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Taliban Linked to Murder of Afghan Rights Defender

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 6, 2019
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Abdul Samad Amiri.

The murder of human rights official Abdul Samad Amiri is the latest targeted killing of a civilian government official implicating Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Amiri, acting head of the governmental Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission's (AIHRC) office in Ghor province, was abducted earlier this week while traveling through the Jalrez district of Maidan Wardak province. On September 5, local officials said his body had been found along the Kabul-Ghor highway. The AIHRC released a statement saying Amiri was shot by Taliban insurgents.

Maidan Wardak province has experienced an upsurge in violence over the past year, as Taliban forces gained significant influence in several districts, including Jalrez, establishing checkpoints to stop and search vehicles for government employees.

Amiri had worked with the AIHRC for many years and had previously served as a children’s rights officer. He was devoted to human rights work, and on the morning of the day he was kidnapped, he posted this message:

I have seen the trauma of more than 40 years’ civil war and feel wholeheartedly the affliction imposed on my people… whatever I do for my country, though insufficient to what I owe, makes me happy. I can’t forget or ignore the dreams for Afghanistan’s future and her place as a part of this world. Positive change will come to Afghanistan when every citizen knows we have a responsibility to work for her improvement. Despite the difficulties, I owe my life to this land and will work for its betterment so long as I live.

The Taliban have not issued a statement on Amiri’s death. Taliban officials claim their forces are under orders to protect civilians, but they exclude from that category civilian government employees, in violation of the laws of war.

Amiri’s death is a reminder of the price civilians pay in Afghanistan’s conflict.

Robert Mugabe Leaves Behind Legacy of Abuse

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 6, 2019
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In this August 17, 2008 file photo, then-Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is seen at the closing ceremony of the 28th Southern African Development Community summit of heads of state and government, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

© 2008 AP Photo/Jerome Delay

This morning, Zimbabweans awoke to the news of the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 37 years. He was 95 years old.

For some, Mugabe remains a hero and champion of the liberation struggle against colonial rule, and for his investment in education in the early years of his rule. But for many, his rule will be remembered for widespread human rights violations, near-total impunity for those responsible for abuses, and a decimation of the country’s economy.

During the Gukurahundi massacres in the early 1980s in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, Mugabe ordered the army’s Fifth Brigade to conduct counterinsurgency operations against “dissident” ex-guerrilla fighters that led to the deaths of at least 10,000 civilians and the enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture of countless others.

Since independence in 1980, the army, police, and other state agents operated within a system that allowed elements within their ranks to arrest, torture, and kill perceived opponents with impunity. Mugabe presided over several violent elections that were neither free nor fair but merely cemented his hold on power. The 2008 general elections and presidential runoff were characterized by widespread atrocities by the military, state security agents, war veterans, and ruling party supporters, including the killing of at least 200 people and the beating and torture of 5,000 others.

In 2014, amidst attacks against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, Mugabe cemented his long history of anti-LGBT rhetoric and actions by reiterating his 1995 statement that LGBT people were “worse than dogs and pigs” and threatened to behead them.

Mugabe’s rule came to an end in November 2017, when he was forced to resign after a military coup that elevated Emmerson Mnangagwa to president.

Despite the change in leadership, the ugly legacy of Mugabe’s years endures. During Mnangagwa’s two years in power, the security forces have continued to commit serious violations, including violent attacks, abductions, torture, and other abuses against the opposition and civil society activists. This may turn out to be Mugabe’s most enduring legacy: Nurturing and encouraging partisanship by security forces who commit abuses against fellow Zimbabweans with impunity.

Japan: Retain Human Control Over the Use of Force

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 6, 2019
Expand © 2012 Russell Christian for Human Rights Watch (Tokyo) – Japan should throw its support behind growing calls to prohibit weapons systems that would select and attack targets without human intervention, Human Rights Watch said today. Mary Wareham, arms advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and global coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, will address a symposium on “Human Control over Autonomous Weapon Systems” convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the University of Tokyo on September 7, 2019.

“International law was written for humans, not machines, and it urgently needs to be strengthened to tackle the serious threats posed by killer robots,” Wareham said. “Japan should turn its statements on the need to retain meaningful human control over the use of force into action by cooperating with like-minded nations to open negotiations on a new treaty to ban killer robots.”

Since 2014, Japan has participated in international talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots.” It often states that it has “no plans” to acquire such weapons and highlights the need to retain meaningful human control over the use of force. However, Japan does not support the negotiation for a new treaty to address mounting concerns over fully autonomous weapons and has yet to join the group of 29 countries calling for a prohibition on such weapons.

Human Rights Watch and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots urge nations to begin negotiations for a new treaty to require meaningful human control over the use of force, which is effectively equivalent to a ban on weapons that lack such control. Both prohibitions and positive obligations are needed to ensure that systems that select and engage targets do not undermine ethical values and are always subject to meaningful human control.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which began in 2013, has nearly doubled in size over the past year, to a current total of 113 nongovernmental organizations in 57 countries. The Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR-Japan), serves on the campaign’s leadership body.

In August 2019, Japan and 92 other nations attended the eighth Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Due to multiple objections from Russia and the United States, the meeting could not agree to a credible outcome document, which means there will be more diplomatic talk and no regulatory action to prevent a future of fully autonomous weapons.

Russia and the US repeatedly rejected any references in the meeting’s final report on the need for “human control” over the use of force, while Russia claimed it is “premature” to discuss the potential dangers of lethal autonomous weapons systems “until they’re produced.” But once that happens, it will be much harder to prevent their use. Both countries are investing significant funds to develop weapons systems with decreasing human control over the critical functions of selecting and engaging targets.

The many fundamental moral, ethical, legal, operational, technical, proliferation, international stability, and other concerns raised by killer robots are multiplying rather than diminishing. On July 9, the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) adopted a declaration urging the 57 OSCE member states “to support international negotiations to ban lethal autonomous weapons.”

There is increasing evidence that fully autonomous weapons would fundamentally change the nature of war, Human Rights Watch said. Thousands of scientists and artificial intelligence experts, more than 20 Nobel Peace Laureates, and more than 160 religious leaders and organizations of various denominations also support a ban on killer robots. In 2018, Google released a set of ethical principles that includes a pledge not to develop artificial intelligence for use in weapons.

The 29 countries that have called for the ban are: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.

“From its previous support of the treaties to ban antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions, Japan knows the value of taking an independent and principled position to respond to serious humanitarian threats,” Wareham said. “Instead of a back-seat role in the international talks on killer robots, Japan should take the lead and actively help negotiate a treaty.”
 

South Sudan: Missing File Blocks Justice for Rapes, Murder

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 6, 2019
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Judges sit in the courtroom during the trial of South Sudanese soldiers accused of a horrific attack on foreign aid workers in the Terrain hotel compound, at the court in the capital Juba, South Sudan, Tuesday May 30, 2017.

© 2019 AP Images/Bullen Chol   (Nairobi) – A missing case file is blocking appeals in the sexual assault case stemming from the July 11, 2016 attack on the Terrain hotel in Juba, South Sudan, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Legal Action Worldwide said today. The case file has not been seen since it was sent to President Salva Kiir in 2018.

One year after 10 soldiers were convicted for the sexual assault and rape of at least five aid workers and the murder of a journalist during the attack, the Supreme Court is unable to move forward with appeals by the victims and those convicted because of the missing file.

“It is outrageous that a year after the conviction the parties’ appeals cannot be heard because of a missing case file,” said Antonia Mulvey, founder and executive director of Legal Action Worldwide. “The authorities should ensure that there are no deliberate attempts to obstruct justice and locate the file, so the Supreme Court can examine the appeal.”

“The victims of this heinous attack, and their families, have suffered so much already – it’s unfathomably cruel to prolong their quest for justice,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.”

The authorities should ensure the rights of victims to a remedy and of the accused to a fair trial, including their right to appeal and their right to be tried or to obtain justice without undue delay, the groups said.

In September 2018, the rape and sexual assault survivors and the family of John Gatluak Manguet, the journalist killed in the attack, appealed the court’s decision to award US$4,000 to each of the rape and sexual assault survivors, and 51 cows to the journalist’s family. They contended that the compensation was not commensurate with the crimes, and with the physical and mental trauma they have endured since the attack. The convicted soldiers also filed their intention to appeal the conviction.

“After the compensation was awarded, I felt violated again, I felt raped again by the justice system,” said Sabrina Prioli, one of the rape survivors. “Now we appeal because we want a formal compensation system that takes into account the gravity of the crime.”

The missing case file, which included the judgment, was sent to President Salva Kiir for confirmation before the judgment was delivered on September 6, 2018. The file has not been seen since. UN officials and diplomats strongly suspect the file was lost in the Office of the President.

For the case to proceed on appeal, a complete record of the case is required.

“While the trial of the soldiers in the Terrain case is a first step, the justice process isn’t finished yet,” said Jehanne Henry, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The disappearance of the case file has effectively stalled the appeal process and serves as a classic example of the justice system failures that exacerbate the culture of impunity in South Sudan.”

The appeal could set an important precedent for future prosecutions in rape cases in South Sudan, where sexual violence is widespread and has been used as a weapon of war since December 2013. Many women and girls, as well as men and boys, have been raped, gang raped, abducted, and forcibly mutilated. Their cases have not been effectively investigated and those responsible have not been brought to justice.

In one example, survivors of rape by government forces in the village of Kubi have been waiting for justice since February 2017. The government also dismissed November 2018 reports of rapes in Bentiu, in the northern part of the country, as “false” despite evidence indicating clear patterns of sexual attacks by armed men.

The human rights organizations note that, under South Sudanese law, trials involving crimes against civilians should be held before civilian courts, not military courts, as the Terrain Hotel case was.

On August 23, 2019, the chief justice of South Sudan, Chan Reec Madut, told the media that plans were underway to establish a special court for gender-based violence and that the court will handle both domestic violence cases and cases involving serious human rights violations.

Last year’s convictions were an important first step toward accountability for human rights violations but should not be the last. South Sudan’s authorities should ensure that justice takes its full course in this case, the organizations said.

Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Arabs Not Allowed Home

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 6, 2019

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A destroyed home near Ashqala al-Sagheer village in Hamdaniya, July 2019. Hasansham camp is in the background.

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is preventing about 4,200 Sunni Arabs from returning home to 12 villages east of Mosul in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Human Rights Watch said today. More than three years after the Hamdaniya district was retaken from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), KRG authorities have only allowed Kurdish residents and Arabs with KRG ties to return to the area, in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Arab families seeking to return home had fled primarily to ISIS-controlled Mosul during fighting in 2014. Approximately 3,400 Sunni Arabs have been residing in camps for the displaced with dwindling services, according to aid workers. Affected families said they have been blocked from their homes and farmland and unable to earn a living. A KRG official wrote in an email to Human Rights Watch that residents were free to return to their homes, but provided Human Rights Watch with a list of Nineveh villages that were difficult to return to, identifying six from Hamdaniya as “blocked” for return.

“The Kurdistan Regional Government is preventing thousands of Arab villagers from returning home without a lawful reason,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that the KRG is permitting Kurdish and well-connected Arab residents back suggests that these villagers are being improperly punished.”

Human Rights Watch has conducted three investigations into the KRG’s prevention of returns to the Hamdaniya district since 2016, most recently in June 2019, when we interviewed 11 Arab residents of Hasansham camp from the villages of Hasansham, Manquba, Shirkan, and Tal Aswad.

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The KRG’s coordinator for international advocacy, Dr. Dindar Zebari, wrote on August 10 in response to a Human Rights Watch letter that in the 15 villages Human Rights Watch investigated, population counts showed that there had been few or no returns to 6 of the villages and minimal returns to 2. In 4 villages, about half the population had returned. In only 3 villages had all or nearly all residents returned. Residents blocked from returning said that these 3 villages were either predominantly Kurdish or had Arab residents with strong KRG ties.

Zebari’s information matched satellite imagery analysis from 2016 to 2019 that identified signs of reconstruction and needed reconstruction of many area buildings.

Sunni Arab residents and aid workers disputed claims that authorities were willing to investigate reported cases of blocked return. After anti-ISIS forces retook Mosul in November 2016 and the KRG had put in place a security and civil administration system in the area, former residents sought to return to Hamdaniya district. However, Iraqi forces redirected the displaced to the nearby Hasansham camp. After one month at the camp, the KRG’s security forces, Asayish, informed them without a clear explanation that they were not allowed to return home. Families and aid workers said that in late 2017, Asayish reiterated that they were not allowed to return home but could leave the camps to move to the broader Mosul area or to KRG-controlled Erbil, leading some families to leave the camps.

“Families like mine have become victims of abuse because we went to Mosul when ISIS came, instead of fleeing towards the Kurds,” said a 69-year-old Arab villager from Manquba. “Now we are punished because we didn’t go to [Kurdish-controlled] Kalak.”

KRG officials, in communications with residents, aid workers, and Human Rights Watch, have provided reasons for blocking returns to the district: inadequate services, unexploded ordnance, uncleared landmines (including those of an improvised nature), property destruction; social conflicts and property and land ownership issues, concerns about attacks by villagers who had joined ISIS, and security issues arising from the September 2017 KRG referendum on independence, which makes the area a front line if there is future fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

Under international humanitarian law, the forced displacement of civilians is prohibited except when necessary to protect civilians or for imperative military reasons, and then only for as long as needed. Possible future hostilities are not a lawful basis. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to order the unlawful displacement of civilians. Furthermore, people may only be punished for crimes for which they are responsible, after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishments on families, villages, or communities violates international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime.

Actions imposed for security reasons need to be according to law, proportionate, and have a legitimate aim, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, Human Rights Watch found that the displacement camps are also located in the so-called “front line” area and that the KRG has allowed some residents to return to certain villages in the area. With respect to landmines, international demining organizations have conducted considerable survey and clearance activity in the vicinity since 2016 and, if mines remained a genuine threat, no villagers should have been allowed to return.

Satellite imagery analysis shows that since 2016 the KRG military forces, the Peshmerga, have deployed and built significant military infrastructure in four of the villages, none of which have received significant population returns. The KRG should immediately remove all restrictions preventing the return of residents where there is no military necessity for doing so and investigate government officials who have been preventing lawful returns, Human Rights Watch said.

“KRG authorities should not prevent families from returning to their villages because they want to punish the community,” Fakih said. “These villagers have the right to return to their own land and homes.”

Flight and Impact of Displacement

In August 2014, ISIS forces, after capturing the city of Mosul, took control of Hasansham and surrounding areas, which had been under KRG control since 2003. Residents said they fled their villages once fighting between ISIS and the Peshmerga broke out. They said that most Arab families fled in the direction of Mosul, because ISIS told them the city was safer. However, almost all Kurdish families fled in the direction of Erbil, taking refuge in Kalak and other KRG-controlled areas.

A 50-year-old man from the village of Shirkan said that the local Kurdish families fled to areas under KRG control while most Arab families fled to Mosul. “I heard in 2017 from camp security that the Peshmerga allowed the 20 Kurdish families from our village to return home,” he said. Human Rights Watch verified the return of Kurdish villagers to Shirkan during a July visit. He said that camp officials had told him he was not allowed to return home, without providing him with a clear reason why.

A 63-year-old man from Ehsar said that only his Arab neighbors who had personal ties to the Peshmerga said they were allowed to return to his village. Only 8 people out of an original population of 60 have returned to Ehsar, according to the KRG’s population count.

Three camps in the Hasansham and Khazir areas are holding about 3,400 displaced people from 11 surrounding villages, according to camp management. Another 800 people, including some from a twelfth village, were living outside the camp in another location, aid workers said. Some of the villages are historically Arab while others are mixed Arab-Kurdish. The camps are run by a nongovernmental organization linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the governing parties in the KRG, and the Asayish manages camp security. Management at all three camps said that funding shortfalls over the last two years had resulted in aid agencies suspending and reducing services to camp residents.

Most of the families interviewed said that before fleeing their homes, farming had been their main source of income. All said that since 2014 they had not been able to farm their land, even after the KRG regained control and fighting had ceased. Almost all the families said that they had been unable to find any paid employment since moving to the displacement camp.

One former camp resident, 36, said he moved to Mosul and was living with his family in an abandoned building and working as a taxi driver. In his village he used to make about US$16 a day but now makes as little as $8. His 14-year-old daughter is not going to school because he cannot afford a bag, books, and appropriate clothing for her.

A 45-year-old laborer from Hasansham who has not been allowed to return said he can see his destroyed home from his tent in the displacement camp: “I want to go back to my village because here in the camp we don’t have a future. How long are we going to stay here? No work, bad education, no proper health care, we are without hope.”

Health professionals providing mental health and psychosocial support in the camps identified that families showed signs of heightening psychological distress and frustration because they were being prevented from returning home, findings consistent with a recently published report on displaced families in Iraq.

Advocating Villagers’ Return

Several aid workers in the camps told Human Rights Watch that senior aid officials had been advocating since 2018 for the return of the 4,200 people with senior KRG officials, local mayors, the governor of Nineveh, the local Peshmerga unit, and members of Parliament in Baghdad. In June 2018, then-Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani agreed with aid agencies that all Arab families should be allowed to return and instructed the KRG’s Ministry of Interior to follow up, two aid workers present said. The Erbil Joint Crisis Coordination Centre, established under the KRG’s interior ministry in 2014 to “coordinate all matters related to crisis management and response in the Kurdistan Region,” informed humanitarian partners in September 2018 that the KRG’s interior ministry and Baghdad authorities had agreed to allow the families to return. However, in October, a high-ranking Peshmerga commander told senior aid officials that returns would only be permitted if there was a political agreement between the KRG and the Iraqi government to “ensure no hostilities in the area,” the aid workers said.

Families that sought permission to return with KRG and Baghdad officials said the officials told them the decision was “not in their hands” but in the hands of the Peshmerga.

Area Contamination

At a July 2018 meeting with senior aid officials, a high-ranking Peshmerga commander raised concerns that Hamdaniya villages were contaminated with landmines (including those of an improvised nature) and unexploded ordnance, according to several aid workers. Zebari’s email to Human Rights Watch also noted the presence of unexploded ordnance and landmines. However, these concerns do not appear to be the reason KRG authorities have not allowed families to return to their villages.

Three demining organizations provided Human Rights Watch with maps showing clearance activities in the area, which demonstrates that considerable clearance activity was conducted in and around the villages since 2016. Human Rights Watch and aid workers have also observed shepherds grazing their sheep throughout the area, including in abandoned villages, and Peshmerga driving through the villages. The KRG authorities have allowed some residents to return to certain villages, so it is unclear why return would be safe for some but not others.

If landmine or explosive remnants of war contamination concerns persist in some of the villages of blocked return, KRG authorities should direct mine clearance organizations to provide additional mine risk education to the families in the camps. They should ensure, with the Iraqi government’s Directorate of Mine Action, which oversees work in the return areas, that demining organizations survey and clear high priority areas like main roads and public spaces, and mark other areas of contamination. The KRG should also instruct security forces to accompany camp residents on “go-and-see” visits, assisting them in avoiding any possible unexploded ordnance or landmine.

UN: Act to Prevent Future Atrocities

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 5, 2019

(New York, September 5, 2019) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should act to prevent future UN failures in the face of atrocities, a coalition of 16 organizations said in a joint letter to the secretary-general that was released today.  

The May 2019 report of an independent investigation by a Guatemalan diplomat, Gert Rosenthal, raised serious concerns about the UN’s handling of the human rights crisis in Myanmar. The secretary-general should promptly carry out reforms to prevent what the report called the recurrence of the “systematic” failures and “obvious dysfunctional performance” and to ensure individual accountability for those failures.

“The UN leadership promised it would never again turn a blind eye to atrocities after ignoring massive civilian deaths in Sri Lanka a decade ago, but it happened again,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN leadership needs to avoid another catastrophe, including by holding officials who failed to act during Myanmar’s ethnic cleaning campaign accountable.”

The secretary-general’s decision to commission an investigation, and to release and accept all the recommendations in the Rosenthal report, was a valuable first step, the groups said. However, the UN made similar commitments after the 2012 internal review panel report on UN action in Sri Lanka, written by Charles Petrie. The Rosenthal report shows that the failure to fully carry out the Petrie report recommendations set the stage for the UN’s subsequent failings in Myanmar.

The Rosenthal report describes the UN’s failure to stop, mitigate, or even draw attention to violence by Myanmar security forces against ethnic Rohingya. The UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission found that the security forces’ actions amounted to crimes against humanity and warranted an investigation of the crime of genocide.

The groups said that the limited scope of the Rosenthal inquiry – undertaken by one individual without field visits – meant that it did not satisfy the UN Human Rights Council’s call for a “comprehensive” investigation in Myanmar. The inquiry’s scope was also not reconcilable with the extraordinary magnitude of the crisis and the urgency of gathering “lessons learned” to improve future UN responses to human rights emergencies.

Secretary-General Guterres should recommit to and revitalize the human rights reforms initiated by his predecessor in response to the Petrie report, the groups said. Those reforms, known as Human Rights up Front, were aimed at ensuring that human rights become a priority for all UN officials – from junior to senior – and in UN operations at headquarters and field missions around the world. The current UN administration has overseen a comprehensive dismantling of those reforms.

“It’s sad to see another ‘lessons-learned’ report after all the promises of ‘never again’ that followed the Petrie report,” Charbonneau said. “The UN leadership has taken an important step to learn from its failures in Myanmar, and the secretary-general should now make good on those promises.”

The following groups signed the letter to Secretary-General Guterres:

ALTSEAN-Burma
Amnesty International
Article 19
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Burma Campaign UK
Burma Human Rights Network
Fortify Rights
Global Justice Center
Human Rights Watch
International Campaign for the Rohingya
International Commission of Jurists
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI)
Justice for All/Burma Task Force
Progressive Voice

Russian Court Sentences Activist to Four Years in Prison

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 5, 2019
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People spontaneously rally next to the court building during Konstantin Kotov's sentencing hearing, chanting "Freedom to Kotov" and "Freedom to political prisoners’."

© 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

Today, I stood in a Moscow court as it sentenced Konstantin Kotov, a 34-year old software engineer, to four years in prison. His crime? Kotov dared to take part in several peaceful but unsanctioned protests this spring and summer.

Since 2014, Russian law mandates criminal sanctions for participating in more than two unauthorized public gatherings within six months.

Kotov protested in Moscow against the exclusion of viable opposition candidates from the city legislative assembly race. Also in recent months, Kotov protested against the war in Ukraine and stood up for people who were prosecuted on politically motivated charges, including Crimean Tatars, whom Russian authorities prosecuted on bogus terrorism charges. The authorities subjected Kotov to administrative sanctions four times for his peaceful protest activity.

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Konstantin Kotov and his lawyer, Maria Eismont.

© 2019 Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch

Then police arrested him, again, at the August 10 election-related “protest walk.” He spent two days behind bars, on administrative charges. Upon release, he was re-arrested as the authorities launched a criminal case against him, eager to silence someone who speaks out as much as he does.

Authorities spent only three days investigating his case before rushing it to this ridiculous trial.

Until now, the only person who had been convicted and served a sentence for repeated illegal protesting was Ildar Dadin. Sentenced to three years in 2015, Dadin, who alleged he was tortured in prison, was released in 2017 after Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled the provision on criminal liability for repeatedly protesting should not be applied if protesters did not constitute a threat to society. 

To justify prosecuting Kotov, authorities argued he had made calls “for unlawful actions, thereby creating a real threat of causing harm to citizens’ health, property of physical persons and legal entities, public order, public security, and other constitutionally protected values.” They also insisted Kotov’s actions evidenced “contempt for constitutional values ... governmental power bodies, and the society as a whole.” 

Yesterday in court, Kotov said: “I think it’s not me who is on trial but rather the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. In Russia, there are no independent political parties, no fair elections, so only one option remains – to go to the streets and shout your demands. But even that is forbidden.”

After the verdict, a spontaneous rally erupted outside and inside the courthouse, with people chanting, “For shame! Freedom to Kotov! Freedom to political prisoners!” No one should have to spend a single minute behind bars for peacefully standing on the street to express their conscience. The Russian justice system, however, seems to think Kotov should spend 2,102,400 minutes for it. For shame indeed.

Italy’s New Government Should Undo Its Worst Migration Policies

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 5, 2019
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Migrants are crowded together on deck of the rescue ship "Eleonore" as it seaches for a safe port in the Mediterranean. The "Eleonore" took in the migrants on August 26, 2019 off the Libyan coast, as their boat was sinking.

© 2019 Johannes Filous/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Italy’s new coalition government, fragile as it may be, presents a chance for the country to move away from migration policies that put lives at risk and back to those grounded in respect for human rights, including the right to life.

The new Five Star Movement-Democratic Party government should seek to undo the damage done by anti-immigrant and anti-rescue decrees introduced by outgoing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. The decrees should be revoked, not simply tweaked, as the coalition has suggested, and the government can rebuild policies from a clean slate.

The first decree, from late 2018, effectively abolished humanitarian visas that allow people who experienced extreme hardship and abuse to remain in Italy, leading to an increase in the number of people without legal status, according to a study. It also downgraded the care asylum seekers receive and increased the amount of time people can be detained pending deportation.

The second decree, which became law in early August, formalized the outgoing government’s “closed ports” policy, which barred rescue ships from entering Italian territorial waters. Ships that violated the decree could face fines of up to €1 million and seizure of the ship. This has left rescued people stranded on boats for weeks and deterred life-saving rescue efforts.

Just as the new coalition partners were finalizing their pact, authorities have seized the ships of two rescue NGOs, and one is facing a €300,000 fine for rescuing people at sea and making sure they were disembarked in a safe place.

Salvini didn’t push through these shameful policies on his own. The Five Star Movement was a willing, at times enthusiastic, partner. When it governed under the previous legislature, the Democratic Party took steps to undermine NGO rescues and led the way on greater cooperation with Libyan authorities despite the overwhelming evidence of brutality against migrants and asylum seekers there. Both parties should break with the past and set Italy on a new rights-based course.

Italy is right to call for and expect more European cooperation in the Central Mediterranean, and European Union governments should agree on a serious relocation mechanism. Italy can and should lead the way to more humane polices, on land and at sea.

France: Immigrant Children Being Denied Protection

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 5, 2019
September 5, 2019 Video France: Immigrant Children Being Denied Protection

Unaccompanied children arriving in France’s Alpine region undergo flawed age assessment procedures that deny many access to needed protection.

(Paris) – Unaccompanied children arriving in France’s Alpine region undergo flawed age assessment procedures that deny many access to needed protection, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 80-page report, “Subject to Whim: The Treatment of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the French Hautes-Alpes,” found that examiners whose job is to certify a child’s status as a minor – that is, under age 18 – do not comply with international standards. Human Rights Watch found that examiners use various justifications to deny children protection. These include children’s minor mistakes with dates, their reluctance to discuss particularly traumatic experiences in detail or work they did in home countries or while in transit, and what examiners deem as unrealistic life goals.

“Child protection should not be a matter of caprice,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “Age assessments should afford children a fair process, not look for excuses to deny them protection.”

Human Rights Watch has found similar flaws with age assessment procedures in Paris and has heard accounts of arbitrary decision making by authorities elsewhere in France, suggesting that flawed procedures are a problem across France.

September 5, 2019 Report Subject to Whim

The Treatment of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in the French Hautes-Alpes

Human Rights Watch interviewed 59 boys, one girl, and one 18-year-old man in the French Hautes-Alpes department and reviewed an additional 36 case files for the report. Human Rights Watch also spoke with lawyers, healthcare providers, staff and volunteers of humanitarian agencies and informal associations, and officials.

Under French law, unaccompanied children should be taken into care by the child protection system, the Service de l’aide sociale à l’enfance (ASE). As a first step, child welfare authorities require unaccompanied children to undergo age assessments before they are formally recognized as children.

International standards call for age assessment to be used as a last resort and only when there are serious doubts about a person’s declared age and documentary evidence is lacking. French regulations provide that age assessments should be conducted in a manner “characterized by neutrality and compassion.” Following international standards, age assessments should give the benefit of the doubt when there is a reasonable possibility that the declared age is correct.

Many children who arrive on their own in France, whether in the Hautes-Alpes or elsewhere, have suffered serious abuses in their home countries; endured torture, forced labor, and other ill-treatment in Libya; and undergone terrifying sea crossings on overcrowded boats on their way to Europe. Many show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, doctors told Human Rights Watch. But the age examination process does not appear to account for these circumstances and the well-documented effects of PTSD on memory, concentration, and emotional expression, Human Rights Watch found.

An immediate consequence of a negative age assessment is eviction from emergency shelter for unaccompanied children, even for those who seek review before a judge. Some children found shelter with families or in squats run by volunteer networks. Others stay in shelters for adults or live on the streets. The review process can take months, which may affect their eligibility for regular immigration status when they turn 18.

Most of the children interviewed said they spent six months to a year or more in Italy before deciding to make their way to France. Many cited lack of access to education and health care as the primary reasons for leaving Italy. Some cited discriminatory attitudes by government officials and the general public.

Flawed age assessments are not the only obstacle unaccompanied children face.

Border police in France’s Hautes-Alpes department have summarily returned unaccompanied migrant children who attempt to cross the border between Italy and France, instead of referring them to protection services, Human Rights Watch found. These accounts are consistent with reports from the French Defender of Rights, nongovernmental organizations, lawyers, and volunteer groups.

Amadin N., from Benin, 17, said: “I showed my papers that said that I was a minor, but the police didn’t want to hear it.”

French law provides for an expedited “entry refusal” process for children and adults apprehended within 10 kilometers of the border. In such cases, police provide a written notice of the reasons for refusing entry and of the rights to seek asylum and to appeal. Children should be appointed a guardian. Police did not appear to respect these limited procedural protections in the nine cases described to Human Rights Watch.

To avoid apprehension and summary return, unaccompanied children said they hiked high into the mountains, off established trails, experiencing significant risks as a result. Many children arrive in Briançon, a major city in the region, suffering from frostbite, other injuries, and exhaustion.

French police harass and sometimes seek prosecution of people who help migrants in distress in the mountains. Authorities have continued to pursue criminal charges despite a July 2018 court ruling that helping others in need, including undocumented migrants, is constitutionally protected.

Aid workers, volunteers, and activists who take part in search-and-rescue operations in the mountains report repeated document checks, vehicle inspections, and citations for minor road violations in circumstances that suggest that police are not employing them for public safety or other legitimate policing purposes, but instead to create a hostile environment for humanitarian workers.

Such forms of harassment are not unique to the Hautes-Alpes; aid workers, volunteers, and activists operating in and around Calais have described similar practices to Amnesty International, the French Defender of Rights, Human Rights Watch, and UN special rapporteurs.

France shares the same obligations as all other European Union countries to afford unaccompanied children who arrive at its borders special safeguards that protect their human rights as set out in international and EU law. As other Human Rights Watch research establishes, France is not alone in the EU in failing to meet these human rights obligations consistently. The fact that other countries may have violated the rights of unaccompanied children does not mitigate France’s duty to comply with international and regional norms and EU law, Human Rights Watch said.

French authorities should reform age assessment procedures and practices to conform to international standards and ensure that children are not arbitrarily denied formal recognition. Among other steps, screening for post-traumatic stress disorder by qualified psychiatrists, with counseling prior to assessment for those found to have symptoms, would result in a fairer process. Protocols should be developed with input from experts to determine when, how, and by whom these children should be assessed.

Authorities should end summary returns of unaccompanied migrant children to Italy and instead immediately transfer them to the child welfare system for appropriate protection and care.

French authorities should also prevent and ensure accountability for police harassment of humanitarian workers.

“Helping children and adults in need, whatever their migration status, should never be treated as a crime,” Jeannerod said. “Migrant children should have a fair assessment leading to the protection they are entitled to.”

Thailand: ‘Disappeared’ Activist’s Remains Found

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 4, 2019

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Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a prominent ethnic Karen activist, was last seen in government custody at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in April 2014.

© 2014 Human Rights Watch / Private (New York) – Thai authorities should immediately conduct a credible investigation into the abduction and murder of a prominent ethnic Karen activist who was forcibly disappeared more than five years ago.

At a news conference on September 3, 2019, the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation (DSI) announced that the remains of Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, also known as Billy, were found in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province, where he was last seen in custody of government park officials in April 2014.

“The discovery of Billy’s remains should prompt Thai authorities to urgently step up their investigation and pursue justice wherever it leads them,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “There should be no more cover-ups or delays, but fair prosecutions of all those responsible for Billy’s death.”

The DSI deputy director-general, Korawat Panpraphakorn, said the investigation team found an oil barrel, its lid, two steel rods, a burned wooden piece, and two bones at the bottom of the reservoir on April 26, 2019, and May 22-24. The Central Institute of Forensic Science confirmed the genetic trace of one of the bones found inside the barrel matched that of Billy’s mother. The investigation team then concluded it was part of Billy’s remains. The condition of this piece of human skull, which was burned, cracked, and shrunk due to exposure to heat of 200 to 300 degrees Celsius, suggests the perpetrators burned Billy’s body to conceal the crime. The investigation team reexamined the scene again on August 28-30 and found 20 more bones, eight of which were human.

Thailand is obligated under international treaties to which it is a party to investigate and appropriately prosecute enforced disappearance, torture, custodial deaths, and other alleged serious violations of human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Under the 2004 Special Investigation Act, the DSI is empowered to assume jurisdiction over serious criminal cases, including complex cases that require special inquiry; crimes committed by organized criminal groups; and cases in which the suspects are influential persons or government officials. DSI should continue to lead the efforts on this important case, Human Rights Watch said.

However, the investigation has been hindered to date because Thai law does not recognize enforced disappearances as a criminal offense. A government commits an enforced disappearance when state officials or their agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person or fail to disclose the person’s fate or whereabouts.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Thailand signed in 2012, and amend the Penal Code to make enforced disappearance a criminal offense.

“A credible investigation is urgently needed for the sake of Billy’s family, to seek justice for this prominent defender of the ethnic Karen community, and to start to bring an end to enforced disappearances in Thailand,” Adams said. “Billy’s case will continue to hang over the Thai government until his fate is fully explained and those responsible are punished.”

Background Information

On April 17, 2014, the then-head of Kaeng Krachan National Park, Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, and his staff arrested Billy for alleged illegal possession of a wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey. Park officers claimed they released Billy after questioning him briefly and had no information regarding his whereabouts. In September 2014, Police Region 7 investigation officers filed malfeasance charges under article 157 of the Penal Code against Chaiwat and four other park officers for unlawfully detaining Billy. They found no record of Billy’s release from custody. DSI found traces of human blood in a vehicle belonging to the park office but was not able to verify if the blood belonged to Billy because the vehicle was cleaned before forensic experts could examine it.

At the time of his enforced disappearance, Billy was traveling from his village in the mountains of Kaeng Krachan district to meet with ethnic Karen villagers and activists in preparation for an upcoming court hearing in the lawsuit filed by the villagers against the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and Chaiwat. The villagers alleged in the lawsuit that in July 2011, authorities were responsible for the destruction and burning of houses and property of more than 20 Karen families in the Bangkloy Bon village. Billy was also preparing to submit a petition about this case to Thailand’s king. He had been carrying case files and related documents with him.

Despite a long list of allegations against Chaiwat for serious abuses and misconduct while he was in charge of Kaeng Krachan National Park, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha promoted Chaiwat to lead Thailand’s influential “Tiger Corps” forest and wildlife protection unit in May 2016.

 

Hope for Justice for Murdered Journalist in the Maldives

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 4, 2019
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Journalist Ahmed Rilwan. 

© Raajjemv

A government-appointed commission investigating deaths and enforced disappearances in the Maldives has corroborated long-held suspicions that criminal gang leaders planned and carried out the murder of journalist Ahmed Rilwan. The commission also concluded that the gang had a “hit list” that included other activists and critics of the government.

On August 8, 2014, Rilwan – an outspoken journalist who uncovered political corruption and its links to Islamist extremism – got on a commuter ferry and was never seen again. 

After Maldivians voted out the corrupt government of Abdulla Yameen in September 2018, newly elected President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih established the Commission on Deaths and Enforced Disappearances to investigate Rilwan’s abduction and other attacks on bloggers and activists allegedly targeted by Islamist gangs. It now appears the 28-year-old Rilwan fell victim to the very crimes he was trying to expose.

Human rights activists in the Maldives have long alleged that police buried evidence linking Rilwan’s abduction to known gangs with ties to powerful politicians. These findings are a first step toward justice for Rilwan.

Senior officials, police, and judges had actively derailed earlier investigations into the case, among them former vice president Ahmed Adeeb, whom the commission has alleged obstructed the initial investigation. Adeeb, who also faces charges of money-laundering, tried to flee to India on a fishing boat on August 1, but was refused entry and arrested on his return to the Maldives.

Solih has promised to take “all necessary legal action” to bring Rilwan’s murderers to justice. To do so, he will face obstacles from those in the police and judiciary who aided the crime and cover-up. As Rilwan’s family told the commission: “Each day without justice for Rilwan … reveals that the Maldivian state is incapable of ensuring safety for anyone living in the Maldives.” 

Hong Kong Leader Formally Withdraws Controversial Bill

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 4, 2019
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People watch the television as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam makes an announcement on the extradition bill, at a retailer in Hong Kong, September 4, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced today that the government would formally withdraw a proposed bill that would have enabled extradition to mainland China. While this was a key demand of protesters in Hong Kong, it left unresolved many other important rights issues.

An unprecedented number and diversity of Hong Kong people have protested since June, initially about the extradition bill, but increasingly about the erosion of human rights and the authorities’ failure to deliver on guarantees of universal suffrage, among other issues. Numerous incidents of excessive force by police against peaceful protesters may have done more than even the extradition bill or the failure to advance voting rights to galvanize public opposition to the Hong Kong government. A private Lam speech that was leaked this week, in which she said she would have stepped down and apologized had Beijing allowed her to do so, confirmed many people’s view that Hong Kong’s autonomy is not much more than rhetorical.

Beijing doubtlessly wants people off Hong Kong’s streets by October 1, when the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its 70 years in power. Presumably the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill – which Hong Kong authorities had declared “dead” earlier in the summer – was among the easiest concessions to achieve that outcome. But Beijing has also reminded the world in words and video that it has the capacity to use force to end demonstrations, and that the imposition of emergency restrictions in Hong Kong remains an option.

What steps might genuinely speak to the concerns of Hong Kong people? An independent investigation into police violence is a top priority. Lam’s decision to appoint two new members to the existing internal police oversight body, which lacks public confidence, indicates ongoing resistance to genuine accountability. Also crucial is making progress towards universal suffrage and removing barriers to running for office. Authorities could also drop charges against anyone arbitrarily arrested during the demonstrations.

Notwithstanding the Chinese government’s unsupported claims that “foreign forces” have been behind the protests, governments have been tepid in demonstrating support for Hong Kong’s rights movement. They should not simply accept the bill’s withdrawal as a sufficient concession, but instead consider it an impetus for speaking out forcefully on behalf of Hong Kong people’s rights.

A Small Victory for Somalis at the UN

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 4, 2019
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Women who fled drought line up to receive food distributed by local volunteers at a camp for displaced persons in the Daynile neighborhood on the outskirts of the Somalian capital Mogadishu, May 18, 2019.

Six United Nations Security Council members have blocked a bid by Kenya to impose additional counterterrorism sanctions on the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab in Somalia.

While Al-Shabab’s atrocities merit Security Council scrutiny, the Kenyan proposal would have jeopardized the delivery of humanitarian aid at a time when 2.2 million Somalis – more than one-fifth of the population – face severe hunger.

Al-Shabab continues to conduct deadly attacks on civilians and forcibly recruit children. Kenya, Somalia’s southern neighbor, has also been targeted by the armed group, such as the January 2019 assault on the Dusit hotel in Nairobi that left 21 people dead.

But Al-Shabab is already sanctioned by a broader Security Council sanctions regime – the so-called “751 Committee” – which includes an arms embargo, asset freezes, and travel bans. These sanctions contain an exemption for humanitarian assistance, vital for lifesaving aid to be delivered. In contrast, Kenya’s proposed sanctions could have allowed for criminal penalties for humanitarian aid as “support” for terrorists.

Humanitarian operations to deliver food and medicine in Somalia, a country affected by three decades of conflict and insecurity, are incredibly complex, restrictive, and dangerous – in part because Al-Shabab restricts access to many people who need help. Aid workers in Somalia have been warning for weeks that the additional counterterrorism sanctions could scare donors into suspending emergency funding, and banks into limiting transfers to fund aid groups.

While Security Council members Belgium, France, Germany, Kuwait, Poland, and the US commendably blocked Kenya’s proposal, the council could still do more to facilitate aid to civilians trapped in areas where armed groups operate. As a next step, the Security Council should amend a separate, overly broad April 2019 counterterrorism resolution so that it requires exemptions for humanitarian activities.

Cutting financial flows to extremist armed groups should not come at the price of denying aid to desperate populations.

Trump Administration Blocks Needed Oversight of Immigration Detention

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 4, 2019
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U.S. Department of Homeland Security emblem is pictured at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center (NCCIC) located just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia September 24, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has blocked staff from the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Reform from visiting immigrant detention facilities after recent inspections uncovered more disturbing reports of abuse.

The reports included one instance of a Border Patrol agent telling a child who had spilled soup that he would not be given more food unless he drank the soup from the floor. Further reports described agents feeding burritos to toddlers (and at least one infant) rather than age-appropriate food.

Some accounts from the facilities were in line with those documented by Human Rights Watch, as well as physicians, attorneys, lawmakers, journalists, the government’s own watchdog, and even border agents themselves, describing inadequate medical care, rooms too cold for children to sleep comfortably, rotten food, and migrants being forced to sign documents in English without translation, indicating a dangerous pattern.  

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by 19 US states against the Trump administration documented reports of girls on their period being given just one sanitary napkin per day, even when they'd visibly bled through their underwear. They were not offered showers and were left to continue wearing soiled clothing.

DHS has repeatedly failed to use its funding in rights-respecting ways. It is once again expanding its capacity for immigration detention despite orders from Congress to the contrary, diverting $155 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster relief fund as Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on Puerto Rico and Florida.

The US Constitution gives Congress the authority to determine how much taxpayer money goes to the Department of Homeland Security and how that money can be spent. Congressional oversight of the executive branch of government is vital to making those funding determinations.

Congress should act when its members return in September to pass legislation that ensures effective oversight, limits the department’s ability to transfer or reprogram money toward increasing immigration detention or other enforcement programs, and refuses to authorize more money as long as funds are used to commit abuses.

International Law’s Racism Problem

Opinio Juris - Wednesday, September 4, 2019
[Anna Spain Bradley is a Professor of Law at the University of Colorado School of Law.] International law has a racism problem. Since 1950, when UNESCO published its seminal report, The Race Question, the international community has been on record that race has no basis in biology or science and that racism “directly affects millions of human lives and causes...

US: Meatpacking Workers’ Rights Under Threat

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 4, 2019
September 4, 2019 Video US: Meatpacking Workers' Rights Under Threat

Trump administration policies threaten to worsen the already dangerous conditions for meatpacking workers in the United States. 

Trump administration policies threaten to worsen the already dangerous conditions for meatpacking workers in the United States, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Trump administration is weakening oversight of chicken, hog, and cattle producers, and lifting limits on production speeds.

September 4, 2019 Report “When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting”

Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants

The 100-page report, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants,” describes alarmingly high rates of serious injury and chronic illness among workers at chicken, hog, and cattle slaughtering and processing plants. Human Rights Watch interviewed workers who described serious job-related injuries or illnesses, and nearly all the interviewed workers identified production speed as the factor that made their job dangerous.

“US meat and poultry workers are put under intense pressure to keep up with production, risking traumatic injury and disabling illness,” said Matt McConnell, research fellow in the business and human rights division and US Program at Human Rights Watch. “By giving companies the green light to accelerate their production, the US government is putting workers’ health on the line.”

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Animal slaughtering and processing is inherently difficult work and the hundreds of thousands of women and men who kill, cut, debone, and package American-grown meat suffer some of the highest rates of occupational injury and illness in the country. But the US government is weakening oversight of the industry. This follows decades of failure by the government to put in place domestic workplace safety and health standards that would regulate practices in the industry and improve protections for workers.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 49 current and former workers at chicken, pig, and cattle slaughtering and processing plants in several US states, along with more than 50 community and worker leaders, trade union representatives, attorneys, academic researchers, experts on workers’ safety and health, and former government officials. Human Rights Watch also reviewed extensive secondary sources of information, including reports from nongovernmental organizations and federal investigators, as well as government and academic studies, publicly available government data, and medical literature.

Human Rights Watch interviewed some workers who said they are pressured to work at speeds that place them at risk of serious, potentially life-threatening injury, even at plants that do not operate at the fastest speeds allowed.

“We’ve already gone from the line of exhaustion to the line of pain,” said Ignacio Davalos, a worker at a hog plant in Nebraska. “When we’re dead and buried, our bones will keep hurting.”

Under the Trump administration, the government is expanding the number of poultry companies that can accelerate the speed of slaughter, known as “line speeds,” beyond limits set by an Obama-era rule as part of changes to their inspection systems. The government has also proposed regulations that would bring in new inspection systems and eliminate caps on slaughter line speeds altogether for pork producers, and is considering the same for beef, Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization, reports.

The government has also further weakened oversight of worker safety at meat and poultry companies, including a decline in enforcement actions by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the US agency charged with oversight of labor standards. Moreover, the true extent of the harms faced by workers is little understood, as industry reporting on rates of injury and illness lacks transparency. Numerous studies have shown discrepancies between federal data on occupational injury and illness in the industry and the experience of workers.

The US Food Safety and Inspection Service should end the deregulation of slaughter line speeds in the meat and poultry slaughtering and processing industry, Human Rights Watch said. Through OSHA, the US government should also improve workers’ conditions through increased oversight, regulation, and transparency, including putting in place standards to address risk factors for illness and injury, including work speeds, exposure to chemicals, and other ergonomic hazards.

The government should also take steps to ensure that data on workers’ occupational injuries and illnesses is accurate and available for both federal regulatory officials and the public, including revising employer occupational injury and illness reporting forms to collect better information on cumulative trauma injuries. Meat and poultry slaughtering companies and the companies buying their products should also identify, prevent, and remediate human rights abuses in their supply chains.

International human rights law protects everyone’s right to safe and healthy working conditions, as well as the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights and ensure that they do not cause or contribute to human rights abuses.

“The US government should not ignore the human impact of its policies,” McConnell said. “It has the power and the obligation to improve workers’ conditions, and should not make them worse.”

Iraq: Camps Expel Over 2,000 People Seen As ISIS-Linked

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 4, 2019

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Government buses waiting to move families from one camp in Anbar province to another during a previous wave of camp closures in December 2018. 

© 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Local authorities have forcibly expelled more than 2,000 Iraqis from camps for displaced people in Nineveh governate since August 23, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

Some were forced to return to their home regions, despite fears for their safety, including from former neighbors who perceive them as being linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). Some have come under attack since being forced home. Authorities in Nineveh have also blocked families who tried to leave the camps to avoid expulsion.

“Displaced people, like all other Iraqis, have the right to move freely in their country and decide where they feel safe to live,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities can’t move people without first consulting them, especially not to places where they and their families face danger.”

Authorities in Salah al-Din have also announced plans to close camps for displaced people or are already forcing people to return to their governorates of origin.

In early July, the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, passed “Resolution 16.” The resolution is not public, but officials have described its contents in letters to humanitarian organizations. It orders people from areas other than Nineveh – currently at least 38,040 people – to leave the Nineveh camps. It mandates security forces to develop a database of residents and isolate families who are perceived as ISIS-affiliated. The resolution also calls for increased security to keep people from entering or leaving camps without permission and assigning more police to the camps, to “control” people’s movement and to “assess and audit” the work of nongovernmental organizations who work in the camps.

In response, the authorities began screenings across the Nineveh camps. On August 21, Migration and Displacement Ministry officials informed aid workers at the two camps in Nineveh where screenings had been completed that they intended to expel everyone there from other governorates, starting with those from Anbar governorate, two aid workers said. Anbar is a former ISIS stronghold.

On August 23, security forces from the Nineveh Operations Command expelled 36 families from Anbar, most headed by women, totaling about 150 people , and transported them to their areas of origin in Anbar against their will and without letting them bring their belongings. They were told they were being taken to a camp in Anbar, three families told Human Rights Watch. The families called aid workers to express fears when they found they were actually being taken back home, and aid workers unsuccessfully tried to intervene.

An aid worker in Ramadi said that one of the families fled to a camp for displaced people 25 kilometers away after local residents threatened to kill them because of their perceived ISIS affiliation. Since August 25, 16 families who security forces had taken back to the Haditha area have been living in a public school encircled by police about three kilometers away because they feel unsafe, two told Human Rights Watch. They said that on August 28, someone threw a hand grenade at the school. No one inside was injured.

Two aid workers said that elsewhere in Anbar, local security forces said they denied at least six families entry to their areas of origin because of perceived ISIS affiliation. They said several more families have contacted aid groups asking for help to relocate to nearby camps because they feel unsafe.

Camp management did not have time to issue the deported Anbar families departure letters to help them pass through checkpoints, obtain security clearances in areas they returned to, and to apply for funds available for people returning.

After the expulsions, other families who are not from Nineveh started leaving the camps to avoid expulsion but on August 25, the Iraqi Army’s 16th division ordered camp management in at least two of the camps to prevent families from leaving. The army forced some departing families to return to the camps under threat of arrest, three of the families and aid workers said.

On August 28, security forces forcibly expelled from the same camps 151 families – at least 610 people – originally from Hawija, an area in western Kirkuk that continues to experience ISIS attacks and military operations, to camps in the Kirkuk area, an aid worker there said, causing food shortages in the camps they were transferred to. But two aid workers have since told Human Rights Watch that the Kirkuk governor later agreed to allow the families to continue living in camps there, instead of forcing them to return home.

Security forces also expelled at least another 671 people from Nineveh camps to a camp in Salah al-Din on August 31. Two families said that the morning after they arrived, two grenades hit the camp fence. One man, 50, said that he and other families did not feel safe there after social media posts – some containing veiled execution threats – urged local people to protest the families’ presence. Aid workers present said security forces transferred the families to another Salah al-Din camp on September 2 because of increased security concerns for the families. Residents at the new camp location launched protests when they heard of the families’ arrival.

On September 2, authorities expelled another 481 people from Nineveh camps to Salah al-Din, after keeping them waiting on buses for over five hours without a bathroom, food, or water.

The deputy governor of Salah al-Din, which currently houses at least 105,390 displaced people, told aid workers in June that he aimed to close most displaced people’s camps and informal settlement sites by early September, with statements from local officials in late August and early September that at least two camps would be closed by early September. By August 24, security forces had expelled more than 500 families from an informal settlement in Salah al-Din, an aid worker said.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement ensure displaced people’s rights to free movement and freedom to choose their residence, as well as their right to move freely in and out of camps.

Authorities in Iraq should not force people to return to or remain in specific locations and respect their right to free movement. They should immediately facilitate the return of families who want to return to areas not affected by ongoing military operations. And if authorities cannot ensure families’ safety, they should allow families to remain in or relocate to camps that allow for free movement or other areas where authorities can properly protect them.

In line with these standards, authorities should ensure that displaced people have at least seven days’ notice of their expulsions and provide a range of detailed options for safe assisted relocation. Authorities should ensure that camp management has time to issue departure letters needed to travel, resettle, and apply for assistance, and allow people to take their belongings with them.

“Over the last two weeks government has effectively transferred people into situations where they are being targeted with grenades and death threats,” Fakih said. “Before people board buses provided by the government transporting them from the camps, authorities should clarify where the buses are traveling so families can make an informed decision about how to keep themselves safe.”
 

Nepal: Amend Laws Undermining Free Expression

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 3, 2019
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Nepal's Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, foreground, tours Cambodian National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(New York) – The government of Nepal should revise several pieces of draft legislation that threaten to undermine the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister K. P. Oli. The government should also amend the recently revised Penal Code, which criminalizes speech on vague grounds, including that it may “annoy” or “trouble” someone.

The draft laws currently before parliament, including the Media Council Bill, Information Technology Bill, and the Mass Communications Bill, contain numerous loosely defined and draconian measures. These include offenses for harming the nation’s “self-pride” or damaging an individual’s “image or prestige.” Provisions controlling online and social media activity are especially sweeping. Many of the new offenses carry fines and lengthy prison sentences.

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“Nepal has a proud tradition of public activism, but if these laws are passed in their current form, they will undermine the freedoms that Nepalis fought so hard to achieve,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “After years of conflict and political instability, the laws being passed under Nepal’s new democratic constitution should uphold fundamental freedoms, not set out to curb them.”

Recent attacks on freedom of expression in Nepal show the risk of these laws being misused, Human Rights Watch said. Since the Oli government took office in February 2018, at least six journalists have been detained. Several internet users are believed to have been arrested for their activities on “social networks.”

The proposed laws, along with problematic provisions in the recently revised Penal Code, create a web of loosely defined offenses that could be interpreted to ban almost any speech or online activity the government objects to. Citizens have no way of knowing what will be interpreted as illegal speech, and they potentially face multiple prosecutions for similar offenses, as some are also offenses under other laws.

Nepal’s obligations under international human rights law, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, require it to clearly and narrowly define any limitations on the right to freedom of expression considered necessary to protect the rights of others, maintain public order, or address genuine national security threats. Any such limitations must not jeopardize the right to freedom of expression itself. United Nations experts have recommended abolishing all criminal defamation laws.

The Media Council Bill is under debate in the lower house of parliament. Members have proposed a number of amendments, but whether they are accepted will depend upon the government, which has a two-thirds majority. Both this bill and the Mass Communications Bill propose creating government-controlled media regulators, which could compel media organizations and individual journalists to comply with government directives and as yet unwritten codes of conduct, or face penalties. This is a serious threat to press freedom, Human Rights Watch said.

The Information Technology Bill creates a raft of loosely defined new offenses that could be interpreted to include almost any online activity. Among numerous problematic provisions, the draft law also creates an intermediary liability for internet service providers (ISPs), meaning that they could be held legally responsible for material posted by others on the internet.

The Information Technology Bill is designed to replace the 2006 Electronic Transactions Act (ETA), which the current government has abused repeatedly, often to prosecute online journalists reporting on corruption. In June, the law was used to detain a comedian whose online movie review upset the film’s director. The new Information Technology Bill is even more broadly drawn and draconian than the law it replaces.

A detailed analysis of problematic and abusive provisions in the draft legislation and relating to freedom of expression in the new Penal Code is provided in an annex to the letter to the prime minister.

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and the foundation of a democratic society,” Ganguly said. “The Nepali government should protect free speech and ensure that any legal restrictions are proportionate, narrowly defined, and consistent with Nepal’s obligations under international law.”

US: Suit Over Indefinite Detention of Children

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 3, 2019

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Migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, in a photo dated May 29, 2019.

© 2019 US Customs and Border Protection via AP, File
(Washington, DC) – A Trump administration administrative rule could result in severe harm to migrant children detained in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today after filing with Amnesty International USA a friend-of-the-court brief on August 30, 2019 in the case. The brief, setting out relevant international human rights standards, supports lawyers for detained children who are challenging the new rule.

Under the new regulation, the government could indefinitely detain children together with their families. The new rule also lacks safeguards, which could further worsen conditions in detention.

“Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma and harm from detention,” said Clara Long, acting deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “No amount of time in detention is safe for children, and indefinite detention significantly increases the risk they will suffer serious, long-lasting harm.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International USA filed the amicus brief in the federal district court in California that oversees a 1997 settlement agreement governing the treatment of children in immigration detention. Lawyers for children covered by the case, now known as Flores v. Barr, are asking the court to rescind the new regulation as a breach of the 1997 settlement. The law firm Constantine Cannon served as counsel on the brief.

The core principle and requirement of the Flores Agreement is that migrant children taken into detention should be released as “expeditiously” as possible. The new rule provides instead for the indefinite detention of children with their parents in federal immigration facilities pending resolution of their immigration proceedings. In doing so, it seeks to reverse a 2015 court order under the Flores Agreement that children must not be held for more than 20 days in facilities not licensed to care for children.

International human rights standards recognize that immigration-related detention of a child is never in their best interests. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has noted that immigration detention of children puts them at risk of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment prohibited under international law. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has expressed that even short-term immigration detention of children may be cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment because child migrants are “at greater risk of torture and mistreatment owing to their vulnerability and unique needs.”

The US government claims that family detention is needed to ensure that families show up for immigration court for hearings. However, in community-based case management programs, the vast majority of people released from immigration detention show up for their court hearings.

“The administration’s new rule institutionalizes abusive policies against children,” Long said. “Instead of looking for ways to inflict more harsh treatment on children, the government should expand alternatives that allow children and their families to live in communities while their immigration cases are pending.”

A New Low of Harassment on Moscow’s Protests

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 3, 2019
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Ilya Azar

© 2019 Vlad Dokshin, Novaya Gazeta

Last night, at around 9 p.m., Ilya Azar – a journalist and one of the leaders of the recent Moscow protests – put his toddler to bed and went out to the stairway for a cigarette. Three police officers arrived suddenly to detain him. Azar, wearing sweats and slippers, told the police his 22-month-old daughter was in the apartment and asked to wait for his wife to get home. The officers consulted their superiors by phone, and then told him they had to leave immediately. Azar called his wife, Ekaterina Kuznetsova, explained the situation, and, despite pleading with the police to wait, was taken away. Kuznetsova arrived about 30 minutes later, at wits’ end, to find “the apartment unlocked and the child sleeping peacefully … all alone.”

The recent protests were triggered by the exclusion of independent candidates from the city legislature elections on September 8. To stifle the protests, the government launched a broad crackdown, with tactics ranging from detaining staggering numbers of peaceful protesters and bystanders, some brutally, to opening major criminal investigations, including on far-fetched mass rioting allegations, and carrying out searches and interrogations of the excluded candidates and their most active supporters and slapping them with repeated temporary arrest.

The case of Azar and his family is a new low in this litany of harassment.

As a wave of indignation erupted on social media and dozens of journalists rushed to the police station where Azar was held, the authorities changed course and released him just past midnight, pending a court hearing on charges of repeatedly violating the regulations on public gatherings. This administrative offense can land Azar in jail for up to 30 days but can’t justify the late-night rush to detain him.

In August, the prosecutor’s office moved to strip two couples of their parental rights because they brought their young children to the protests, claiming they neglected parental duties by exposing children to potential harm. On September 2, two district courts in Moscow ruled against removing the children from their respective families but issued warnings to both sets of parents, sending a chilling signal to politically active parents across the country, no doubt the government’s intent.

Azar’s police ordeal makes it painfully clear authorities will use child protection as a cynical tool to punish parents but won’t think twice about abandoning a baby to potential harm when acting to suppress a critic.

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