that limit their ability to live full, productive, and independent lives,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Male guardianship reinforces the power and control that men have over women’s lives and choices and may foster or fuel violence, leaving women few viable options to escape abuse from their families and husbands.”

The Human Rights Watch findings are based on a review of 27 laws, as well as regulations, policies, forms, written communications with the government, and 73 interviews, including 50 in-depth interviews with women affected by this system. In written communications sent in February and March 2021, government representatives confirmed many of these findings and disputed others, despite Human Rights Watch evidence to the contrary.

Qatar’s laws require women to have a male guardian’s permission to marry, regardless of age or former marital status. Once married, she can be deemed “disobedient” if she does not obtain her husband’s permission before working, traveling, or if she leaves her home or refuses to have sex with him, without a “legitimate” reason. Men can marry up to four women, at a time, without needing permission from a guardian or even from their current wife or wives.


Women cannot be primary guardians of their own children at any time. They have no authority to make independent decisions relating to their children’s documents, finances, travel, and sometimes schooling and medical treatment, even if they are divorced and a court ordered that their children should live with them (“custody”), or the children’s father has died. If the child has no male relative to act as guardian, the government takes up this role.

Discrimination in laws relating to divorce and decisions concerning children has left some women trapped in abusive relationships, often waiting years to obtain a divorce. If they do leave, they may be unable to remarry for fear of losing custody of their children and remain dependent on their former husbands, who remain the children’s legal guardian.


Women interviewed said that their male guardians had prohibited them from studying abroad or attending mixed-gender universities in Qatar, limiting what they could study and their future careers. Women indirectly need male guardian permission for government scholarships to pursue higher education. Women reported facing restrictions at the state’s sex-segregated Qatar University, including needing guardian permission to enter or leave the campus in a taxi, to live in student housing, and to take field trips as part of their studies.

The government, in its written response to Human Rights Watch, said that women can act as guardians to obtain passports or ID cards for their children, that women do not need guardian permission to accept a scholarship or to work at ministries, government institutions or schools and that guardian approval is not required for educational field trips at Qatar University that are part of academic programs. However, Human Rights Watch research, including interviews and review of documents such as requests by schools and workplaces for guardian permission, conflicted with the government’s claims.

Qatari women told Human Rights Watch they needed male guardian permission to work in many government jobs, including ministries and government schools. While no law requires women to have guardian permission to work, no laws prohibit discrimination against women in the recruitment process.


Human Rights Watch found that unmarried Qatari women under 25 must obtain guardian permission to travel abroad, and that women can also be subject to travel bans at any age by their husbands or fathers. On travel and other issues, a lack of transparency over the rules and when they change makes it difficult for women to challenge them. In 2020, airport officials stopped some women traveling without a male relative and insisted on calling their male guardian to prove that they were not “escaping.” The authorities stopped both unmarried Qatari women under 25 with valid exit permits and women over 25, who should not require such permission.

Women also said they had to show proof of marriage to access some sexual and reproductive health care, for example, prenatal care, transvaginal ultrasounds, pap smears, and sexual health checks. They also needed their husband’s consent for some forms of reproductive health care relating to childbearing, such as sterilization and abortion.

Some hotels prohibit unmarried Qatari women under age 30 from renting a hotel room unaccompanied by a male relative, and Qatari women are prohibited from attending some events and entering places that serve alcohol.

Foreign national women in Qatar, who are dependent on their husbands or fathers as their visa sponsors, are also under controls comparable to male guardianship. Women need their visa sponsor’s permission to get a driver’s license, work, or obtain a government scholarship to study in Qatar.

Most of the women interviewed said that the rules have taken a heavy toll on their ability to lead independent lives. Some said it has affected their mental health, contributing to self-harm, depression, stress, and suicidal thoughts.

Women in Qatar are becoming more vocal about their rights, especially online. But laws limiting freedom of expression and association, government intimidation, and online harassment remain serious obstacles, Human Rights Watch found. There are no independent women’s rights organizations.

Male guardianship rules contradict some of Qatar’s own laws that set the end of guardianship at age 18 and violate its constitution and the country’s obligations under international human rights law. It also makes it difficult for Qatar to realize its National Vision 2030, which sets out the country’s long-term goals, including on a diversified workforce with opportunities for Qatari women.

“By enforcing male guardianship rules, Qatar is failing women and now falling behind neighboring countries when they were once in some instances leading the way,” Begum said. “Qatar should remove all discriminatory rules against women, publicize these changes, pass anti-discrimination legislation, and ensure that women have the civic space to demand their rights.”

Individual Accounts from the Report

“Nawal,” a 32-year-old Qatari woman, said when she applied to the state marriage committee to allow her, a Qatari national, to officially marry a foreign national according to Qatari law, her brother refused to give his permission as her guardian. “I needed his signature and letter and he kind of felt powerful and showed resistance,” she said. “We had a personal issue, and he was like, ‘I’m not going to help you.’”

Um Qahtan, a 44-year-old Qatari woman, said that her husband had threatened her that if she left him, he would prevent their four children from traveling with her, and transfer the children from international schools to government schools. She said after she left him, “he has done both things.”

In a February 2021 hearing, she said a judge rejected her petition to transfer her son to a different school on the basis that he could not interfere with the father’s “God-given right to decide where his child goes to school.”

“Sanaa,” a 31-year-old Qatari woman, said: “To get a scholarship to study abroad you need guardian permission … Even at Qatar University, as a TA [teaching assistant], you need your legal guardian’s permission stating that they don’t mind you going and continuing your studies abroad.”

“Nayla,” a 24-year-old Qatari teacher, described how in 2019 to work as a teacher: “I had to get my father’s ID and letter of consent that he doesn’t mind me taking this job and working with this place…. It’s for the Ministry of Education.”

“Muna,” a 32-year-old Qatari woman, said authorities stopped her at the airport in 2020 and said, “there are new internal state regulations.” She said she refused to give her father’s number initially and argued: “what you are doing is illegal, the law says I can travel above 25.” But, she said, “They said it’s in the best interest of the internal state security of Qatar and best interests of families of Qatar … Then I gave him the number and I hoped my dad is awake, it was midnight, and he is 67…. We are citizens and have the right to know what law we are being stopped for.”

“Dana,” a 20-year-old Qatari woman, said, when she was 18, she had to lie that she was married by giving her friend’s name and number as her husband to obtain urgent health care even though it did not relate to sexual activity. “One time, an ER doctor referred me to the women’s hospital for an ultrasound,” she said. “I was in so much pain he thought my ovary had burst. But they wouldn’t give me a vaginal ultrasound without a marriage license. They refused to actually do a physical on me because I wasn’t married.”

“Nadine,” a 33-year-old British resident in Qatar, said she had suffered from endometriosis since the age of 13 but could not get it diagnosed in Qatar until a few years after getting married. She said that healthcare workers would not allow her to undergo certain examinations including a transvaginal ultrasound, a pap smear test, or a womb biopsy without a marriage certificate. She said: “You suffer in silence. I had horrible pain.”

Generation Equality: Accelerating Progress on Women’s Rights

Human Rights Watch - Monday, March 29, 2021
Click to expand Image Marcelina Bautista, leader of Centro de Apoyo y Capacitación para Empleadas del Hogar, a domestic workers organization, celebrates the beginning of a pilot program extending access to social security and healthcare benefits for domestic workers, Mexico City, Mexico.  © 2019 El Universal/RCC Agency/GDA via AP

Beginning today, governments, corporations, and civil society are converging physically and virtually in Mexico City to kickstart the Generation Equality Forum, convened by UN Women. Between today and Wednesday, they will reveal a 10-year agenda aimed at accelerating gender equality.  

Over the next few months, these parties are meant to shore up “game-changing,” “scalable,” and “measurable” support for these goals, before showing up at the concluding Generation Equality Forum meeting in Paris in late June to announce their financial, advocacy, policy, or programmatic commitments.

The process marks the 25th anniversary of the landmark 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, which reinforced “women’s rights as human rights” and created a strong vision and blueprint for action to achieve gender equality.

The record since has shown heartening successes, such as significant shifts in access to education, health, jobs, and individual freedoms for women and girls, along with increased recognition of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Legal protections have expanded: For example 155 countries currently have laws addressing domestic violence.

But overall, progress has been unacceptably slow, and governments have often failed to adequately resource and prioritize gender equality.

As updated World Health Organization statistics revealed earlier this month, rates of gender-based violence remain devastatingly high, with one out of three women worldwide subjected to domestic violence or non-partner sexual violence or both. Thirty-eight percent of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners.

The Covid-19 pandemic threatens many of the advances made. For example, the number of out-of-school girls dropped by 79 million between 1998 and 2018, but the pandemic meant that 168 million children had their schools entirely closed for a year. Child marriage, poverty, and increased household responsibilities mean that many girls will not be returning.

This year’s Generation Equality Forum presents an opportunity to harness the lessons from the past and assemble the political will, funds, and accountability checks to push the gender equality agenda faster and more effectively.

In 2020, the World Economic Forum estimated it would take more than 250 years to reach gender equality. At that rate, not even the granddaughters of babies born today will have equality. We need bold action that will support the billions of women and girls of this generation and the next to exercise their rights and freedoms and live into their full potential.

EU-UN Aid Conference Should Focus on Syrians’ Rights

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, March 28, 2021
Click to expand Image An aid convoy drives through the city of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, in March 2018 when it was still held by anti-government armed groups.  © 2018 Samer Bouidani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Brussels) – The European Union-United Nations sponsored aid conference for Syria on March 29-30, 2021, should prioritize a rights-respecting aid framework that advances urgent protection, humanitarian, and accountability needs, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The fifth conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” is co-hosted by the European Union and the United Nations. Participating governments, international agencies, and institutions should ensure that they address three key areas: a principled rights-based framework for distributing aid, protecting civilians from continued abuses, and justice for atrocity crimes. Human Rights Watch also urged participating governments to address the unprecedented education crisis faced by refugees, particularly in Lebanon.

“A decade into the conflict, humanitarian needs in Syria and among Syrian refugees in neighboring countries have never been greater, while egregious human rights violations continue with impunity,” said Lotte Leicht, EU Director at Human Rights Watch. “The friends of Syria have an opportunity to build on their critical support for Syrians’ humanitarian needs by ensuring that the aid gets to civilians who need it, prioritizing protection for those in Syria, and pursuing justice for victims of horrific atrocities.”

Aid and Reconstruction

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the Syrian government has developed a policy and legal framework that allows it to divert humanitarian aid to fund atrocities, punish those perceived as opponents, and benefit those loyal to it. It has restricted access of aid organizations to communities in need, selectively approving aid projects and imposing requirements to partner with local actors linked to the abusive Syrian security services.

The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, with large-scale crises brought about by economic collapse and the long-term impact of violations of humanitarian law. In government-held Syria, millions are going hungry, in part due to the government’s own actions, including the destruction of bakeries and agricultural crops, corruption, and restrictive policies.

In areas outside of government control, in the northeast and northwest, the situation has become more urgent with the closure of three of the four border crossings that were previously authorized by the UN Security Council. UN agencies relied on the crossings to deliver assistance to areas not under the control of the Syrian government, leaving these areas increasingly dependent on the Syrian government’s cooperation to deliver assistance to these areas, which is rarely forthcoming. The coronavirus pandemic has had a debilitating impact on health infrastructure and other aid sectors, particularly in the northwest, which were already suffering due to apparently deliberate Syrian-Russia attacks on hospitals, clinics, and other protected civilian objects.

International donors have shown significant generosity as humanitarian donors to Syria’s civilian population, but there is an urgent need to ensure that the funds earmarked for humanitarian support in Syria get to those who need them the most and are not used to facilitate violations, Human Rights Watch said.

In particular, conference participants should ensure that the UN principles and parameters for assistance in Syria, a human-rights based framework for aid endorsed by the UN secretary-general, is incorporated into the operations of UN agencies, and call for a stronger involvement of UN headquarters in oversight of systematic issues and human rights violations that arise through the assistance process.

Participants should also call on the UN Security Council to immediately and fully renew the cross-border aid delivery system, including to northeast Syria.

Protection

Active combat has declined in much of Syria, but Syrian security services continue to arbitrarily detain, torture, disappear, and harass people in government-held territories. The abuse is taking place even where the government has entered into reconciliation agreements with the people involved. In June 2020, for example, security forces beat and arrested protesters demonstrating against the government’s failure to address the country’s economic meltdown.

In areas controlled by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist anti-government armed groups, led by the group previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the authorities have also arbitrarily arrested activists and journalists. In areas occupied by Turkey, Turkey and the Syrian National Army, a Turkish-backed anti-government group, have arrested and illegally transferred at least 63 Syrian nationals from northeast Syria to Turkey to face trial on serious charges that could lead to life in prison, in contravention of basic protections under international law. Moreover, tens of thousands of people remain disappeared, primarily by the Syrian government but also by the Islamic State and other groups, and there is no regular access to official and makeshift detention facilities.

Conference participants should insist on the urgent release of tens of thousands of detainees and victims of disappearances, and the need to put an immediate end to rampant abuses and torture in detention facilities, as a fundamental part of any transitional process for a sustainable resolution of the Syrian conflict.

Donor countries should insist that the Syrian government provide immediate and unhindered access for recognized international monitors of detention conditions to all detention facilities, official and unofficial, without prior notification. The donor countries should ensure that aid groups operating in Syria prioritize monitoring detainees and returnees.

Participants should press Russia to exercise its leverage with the Syrian government to ensure urgent access to and release of detainees and victims of disappearances.

Participants should also urge Turkish authorities to stop transferring Syrian nationals from occupied areas in northeast Syria and detaining and prosecuting them in Turkey and immediately allow all detainees in their custody to contact their families, whether in Turkey or elsewhere.

Accountability

All parties to the conflict in Syria have committed egregious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, with the vast majority of atrocities committed by the Syrian government and members of its security apparatus, armed forces, and militias. While evidence of these crimes has been well-documented, justice for the abuses has been limited.

Prosecutors in a few European countries are investigating and prosecuting serious crimes committed in Syria under the principle of universal jurisdiction. In April 2020, a landmark trial began in Germany against two former Syrian intelligence officials on crimes against humanity charges. One of them was convicted in February, the trail continues for the second suspect. Universal jurisdiction cases are an important avenue for addressing violations in Syria and more countries should step up and review and amend laws that make it difficult to advance justice via the universal jurisdiction route and increase their capacity to bring those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice, including by increasing funding for dedicated prosecutorial war crimes units.

In September, the Netherlands announced that it had notified Syria of its intention to hold the government accountable for torture under the United Nations Convention against Torture, a significant move that could eventually lead to proceedings against the state of Syria at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Canada took the same step in March. More is needed to build on these important measures to ensure comprehensive accountability by Syria for the horrific atrocities committed during the conflict.

Conference participants should also commit to cooperate with and support the work of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) mandated by the UN General Assembly to preserve and analyze potential evidence for use in courts that may have a mandate over these crimes now or in the future.

Participants should also expand their respective lists of those subject to targeted sanctions on the basis of ongoing human rights violations, including civilian officials and military commanders credibly implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including as a matter of command responsibility. They should also ensure that effective and functional humanitarian exemptions are provided to mitigate the spillover effects of international sanctions on Syria.

China: Companies Should Resist Boycott Threats

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, March 27, 2021
Click to expand Image Workers load cotton onto a truck at a sunning ground in Alar (Alaer), northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, September 2015. © Imaginechina via AP Images

(New York) – Companies threatened with Chinese government-promoted boycotts should stand firm in their opposition to forced labor, Human Rights Watch said today.

Chinese authorities have recently encouraged consumers across China to boycott companies that have publicly expressed concerns about forced labor and other human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in and from the northwest region of Xinjiang.

“The Chinese government is showing its true colors by pressuring companies to be complicit in abuses rather than working together to end violations against Turkic Muslims,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “This is a litmus test of companies’ upholding their human rights commitments.”

On March 22 and 23, 2021, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced new coordinated sanctions on four Chinese government officials and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) Public Security Bureau. The sanctions were imposed because of those individuals’ and the XPCC’s alleged involvement in human rights violations, including forced labor, in the Xinjiang region and particularly in the cotton and textile sectors. 

The Chinese government then announced sanctions on various European politicians, academics, and institutions. Chinese government agencies and netizens have focused fresh attention on international brands that had expressed concerns about forced labor. On March 25, a Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesperson said, “Pure and flawless Xinjiang cotton cannot allow any forces to smear or blacken it.” Netizens have sharply criticized several companies in online forums and called for boycotts of the companies’ products.

On March 24, the Communist Youth League targeted the Swedish retailer H&M, which had publicly expressed concerns about Turkic Muslim forced labor in September 2020. At that time, H&M announced that it would end its relationship with Huafu Fashion, a yarn supplier with operations in Xinjiang that had been identified as using forced labor. Within a day of the Youth League statement three major Chinese e-retailers had removed all H&M products from their online stores. Some netizens commented on H&M’s official Weibo account: “Are you ready? Completely disappear in China,” “Countdown to the beginning of withdrawing from the China market,” and “I won’t buy any products from you anymore, will ask people around me not to buy too.”

Within hours, the online criticism had spread to Nike. The company had said nearly a year ago it was “concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, Xinjiang.” A celebrity said on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok: “Is Nike crazy? Dare to wrestle with China.”

At least three major brands have taken down statements on their websites. Inditex, which owns Zara, has removed a statement explaining its policies against forced labor; PVH has done the same. VF Corporation has taken down a statement specifically addressing its concerns about Xinjiang.

Other companies, including Fila and Hugo Boss, said in late March they will continue to use cotton from Xinjiang. Neither company made references to forced labor or a need to perform human rights due diligence.

Increasingly governments require and consumers expect companies to comply with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Under those standards, companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their supply chains to ensure that their activities do not cause or enable harm, and that there are meaningful remedies available to workers or others effected. Some major brands, including Eileen Fisher and Marks & Spencer, have joined the “Call to Action” developed by the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region.

The Chinese government’s actions – effectively punishing the companies trying to uphold those standards – are a brazen attempt to weaken an emerging global norm, Human Rights Watch said.

“Chinese authorities are once again arbitrarily punishing a particular group for expressed views it doesn’t like,” Richardson said. “Beijing may find that lashing out at companies only amplifies precisely the concerns they expressed.”

Bangladesh: ‘Golden Jubilee’ Should be Turning Point on Rights

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 26, 2021
Click to expand Image Bangladeshi Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) stand on guard at the Central Shaheed Minar in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  © 2021 Piyas Biswas / SOPA Images/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

(New York,) – Governments joining the celebrations to mark the 50th founding anniversary of Bangladesh and to honor the birth centenary of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 26, 2021, should know that Bangladeshis are enduring an escalating crackdown on human rights by the Awami League-led government, a group of human rights groups said today. 

Against the backdrop of events purportedly intended to “transform Bangladesh into a safe and peaceful home for our next generation,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is instead leading an authoritarian administration plagued with corruption, election obstruction, violence, and repression of civic space. 

One clear example is the continued use by authorities of the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) to harass and indefinitely detain activists, journalists, and others critical of the government, resulting in a chilling effect on any expression of dissent. Bangladesh is soon to be poised to undertake even more prosecutions of DSA cases, as the Law Ministry has approved a proposal to expand the number of special tribunals specifically for these types of cyber “crimes.” Contrary to supporting safety and security for the next generation, Bangladesh’s security forces have a history of arresting and detaining students and children under this Act. 

March 26 marks not only the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh, but also the 17th year since the establishment of the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). This paramilitary law enforcement and counterterrorism unit face serious allegations of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture.

Over the last decade of Awami League-led rule, these abuses have increased, with hundreds of enforced disappearances and thousands of extrajudicial killings by security forces including RAB. Many of those targeted are political opponents or government critics. Yet, the government refuses to acknowledge that enforced disappearances occur. Near-complete impunity continues to be the norm in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is the top troop contributor to peacekeeping in the world. The United Nations and member states should unequivocally call on the Government of Bangladesh to put an immediate end to the practice of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, and enable serious investigations of, and accountability for, those responsible for these grave human rights abuses.

The international community should also call on Bangladesh to protect fundamental freedoms including the right to freedom of expression; repeal the Digital Security Act; and release journalists, critics, and activists who are in detention for speaking out. 

The undersigned organizations specifically call on: 

The US, Canada, UK the European Union, and Australia to pursue individual, targeted sanctions on those responsible for past and ongoing grave human rights violations in Bangladesh.  The U.N. Department of Peace Operations to review the participation of Bangladesh’s security forces and law-enforcement agencies in multilateral institutions, and flag all RAB personnel for increased screening under the UN Human Rights Screening Policy, which requires verification that anyone serving the United Nations has not committed any “violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.” The U.N. Human Rights Council to pass a resolution building on extensively documented abuses and the recent statement by High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet in which she remarked on the “long-standing concern” over allegations of torture by RAB, called for an “overhaul” of the DSA, and urged the release of all prisoners charged under it.

The Bangladesh government should not be enabled to use this celebratory moment to lay the groundwork for another 50 years of rights violations, or to hide its abuses by presenting itself on the world stage at variance with how it acts against its own citizens. Instead, the United Nations and member states should take the Golden Jubilee as a key opportunity to affirm through actions its commitment both to Bangladesh civil society and in support of victims of serious human rights violations. 

Endorsed by:
Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
Asian Human Rights Commission
Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
Capital Punishment Justice Project (CPJP)
Eleos Justice, Monash University
Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND)
Human Rights Watch
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
World Organisation Against Torture
 

Mozambique: Protect Residents Fleeing Northern Town

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 26, 2021
Click to expand Image A Mozambican woman works in a rice paddy in Palma, where large deposits of natural gas were found offshore, February 2017. © 2017 JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images

Mozambique authorities should take urgent measures to protect civilians fleeing an armed Islamist group in the town of Palma, in northern Cabo Delgado province, Human Rights Watch said today. There has been heavy fighting since March 25, 2021, when the group known locally as both Al-Shabab and Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), raided the gas-rich town, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians and causing mass flight.

Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw bodies on the streets and residents fleeing after the Al-Shabab fighters fired indiscriminately at people and buildings. Mobile phone signals have been disrupted, making it harder to obtain information about the situation, the casualties, and the whereabouts of many residents. The attack unlawfully targeted civilians in their homes in violation of the laws of war.

“Al-Shabab fired on civilians in their homes and on the streets in Palma, as they tried to flee for their lives,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Mozambican authorities should move swiftly to protect civilians and bring all those responsible for abuses to account.”

Human Rights Watch spoke by phone to seven witnesses to the violence in Palma before telephone lines when down on March 24.

Mozambique’s Defense Ministry announced on March 25 that an army operation to restore order and security in Palma was underway. The ministry spokesman said that the group “attacked the town of Palma in three directions: Pundanhar – Manguna crossroads, Nhica do Rovuma road, and the Palma airfield.”

Two market sellers told Human Rights Watch that they heard several gunshots, then saw people running down the street, and government army vehicles moving toward the Palma airfield, where the gunfire was more intense. “People were running and shouting ‘Al-Shabab is here … It’s Al-Shabab … They’re killing everybody,’ one of the market sellers said. “Some people were carrying their stuff and moving toward the bush in Pundanhar, others were running toward the beach.”

Three men who said they were in a group of about 20 people running to the bush for safety said they saw bodies lying on the streets near a local bank in Palma. Gunshots could be heard as they spoke on the phone.

Two hotel workers said that the armed men fired at people and buildings, including the hotel.

Local and international journalists who spoke to Palma residents reported similar accounts. The Maputo-based website “A Carta” said that many people had sought refuge in the local hotel after the armed men fired at civilians. Reuters News agency quoted security source as saying that bodies were visible in the streets, some of them beheaded. The Portuguese News Agency, Lusa, reported that foreign nationals who worked on gas projects in the Palma region, fled alongside residents.

The attack on Palma began hours after Mozambique’s government and the French oil and gas company Total announced the gradual resumption of work on the Afungi industrial project, near the town of Palma, after the improvement of security conditions. Total had suspended activities and evacuated non-essential staff from the Afungi site after a series of insurgent attacks in December and January.

Palma is inaccessible by road due to insecurity caused by frequent attacks along the Nangade–Palma road, which has led to a massive food shortage. In January, the first army-protected convoy with food and other essential supplies in nearly a year, arrived by road to the town from Mueda district. In March, the first group of international journalists, who flew into the town, described an environment of hunger and fear of beheadings and kidnappings by Al-Shabab.

Districts in Northern Cabo Delgado have been the center of much fighting between government forces and the armed Islamist group since October 2017, when Al-Shabab attacked a string of police stations in the area, causing two days of government lockdowns.

Fighting between the group and government forces has left more than 1,500 civilians dead and displaced more than 600,000. Al Shabab forces have attacked villages, carried out summary executions including beheadings, looted, and destroyed civilian property and infrastructure, including schools and health centers.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have also documented abuses by government security forces during operations against Al-Shabab, including excessive use of force, 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 applicable to Mozambique prohibits summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions, and torture and other ill-treatment of people in custody, Human Rights Watch said. The Mozambican authorities should ensure that security forces deployed to Palma respect human rights and humanitarian law and treat everyone in their custody humanely. All parties to an armed conflict have an obligation to minimize harm to civilians and protect those under their control from the effects of attacks.

“Armed groups’ horrific abuses pose a threat to civilians throughout the region,” Mavhinga said. “Mozambique authorities should make restoring security a top priority in Cabo Delgado province.”

Expanding Access to Cancer Screenings in the US Would Save Lives

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 26, 2021
Click to expand Image Ms. Frances Ford, executive director of Sowing Seeds of Hope, in her home in August 2018, holding a picture of her mother, who died from cervical cancer after being diagnosed in 1980. Ford is a tireless advocate for bringing healthcare and a rural hospital to her hometown of Marion in Perry County, Alabama. Sowing Seeds of Hope provides a range of community programs, including free school screenings to children, free blood pressure clinics, quarterly health fairs and offers prescription assistance while also supporting programs to build homes in the county. © 2018 Roopa Gogineni for Human Rights Watch

Cervical cancer is a disease no one should die from. It’s highly preventable and treatable, and if caught early, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent. Unfortunately, over 4,000 women in the United States die from the disease each year, and women of color and low-income women are disproportionately impacted. But a new bill focused on expanding access to critical cancer screenings and diagnostic tests could help save lives.

Human Rights Watch research over the past five years has underscored the importance of equitable and affordable access to preventive screenings and reproductive health care to eliminate cervical cancer deaths. Unfortunately, too many women face barriers in accessing the screenings and diagnostic services that could save their lives. Obstacles include lack of health insurance and challenges around transportation to and from appointments, especially for women living in rural communities. We’ve spoken to women who couldn’t afford regular cancer screenings because they needed to pay their household water and electricity bills. 

Many women often don’t even have access to sexual and reproductive health information that could help prevent HPV — a common sexually transmitted infection that leads to the majority of cervical cancer cases. Women have the right to access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services, without discrimination.

A new bill introduced today by California Congressman Jimmy Gomez and Washington Senator Patty Murray, the Jeannette Acosta Invest in Women’s Health Act of 2021, would help address many of these barriers. Named after a former congressional staffer who passed away after a late-stage cervical cancer diagnosis in 2017, the bill would expand access to preventive and life-saving screenings for cancers that most frequently affect women, with a focus on women of color.

Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated the disastrous consequences structural racism and other inequalities have had on access to healthcare and created additional challenges in accessing cancer screenings for those already struggling to receive them. The US government should take concrete steps to address glaring racial disparities in health. Ensuring women of color and women living in rural and neglected communities have access to life-saving cancer screenings is a start.  

Lebanon: Action Needed on Syrian Refugee Education Crisis

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 26, 2021
Click to expand Image Fewer than half of the school-age refugee children in Lebanon are in formal education.

(Brussels) – Governments should address the unprecedented education crisis facing Syrian refugee children in Lebanon at the March 30, 2021, ministerial conference in Brussels on Supporting Syria and the Region, Human Rights Watch said today. Donors should press the Lebanese government to lift barriers to education, including restrictions on humanitarian groups providing education.

School closures and the financial downturn caused by the Covid pandemic have harmed Syrian refugee children’s education in all the refugee-hosting countries supported by the Brussels conference, including Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, but in Lebanon learning is in free-fall. The financial, political, and Covid-related crises gripping Lebanon have pushed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Lebanese deeper into poverty, heightening risks of dropouts, child labor, and child marriage.

“After years of donors’ promises to support quality education for all Syrian refugee children, the majority of Syrian children in Lebanon are getting nothing, the government’s plan is a mystery, and it is tying humanitarian groups’ hands with red tape and inexcusable obstacles,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “The Brussels conference donors need to confront this scandalous situation and insist on maximum access to education and accountability for harmful restrictions.”

During the 2018-2019 school year, only 42 percent of the 660,000 school-age Syrian children in Lebanon were in school, including 9 percent in private schools. Access to education deteriorated even further during the 2019-2020 school year after schools closed amid widespread strikes and protests against government corruption in October 2019. Many Syrian children returned to school, if at all, only in early 2020, but were in class for a short amount of time before schools were closed again due to Covid-19 on February 29. The Education Ministry announced a shift to distance learning in March 2020 and said it would publish a distance learning strategy in August, but has not yet done so. Nor has it set out clear plans for school re-openings, education staff at humanitarian organizations said.

About 190,000 Syrian children in Lebanon enrolled in public schools in the 2020-2021 school year, while another 25,000 who should have re-enrolled or entered grade 1 did not, Education Ministry officials have said in meetings with groups involved with education. All children in Lebanon have missed more than a year of classes since September 2019 due to school closures, but most Syrian children are assigned to attend special “second shift classes” in the afternoon, and have received almost no education whatsoever due to a failure by schools to provide them with distance learning, these groups told Human Rights Watch.  

Restrictions on Education

Donors should press the Education Ministry to urgently lift unreasonable restrictions on enrolling in public schools and bans on what humanitarian groups are allowed to teach, Human Rights Watch said.

Many refugee children cannot attend public schools, in many cases because their families cannot afford transportation or because public schools had refused to enroll them – as 29 percent of 443 children surveyed in 2019 reported. Schools are refusing to let Syrian children take mandatory examinations if they do not have legal residency in Lebanon, which is required beginning at age 15 but which 70 percent of Syrians cannot afford or qualify for.

Humanitarian groups operate non-formal schools near refugee communities and can reach large numbers of children, but the Education Ministry prohibits these groups from teaching the normal school curriculum. The ministry allows humanitarian groups to teach basic numeracy and literacy, and early childhood education, but has not approved any non-formal education program for children ages 7 to 9, on the basis that these children should enroll in public schools.

The Education Ministry has not allowed out-of-school Syrian students to enroll in schools, though, unless they complete a donor-funded special accelerated learning program that helps them catch up to their in-school peers. But the ministry has not offered the program for the last two years, did not provide any distance learning option to the 6,500 students who had been enrolled, and does not allow nongovernmental groups to teach it.

During the 2020-21 school year, the ministry informed groups involved with education that children could enroll in public schools if they complete a basic numeracy and literacy course and pass placement tests. Donors should press the ministry to let aid groups teach the accelerated curriculum and to support all children’s education without preconditions on enrollment.

During the summer of 2020, the Education Ministry shut down nine unlicensed private schools attended by 5,000 Syrian students, but only provided spaces at public schools for 800 of the students. Two humanitarian groups paid for 3,000 children to enroll in private schools, but 1,200 students were still left out. Before the financial crisis, 70 percent of Lebanese children were enrolled in private schools, but in 2020-21 almost 40,000 Lebanese children transferred to public schools, leaving fewer spaces for Syrian children.

Accountability and Transparency

Donors pay Lebanon a set amount per Syrian refugee child enrolled in school, and also pay school fees for Lebanese children, at a cost of more than $440 million from 2015-16 to 2018-19. Donors also fund humanitarian groups providing non-formal education to refugee children. But humanitarian funding to Lebanon has fallen at each Brussels conference, from $1.3 billion in 2017 to $944 million in 2020.

Participants should reverse that trend and deliver on their pledges to provide adequate funding to fulfill Syrian children’s right to education. Donors’ reporting on funding is often unclear. Overall education aid at the Brussels conference fell from 24 percent of the total funding in 2018 to 9 percent in 2019 and 2020. Despite dismal enrollment figures, the Education Ministry has previously refused to run back-to-school campaigns to promote enrollment, citing a lack of funding.

In order for education funding to reach students and teachers, conference participants should follow the lead of the EU, World Bank, and UN, and insist that Lebanese authorities should disburse the aid funding in US dollars. Foreign governments transfer donations to Lebanon, including funds to pay for second-shift teachers’ salaries, in US dollars. However, the funds were deposited in banks that insisted on disbursing the aid in Lebanese lira at a rate well below the market rate.

Banks thus claimed most of the value of the donations because the real value of Lebanese currency has now plummeted by 90 percent. Some Lebanese teachers have gone on strike to demand payment in dollars as the value of their wages collapsed. In addition, school directors refused to re-open 80 of the “second shift” schools this school year because the Education Ministry has not paid them for the months when schools were closed during the 2019-20 year.

Donors should require the Education Ministry to publish regularly the data from an education information management system, which donors funded, that tracks attendance and enrollment. The ministry has not done so since September 2019. An investigative report by Al-Jadeed television during the 2019-2020 school year found that the actual attendance of Syrian children in second shift classes was 23 percent lower than the number enrolled.

Lack of Learning During School Closures

Education officers at humanitarian groups said there was a lack of government support for teachers to create online lessons and little monitoring of the quality of education provided for both Lebanese and Syrian children. One primary school reportedly provided no online learning other than sending students a link to one YouTube video each week. Teachers said that the ministry did not provide them with laptops or reimburse them for their mobile data usage. In 2018, donors funded the UN to purchase laptops for public schools, but those were never distributed. The importing company falsely claimed that 2,335 of the laptops had been destroyed in the Beirut port explosion and instead sold them to private buyers.

Teachers and students received free access to the Microsoft’s Teams platform, but in practice, very few second-shift classes provided any online material for Syrian refugee children, staff at humanitarian organizations providing education told Human Rights Watch. Poor internet access, the unaffordable cost of data, and the lack of any devices other than a parent’s smartphone also limited Syrian children’s online access. Teachers most often used WhatsApp to send assignments and voice messages to children, education workers said. Televised classes were broadcast for Grade 9 and Grade 12, but only half of Syrian refugee families have a television, and most Syrian children drop out before secondary school, with fewer than 1 percent completing grade 9.

“Children have a right to education and cannot afford a repeat of last year’s Brussels conference on Syria, when organizers failed even to list education on the official agenda,” Leicht said. “Donors should keep their promises that there should be no lost generation and fund quality education for all, and use their leverage to ensure their aid actually reaches Syrian refugee children in need.”

Argentina: Abusive Covid-19 Measures in Northern Province

Human Rights Watch - Friday, March 26, 2021
Click to expand Image People held in mandatory quarantine at School N°18, which served as a quarantine center, in the city of Formosa, on January 21, 2021. © 2021 Leo Fernández.

(Washington, DC) – Authorities in Argentina’s northern province of Formosa have employed often abusive and unsanitary measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University’s centers for Public Health and Human Rights and for Humanitarian Health said today. Provincial authorities have also limited journalists’ ability to cover the situation in Formosa, allegedly used excessive force against those protesting the Covid-19 measures, and, for months, severely restricted the ability of people from the city of Clorinda to leave their city and get health care.

Over 24,000 people have been held in mandatory isolation and quarantine centers in Formosa since April 2020, many for more than the 14 days recommended by the World Health Organization, and in many cases under circumstances that amount to arbitrary detention. Formosa authorities have held some people who tested positive with others who tested negative or were still waiting for their test results. The centers have at times been overcrowded and unsanitary, making social distancing difficult. Some lacked proper ventilation, and the authorities have at times failed to provide proper medical care to people in the centers.

“Unsanitary and crowded centers like those in Formosa can cause the virus to spread, undermine basic human rights, and erode the trust in public health authorities that is critical for a successful Covid-19 response,” said Dr. Kathleen Page, a physician and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University centers. “Isolating entire cities can cause more problems than benefits for people’s health in the long term.”

Between January and March 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 45 people in Formosa by phone, including 30 who were in isolation or quarantine centers, as well as doctors, lawyers, victims of police abuse, journalists, a legislator, and two councilwomen. Most fear reprisals in Formosa and spoke on condition that their names and other identifying information would be withheld. Some said they were government employees and feared they would lose their jobs. This publication is also based on official information provided by the Formosa provincial government and the national Human Rights Secretary’s Office.

Under Formosa province’s Covid-19 rules, people entering the province, regardless of whether they had been exposed to Covid-19, and those who have been in close proximity to someone who tested positive, were sent to quarantine centers, known as “preventive accommodation centers.” Isolation centers, known as “health attention centers,” were created for those who tested positive and have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. People held in these centers may not leave, are generally under constant police surveillance, and in some cases have been locked into their rooms.

Formosa authorities have often failed to comply with their own protocols. While conditions in isolation and quarantine centers vary, most interviewees described them as unsanitary and overcrowded. In some quarantine centers, people shared rooms and common spaces, including bathrooms. Authorities also mixed people arriving on different dates in the same rooms and did not take into consideration their age, gender, health conditions, and other risk factors. They also placed people who tested positive with others who tested negative or were still waiting for their results. Formosa’s government says that doctors and nurses are permanently stationed at quarantine and isolation centers, but interviewees said they had limited access to timely and proper health care.

These failures, together with conditions at the centers and excessive stays, have most likely contributed to the spread of Covid-19 and violated the right to health of those being held, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University centers said.

In January, after a significant uptick in confirmed Covid-19 cases, the government significantly increased the number of people held in quarantine and isolation centers, with many reporting abuse.

Zunilda Gómez, 33, was three months pregnant with her fourth child when, on December 19, police took her family from their home in Clorinda. The authorities locked Gomez and her children, ages 12, 8, and 5, in a hotel room. On January 5, Gómez started bleeding, and called for help. Desperate, she had her daughter climb out the window to seek help, she said.

After an hour, police took Gómez to a hospital, leaving her children locked in the hotel room alone until the next day. Gómez had a miscarriage. Her husband, who had been moved to an isolation center 75 miles away after testing positive, only learned of the miscarriage when a family member called him.

On January 27 and 28, 2021, the National Human Rights Secretary, Horacio Pietragalla, who reports to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, visited Formosa to review allegations of abuse.

The Formosa government introduced additional quarantine and isolation protocols after the visit, following also several media reports and lawsuits. The Formosa government additionally closed some of the centers. On February 3, the Formosa authorities introduced new protocols to allow some families with children, people over 60, and people with prior health conditions to quarantine at home.

“The new protocols in Formosa are a positive step, but protocols that look good on paper will not work if they are not adequately implemented,” Page said.

Even after Formosa adopted the additional protocols, some people in the excepted categories were sent to quarantine centers, apparently because their homes did not meet the new protocols’ “environmental and social requirements,” such as having private bathrooms for infected people and adequate ventilation. At the centers, they were, at times, exposed to worse conditions than they probably would have been exposed to at home. Even though overcrowding has been reduced and some centers are closing, Human Rights Watch has received complaints about unsanitary conditions and limited access to health care in some centers after the February protocols were adopted.

On March 19, a federal judge ordered the Formosa authorities to end the mandatory quarantine for people entering the province with a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Formosa authorities appealed the decision, but adopted a new protocol on March 22 complying with the court order. Media reports indicate people have started traveling to and from the province.

Between August 2020 and March 2021, Formosa authorities enforced a “sanitary blockade” on the city of Clorinda, suspending public transportation to that city and requiring anyone who intends to leave to present a negative Covid-19 test and obtain police authorization. This seriously undermined the ability of people in Clorinda to access health care.

Authorities in Formosa have also limited journalists’ ability to report about the situation in the province, allegedly used excessive force against people who protested the Covid-19 regulations, and arrested and brought criminal charges against some of them.

Under international law, certain basic human rights cannot be restricted even in times of emergency, such as the right to be free from ill-treatment. Restrictions on many other rights, including rights to liberty, freedom of movement, expression, and association, may be permissible during a public health emergency like a pandemic but must have a clear legal basis, be strictly necessary and proportionate to the public health aim, of limited duration, subject to review, and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. Argentine authorities also have an obligation to take effective steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and protect people’s right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Mandatory quarantine that increases people’s risk of exposure to the coronavirus does not serve the purpose of protecting the population from Covid-19 and may amount to arbitrary detention under international human rights law as being an unnecessary limitation on liberty, Human Rights Watch said.

“Covid-19 measures should help protect people, not put them in greater danger,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The national government should work with provincial authorities to periodically verify that is respecting human rights as it responds to Covid-19, including by limiting the use of police forces to conduct contact tracing.”

For additional information on Human Rights Watch’s findings, please see below.

Methodology

Human Rights Watch reviewed photos and videos of several centers that supported what 45 interviewees said regarding conditions in quarantine and isolation centers, and reviewed official information, media reports, and Covid-19 protocols issued by Formosa’s government. A Johns Hopkins University researcher interviewed local doctors and reviewed Formosa’s sanitary protocols.

Human Rights Watch met with Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla on March 15 to discuss the situation in Formosa, and requested information from the Governor’s Office in Formosa, the national Human Rights Secretary’s Office, and the Attorney General’s Office. The Formosa government and the Human Rights Secretary’s Office provided comprehensive written responses; key information from those responses is included in this publication. The Attorney General’s Office did not respond.

Police Role in Contact Tracing

Formosa’s governor, Gildo Insfrán, has often cited increases in the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths to justify restrictive measures. The province reports one of the lowest Covid-19 death rates in Argentina, both in absolute terms and based on its population. As of March 25, 2021, there were 1,769 confirmed cases and 28 deaths.

Health authorities and police in Formosa conduct “active searches” in neighborhoods of people who have tested positive to identify others who have had contact with them or with people suspected of having it, test them, and place them in quarantine or isolation centers, sometimes before receiving their results.

Eleven people interviewed said that police officers, in some cases with health professionals, took them from their homes in the middle of the night to state-managed centers, citing their close contact with a family member who had tested positive. Many said police did not allow them to pack clothing or toiletries they needed. In some cases, people were driven around for hours, as police gathered others who had also allegedly had contact with positive cases, and mixed them in vans or ambulances. Some said they were not provided masks during the journeys.

The authorities then took the people to get tested at “Units for Prompt Attention to Contingency” (Unidades de Pronta Atención de la Contingencia, UPAC). Covid tests in Formosa are only performed in 19 state-managed laboratory facilities. Formosa allows no testing by private laboratories and centralizes all information on results. Many people interviewed said they did not learn their test results before they were transferred to quarantine or isolation centers.

Argentina’s response to Covid-19 has been marred by a violent police response towards people accused of breaking the rules. Police should not be conducting contact tracing unless there are no other human resources with appropriate training and experience available to do it safely and effectively, Human Rights Watch said.

Arbitrary Detention

Mandatory quarantine is a form of deprivation of liberty that should only be imposed if it is necessary and strictly proportionate to the public health threat.

As of February 16, Formosa had held more than 24,000 people in the province’s 188 quarantine and isolation centers, according to official information. Human Rights Watch documented 30 cases in which people were held in these centers between January and March under conditions that run counter to international human rights standards, WHO recommendations, and in many cases Formosa’s own protocols, amounting to arbitrary detention.

Quarantine has often extended longer than the 14 days that the WHO recommends and is established in local protocols, people held in centers told Human Rights Watch. Some said they had been required to stay for 30 days. While extensions beyond the 14 days recommended by the WHO may sometimes be necessary, in some cases people with negative Covid-19 results may have been exposed at centers during these extensions.

Under Formosa’s testing protocols, test results are to be released to people tested through a password-protected private website run by the Formosa government, “MyPortal” (MiPortal), or provided by health authorities responsible for quarantine and isolation centers. But interviews and screenshots of some users’ MyPortal sites show that results are not always posted after several days. In some cases, people said they were not verbally told their results. In the worst cases, people finished their isolation or quarantine without ever getting their test results, which infringes on their rights to health and access to information.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six people who showed negative PCR results before entering the province but who, after a few days in quarantine centers, tested positive. Although it is not clear where they contracted the virus, in some cases the number of days between the negative and the positive tests suggests it happened inside the centers.

Juana Ramírez (pseudonym), 33, presented documentation, on December 27, for herself and her 12- and 2-year-old sons, showing that they had tested negative for Covid-19 in preparing to move from Buenos Aires to Clorinda. The next day, when the family entered Formosa province, authorities tested them again, and again the results were negative. They told Ramírez that, before leaving a quarantine center, the family would have to test negative for Covid-19 twice more.

Authorities sent Ramírez and her sons to a center housed in an elementary school in the capital city of Formosa, where they shared the bathroom with other people. After a test on January 10, people who did not identify themselves or provide copies of official test results told Ramírez that her 12-year-old son had tested positive. Authorities transferred the family, on January 11, to the isolation center in Cincuentenario Stadium. They were quarantined for another 14 days – and had to test negative for Covid-19 twice more – before being released.

Formosa authorities have repeatedly held people who tested positive for Covid-19 along with people who had tested negative or were waiting for their results. Several people interviewed said the authorities took entire families, including children and adults, who had received negative test results, to isolation centers.

On January 6, the police told Lucas Garibaldi (pseudonym) and his family – his wife, and her son, daughter, and grandson – that some family members had tested positive and others negative. Officers nonetheless took all of them, including those who had tested positive, to a quarantine center meant for people who had tested negative before entering the province.

People at the centers said they were confused about how often they would be tested. One Formosa protocol requires PCR tests for close-contact cases on arrival and on days 5 and 10 of quarantine. A separate protocol requires a negative result on tests conducted by state-managed centers between days 3 and 5 and again on day 13 of quarantine. People held in some quarantine centers said that the authorities informed them they had to quarantine for 14 days and test negative at least twice, sometimes three times. Some people said they were tested as many as 11 times, suggesting possible exposure to people who tested positive within the quarantine center.

Unsanitary, Dangerous Conditions

Formosa’s quarantine and isolation protocols require “informed consent” – an agreement to stay – from anyone placed at an isolation and quarantine center. However, several people interviewed said that unidentified authorities at the centers told them to sign a consent form in a rush, without allowing them to read the whole document. After signing, some requested – and were denied – a copy.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a form titled “Informed and Prior Consent” from the center for positive cases established in the Cincuentenario Stadium, in which the government purported to “waive” responsibility for anything that happened to those held there. However, because the quarantine was mandatory and people could not leave, it amounted to a form of detention; the government is obligated to care for people it is detaining and cannot waive those obligations.

Some people interviewed said that centers they were held in during January and March were overcrowded and had unsanitary conditions. Several people said that in January at least 260 people shared six bathrooms in the Cincuentenario Stadium.

In January, the Cincuentenario Stadium center was especially crowded, housing over 300 people at a time, people interviewed said, with no separation between families – or accommodation for older people and those with disabilities, due to accessibility barriers such as steps.

They described makeshift “bedrooms,” separated only by cardboard walls, on a large, covered field, a description matched by photos and videos from the facility that Human Rights Watch reviewed. Six to ten people, in many cases from different households, shared an improvised “bedroom.” Beds were next to each other and families often had to share the room with other people.

Inside the centers people from different households, including children, were housed with unrelated adults, raising security concerns. Placement in quarantine centers also raised health concerns as authorities did not organize people by date of arrival, nor according to exposure or test results, which increases the risk of spreading Covid-19 within the facility.

Some of the centers were not cleaned, more than 20 people said. Bathrooms were particularly dirty, they said, and although protocols specify there should be personnel for cleaning common spaces, quarantined and isolated people said they had to clean bathrooms and showers themselves. Several women said they feared their children would get sick from unsanitary conditions.

Sanitation kits with soap, hand sanitizer, a toothbrush, and a face mask were delivered at some centers. However, some said the authorities did not give them sanitation kits or that they had to request the kits several times.

Some facilities appeared to have limited ventilation and access to water. When Laura Quinteros (pseudonym) and her 3-year-old and 18-month-old daughters arrived for quarantining at a school in Formosa city on January 13, the bathrooms were flooded from rains, she said. By the second day, the bathrooms had run out of water. On March 4, a man held in another quarantine center said that in recent days the facility had no water for five to seven hours a day. Food was supplied regularly, people held in several centers said, but it was often too little and of poor quality.

Although Formosa protocols stipulate scheduled outdoor hours for residents in quarantine or isolation facilities, people interviewed said that the authorities often denied the requirement. Some parents said their children had stopped playing or were unable to sleep. At Cincuentenario Stadium and some other centers, after several complaints, quarantined and isolated people have been allowed out during scheduled hours since mid-January.

In some facilities, locks and chains on doors prevent people from leaving. The danger of this practice was evident in January at Cincuentenario Stadium when a protesting group threatened to set their mattresses on fire. “If they had done that, we would be dead, because we were locked in there,” a woman who shared a video of the episode told Human Rights Watch.

Some people could quarantine in hotels, and they often described better conditions. Many said they had to pay to be there. Hotel doors were at times locked from the outside and authorities did not always put in place reliable means of communication to ensure that doors could be promptly unlocked in the event of a medical or other emergency. This put people at unjustified risk.

People said they had limited or no access to health care. Formosa authorities told Human Rights Watch that isolation and quarantine centers have doctors, nurses, psychologists, and administrative personnel, with 24-hour medical assistance in some of the centers, including Cincuentenario Stadium, yet people interviewed reported delays in treatment of Covid-19 symptoms and other health problems – or no treatment at all.

The 71-year-old mother of one person interviewed fell in the bathroom of an isolation center and broke her hip. It took authorities approximately six hours to take her to a hospital, the family member said. A blind 82-year-old man with dementia and hypertension – conditions that had been reported to authorities – had his temperature checked daily at a quarantine facility, but a week passed before healthcare workers checked his blood pressure, said his granddaughter, who was with him at the center. He needed daily support to bathe and for changing his adult diapers that his 16-year-old granddaughter could not provide alone.

Under the quarantine and isolation protocols adopted in February, families with children, people over 60, and those with prior diseases are allowed to quarantine at home, if the homes meet official “environmental and social requirements” that enable social distancing. Such requirements include having individual bathrooms and ventilation. However, the state-managed centers themselves often do not meet these requirements. The decision regarding whether a home meets these requirements is made by social workers paid by the government.

Some children, older people, and others in need of support have since been held in quarantine centers apparently because their homes did not meet the “environmental and social requirements.”

The 16-year-old girl and her blind 82-year-old grandfather were isolated in a quarantine center between February 22 and 25, although he had dementia, hypertension, and needed constant support that staff at the center were unable to provide. They were later sent to quarantine at a hospital instead. They both tested negative three times. They were sent home after 10 days. Under the new protocol, they should have been able to quarantine at home because they were under 18 years old and over 60.

Doctors in Formosa told Human Rights Watch that the province’s restrictive regulations and conditions in the centers have discouraged people from seeking medical care or testing for Covid-19. Doctors said they advised patients with mild symptoms of Covid-19 to isolate at home but did not send them to get tested because of the poor conditions in the centers. This loss of confidence by medical professionals and residents is likely to undermine future Covid-19 response in the province.

Since late February, the Formosa government has closed several centers as the number of reported Covid-19 cases in the province has decreased. Although overcrowding in the remaining centers appears to be less of a problem, interviews with people at the centers after late February indicate that some conditions, such as limited access to water and poor quality food, lack of access to medical care, and difficulties maintaining social distancing have not improved.

Isolation of Clorinda City

Between August 2020 and March 2021, the provincial government imposed a “sanitary blockade” limiting entry to and exit from Clorinda, a city of roughly 53,000 people near the border with Paraguay. Under the regulations, people were only authorized to leave for specific work purposes, to assist people who require medical treatment or special assistance, or for “extreme necessity.” Travel for other reasons, such as obtaining medical care, was not explicitly permitted.

On March 12, a federal court ordered the Formosa government to ease Clorinda’s sanitary blockade within five days. The restrictions have undermined the rights to health and education, the court said. On March 23, the government issued a new protocol allowing people in Clorinda to travel within the province provided they present a negative PCR result to the authorities.

The blockade affected people’s ability to get medical care, doctors in Clorinda said, as the city has few hospitals and clinics equipped to provide advanced diagnostics and medical treatment. Doctors said that, due to the restrictions, people have delayed medical treatments for other illnesses or failed to conduct necessary medical examinations.

Access to Information, Freedom of Expression, and Peaceful Assembly

A free press and timely, accessible government information are essential to accountable democratic governance in ordinary times, all the more so when a society faces a challenge as complex and multifaceted as a pandemic. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression have urged governments to “guarantee the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and access to information,” and “proactively provide truthful and reliable information on all aspects of public interest related to the pandemic.”

Journalists reported limitations to enter the province to report on the pandemic – including after public complaints were aired about confinement measures and centers. Although a national decree exempts media workers from many Covid-19 restrictions, including quarantines, Formosa required journalists seeking to enter the province to first obtain authorization from provincial authorities to enter, show they had tested negative, and, until February 19, to undergo a 14-day mandatory quarantine. Inés Beato Vassolo, a journalist for the daily newspaper La Nación, published a video showing police officers keeping her and others from entering the province on February 7.

Media reported that on February 19, Formosa authorities adopted a new protocol allowing journalists to visit the province without quarantining. Later that day, a judge granted a petition for habeas corpus filed by two lawyers ordering provincial authorities to allow journalists to enter Formosa without quarantining. The provincial authorities complied.

The authorities have also arrested people protesting conditions in quarantine facilities. On January 21, police detained two Formosa city council members, Gabriela Neme and Celeste Ruiz, for participating in a peaceful demonstration at a school serving as a quarantine center. Police held Neme for three hours, handcuffed, without allowing her to call a lawyer, she said. They face several charges, which appear to be based on their participation in the peaceful demonstration, according to police documents reviewed by Human Rights Watch. They remain under criminal investigation.

On March 5, protesters in Formosa city took to the streets after the government decided to return to a mandatory lockdown due to 17 new confirmed cases of Covid-19. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said they received reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force against protesters.

Media reports and five people interviewed by Human Rights Watch who participated in the protest said that police used excessive force against protesters, including by using expired teargas cartridges and rubber pellets fired at closed range and aimed at the upper part of protesters’ bodies. Photos reviewed by Human Rights Watch show people injured by rubber pellets allegedly shot at close range. At least 93 people were arrested and dozens of protesters were injured. The media reported that 12 police officers were injured.

Response by the National Human Rights Secretary’s Office

On January 27 and 28, 2021, the National Human Rights Secretary, Horacio Pietragalla, who reports to Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, visited Formosa.

The National Human Rights Secretary’s office told Human Rights Watch that they “did not receive complaints” about conditions in the centers they visited, but registered “specific problems” concerning access to medical information and family reunification, as well as cases of police brutality against Indigenous people.

The secretary’s team only visited Formosa’s capital city, and did not travel to Clorinda. Even though Formosa authorities confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they had established 188 isolation and quarantine centers in the province, the National Human Rights Secretary’s Office team only visited four centers and interviewed people held in two. At the Cincuentenario Stadium, the largest center, they interviewed staff but not people being held there.

Pietragalla and his team told Human Rights Watch that his office’s intervention promoting a dialogue between national and provincial health authorities contributed to the new protocol adopted by the Formosa government in February and to closing the Cincuentenario Stadium. These are positive measures, but they need to be adequately implemented, and evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University centers indicates that abuses persist.

After the March 6 protests, the national Human Rights Secretary condemned the “violence by police officers.” However, in a politically charged statement, he also criticized what he called a “permanent campaign of discredit by the hegemonic media against the provincial government.”

The office’s response failed to prioritize the rights of victims or focus on its primary function to document human rights violations during the mostly peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University centers said.

The national human rights secretary is the main human rights official with the capacity to promote and protect rights nationwide, but his office reports to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights and is therefore not independent from the executive branch. The Ombudsperson’s Office, a body that is structurally independent from the executive and would have the capacity to document and report on abuses, has not been functioning normally since 2013, when the mandate of the then-deputy ombudsperson expired. Congress has failed to appoint an ombudsperson since 2009.

Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins University centers recommend that the administration of President Alberto Fernández work with Congress to appoint an ombudsperson who can ensure credible, independent, and reliable reporting of human rights conditions in Formosa and elsewhere in Argentina.

People in China Left Wondering, ‘What Happened in Xinjiang?’

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image A Uighur woman picking up school children rides past a picture showing China's President Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uighur elders at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region, September 20, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

“I’m a bit confused. Could someone explain to me what happened? How are H&M and Nike discriminating against Xinjiang?” one Chinese social media user wrote on the platform Weibo.

This week, Chinese authorities opened the floodgates for people to slam the Swedish clothing brand H&M over its September 2020 pledge to stop using cotton sourced from Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China. The call to boycott H&M prompted similar cries to stop buying products from other international brands, such as Nike and Gap, that have joined an initiative to stop using Xinjiang cotton.

For the past several years, the word “Xinjiang” and the human rights abuses documented across the region had been taboo on the Chinese internet. Discussing events in Xinjiang or even just mentioning the name could get your post removed or your account suspended. Netizens thus used “XJ,” “new jiang” (“xin” means new in Chinese), and “area where cantaloupes are produced” to try to circumvent censorship. But due to the effectiveness of state repression, many simply remained unaware of the ongoing human rights nightmare faced by Xinjiang’s Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

Now, suddenly, “Xinjiang” is everywhere on the Chinese internet. While most netizens have focused on expressing outrage at Western brands, some are asking questions about Xinjiang and criticizing the government’s policies there.

“I want to know what is going on with Xinjiang cotton!” “Isn’t it forced labor and religious discrimination? What is really going?” “Don’t just support Xinjiang cotton, please also support Xinjiang people! Support Xinjiang people staying in hotels, support Xinjiang people traveling abroad,” netizens wrote on Weibo.

As someone who grew up in this heavily censored country, learning about prohibited issues was mostly an accident: you come across a banned documentary, or run into someone who tells you a personal story of suffering that is the opposite of what you learned in school or from the media. Then you become curious, and you dig deeper. I hope this Xinjiang cotton “storm” is such a moment for many people in China, especially the youth.  

Sri Lanka: Landmark UN Resolution Promotes Justice

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image In this April 6, 2015  file photo, Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil women sit holding placards with portraits of their missing relatives as they protest out side a railway station in Colombo, Sri Lanka. © AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File

(New York) – The United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka is a victory for victims of abuses to help them obtain information, accountability, and justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN and member countries should emphasize to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that any reprisals against activists who campaigned for the resolution would have serious consequences.

Resolution 46/1, adopted on March 23, 2021, establishes a powerful new accountability process to collect, analyze, and preserve evidence of international crimes committed in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecutions. The Sri Lankan government vigorously opposed the resolution, and there have been numerous reports of threats and harassment against rights activists in recent months.

“The Human Rights Council’s landmark resolution on Sri Lanka shows that if justice is denied, the UN will act to provide accountability for atrocities,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “When governments fail to respect their international law obligations, as Sri Lanka has, it’s crucial for the Human Rights Council to respond with substantive measures like these.”

Families of abuse victims have struggled for years to learn what happened to their loved ones and to see those responsible held to account.

The resolution was adopted in response to a devastating report in January by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, on the failure of successive Sri Lankan governments to provide justice and accountability. It establishes a dedicated new capacity within the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence” of gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Sri Lanka, and “to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.”

After many years in which there was barely any progress on accountability, this measure brings justice closer for international crimes committed in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said. The high commissioner is mandated to deliver a report to the Human Rights Council after 18 months, including “options for advancing accountability.”

In her January report, the high commissioner also warned of “clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations.” Since coming to power in November 2019, the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has targeted vulnerable minorities with discriminatory laws and subjected victims’ groups, human rights defenders, and civil society groups to a renewed climate of fear and intimidation.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defense secretary in the government of his brother, former president (now prime minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, between 2005 and 2015. Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed numerous war crimes and human rights abuses during the civil war that ended in 2009. The Rajapaksas and other senior members of the current government were implicated in alleged war crimes, particularly during the final months of the conflict. The government has also blocked accountability for other serious violations, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

The core group of states that brought this resolution – the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, and North Macedonia – have stood in support of human rights and accountability in Sri Lanka, and upheld the credibility of the Human Rights Council by advancing justice for serious violations of international law, Human Rights Watch said. Altogether 22 Human Rights Council members voted for the resolution, while 11 voted against, and 14 abstained. More than 40 countries co-sponsored the resolution, which remains open for co-sponsorship.

Among the countries that voted in favor or co-sponsored the resolution are Sri Lanka’s largest trading partners, including the United States and members of the European Union. The resolution was introduced by the United Kingdom, which is Sri Lanka’s largest source of foreign direct investment. These governments should continue to use their influence to press for the protection of human rights in Sri Lanka, including respect for minorities and religious rights and an end to threats and intimidation against victims’ groups and human rights activists.

UN member states should now follow through and ensure that the high commissioner’s recommendations are carried out, including by imposing targeted sanctions on those allegedly responsible for grave violations and pursuing justice for international crimes in national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

“The Human Rights Council resolution is an important step toward delivering justice for terrible crimes, but it’s critical to remain focused on the violations being committed in Sri Lanka today and the clear risk of future abuses,” Fisher said. “Victims’ groups, civil society, and minority communities still need support and protection through sustained international engagement to uphold human rights in Sri Lanka.”
 

UN Rights Body Renews Robust Scrutiny over South Sudan

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 24, 2019. © 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

Yesterday, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) renewed the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.

Given the country’s ongoing rights crisis and widespread impunity for serious international crimes, the renewal shouldn’t have been in doubt. And yet until the votes were tallied, it wasn’t a given.

The resolution for renewal preserved the Commission’s robust investigatory mandate that lays the groundwork for future criminal accountability through the collection and preservation of evidence and determining responsibility for the crimes. It also retained the Commission’s mandate on technical assistance and capacity-building, including to law enforcement institutions, and on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

But Cameroon presented an alternative resolution on behalf of the African group proposing to completely dismantle the Commission’s evidence collection and preservation mandate and replace it with a weaker technical and capacity building role by the Office of the High Commissioner. Had it passed, the resolution would not only have been a blow to the many victims, but would have emboldened a government that has allowed violations and impunity to persist.

Ultimately, the renewal mandate was adopted in a close vote of 20 to 16, with 11 abstentions.

The Council should now ensure appropriate financial and technical support to the Commission. For its part the South Sudan government needs to facilitate the Commission’s work and implement its recommendations.

The resolution acknowledges that “demonstrable progress in key human rights issues” is critical for any future shift in the mandate of the Commission and calls for consultations between South Sudan, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to develop a clear transition plan, with benchmarks and milestones. This sends an important message that much-needed international scrutiny needs to be maintained until concrete human rights improvements are seen. 

South Sudan can turn the page if it wishes to do so. It should start by operationalizing the hybrid court for South Sudan in partnership with the African Union, and other accountability mechanisms; reining in and reforming its abusive national security service; allowing human rights defenders to work freely and guaranteeing unhindered humanitarian access to populations in need.

Only once South Sudan moves ahead with such steps, should the Council shift its approach.

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