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Hungary Renews Attacks on Independent Radio Station

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 15, 2020

In the most recent attack on media freedom in Hungary, the country’s Media Council last week unexpectedly announced it would revoke Klubradio’s frequency as of February 2021. It justified its decision by referring to the independent, commercial station’s breaches of Hungary’s restrictive media law. But according to Klubradio’s president, Andras Arato, the council simply wants to shut them down for good.

Click to expand Image Klubradio’s president, Andras Arato, is seen on air in Klubradio's studio in Budapest, Hungary, March 2020.  © 2020 Klubradio

This is not the first time the government-aligned Media Council, a regulatory body handpicked by Prime Minister Orban’s ruling party and with the power to sanction news outlets and journalists, has gone after the news and talk radio station with opinions often critical of the government. The station fought and won lengthy court battles against the Media Council in the early 2010s.

According to Arato, Klubradio has over the years fallen out of compliance by submitting a late report to the Media Council or playing slightly less Hungarian music on a given day than required by national law. But nothing more serious, and the station has paid fines for these breaches. Now the council is using those payments as evidence to shut the station down.

The decision to shut down Klubradio is the latest in a long line of examples of the Hungarian government’s efforts to rein in independent press and take control over the media landscape. In July, the editor-in-chief of leading news site Index was fired by the new owner, who has close links to the government. The paper’s entire staff resigned in protest. In 2016, Hungary’s biggest opposition daily Nepszabadsag was closed down. The 2018 merger of nearly 500 outlets into one conglomerate loyal to the government, sidestepping competition laws, effectively put an end to media pluralism in the country.

European Union institutions should find the demise of free press and independent journalism in Hungary concerning.

Hungary is already under EU scrutiny under Article 7 – the EU treaty procedure dealing with countries flouting the EU’s democratic principles. But member states have dragged their feet as the situation in Hungary worsens.

The EU Council, currently chaired by Germany, should act now to declare Hungary in breach of the EU’s core values and hold Viktor Orban’s government to account. The government’s moves to curb free and independent media should also be grounds for cutting or suspending access to certain EU funds. EU member states also have a responsibility to ensure that attacks on the free press come at a cost to the government.

Yemen: Aid Obstruction Puts Millions at Risk

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 14, 2020

The Houthi armed group and other authorities are severely restricting the delivery of desperately needed aid in Yemen, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The situation is exacerbating the country’s dire humanitarian situation and weakening its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

September 14, 2020 Deadly Consequences

The 65-page report, “Deadly Consequences: Obstruction of Aid in Yemen During Covid-19,” details systematic interference in relief operations by Houthi authorities, Yemen’s internationally recognized government and affiliated forces, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed Southern Transitional Council. Despite increased needs, donors slashed funding in June 2020, partly because of the obstruction, forcing aid agencies to cut food, health care, and water and sanitation support to millions of people in need. The parties to Yemen’s five-year-long armed conflict should immediately end the obstruction. Donors should increase funding to aid agencies while pressuring the local authorities to respect the humanitarian principles of independence and impartiality. The United Nations should establish an independent inquiry into the extent of obstruction and shortcomings in the humanitarian community’s response.

“Millions have been suffering in Yemen because the Houthis and other Yemeni authorities have denied the UN and other aid agencies unhindered access to people in need,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Yemen’s decimated healthcare sector and the unchecked spread of Covid-19 make the obstruction and recent donor aid cuts catastrophic.”

Click to expand Image A Houthi-affiliated soldier walks among humanitarian aid supplies in a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on March 16, 2017. © 2017 Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

Human Rights Watch, in May and June, interviewed by phone 10 Yemeni healthcare workers, 35 aid workers from UN and international nongovernmental organizations, and 10 donor representatives about aid obstruction and the Covid-19 response in Yemen.

A decade of political and economic crisis and over five years of conflict between the Houthis and a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s internationally recognized government have crippled Yemen’s health care and other social services, triggering cholera and other disease outbreaks and widespread malnutrition. The UN calls Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 80 percent of the country’s 30 million people needing some form of aid. While funding the aid effort, the Unites States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, and others have sold arms to the Saudi-led coalition, worsening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

UN agencies and nongovernmental aid organizations have continued to reach millions in need, despite obstruction by the authorities. Aid workers described the wide range of obstacles they face, including hundreds of regulations severely restricting their work, lengthy delays in approving aid projects, the blocking of aid assessments to identify people’s needs, attempts to control aid monitoring, dictating or interfering with aid recipient lists to divert aid to authority loyalists, and violence against aid staff and their property.

Since late 2019, the UN and donor countries have increasingly pressed the Houthis to help agencies do their work, which, in mid-2020, resulted in the Houthis signing a backlog of project agreements that profess non-interference with aid agencies’ independence. But aid workers question whether officials will honor the agreement or, as they have in the past, make some concessions while introducing new restrictions.

In early June, the UN called for a massive scale-up in all health operations, including for Covid-19, saying that the virus in Yemen is “likely to spread faster, more widely and with deadlier consequences than almost anywhere else.”

As of August 30, the Yemeni government had confirmed 1,950 cases of Covid-19 and 564 Covid-19-related deaths. However, the real number is almost certainly much higher, given limited testing, a population with weakened immune systems, and a collapsing healthcare system that has repeatedly come under attack by warring parties. The Houthis have reportedly warned medical professionals not to report Covid-19 cases.

The Houthis on July 14 and August 13 responded to a letter setting out the Human Rights Watch findings, saying that aid obstruction allegations were baseless and that aid agencies alleging obstruction were following “political orders” from the US. Human Rights Watch has not received replies from the Yemeni government or the Southern Transitional Council.

Donor support to UN aid agencies collapsed in June, partly in response to the aid obstruction. As of late August, aid agencies had received only 24 percent of the US$3.4 billion they had requested for the year. A new fuel crisis, triggered in June by disagreements between the Houthis and the Yemeni government over how to regulate taxation of imported fuel, on which hospitals and water pumps depend, has further reduced Yemenis’ access to food, hospital care, and water supplies.

International humanitarian law forbids parties to a conflict from withholding consent for relief operations on arbitrary grounds and requires them to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded impartial aid to civilians in need. Unnecessary delays or obstruction of aid may also violate the rights to life, to health, and to an adequate standard of living, including food and water.

“Millions of Yemenis depend on the authorities letting aid flow freely for health care and other necessities,” Simpson said. “Donors should engage at the highest level possible with the Houthis and other authorities and press for an end to aid blockages and diversions and continue to support humanitarian groups that reach people in need, despite the enormous challenges.”

Hardships for Lebanon’s Migrant Domestic Workers Rise

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 14, 2020
Click to expand Image An Ethiopian domestic worker waits in front of the Ethiopian consulate after she and others were abandoned by their Lebanese employers, in Hazmieh, east of Beirut, Lebanon, June 4, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

More than a month since the devastating port explosion in Beirut, the situation for many of the estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon has gone from dire to catastrophic.

The explosion happened amidst an economic crisis that worsened from late 2019 onwards, during which hundreds of migrant domestic workers were abandoned by their employers. The Lebanese government did little to hold these employers accountable or protect the rights of the workers.

As domestic workers have little to no legal protections in Lebanon, they began calling on their embassies to send them home. But high airfare costs, together with little embassy support and sometimes even allegations of physical violence by some embassy officials, left many migrant workers in limbo. Before the explosion, many abandoned workers were already living on the streets or in temporary shelters and relying on local organizations to get by.

Then came the blast. Workers lost passports, money, and belongings in the blast, and the explosion destroyed workers’ shared accommodations and temporary shelters, making dozens homeless in an instant. Additionally, many reported facing discrimination in receiving aid, including access to adequate shelter. Some slept in the streets.

Migrant workers from Kenya, Gambia, and Ethiopia intensified their calls for repatriation, which were amplified by local organizations. They say they were met with silence from their governments and Lebanese authorities. A local nongovernmental organization paid for return flights for 38 Gambian migrant workers. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) assisted 13 Nigerian workers to repatriate between May and August. But this does not begin to meet the need.

On September 4, the caretaker Minister of Labor, Lamia Yammine Douaihy, announced a new labor contract for migrant domestic workers. While this contract is an important step, it does not abolish the abusive kafala (visa sponsorship) system that ties workers’ legal status to their employers and which stranded many migrants in Lebanon in the first place. It is not yet clear how the new contract will be rolled out or enforced.

The Labor Minister should show she is serious about migrant domestic workers’ rights by aiding workers abandoned by their employers. Lebanese authorities should ensure migrant workers have food and shelter, and hold abusive employers to account. Additionally, the Lebanese government, countries of origin, and international humanitarian agencies should ensure that those workers who want to return home can do so.

Kenosha Police Turned a Blind Eye to US Vigilantes

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 14, 2020
Click to expand Image Police in riot gear clear the area in front of Kenosha County Courthouse during clashes with protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, August 25, 2020. © 2020 2020 AP Photo/David Goldman

The Kenosha Police Chief in the US state of Wisconsin responded to a pro-police vigilante killing of two people last month by saying: “Had persons not been out involved in violation of [the curfew] perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened.” His words both excused the shooter and blamed the victims.

On August 25, as protests against police violence gripped the streets of Kenosha following the videotaped shooting of Jacob Blake by police, heavily armed vigilantes came to town, ostensibly to protect property and support the police. Video shows police thanking them and giving them bottles of water, while simultaneously ordering protesters to vacate the streets. The officers’ actions signaled to the vigilantes that they were subject to different rules than the protesters.

Police have inflicted violence on protesters across the United States since people took to the streets following the killing of George Floyd in May. They have fired rubber bullets, beaten people with batons, unleashed tear gas, and assaulted them with pepper spray. They have made mass arrests, sometimes for vandalism or looting, but more often for minor offenses like curfew violations or failing to disperse.

A group of white men, violating curfew and brandishing assault rifles, did not appear to concern Kenosha officers, who acted as though these men were partners. Police did not seem to question whether the 17-year-old among them was old enough to legally possess the gun. Even after witnesses told officers the boy had shot people, they let him walk by them. He drove home to a neighboring town and was not arrested until the following day.

Despite the seriousness of the alleged crime, authorities should treat him fairly, respect his human rights as a child under the age of 18, and not prosecute him as an adult. But the contrast between his treatment by police and that of Jacob Blake and those protesting police violence is stark.

The state attorney general and the US Department of Justice should investigate possible collusion between the vigilantes and law enforcement. Local authorities should look into possible disciplinary infractions by police. Regardless of whether police broke laws or rules, officials at all levels should condemn officers for their tacit encouragement of vigilantism and application of double standards in curfew enforcement.

Further, a white-supremacist culture, emboldened by a president who has encouraged and instigated security force violence against people peacefully exercising their rights to free expression and assembly, poses a grave threat to everyone’s rights. Police should enforce laws equally, not simply against those with whom they disagree.

Blaming the Victim for Sexual Violence in Pakistan

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 14, 2020
Click to expand Image Women demonstrate to condemn the police response to the of rape of a woman by a highway, Islamabad, Pakistan, September 12, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

“Azaadi!” – or “freedom!” – women chanted on the streets of major cities across Pakistan on Saturday, as they protested police handling of a case known as the “motorway incident” – a shocking rape of a woman by multiple assailants.

A police chief’s attempt to blame the survivor of the assault prompted demands not only for reforming the police response to sexual violence cases, but for women’s rights in general.

So far, those demands have been mostly ignored.

On September 7, a woman was driving with her children on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway after midnight when her car ran out of fuel. She called a relative and the motorway police. The motorway police did not respond because the location was outside their jurisdiction. While the woman waited for her relative, two men appeared and pulled her and her children from the car. They raped her in front of the children and robbed her.

The Lahore police chief discussed the case two days later on television, questioning why a mother of three travelling alone at night did not choose a “safer” road, and said: “If she had decided to travel via motorway, she should have checked her fuel tank because there were no petrol pumps on that route.” In a later interview, he claimed his statement had been “distorted,” but maintained his view.

The organizers of Saturday’s protests called for the police chief to be fired; a change in the law to criminalize acts of sexual violence that do not include penetration; structural reform to increase police accountability; training for police, prosecutors, and judges in handling sexual violence cases; protection for victims and witnesses; services and legal assistance for survivors; an end to abusive and scientifically meaningless “virginity examinations” including in sexual violence cases; and measures to improve safety of public spaces without restricting the mobility of women, trans, and non-binary people.

Pakistan’s government should take these demands seriously. Women and girls in Pakistan face abuses including impunity for so-called “honor violence” against them, danger on the way to school, abuses in prison, denial of care in hospitals, and sexual harassment in the workplace. Worse yet, police themselves have been implicated in rape in Pakistan. Women and girls will not have the freedom they are entitled to – to study, work, or live – until the government does more to protect their rights.

Israel: Release Body of Slain Palestinian

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 14, 2020
Click to expand Image Ahmed Erekat © Private

(Jerusalem) – Israeli authorities have held the body of a Palestinian man, Ahmed Erekat, for more than ten weeks after officers killed him seemingly without justification at a checkpoint, in violation of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said today. Video footage shows Erekat’s car crashing into a checkpoint in the West Bank on June 23, 2020, knocking over an Israeli officer, and then Israeli forces shooting him after he emerged from his car in circumstances in which he no longer appeared to pose an imminent threat to life.

Israeli authorities have held Erekat’s body ever since and said in a September 7 court filing that they would not return it to his family. The filing follows their reported decision on September 2 to continue withholding the bodies of dozens of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in what they consider security incidents, many unaffiliated with any political or armed group, in large part as leverage to secure the release of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers evidently held by Hamas authorities, unlawfully, in Gaza.

“After fatally shooting Ahmed Erekat without apparent justification, Israeli authorities have unlawfully held his body hostage for more than ten weeks,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “Preventing Erekat’s family from burying their son in a dignified manner is cruel and without legal justification.”

Israeli and Hamas authorities should return the bodies they hold to their families for burial, Human Rights Watch said. The wrongful actions of one party don’t justify the wrongful actions of the other.

Israeli officers fatally shot Erekat, 26, just before 4 p.m. on June 23 at the Israeli “Container” checkpoint, on the main West Bank road separating the central and southern West Bank. Erekat was a resident of the nearby town of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. His family said he had spent the afternoon running errands in preparation for his sister’s wedding that evening.

Footage released by Israeli authorities shows Erekat’s car, as it approaches the checkpoint, sharply swerve into a booth where several Israeli officers stood, knocking one of them to the ground. The officer, who quickly got up, had light injuries, said Micky Rosenfeld, the Israeli police spokesman.

Israeli authorities characterized the incident as a car-ramming attack. Erekat’s parents reject this characterization, telling Human Rights Watch that they believe their son lost control of the car, possibly as the result of a malfunction.

Footage shows that officers did not shoot Erekat when the car swerved into the checkpoint, but only after he emerged seconds later. Rosenfeld told media outlets that Erekat “got out of the car and approached officers, who responded by shooting,” but the footage shows that officers fired at Erekat as soon as he emerged from the vehicle and was apparently moving away from the officers. Even if the officers believed Erekat had intentionally rammed the checkpoint, once he emerged from the car, intentional use of lethal force against him would be justified under international human rights law standards only as a last resort to prevent an imminent threat to life, Human Rights Watch said.

Israeli authorities did not indicate that Erekat was armed, or whether they are investigating the killing. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Israeli border police to solicit more information and their perspective on Erekat’s killing and the decision to withhold his body, but has not received a response.

Israeli authorities for decades have used excessive force against Palestinians in policing situations, when lesser means could have been used. Less than a month before the Erekat killing, on May 30, Israeli border police fatally shot an unarmed 32-year-old Palestinian man with autism, Eyad al-Hallaq, while he was on a morning walk to a center for people with special needs in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Officers said, according to media reports, that they saw al-Hallaq carrying a suspicious object and ordered him to stop, but he fled. They followed him into a gated open-air enclosure holding garbage receptacles where he had sought refuge along with his caregiver and, as the caregiver told local media, shot him to death at “point-blank range.”

The officer’s commander later said that the officer ignored his order not to shoot and that al-Hallaq was in “a closed place with no way to escape from it. He didn’t attack or do anything. He was definitely not standing. He didn’t endanger me in that situation.” Israeli authorities are investigating the incident, though they have not released any footage, despite a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that there were at least 10 functional cameras in the area.

Shortly after shooting Erekat, Israeli forces cordoned off the area around the checkpoint. Footage from shortly after the shooting appears to show Erekat bleeding, but still moving. Israeli Border Police said medics arrived at the scene within minutes and provided Erakat with medical attention but declared him dead shortly thereafter.

Palestinian paramedics who requested anonymity told Human Rights Watch that they arrived at the checkpoint in an ambulance about 15 minutes after the shooting in response to an emergency call, but that Israeli forces blocked them from the scene. After they waited about 10 minutes, they said, the officers ordered them to leave. They did not see other medics providing Erekat with medical attention.

Erekat’s father, Mustafa, told Human Rights Watch that he rushed to the scene upon hearing about the incident, but when he identified himself, an officer told him to “go away.” After he waited for about an hour and a half, a senior officer again refused to allow him to see his son and told him, “If any of the officers had died or been injured, I would be demolishing your house now.”

More than 80 days after the killing, Israeli authorities continue to hold Erekat’s body. The authorities initially told the Erekat family that they would hand over his body the day after the killing, but, hours later, they called back and informed the family they would hold on to the body for “political considerations,” according to a petition filed to the Israeli Supreme Court calling for the return of Erekat’s body by the human rights group Adalah on the family’s behalf. On September 7, the Israeli government said in a filing to the Supreme Court that it intended to continue to hold the body. Mustafa Erekat said that his family’s “days and nights have been turned upside down” awaiting the return of their son’s body.

Israel currently holds the bodies of 67 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since 2015, according to the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC). In 2017, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the state has no legal basis to withhold bodies. It reversed course in 2019 and upheld the government’s policy to withhold bodies of individuals affiliated with Hamas and those who had killed or wounded Israelis.

On September 2, according to Adalah, the Israeli security cabinet decided not to return the body of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, regardless of their political affiliation or lack thereof. Authorities reportedly justified the withholding of the bodies as a deterrent and leverage to secure the release of Israelis unlawfully held by Hamas authorities in Gaza.

Hamas authorities are apparently holding the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, presumed to have been killed during the 2014 war. They are also apparently holding two Israeli civilians with psychosocial – mental health – disabilities, Avera Mangistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who entered Gaza in 2014 and 2015 respectively, and have evidently been held incommunicado, unlawfully, ever since.

Withholding bodies contravenes the customary international humanitarian law requirement to “endeavor to facilitate the return of the remains of the deceased upon request of the party to which they belong.” Deliberately and unlawfully punishing the families of the deceased, who are not accused of any wrongdoing, constitutes a form of collective punishment, another serious violation of international humanitarian law. It can also amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of the families of the deceased, a violation of international human rights law.

“Israel and Hamas should end their inhumane policies of holding bodies as bargaining chips,” Shakir said. “At bare minimum, every family should have the opportunity to bury their dead in a dignified manner.”

China’s Inhumane ‘Guilty-by-Association’

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, September 13, 2020

There is a joke among human rights activists in China: the primary qualification is “single, parents dead.” Given how often Chinese authorities treat family members of people opposing government rights abuses as “guilty by association,” it’s better not to have any family. 

Click to expand Image Wang Liqin, holding a sign that calls for the release of her husband, activist Wang Zhang. © 2020 Private

It used to be that authorities harassed, intimidated, and monitored activists’ partners. But increasingly they are being detained and charged with crimes themselves.

On September 9, Beijing authorities detained publisher and producer Geng Xiaonan and her husband, Qin Zhen, accusing them of “illegal business operations.” Geng is a longtime supporter of independent scholars and activists, and recently spoke up publicly for her friend Xu Zhangrun, a prominent law professor detained for publishing articles critical of President Xi Jinping.

In March, Yunnan authorities forcibly disappeared artist and activist Wang Zang. Three months later, after Wang’s wife, Wang Liqin, called for her husband’s release on Twitter, she was also disappeared, leaving their four small children without their parents. This month, people close to the couple found out that both have been formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion.”

In February, Guangzhou police detained prominent and previously imprisoned legal activist Xu Zhiyong. Hours later, his girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based women’s rights and labor rights activist, also went missing. Accusing her of “subversion,” authorities held Li for four months under “residential surveillance,” a form of enforced disappearance in which police can hold individuals in undisclosed locations for up to six months.

In July 2019, Hunan authorities detained Cheng Yuan, a staff member of the anti-discrimination group Changsha Funeng, on “subversion” charges. The next day, authorities placed Cheng’s wife Shi Minglei, a business executive, under “residential surveillance” for six months, also for “subversion.”

In December 2018, Sichuan police detained Wang Yi, a prominent Christian pastor, and a court later sentenced him to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion.” Wang’s wife Jiang Rong, who was taken away with Wang, was detained in a secret location for six months.

Many activists in China have told me that they can themselves endure official retribution, but can’t bear their loved ones suffering for their activities. The Chinese government knows that well and exploits it to silence them. Nothing undermines Beijing’s claims to respect the rule of law more than this undisguised cruelty.

Afghanistan: Protecting Rights Essential in Negotiations

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, September 12, 2020
Click to expand Image Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center left, wears a protective face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, on the last day of an Afghan Loya Jirga or traditional council, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Sunday, August 9, 2020. © 2020 AP Photos © 2020 AP Photos

(New York) – Afghan government and Taliban officials meeting in Doha, Qatar for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations should publicly commit to uphold international human rights, including women’s rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States, European Union, and other countries supporting the peace process should use their political and economic leverage to ensure explicit human rights commitments and enforcement mechanisms in any final agreement.

Talks between the Taliban and an Afghan government-backed delegation, which includes opposition leaders and some independent civil society representatives, are expected to begin on September 12, 2020. The government-backed delegation has 5 women among its 21 members.

“Afghans who have endured decades of violence and abuses deserve more than vague promises to uphold human rights,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “All participants in any future Afghan government should commit to institutions and processes to uphold women’s rights and a free press, end torture in custody, and ensure justice for abuses.”

Taliban forces currently control a significant portion of Afghanistan’s population. In many of these areas, residents abide by a parallel set of Taliban-imposed regulations that govern education, courts, and other services, and establish or reinforce codes of conduct. While there has been some progress on access to education for girls and women in Taliban-held areas, women have little or no opportunity to participate in public life. Freedom of expression and the media are tightly controlled. Implementation of Taliban policies is largely based on local Taliban commanders’ personal views.

“While the Taliban have rolled back some of the harsher measures they imposed in the past, it remains difficult and dangerous for people to speak openly or voice objections in the areas under their control,” Gossman said.

Afghanistan’s constitution and laws enacted since 2001 include many human rights protections, including on freedom of expression and gender equality. Yet despite many years of donor support, the Afghan government has failed to develop institutions essential to providing justice, or to hold its security forces accountable for serious crimes, including torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions. The government has often rewarded some of the gravest offenders instead of punishing them.

In government-controlled areas, Afghan media play an active role in public life and participate in public issues. Yet journalists critical of the authorities risk threats and violence from officials, security forces, and government-backed militias.

Since 2002, in cities under Afghan government control, millions of girls have gone to school. Women have participated in public life, including holding political office, in greater numbers than ever before in Afghanistan’s history. Yet these gains are partial and fragile, even in government-controlled areas. Officials have often failed to protect women’s rights, and there is near-total impunity for violence against women and girls.

Taliban commanders and many current and former government leaders have been implicated in war crimes and other abuses. Afghan officials have tried to fend off an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) by asserting that their own national authorities can conduct credible investigations into serious crimes by forces operating in the country, including Taliban. However, abuses by government forces have gone unpunished, and some of the approximately 5,000 Taliban prisoners released as part of prisoner exchanges have been implicated in serious war crimes.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the parties may adopt provisions similar to the 2008 amnesty law or the 2016 immunity deal, which excluded any accountability, even for war crimes. International humanitarian law encourages amnesties for insurgents at the end of hostilities, but excludes those responsible for war crimes.

“The intra-Afghan negotiations offer hope for peace after more than 40 years of war,” Gossman said. “But for a settlement to be sustainable, a future Afghan government will need to provide security, tolerate dissent, respect women’s rights, and prosecute serious rights violations.”

Greece’s Moria Camp Fire: What’s Next?

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, September 12, 2020
Click to expand Image Moria camp on Lesbos island following a fire that started on the evening of September 8, 2020, destroying most of the camp and leaving 12,000 asylum seekers and refugees without shelter. © 2020 Private

Fires that consumed Europe’s largest refugee camp, Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos earlier this week have left nearly 13,000 men, women, and children without shelter or access to basic services. 

Prior to the fires, security in the camp had already deteriorated and tensions were high. The refugees were crammed into overcrowded, inadequate tents, with limited access to food, water, sanitation, and health care, despite the risk of Covid-19.

Now they have nothing.

Last week, authorities confirmed the first case of Covid-19 in the camp and responded by imposing a rigid lockdown that forbid entry and exit from the camp. Since the camp’s first pandemic-related lockdown, put in place in March, authorities have not provided sufficient access to medical care, hygiene products, running water, and testing.

Covid-19 restrictions for Greece’s general population were lifted in May.

Following the fires, the Greek government initially blamed migrants for the situation and called for a plan to lock the migrants up in closed facilities on the islands. “Some [people] do not respect the country that is hosting them,” government spokesperson Stelios Petsas said on Thursday.

The cause of the fires remains under investigation.

As thousands are now left sleeping rough in the hills around Moria or on the streets, tensions between local residents, asylum seekers, and police are increasing. According to media reports, far-right thugs are gathering near Moria. Homeless asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch that riot police have used violence and tear gas against those left homeless.

The fires highlight the failure of the European Union’s “hotspot approach” on the Islands, which has led to the containment of thousands of people on the Greek islands with the aim of returning them to Turkey, from which they transited. Some EU members have voiced agreement to relocate limited numbers of asylum seekers from Lesbos, but the EU response is hardly adequate or united.

European leaders should share responsibility for the reception and support of asylum seekers. Also, Greek authorities should ensure that respect for human rights is at the center of its response to this fire. They should prevent the use of force or inflammatory language, take appropriate steps to de-escalate any risk of violence, and provide the care and protection that those affected by the fire need and are entitled to.

Iran: Wrestler on Death Row for Alleged Murder

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, September 12, 2020
Click to expand Image Navid Afkari, a 27-year-old wrestler facing a death sentence. © Private

(Beirut) – The case of an Iranian wrestler on death row is part of a systematic pattern in which Iranian authorities disregard torture allegations and use coerced confessions in trial proceedings, Human Rights Watch said today. Iran’s judiciary should immediately open a transparent and independent investigation into allegations that the authorities tortured Navid Afkari and his brothers and grant Afkari a fair retrial in accordance with human rights standards.

Iranian authorities brought three cases against the wrestler Navid Afkari and his brother Vahid. Both were arrested in September 2018 on dozens of charges that include participation in illegal demonstrations, insulting Iran’s supreme leader, robbery, “enmity against God,” and murder. Iran’s Supreme Court has upheld a death sentence by a criminal court in Shiraz against Navid and a 25-year prison sentence for Vahid for assisting in the alleged murder, while summarily dismissing the brothers’ serious allegations that they were tortured into confessing.

“Iranian authorities’ utter disregard of serious allegations that they tortured Navid Afkari into confessing to alleged murder fits with a broader pattern of systematic impunity for torture and coerced confessions,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should drop charges that violate the Afkari brothers’ legitimate freedoms, investigate their allegations of torture, and ensure that they get a fair trial.”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach has said he is “extremely concerned” about the case, and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has requested that “the life of sportsman Navid Afkari will be spared,” with a similar call by some of the world’s top wrestlers.

Based on court documents that Human Rights Watch reviewed, on October 15, 2019, Branch 1 of the Shiraz Criminal Court sentenced Afkari, 27, a professional wrestler who was a runner-up in the national wrestling competition, to retribution in kind – in this case, the death penalty for the alleged murder of Hasan Turkeman, who appears to have been a law enforcement agent during protests in August 2018 in Shiraz. The court sentenced Vahid to 25 years for allegedly assisting in the murder.

On April 25, 2020, Branch 32 of the supreme court upheld the sentence. The court dismissed the torture allegation, quoting a statement apparently from Navid in which he said in the presence of a lawyer that he had not been tortured and he did not need to see a medical examiner. The court stated that it appears that “under the influence of prison training [referring to being coached to claim torture by other prisoners] and with the assumption that with the denial [of their confessions] they might avoid punishment, the suspects have put forward errors that don’t change the nature of the case.”

However, on September 13, 2019, in a handwritten letter, Navid detailed the torture he says that he experienced in two Shiraz detention centers. It includes beatings on his legs, hands, and abdomen with a baton or a stick, pouring alcohol in his nose, and pulling a plastic bag over his head to the point of suffocation.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented the use of torture to coerce confessions and the state TV’s broadcast of them. In one recent example, the BBC Persian TV channel broadcast a video in January 2019 of a labor activist and journalist, Sepideh Gholian, saying that she was beaten with a cable to force her to confess.

In another case against the three Akfari brothers that Human Rights Watch reviewed, on July 24, 2019, Branch 116 of Shiraz’s Second Criminal Court sentenced Navid and Vahid Afkari to 1 year in prison and 74 lashes for “participation in illegal demonstration and disrupting public order,” and to 3-and-a-half years for “disobeying a law enforcement officer’s order and insulting him.”

The verdict sentenced Habib Afkari, another brother, to 1 year in prison and 74 lashes for “participation in illegal demonstration and disrupting public order,” 4-and-a-half years for “disobeying a law enforcement officer’s order and insulting him,” 2-and-a-half years and financial compensation for “intentional assault with a sharp tool,” and 7-and-a-half years for “assembly and collusion to commit crimes” against the population.

The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) has reported that Branch 1 of Shiraz’s Revolutionary Court also sentenced Navid Afkari to death on the charge of “enmity against God” and two years in prison for insulting the supreme leader, and Vahid to 25 years for assisting, under the same charge.

The indictment for the revolutionary court trial appears to have been issued by Branch 10 of the Shiraz Criminal Court and the national security prosecutor’s office, which accused the three Afkari brothers of “sowing corruption on earth (Isfad fil Arz) through establishing a four-person group opposing the regime with the intention to disrupt national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “assembly and collusion to commit crimes against the population.” Both court cases are under appeal.

On September 5, the Islamic Republic State TV (IRIB) program 20:30 broadcast footage of Navid supposedly re-enacting the murder scene in the presence of the police. On the same day, the human rights group HRANA reported that authorities had transferred the brothers to a different part of the prison with no phone access. On September 6, Mehdi Mahmoudian, an activist who follows the cases of those arrested during the protests, tweeted that after two days of the family waiting outside prison, Navid called his family and said that he and his brothers were being kept together. He also reportedly said that they had been beaten and that they needed to see the medical examiner, but that authorities refused to process their complaint.  

After Turkeman’s murder, media close to Iranian intelligence agencies reported about his funeral, saying he was a law enforcement officer, but most recently they referred to him as an employee of the National Water and Water Waste Management Company.

Under Iranian law, the victim’s family members can forgo their right to ask for retribution in kind.

At least eight other people have been sentenced to death in relation to the protests in Iran over the past two years. On August 5, the authorities executed Mostafa Salehi, convicted of killing a security officer during protests in December 2017 and January 2018 in Isfahan.

After a popular online campaign using the hashtag #Don’tExecute, on July 10, lawyers representing three defendants facing the death penalty announced that the judiciary had halted the executions of Amirhossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi. They were arrested after participating in the November 2019 protests on charges of “taking part in destruction and burning aimed at countering the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The judiciary accepted their pleas for a new trial.

Iran’s security forces have responded to widespread protests over the past 3 years with excessive use of force and mass arrests of protesters and have not conducted transparent investigations into protesters’ deaths. In the most recent example, the authorities used excessive and unlawful lethal force against large-scale protests that began on November 15, 2019. According to Amnesty International, at least 304 people were killed during the protests. On June 1, Mojtaba Zonoor, the head of Iran’s parliamentary national security committee, said that 230 people had been killed. The authorities have not published any detailed investigation or held anyone accountable.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is inherently cruel and irreversible. Iran has the world’s second-highest execution rate, executing 251 people in 2019 alone, according to Amnesty International.

Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party. International law guarantees anyone accused of a crime access to a lawyer at all stages of criminal proceedings.

Under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement, law enforcement officers may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required to achieve a legitimate policing objective. When using force, law enforcement officers should minimize damage and injury and respect and preserve human life. The deliberate use of lethal force is permissible only when it is strictly necessary to protect life.

Under both international law and the Iranian constitution, confession under torture should be inadmissible in court.

“Instead of prosecuting the Afkari brothers and protesters in unfair trials, the authorities should allow for an independent inquiry into the abuses by security forces cracking down on the protests,” Sepehri Far said. “The authorities should ensure anyone accused of a real crime gets a fair trial in accordance with international human rights standards.”

Cambodia: Free Detained Youth, Environmental Activists

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 11, 2020
Click to expand Image Supporters of Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, shout slogans in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Saturday, August 1, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian authorities should immediately drop baseless incitement charges against 14 recently detained youth and environmental activists and unconditionally release them, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities have arrested the 14 since August 2020 for organizing or taking part in peaceful protests. Eleven of them were held for calling for the release of a detained union leader, Rong Chhun. Youth activists had planned an eight-day protest at the designated protest area, called “Freedom Park,” on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. However, the authorities rejected the planners’ notification of the planned protests. On September 7, security forces blocked about 20 protesters outside of Freedom Park from entering the public protest space.

“The Cambodian authorities’ latest wave of arrests of activists shows a highly disturbing disregard not only for freedom of expression and assembly, but for land rights and the environment,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The authorities should stop misusing penal code provisions on incitement to prevent peaceful critics from making public demands of the government.”

The youth and environmental activists arrested are Chum Puthy, Chhoung Pheng, Sar Kanika, Chhoeun Daravy, Hun Vannak, Soung Sophorn, Mean Prom Mony, Venerable Keut Saray, Kong Sam An, Eng Malai, Tha Lavy, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phoung Keorasmey. The authorities had arrested Rong Chhun on July 31 and charged him with incitement following his most recent public advocacy for the land rights of villagers living near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam. Security force cordons had disrupted three previous attempts to protest Chhun’s detention outside Phnom Penh’s municipal court.

Cambodia’s Law on Peaceful Demonstration requires organizers of peaceful protest activities simply to notify the authorities. Article 5 of the law states that “Any group of individuals who wishes to organize a peaceful assembly at any public venue shall notify the competent municipal or provincial territorial authorities in charge of that place in writing.” Article 9 states that officials must send a positive response to the notification unless the protest would fall on a major national holiday or “there is clear information indicating that the demonstration may cause danger or may seriously jeopardize security, safety and public order.”

Section II of the law specifies that a demonstration at a “Freedom Park” and those of fewer than 200 protesters should be allowed unless it threatens public order: the “authorities should use their best efforts to assure that all groups wanting to demonstrate are able to do so and that, to the extent possible, all groups are able to demonstrate in the manner, time, and location they requested.”

While the protesters’ notification to Phnom Penh City Hall stated that about 200 protesters would attend, City Hall’s response letter claimed unconvincingly that the organizers “did not identify who will be participating and the number of participants could be dangerous or could affect security, safety and public order” and that the protesters had “made their appeal on a Facebook page named ‘Active Citizen,’ which shows that their meaning is to incite people against the court’s procedures.” Other Cambodian authorities labeled the protests potential disturbances of “national security” and on that basis sought to justify the government’s response.

In 2013 and 2014, the original Freedom Park, located in central Phnom Penh, was the site of brutal security force attacks against protesters, including union members, workers, and opposition supporters. In 2017, Phnom Penh City Hall moved the designated Freedom Park to the outskirts of the capital in an apparent move to restrict freedom of expression and assembly.

Eng Malai, Hun Vannak, Chhoeun Daravy, Tha Lavy, and Venerable Keut Saray are members of the Khmer Thavrak youth group, which was founded by Hun Vannak in January. Hun Vannak and Chhoeun Daravy, both detained since August 13 for their involvement in protests calling for the release of Rong Chhun, are known for their activism with the environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia.

On September 3, the authorities arrested Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phoung Keorasmey, all activists with Mother Nature Cambodia, and detained them on incitement charges. Their arrests followed their social media actions announcing their plans for Long Kunthea to peacefully march from Phnom Penh’s Wat Phnom temple to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence to raise concerns over a development project to fill the city’s Boeung Tamok lake. The Swedish Embassy in Phnom Penh publicly expressed concern over the arrests and charges against the activists and stated it was closely monitoring events.

On September 7, the Interior Ministry publicly instructed the authorities to take legal action against members of the Khmer Thavrak youth group and Mother Nature Cambodia on the unsupported grounds that their activities constituted incitement and serve to instigate social unrest.

On September 8, The United Nations special rapporteur on Cambodia, Rhona Smith, criticized the arrests and said that Cambodian officials should “ensure that these [activists’] rights are respected and protected and to create an environment in which individuals are able to exercise these rights.” The same day, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, publicly expressed concern about the government’s decision to label peaceful activities of Khmer Thavrak and Mother Nature Cambodia illegal.

Cambodia is currently detaining over 50 people on politically motivated grounds, including opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party activists, youth, environmental activists, and journalists reporting for independent media outlets.

At the 45th UN Human Rights Council session starting on September 14, Smith, the special rapporteur, and the UN’s human rights office in Cambodia will present their annual assessments of the human rights situation in Cambodia.

“The authorities should immediately free all those wrongfully detained and Prime Minister Hun Sen should end the de facto ban on critical protests in Phnom Penh,” Robertson said. “These recurring abuses make it all the more important that the UN Human Rights Council adopt a resolution that increases UN monitoring and reporting on human rights in Cambodia by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.”

Eritrea Busses Thousands of Students to Military Camp

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 11, 2020
Click to expand Image Satellite Imagery of the Sawa military camp, including the Warsai Yikealo Secondary School, recorded in January 2015.  Imagery © DigitalGlobe - Maxar Technologies 2019; Source: Google Earth

Videos and photographs circulating on social media earlier this week showed buses in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, crowded with students, who were not wearing masks, as they were separated from their families and sent off to a military training camp in the country’s west.

Each year, Eritrea’s government forces thousands of secondary school students, some still children, to attend their final school year in the infamous Sawa military camp, where students study but also undergo compulsory military training.

This year’s departures take place amid a lockdown. To curb the pandemic, the government imposed strict movement restrictions and closed schools. Yet it still decided to send the students off to Sawa and risk exposing them to the virus.

That is likely because the final secondary school year in Sawa serves as the government’s main conveyor belt through which it conscripts its citizens into indefinite government service.  

Last year we reported on what life in Sawa looks like: students under military command, with harsh military punishments and discipline, and female students reporting sexual harassment and exploitation. Apart from Sawa’s other defects, dormitory life there is crowded, facilitating the spread of the virus if introduced. The danger is compounded by its very limited health facilities.

This has a devastating impact on students’ futures. From Sawa, those with poor grades are forced into vocational training – and most likely military service. Those with better grades go to college, then into a civilian government job. Students have little to no choice over their assignment.

Former Sawa students abroad have campaigned recently for the government to stop sending students to Sawa, but in vain.

Even in “normal” times, life at Sawa is grim and abusive. During the pandemic, it is likely even more dangerous. Eritrea will not build education back better after the pandemic if it funnels students into military camps. 

Instead of bussing new students to Sawa, the government should allow students serving in Sawa to return home and let them choose where they complete their final year in school, including at public secondary schools closer to home. It should end compulsory military training during secondary school and ensure that no one underage is conscripted.

Eritrea’s youth deserve real reform if they are to have any hope of a brighter future.

UK’s Bid for Brexit at All Costs Will Damage Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 11, 2020
Click to expand Image The Union Flag and European Union flag fly in Parliament Square in central London, September 9, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Empty shelves. Panic buying. Queues outside supermarkets. Earlier this year the British public got an unpleasant taste of what it is like to worry if food will run out.

The shortages, in the early days of the Covid pandemic, occurred despite few disruptions to the food supply. But if the UK government continues with its efforts to sever European Union (EU) ties at all costs, supplies could be badly disrupted, worsening shortages and harming people’s right to food.

The UK left the EU in January 2020 but remains effectively part of the EU’s free trade zone until the end of December.

If the UK and EU fail to reach agreement on future trading arrangements by year’s end, there is a real risk of disruption to food and medicine imports to the UK, as the lorries and ships that bring those goods need to be checked. Considering that the UK imports at least a quarter, and possibly more, of its food from the EU, this is worrying.

The UK government’s own risk assessment from 2019 showed no-deal would disrupt fresh food supplies and drive up prices. And as Human Rights Watch research has found, this would disproportionately affect people on low incomes.

Brexit negotiations are proving difficult, and the UK government’s determination not to be constrained by EU ties has led to policy choices that carry grave risks for people’s rights.

The UK chose not to incorporate into domestic law the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which would have ensured that workers’ and other EU-derived rights, such as equal treatment for part-time workers, remain protected in the future.

The UK refuses to promise to respect European human rights law, even though failing to do so risks EU cooperation on security and criminal justice that helps keep people safe in the UK.

And this week the government signaled that it won’t respect the binding international agreement it reached with the EU last year to ensure that Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland remains open, despite the clear risks of violence if a hard border returns.

The paramount responsibility of any government is to keep people safe. In its drive to sever EU ties, the UK government is failing in that duty.

Bolivia: Justice System Abused to Persecute Opponents

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 11, 2020
Click to expand Image Police present Mauricio Jara, who is facing criminal charges for sharing WhatsApp messages criticizing the interim government and in support of former president Evo Morales, at a press conference on April 22, 2020. © 2020 Guider Arancibia

(Washington, DC) – The interim government of Bolivia is abusing the justice system to persecute associates and supporters of former president Evo Morales, who himself faces terrorism charges that appear to be politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 47-page report, “Justice as a Weapon: Political Persecution in Bolivia,” documents instances of baseless or disproportionate charges, due process violations, infringement of freedom of expression, and excessive and arbitrary use of pretrial detention in cases pursued by the interim government. Human Rights Watch also found examples of abuse of the justice system against Morales opponents during the Morales administration.

“Prosecutors can and should investigate if they have credible information that anyone, including former government officials, has committed a crime,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But it is crucial for justice officials to operate independently and respect basic rights, not to serve as a tool to persecute the political opponents of whatever administration is in power.”

Morales was forced to resign in November 2019 and fled the country amid nationwide protests sparked by allegations of electoral fraud – now disputed – and after the commanders of the armed forces and the police asked him to step down.

Jeanine Áñez, a former senator who became interim president, had a chance to break with the past and ensure judicial independence. Instead, her government has publicly pressured prosecutors and judges to further its interests, leading to criminal investigations of more than 100 people linked to the Morales administration and Morales supporters for alleged sedition or terrorism. Scores more are under criminal investigation for allegedly belonging to a criminal organization, dereliction of duty, and other crimes. Many of the cases appear to be politically motivated.

Human Rights Watch examined thousands of court documents and police reports in 21 of those cases, and, in February 2020, had access to the full file of the terrorism investigation against Morales, consisting of more than 1,500 pages. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 90 people, including Interior Minister Arturo Murillo, Ombudsperson Nadia Cruz, prosecutors, defense attorneys, participants in roadblocks and demonstrations – both for and against Morales – witnesses to violence, and relatives of protesters who were killed.

Prosecutors charged some people with terrorism merely for having phone contact with Morales, Human Rights Watch found. Others have been charged with crimes for exercising their freedom of expression by criticizing the government online.

The report describes the following three cases, among others:

Prosecutors charged Patricia Hermosa, Morales’ attorney and former chief of staff, with terrorism, financing of terrorism, and sedition based solely on her having telephone contact with Morales after he had resigned. She was arrested on January 31, 2020 and was held in pretrial detention until August 5 without access to medical care while pregnant. She had a miscarriage in March. Prosecutors charged a Morales supporter, Mauricio Jara, with sedition, instigation to commit a crime, and crimes against public health, apparently based on his exercise of free speech. As evidence of his criminal activity, police alleged that Jara had called the government “a tyrant” and “dictatorial,” had called the November 2019 killing of at least 10 protesters in Senkata a “massacre,” had “misinformed” others, and had urged people to protest. He is currently being held in pretrial detention. Following Bolivian laws that formally discourage pretrial detention, judge Hugo Huacani granted house arrest to Edith Chávez, a maid for a former Morales administration official whose case is also featured in the report. Hours later, two government lawyers reported the judge to the police for a possible “lack of independence.” Police detained the judge and held him until the next day, when another judge ruled that his arrest had been illegal. The Interior Ministry filed a criminal complaint against Judge Huacani for alleged dereliction of duty and for issuing decisions that violate the law.

Morales, who is in exile in Argentina, has been charged with terrorism and financing of terrorism, each punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Morales is also facing criminal investigation in other cases, though charges have not yet been filed in them.

The terrorism charges against Morales are based on a November 2019 phone call, made days after Morales left office, in which a person alleged to be Morales urged an associate to mobilize protesters to block roads into cities and prevent food from entering. The person says they must “fight, fight, fight,” and vows to “wage a hard battle against the dictatorship.”

Protesters in Bolivia often use the terms “fight” and “battle” to refer to their demonstrations. Blocking roads is also a common means of protest in Bolivia and other countries in the region. Both anti- and pro-Morales protesters blocked roads during the upheaval in October and November. After Morales resigned on November 10, his supporters intensified their protests, blocking main roads and causing fuel and food shortages that resulted in price spikes in some areas.

While most protests were peaceful, some anti- and pro-Morales demonstrators allegedly abducted people identified as supporting the other side, burned homes and other buildings, and committed other acts of violence, including the killing of two anti-Morales protesters in the town of Montero by alleged Morales supporters.

In the recorded conversation, which allegedly took place on November 14 – after these violent incidents – the speakers do not overtly discuss the use of violence or participation in any of the violent acts that had occurred.

Prosecutors allege that Morales ordered acts of violence, but the evidence Human Rights Watch reviewed – primarily consisting of the one phone call – simply does not support such allegations.

“The statements attributed to Morales raise serious concerns, and it is reasonable for prosecutors to investigate whether they constitute a crime under Bolivian law,” Vivanco said. “But using Bolivia’s overbroad terrorism law to seek a 20-year prison sentence against Morales is wholly disproportionate to the conduct reflected in the phone call and appears to be a political attack on Morales and his supporters.”

Egypt: Gang Rape Witnesses Arrested, Smeared

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 11, 2020
Click to expand Image Women chant slogans as they gather to protest sexual harassment in front of the opera house in Cairo on June 14, 2014.  © 2014 Reuters / Asmaa Waguih

(Beirut) – Egyptian security agencies in late August 2020 arbitrarily arrested a man and three women who were witnesses to a high-profile gang rape case from 2014 that recently came to light, Human Rights Watch said today. Security also arrested two of the witnesses’ acquaintances.

The prosecutor general ordered the release of three of the six on August 31 but is pressing charges against all of them for violating laws on “morality” and “debauchery” that are vague, discriminatory, and open to abuse. Pro-government media have subjected them to a coordinated smear campaign, and one of the women has described being abused in detention.

“It is horrifying that Egyptian authorities have arrested the witnesses to a gang rape after encouraging them to come forward instead of protecting them and prosecuting the attackers,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The case against the witnesses and the smear campaign against them and the rape survivor send a chilling message to survivors of sexual violence and witnesses that they can go to prison if they report sexual violence.”

The authorities should immediately drop the charges against the six, offer protection to those who have come forward as witnesses, and prosecute those who are found to have committed the gang rape, Human Rights Watch said.

The case involves a woman who said that several men drugged her, took turns raping her, wrote their initials on her back, and recorded a video of their actions in Cairo’s Fairmont Nile City Hotel in April 2014. The attackers shared the video among their friends, said women’s rights activists, who first raised the case on social media in July 2020. After activists campaigned for weeks, the Office of the Prosecutor General said on August 24 that it had ordered the arrest of a number of suspects, seven of whom the office later said had fled the country. Two more were later arrested.

The authorities had encouraged witnesses of the rape to come forward, which they did in early August. They now stand accused of consensual same-sex sexual conduct, “inciting debauchery,” personal drug use, and “misuse of social media,” a charge frequently used against peaceful government critics.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 4 activists involved in online campaigning against sexual violence, 3 of whom have been in contact with the rape survivor and 2 of whom have been in contact with families of the witnesses and their acquaintances. Human Rights Watch also interviewed a person with knowledge of the case who asked to remain anonymous; a close friend of one of the detained men; a journalist, Basma Mostafa, who has been covering the case for al-Manassa, an independent news website; and two lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights activists.

“These men think they’re so powerful that they filmed multiple rapes with their faces on video because they knew they could get away with it,” one activist said. “The video was circulated among 70 or 80 people.”

The Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency arrested and then pressured the witnesses to alter their accounts while holding them incommunicado from August 28 to 31, three activists said after speaking with the witnesses who were released. Videos and photos showing events in the witnesses’ private lives were leaked online shortly after security forces confiscated the witnesses’ mobile phones and laptops.

“They went into their personal belongings, laptops, and phones, and extracted private things and the next day personal pictures and videos were circulating on social media,” the friend of one of the witnesses’ acquaintances said.

The friend and the journalist, who spoke with lawyers and relatives of the two men and one woman who remain in pretrial detention, said that the authorities subjected two of the detained men to forced anal examinations and one woman a “virginity test” – internationally discredited practices with no scientific validity to “prove” same-sex conduct or “virginity.” These tests violate medical ethics and constitute cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment that can rise to the level of torture and gender-based violence, Human Rights Watch said.

The woman witness who remains in detention said that security officers called her names, provided insufficient food and water, and “constantly humiliated” her, an activist who spoke with her family said. Activists believe she is most likely being held in Cairo’s al-Qanater Women’s Prison.

The accusations relating to private consensual sexual conduct violate the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender. International human rights standards require providing protection and security to complainants and witnesses to gender-based violence before, during, and after legal proceedings.

Activists connected to feminist and LGBT communities in Egypt said they fear a wider crackdown as security forces use content that they obtain from the confiscated devices to identify others. They said they believe that security forces have summoned additional witnesses and victims’ friends for questioning. The 2014 gang rape at the Fairmont Hotel was first reported in July 2020 by “Assault Police,” an Instagram account that has played a leading role in campaigning against sexual violence. The account did not name the suspects but claimed they were from wealthy, influential families. The account administrator deactivated the account for two weeks between late July and mid-August and later stopped posting about the case after receiving “serious threats,” two activists close to the campaign said.

Click to expand Image A screenshot of Assault Police's Instagram account, which has played a leading role in the recent anti-sexual violence campaign in Egypt.     © 2020 Instagram / @assaultpolice

Activists told Human Rights Watch that several other survivors sent them accounts of sexual assault involving the same men as the Fairmont Hotel rape but were too afraid to file complaints. “They sent these videos to their friends like trophies,” a July 26 post on Assault Police said.

“The Egyptian authorities have reinforced a ‘victim blaming’ culture and signaled where they stand on Egypt’s #MeToo movement by silencing those brave enough to speak out,” Begum said. “Egypt should be holding people to account for sexual violence and not persecuting women and men who report and fight such abuse.”

More Information

Two activists said they had several screenshots from the video showing the survivor in a “paralyzed” state and the initials of the suspects that the suspects had written on her back. Activists said that the survivor of the Fairmont assault was 18 at the time. Following the incident, she left Egypt to study abroad and to seek psychological support. A person with knowledge of the case said that the survivor became impregnated as a result of her rape and that she terminated the pregnancy.

When the Assault Police Instagram account was deactivated, the National Council for Women, a governmental body overseen by the presidency, issued a public call on July 29 for victims and witnesses of sexual violence to contact the authorities, saying that the council was following the “threats” against online activists, including on Instagram.

Prosecutor General Hamada al-Sawy said on August 26, 2020 that the Fairmont survivor had filed an official complaint with the council on August 4, and that 7 suspects had left the country between July 27 and 29.

The authorities arrested two suspects in the case, A. and O., on August 27 and August 30, respectively, the prosecution said. A later statement said that the suspect arrested on August 27 was charged in a separate gang rape incident. Activists said this arrest was based on another video submitted to the prosecution, showing this suspect and another man raping another woman in Egypt’s North Coast in 2015. It is not clear why the prosecutors added him to the Fairmont case, but prosecutors in Egypt frequently add suspects from different cases together, which can be in violation of safeguards against mass unfair trials.

Media reports said, and the Lebanese Interior Ministry confirmed, that Lebanese authorities arrested three other suspects between August 27 and 29 in Lebanon, based on Interpol requests. Activists said that to their knowledge, those three suspects had not been extradited to Egypt.

Arrests of Witnesses, Acquaintances

Four witnesses to the Fairmont gang rape, three woman and a man, were arrested after they gave their accounts to the National Council for Women, two activists who have closely followed the case said. The two activists said the rape survivor and witnesses initially did not agree to meet with the council, fearing reprisals and intimidation by the families of the suspects, but that council officials assured them that their identities would be protected.

On August 28 and 29, the National Security Agency arrested the three women witnesses, including an Egyptian-American woman arrested at her home in Cairo at 4 a.m. Officers told her they “wanted her for a chat,” an activist with knowledge of the arrest said. Security forces arrested another witness at her summer house in the Red Sea resort el-Gouna, southeast of Cairo. The authorities held all three women incommunicado and interrogated them until August 31, when they were eventually allowed access to lawyers, three activists said. They said that the officers pressured the women to alter their accounts.

“One witness was made to stand [during interrogations] for hours to make her tired, uncomfortable, and break her down,” one activist who spoke with the released witnesses said. “They kept telling her, ‘You made this up. Better for you to admit it now. You don’t want what’s going to happen to you.’” The witness refused to change her testimony, the activist said.

After security forces arrested the witnesses, activists tried to contact National Council for Women officials but received no response. One activist said a council staff member told her to “calm down” when she expressed concern about the detained witnesses. Human Rights Watch emailed questions about the case to the council on September 3 and September 8 but has received no response.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which oversees the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Egypt is a state party, has called on state parties to “Adopt and implement effective measures to protect and assist women complainants of and witnesses to gender-based violence before, during and after legal proceedings, including by: (i) Protecting their privacy and safety.”

Four activists said that the authorities arbitrarily arrested at least two other people, who are acquaintances of the witnesses. One was allegedly a man who was visiting one of the American-Egyptian woman witnesses when security officials came to arrest her. Security forces unlawfully searched the man’s phone and used photos they found to allege that he has engaged in same-sex conduct as a basis to keep him in custody. Prosecutors renewed his detention, and he could face charges under Egypt’s “debauchery” laws.

While Egyptian law does not explicitly criminalize consensual same-sex conduct, authorities routinely resort to vague “debauchery” and “morality” laws to prosecute people suspected of same-sex conduct or for being gay or transgender. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, since 2014 authorities have waged a campaign of arrests and prosecution against hundreds of people for their perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity.

Security forces also arrested a well-known party organizer who was involved in organizing the 2014 party at the Fairmont Hotel during which the gang rape occurred, although the person with knowledge of the case said the rape survivor did not accuse him of any wrongdoing. Pro-government websites said he was arrested on August 28 in a North Coast resort village. Several websites published his name and private information in the smear campaign based on his perceived sexual orientation.

Security forces have been holding the two men in al-Tagamoa First Police Station, east of Cairo. Authorities have not allowed any family visits for the two since their arrest, a person with knowledge of the case said. Lawyers were reportedly able to attend the prosecution interrogations with the two men, but not see them privately.

The Fairmont Nile City Hotel released a statement on July 31, saying that it is “committed to assisting the relevant authorities should an initial investigation be opened.”

An August 31 statement by Prosecutor General Hamada al-Sawy said that he had ordered 3 people detained pending investigation and ordered the release of 4 others, 3 of them on bail of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$6,300) each. It is not clear which people he is referring to in the statement. As of September 2, at least three of those arbitrarily detained remain in custody, including a woman witness, the party organizer, and the man whom the authorities are alleging has engaged in same-sex conduct.  

The statement said that prosecutors ordered the detainees to be tested by the forensic labs for drugs and two of them to undergo physical examinations.

Two activists said that authorities subjected the two detained men to forced anal examinations, a practice denounced by African and international human rights bodies, which Egyptian authorities routinely carry out to seek “proof” of same-sex conduct.  

Al-Manassa also reported on September 3, citing the lawyer of one of the witnesses, that the authorities subjected at least one of the detained women to the abusive “virginity test.” “Virginity testing” is likewise recognized internationally as a form of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, gender-based violence, and discrimination. The World Health Organization has said that “virginity tests” have no scientific validity and that healthcare workers should never conduct them. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has also called on states parties to repeal “discriminatory evidentiary rules and procedures, including … practices focused on ‘virginity.’”

Prosecutions for consensual sex in private between adults violate the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party. The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has made clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited in upholding any of the rights protected by the treaty, including the right to free expression.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that arrests for same-sex conduct between consenting adults are, by definition, arbitrary. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights explicitly calls on member states, including Egypt, to protect sexual and gender minorities in accordance with the African Charter.

The arbitrarily detained individuals could also face prosecution related to personal drug use. Governments should decriminalize the personal use of drugs, Human Rights Watch has said. Criminalizing personal drug use has failed to eliminate drug abuse, and has had devastating human rights consequences, including undermining the rights to health, access to necessary medications, and privacy; serving as an excuse for grossly disproportionate punishment and abuses in detention; and fueling the operations of organized criminal groups that commit abuses, corrupt authorities, and undermine the rule of law.

Smear Campaign

After their arrest, videos and photos showing scenes of some of the detained witnesses’ private lives have been leaked online. One video shows several women and a man who appear to be drunk, and other videos show intimate behavior. Activists said they believe that security forces leaked the photos and videos to smear and intimidate the witnesses.

The Office of the Prosecutor General said in its August 31 statement that all mobile phones of the people detained were sent to the “Technical Support Administration” in the Interior Ministry to “retrieve all its contents and recover any deleted content and retrieve all conversations made on the communications apps.” One activist, who spoke with some of the released witnesses, said that the National Security Agency had searched the phones and laptops of the witnesses at the time of arrest and “took whatever they could find.”

Since August 31, pro-government websites and journalists have published reports that stigmatize the rape survivor, witnesses, and activists involved in the case. Some government-affiliated media websites are reframing the gang rape as a “group sex party” and alleging that security investigations revealed “the biggest network of homosexuality.” One pro-government journalist, who is also a lawyer, said in a now-removed Facebook post that she submitted a complaint to the prosecutor general about several activists whom she accused of fabricating the rape allegations to “tarnish Egypt’s image” and to “spread homosexuality.”

One activist said that an audio recording, taped secretly, of a private conversation between the rape survivor and her lawyer was leaked over WhatsApp and on social media “after being taken out of context” to make the survivor appear as if she was contradicting her official complaint.   

The mother of one detained witness wrote on her Facebook page on September 2 that many Egyptian journalists received WhatsApp messages from an international number with contents violating her daughter’s privacy. She said her daughter was married to one of the suspects in the rape, who is believed to be in London. Blurred screenshots of the messages the mother posted showed the phone number which sent the messages.

Online Campaigns Combating Sexual Violence

The Egyptian #MeToo movement has become re-energized since late June as many victims and survivors of sexual violence have posted accounts of sexual violence on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. The Assault Police Instagram account emerged in early July and has since published dozens of accounts of assaults, particularly of people from wealthy families. Some of the assault accounts that the page received involved Ahmed Bassam Zaki, 21, who Assault Police said was involved in over 100 sexual assaults, some dating back to 2016.

The campaigning led the authorities to detain Zaki in early July and prosecutors referred him on September 1 to criminal trial on charges of sexual assault of three girls, as well as other complaints about sexual harassment and blackmailing. “We did all the police work for them from scratch,” an activist supporting the campaign said. “We got evidence for them. We got a police report from Spain and testimonies from different countries.… And we got him in jail.”

The campaign against Zaki and his subsequent arrest reignited the #MeToo movement. The National Council for Women said on July 7 that it had received 400 complaints and inquiries, mainly about violence against women, in the first 5 days of July.

Assault Police was also the first to publish an account of the Fairmont case in late July, without naming any suspects. The account called on those with the video recording of the assault to send it to the account administrator. The administrator, Nadeen Ashraf, deactivated the account for about two weeks after the page received “serious threats,” two activists said. Ashraf had remained anonymous until August 20, when she posted a video statement acknowledging her role in the campaign. Assault Police did not publish anything more about the Fairmont case on the account, but other online campaigns began to report on it. “Gang Rapists of Cairo,” another anonymous Instagram account, published the names and photos of several of the alleged rapists.

This is not the first time that the authorities have prosecuted people who report rape. Human Rights Watch reported on the arrest on May 28 of Aya, 17, who is a social media influencer known as “Menna Abdelaziz.” She had posted a video online on May 22, in which her face appeared bruised, saying she was beaten by a group of young men and women, and that the men also raped her, filmed the acts, and blackmailed her with the footage. The prosecution stated that she had been detained pending investigation as a victim of sexual assault but also as a suspect in morality-related offenses for her videos.

Serious gaps remain in Egypt’s laws and practices relating to sexual violence and treatment of survivors. On August 16, the Egyptian Parliament approved government-sponsored amendments to the Criminal Procedural Code, following reports about the Zaki case, to ensure anonymity and protect the identities of victims and witnesses in sexual violence cases and to punish those who leak such information. President al-Sisi has not yet signed the amendments into law.

If enacted, this would come after amendments to the penal code passed in 2014 that defined sexual harassment for the first time and strengthened its punishment. But the law falls short of international standards for the definition of rape as it should include all forms of penetration without consent or in coercive circumstances that negate consent, including vaginal, anal, and oral penetration by any body part or by other instruments, Human Rights Watch said.

Calls by Egyptian women’s rights organizations and activists over the years for a comprehensive law on violence against women and a national strategy to enforce the new approved laws have largely not led to action by the authorities.

The authorities should use available UN guidance, such as the UN Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women, to set out components on combating violence against women, including protection of survivors and witnesses through trained officers and providers. Sexual violence and harassment have plagued Egyptian society in recent decades as survivors are often blamed, and authorities have done little to prosecute suspects or to challenge discriminatory norms that underpin such violence.

A 2013 survey by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) reported that 99 percent of women in Egypt interviewed experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. The Egyptian authorities are required to act under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Egypt is a state party, and Egypt’s constitution to protect “women against all forms of violence.”

Pakistan’s Hypocrisy on Press Freedom

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 10, 2020
Click to expand Image Pakistani police escort Mir Shakilur Rehman to court following his arrest in Lahore, Pakistan, March 13, 2020. © 2020 K.M. Chaudhry/AP Photo

Last week, Prime Minister Imran Khan asserted there is no media crackdown in Pakistan, and that he and his government are far more “unprotected” than the media. Mir Shakilur Rehman, editor-in-chief of the Jang group, the largest media organization in Pakistan, and who has been in pretrial detention since March 12, 2020, would likely disagree.

Rehman had been arrested in Lahore by the government’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-corruption agency, on charges relating to a 34-year-old property transaction. Rehman, 63, had requested bail on grounds of ill-health, but on July 8, the Lahore High Court denied his request. The Supreme Court Bar Association and the Pakistan Bar Council, the top elected bodies of lawyers in the country, criticized the ruling as “disappointing and painful.”

The NAB has been widely criticized as being used for political purposes and it’s evident that the charges against Rehman were politically motivated. Rehman’s ordeal epitomizes the fast-shrinking space for dissent and criticism in Pakistan.

The Jang Group alleges that since 2018, its reporters, editors, and producers have received more than a dozen threatening letters for its critical reporting of the NAB. GEO TV, a private television channel that is part of Jang Group, was temporarily forced off the air and audience access was restricted as punishment for editorials criticizing the government.

Pakistani authorities frequently use prolonged pretrial detention as a form of punishment and intimidation. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has stated that “pretrial detention should be an exception and as short as possible.”

In Pakistan, arbitrary arrest, detention, and baseless criminal prosecutions are used as instruments of press censorship. So long as Rehman and others in the media are punished for practicing journalism, Prime Minister Khan’s statement that “I don’t mind criticism” is not worth the paper it won’t be printed on.

Rwanda: Rusesabagina Was Forcibly Disappeared

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 10, 2020
Click to expand Image Paul Rusesabagina, who was detained on August 27, 2020, is paraded in front of the media in handcuffs at the headquarters of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau in Kigali, Rwanda on August 31. © 2020 Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

(Nairobi) – The government of Rwanda’s arrest of a prominent critic of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) amounted to an enforced disappearance, a serious violation of international law. Rwanda should immediately grant the government opponent, Paul Rusesabagina, access to legal counsel of his choosing, confidential consultations, and regular contact with his family. They should allow him promptly to exercise his right to challenge the legality of his arrest, represented by legal counsel of his choosing before an independent tribunal applying international human rights norms.

Rusesabagina, who fled to Belgium in 1996 and is now a Belgian citizen living in the United States, traveled from the US to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on August 27, 2020. Family members told Human Rights Watch they exchanged WhatsApp messages with him that evening, but that they were not able to contact him again, and knew nothing of what happened to him until the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) announced it had Rusesabagina in custody in Kigali, Rwanda, on August 31. Rusesabagina’s family were not able to speak with him until September 8.

“Rwanda has an established track record of using unlawful, cloak-and-dagger methods to target those it perceives to be a threat to the ruling party,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that Rwanda did not pursue Rusesabagina through lawful extradition proceedings suggests the authorities do not believe their evidence or fair trial guarantees would stand up to scrutiny before an independent tribunal, and so opted to circumvent the rule of law.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with three family members and one of Rusesabagina’s lawyers, and reviewed publicly available information, including data on flights between Dubai and Kigali and interviews given by President Paul Kagame and the spokesperson of the Investigation Bureau.

Rusesabagina is best known as the manager of the Hotel Mille Collines, a luxury hotel in central Kigali where hundreds of people sought protection during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. After the genocide he fled Rwanda, fearing for his safety. He later became a fierce critic of the government of Rwanda and co-founded the opposition Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (Mouvement rwandais pour le changement démocratique, MRCD), a coalition of opposition groups, which has an armed wing known as the National Liberation Forces (Forces de libération nationale, FLN). The FLN has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Rwanda’s Southern Province since 2018.

More than 10 days after Rwanda acknowledged that Rusesabagina was in their custody, the authorities have failed to provide a consistent or full account of how he was apprehended and came to be in their custody. In particular, Rwandan authorities have not disclosed in whose custody Rusesabagina was when he was detained in Dubai on August 27 until his reappearance in Kigali on August 31.

Rusesabagina spoke to three family members over the phone on September 8. A family member told Human Rights Watch they are concerned that Rusesabagina was not speaking freely because two lawyers who are not included in the defense team they put together were present during the conversation. Family members also said that the two lawyers were present during a visit by Belgian consulate staff on September 7.

It is disputed whether Rusesabagina has been given access to a lawyer of his choosing, as Rwandan authorities confirmed to the media they had turned away a lawyer who presented himself as authorized by Rusesabagina’s family to represent him.

Rusesabagina’s family members told Human Rights Watch they are concerned that Rusesabagina is being given different medication than he normally takes for his health issues.

Rwandan authorities initially said they arrested Rusesabagina through international cooperation, but on September 8 seemed to backtrack, suggesting they alone arrested Rusesabagina and other countries only helped earlier investigations. If so, this means that Rwandan agents were operating on UAE soil to detain him.

An unnamed UAE official quoted in a CNN article said Rusesabagina had left the country “legally” on a private jet to Rwanda several hours after arriving in the UAE. A report by Radio France Internationale confirmed that a Bombardier Challenger 605 jet owned by Gainjet company – which has an office in Kigali and is regularly used by Rwandan officials, including the president – left Dubai’s Al Maktoum international airport around 1 a.m. on August 28 and arrived in Kigali airport hours later.

On September 6, President Kagame denied allegations of kidnapping: “There was no kidnap…. He got here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do … it was actually flawless.”

Rusesabagina, while in custody at Remera Police Station, was presented for an interview to The East African on September 3, in which he declined to answer questions about his arrest and arrival in Rwanda. In his interview with The East African, Rusesabagina said he was being given access to food, medication, and medical assistance and was in the process of choosing his legal counsel. It is highly suspicious that a criminal suspect should give an “exclusive” press interview before he has been granted access to his lawyers, consular services, or contact with his family, Human Rights Watch said.

Rwandan authorities should urgently provide a complete and corroborated account of how Rusesabagina was apprehended and transferred to Rwanda, Human Rights Watch said. Based on Human Rights Watch research examining publicly available information, Rusesabagina was in the custody of the Rwandans or their proxies as of the night of August 27 but his detention was not acknowledged by the Rwandans until August 31, meaning he was forcibly disappeared for at least three days.

When authorities deprive someone of their liberty and refuse to acknowledge the detention, or conceal the person’s whereabouts, they are committing an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law and prohibited under all circumstances. Those involved in and responsible for such acts should be held criminally responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

The lawful detention and transfer of a suspect from one country to another to face criminal proceedings should be accomplished through extradition proceedings, overseen by an independent tribunal to verify the legality of the extradition request and conduct an assessment of whether the suspect’s rights, including to protection from inhuman treatment, due process, and a fair trial, will be guaranteed. The fact that Rwandan authorities circumvented the legal process of extradition in Rusesabagina’s case seriously undermines their claims as to the legitimacy and good faith of their efforts to prosecute him.

Under the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Convention against Torture”), which the Rwanda and the UAE ratified in 2008 and 2012, respectively, no one is to be sent to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that they might be tortured or mistreated. This obligation has been interpreted to require governments to provide a mechanism for people to challenge decisions to transfer them to another country.

Belgian authorities should urgently complete an investigation into Rusesabagina’s handover to Rwanda and publish its findings without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Rwandan authorities’ handling of this case so far has flouted many of the protections enshrined in international law, raising serious concerns about Rusesabagina’s well-being and right to a fair trial in Rwanda,” Mudge said. “The gravity of the charges against Rusesabagina do not give Rwandan authorities free rein to resort to the crime of enforced disappearance and ignore due process and international fair trial standards.”

Fair Trial Concerns for Longtime Government Opponent

Over the years, Rusesabagina has become a prominent critic of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and has accused Kagame of arming secret militias. In December 2018, Rusesabagina denounced Kagame’s government in a video on YouTube and called for the “use [of] any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda as all political means have been tried and failed.” In the video, he pledges “unreserved support” to the FLN, the armed wing of the MRCD. Since 2018, the FLN has claimed responsibility for several attacks around Nyungwe forest, Southern Province, near the border with Burundi.

In April 2019, Rwandan judicial authorities confirmed that Callixte Nsabimana (also known as “Sankara”), a leader of the movement and the spokesperson for the FLN, was in their custody, several weeks after he had been reported missing by his family. His family told the media he was kidnapped in the Comoros, while Rwandan authorities said he was extradited through “international cooperation.”

The Rwandan foreign affairs minister at the time, Richard Sezibera, told the media “he was arrested and brought [to Rwanda]” but did not give details of where and through which procedure he was transferred. Nsabimana pleaded guilty to all charges against him, which include forming an illegal armed group, terrorism, murder, kidnap, and genocide denial.

On September 6, Kagame said: “Rusesabagina heads a group of terrorists that have killed Rwandans. He will have to pay for these crimes. Rusesabagina has the blood of Rwandans on his hands.” The president’s statements, made before any independent judicial process has determined Rusesabagina’s guilt, undermine the prospects that he will get a fair trial in Rwanda. This has often been the case with other alleged criminal suspects whom the government accused of having links with the opposition and armed groups, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 9, Rusesabagina was reportedly brought to the National Public Prosecution Authority and his file transferred to the prosecution. Rusesabagina should be provided access to legal counsel of his choosing during any interrogation or hearing, Human Rights Watch said.

Under Rwanda’s counterterrorism law, a terrorism suspect can be provisionally detained for up to 15 days, renewable for up to 90 days. However, article 9(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power.”

The Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the ICCPR, has said that the delay between the arrest of an accused and the time before they are brought before a judicial authority “should not exceed a few days.”

Based on all relevant human rights norms, Human Rights Watch’s position is that anyone detained by state authorities for whatever reason should, within 48 hours from the start of their detention, be physically brought before an independent judicial officer to be allowed to challenge the legality of their detention, barring extraordinary circumstances that make it impossible to do so. In any event, the period of 15 days permitted under Rwandan law violates international law and Rwanda’s treaty obligations.

On September 7, Rusesabagina’s lawyers filed an urgent appeal to Dr. Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

On August 31, 2020, the Belgian and US governments told the Associated Press they had no information on the case.

Rusesabagina’s lawyers based in the US said that in the past he had “endured break-ins at his home, received death threats, and survived an assassination attempt in 1996.”

Rusesabagina, a US green card holder, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005 and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2011. On September 2, Assistant Secretary for the US Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy tweeted that the US expects the Rwandan government to provide humane treatment, adhere to the rule of law, and provide a fair and transparent legal process for Rusesabagina.

Dissidents Targeted in Rwanda

Rusesabagina’s prima facie illegal forced return to Rwanda takes place in the context of a well-documented pattern of repression of Rwandan government critics, both inside and outside Rwanda. The government has arrested, detained, and prosecuted critics and government opponents in politically motivated trials in Rwanda, and repeatedly threatened others outside the country. Some have been physically attacked and even killed.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented systematic patterns of torture, enforced disappearances, illegal and arbitrary detention, unfair trials, and other serious human rights violations in military detention centers in Rwanda, from 2010 to 2016, in clear violation of Rwandan and international law. 

These illegal detention methods were found to be designed to extract information from real or suspected members or sympathizers of armed opposition groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR), an armed group based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, some of whose members took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In trials observed by Human Rights Watch since 2010, judges put pressure on defendants accused of terrorism-related charges and prevented them from testifying about their unlawful transfer or detention.

Most recently, Rwandan authorities failed to conduct a credible and transparent investigation into the suspicious death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo, a well-known singer, in February 2020. Rwandan authorities claimed he had “strangled himself” in his cell at Remera Police Station. Mihigo, a government critic previously prosecuted and imprisoned for four years, had expressed concern to Human Rights Watch shortly before his death that he faced a serious risk of being killed by government agents.

Mihigo was held incommunicado in an unknown location for nine days in April 2014, where he said he was beaten, threatened, and forced to confess to crimes with which he was later charged. In February 2015, the High Court in Kigali sentenced him to 10 years in prison for alleged offenses of forming a criminal gang, conspiracy to murder, and conspiracy against the established government or the president. He was released in September 2018 after a presidential pardon. He was rearrested in February 2020 at the Burundi border.

After years of threats, intimidation, mysterious deaths, and high profile, politically motivated trials, few opposition parties remain active or make public comments on government policies.

In 2019, three members of the unregistered Forces démocratiques unifiées (FDU)-Inkingi opposition party were reported missing or found dead. In September, Syldio Dusabumuremyi, the party’s national coordinator, was stabbed to death. At the time, the Investigation Bureau announced it had two men in custody. Eugène Ndereyimana, also a member of the FDU-Inkingi, was reported missing on July 15, after he failed to arrive for a meeting in Nyagatare, in Rwanda’s Eastern Province. Anselme Mutuyimana, an assistant to the FDU-Inkingi’s then-leader, Victoire Ingabire, was found dead in March with signs of strangulation. The Investigation Bureau said it had opened investigations into the cases.

In December 2019, the Rwandan Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of two former military officials, although the court reduced their sentences to 15 years each. On March 31, 2016, the Military High Court of Kanombe sentenced Col. Tom Byabagamba and retired Brig. Gen. Frank Rusagara to 21 and 20 years in prison, respectively, on charges including inciting insurrection and tarnishing the government’s image. Human Rights Watch condemned their convictions for criticizing the authorities and government policies and the use of unreliable evidence in their trial, including reports of ill-treatment and inadequately treated health problems in detention.

Dissidents Targeted Abroad

In addition to the repression of critical voices inside Rwanda, dissidents and real or perceived critics outside the country – in neighboring Uganda and Kenya, as well as farther afield in South Africa and Europe – have been victims of attacks and threats. 

The victims of the attacks abroad have tended to be political opponents or outspoken critics of the Rwandan government or President Kagame himself. Former RPF officials who have turned against President Kagame and become opponents in exile have particularly been targets of attacks and threats. There are similarities between attacks in high-profile cases; for example, the assassinations of former Minister of Interior Seth Sendashonga in 1998 and former Head of External Intelligence Patrick Karegeya in 2014, and the attempted assassination of former army Chief of Staff Kayumba Nyamwasa in 2010, the former in Kenya, and the latter two in South Africa.

Karegeya, the former head of Rwanda’s external intelligence services and a prominent government opponent exiled in South Africa, was found murdered in a hotel room in Johannesburg on January 1, 2014. In 2019, South Africa’s National Prosecution Authority issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans accused of murdering him. During an inquest into Karegeya’s murder, South Africa’s special investigative unit said in written testimony that Karegeya’s murder and attacks on Rwanda’s former army chief of staff Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa “were directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government.”

Following his murder, the Rwandan president, prime minister, and ministers of foreign affairs and defense all publicly branded Karegeya as a traitor and an enemy, implying that he got what he deserved. 

Some Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers faced security threats in their country of asylum, particularly in Uganda. Armed men abducted Joel Mutabazi, a former presidential bodyguard in Rwanda with refugee status in Uganda, on August 20, 2013 from a safe-house in a suburb of the capital, Kampala, where he had been staying since escaping an attempt on his life in Uganda in July 2012. He was released the same day, thanks to intervention by the Ugandan police.

On October 25, 2013, he was reported missing from another location where he was living under 24-hour Ugandan police protection. His whereabouts were unknown for six days. On October 31, the Rwandan police confirmed he was detained in Rwanda but refused to disclose where he was held. On November 13, he appeared before a military court in Kigali with 14 co-accused, charged with terrorism and other offenses. The Ugandan government claimed that a Ugandan police officer had erroneously handed Mutabazi to the Rwandan police, without following correct legal procedures.

In October 2014, a military court found Mutabazi guilty of terrorism, forming an armed group, and other offenses linked to alleged collaboration with an exiled opposition group and the FDLR. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Mutabazi and several co-defendants told the judges they had been tortured and forced to sign statements. The judges did not order any investigation, but the president of the court said at the end of the trial that the court had sentenced several defendants to long prison terms because they had lied about being tortured.

Video Demonstrates Chechnya Leadership’s Brutality

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 10, 2020

A video circulating on Russian social media shows a young man apparently being forced to penetrate himself with a glass bottle: a forced punishment for allegedly helping to “spread lies” about Chechen authorities. It once again highlights the Chechen leadership’s unrelenting brutality and Moscow’s active tolerance of their lawlessness and violence. Today, Novaya Gazeta reported that according to their sources, the man in the video, 19-year-old Salman Tepsurkayev, was kidnapped by Chechen security officials on September 5 and taken to the Terek Special Rapid Response Police Compound in Grozny.

Click to expand Image Graphic circulating on Russian social media in support of  the Telegram channel "1ADAT". 

Tepsurkayev is a moderator for the Telegram channel 1ADAT, which routinely features dissident voices, including those critical of Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Kremlin’s complicity in human rights abuses in Chechnya. In June, 1ADAT extensively covered the suspicious death of Madina Umaeva, a young Chechen woman who had suffered domestic violence for years. 1ADAT published a video of Kadyrov personally pressuring Umaeva’s mother to stop seeking justice for what she believes is her daughter’s murder. At the time, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Russia’s chief investigative agency calling on them to take the case under their control. This week we received an official response saying the authorities saw no grounds for a criminal investigation. 

Government critics and other undesirables in the Chechen Republic risk retaliation from a ruthless security apparatus, and scant avenues for recourse if they fall victim to it. Kadyrov controls virtually all aspects of social life, including politics, religion, academic discourse, and family matters. In 2017 and 2019, Chechen authorities orchestrated lethal purges of men perceived to be gay or bisexual. No matter how egregious the abuses, Moscow does nothing to provide accountability.

Public humiliation of people who speak out isn’t new in Chechnya. Umaeva’s mother was forced to apologize on local television for speaking to the press and demanding an investigation into her daughter’s death. But even by the Chechen government’s despicable standards, the recent video of Tepsurkayev is particularly violent. He is still missing and his fate unknown.

Despite repeated appeals by key international interlocuters, the Russian government has done nothing to rein in Chechnya’s leadership. The Tepsurkayev video is further evidence that the Kremlin’s complicity is fueling impunity and giving Chechen authorities the green light to resort to unthinkable brutality to instill terror and eliminate all forms of dissent.

Social Media Platforms Remove War Crimes Evidence

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 10, 2020
Click to expand Image YouTube, which is owned by Google, says it is implementing “cutting-edge machine-learning technology” designed to identify and remove millions of pieces of uploaded content, including content identified as “violent or graphic,” “hateful and abusive,” a “promotion of violence and violent extremism,” and “spam, misleading, or scams.” © 2017 Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Social media platforms are taking down online content they consider terrorist, violently extremist, or hateful in a way that prevents its potential use to investigate serious crimes, including war crimes, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. While it is understandable that these platforms remove content that incites or promotes violence, they should ensure that this material is archived so it can possibly be used to hold those responsible to account.

The 42-page report, “‘Video Unavailable’: Social Media Platforms Remove Evidence of War Crimes,” urges all stakeholders, including social media platforms, to come together to develop an independent mechanism to preserve potential evidence of serious crimes. They should ensure that the content is available to support national and international investigations, as well as research by nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and academics. Rights groups have been urging social media companies since 2017 to improve transparency and accountability around content takedowns.

“Some of the content that Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms are taking down has crucial and irreplaceable value as evidence of human rights atrocities,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With prosecutors, researchers, and journalists increasingly relying on photographs and videos posted publicly on social media, these platforms should be doing more to ensure that they can get access to potential evidence of serious crimes.”

Social media content, particularly photographs and videos, posted by perpetrators, victims, and witnesses to abuses, has become increasingly central to some prosecutions of war crimes and other serious crimes, including at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and national proceedings in Europe. This content also helps the media and civil society document atrocities and other abuses, such as a chemical weapons attacks in Syria, a security force crackdown in Sudan, and police abuse in the United States.

For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed seven people who work at civil society organizations, three lawyers, two archivists, one statistician, two journalists, one former prosecutor with experience in international tribunals, five individuals within internationally mandated investigations, three national law enforcement officers, one European Union official, and one Member of the European Parliament.

It also reviewed Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube content that Human Rights Watch has cited in its reports to support allegations of abuse since 2007. From 5,396 total pieces of content referenced in 4,739 reports – the vast majority of which were published in the last five years -, it found that 619 (or 11 percent) had been removed.

In letters to Facebook, Twitter, and Google sent in May 2020, Human Rights Watch shared the links to this content that had been taken down and asked the companies if Human Rights Watch could regain access for archival purposes, a request which was not granted.

In recent years, social media companies including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have ramped up efforts to take posts from their platforms offline that they consider violate their rules, community guidelines, or standards according to their terms of service. This includes content they consider to be terrorist or violent extremist, hate speech, organized hate, hateful conduct, and violent threats.

The companies take down posts that users flag and content moderators review. But increasingly they also use algorithms to identify and remove offending posts, in some cases so quickly that no user sees the content before it is taken down. Governments globally have encouraged this trend, calling on companies to take down dangerous content as quickly as possible. It is unclear whether or how long social media companies store various types of content they take down or block from their sites.

Companies are right to promptly take content offline that could incite violence, otherwise harm individuals, or jeopardize national security or public order, so long as the standards they apply comport with international human rights and due process principles. Permanent removal of such content, however, can make it inaccessible and hamper important criminal accountability efforts.

No mechanism yet exists to preserve and archive social media takedowns that could provide crucial evidence of abuses, much less to ensure access by those who investigate international crimes. In most countries, national law enforcement officials can compel social media companies to hand over the content through the use of warrants, subpoenas, and court orders, but international investigators have limited ability to access the content because they lack law enforcement powers and standing.

Independent organizations and journalists have played a vital role in documenting atrocities around the globe, often when there were no judicial bodies conducting investigations. In some cases, this documentation has triggered judicial proceedings. However, they also have no ability to access taken-down content, and in common with official investigators, will not have notice of material artificial intelligence systems take down before anyone views it.

A European law enforcement officer investigating war crimes told Human Rights Watch that “content being taken down has become a daily part of my work experience. I am constantly being confronted with possible crucial evidence that is not accessible to me anymore.”

Holding individuals accountable for serious crimes may help deter future violations and promote respect for the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said. Criminal justice efforts may also help restore dignity to victims by acknowledging their suffering and helping to create a historical record that protects against revisionism by those who deny that atrocities occurred. International law obligates countries to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

It is vital for social media companies and all relevant stakeholders to jointly develop a plan to establish an independent mechanism to take on the role of liaison with social media platforms and to preserve this content. The archive should be responsible for sorting and granting access to the content for research and investigative purposes, in accord with human rights and data privacy standards.

In parallel with these efforts, social media platforms should be more transparent about their existing takedown procedures, including through the increased use of algorithms, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that their own systems are not overly broad or biased and that they provide meaningful opportunities to appeal content removal.

“We appreciate that the task before social media companies is not easy, including striking the right balance between protecting free speech and privacy, and taking down content that can cause serious harm,” Wille said. “Consultations that draw on the experiences of other historical archives could lead to a real breakthrough and help the platforms protect free speech and public safety, while also ensuring that accountability efforts aren’t hampered.”

Libya: Armed Groups Violently Quell Protests

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 10, 2020
Click to expand Image Protesters chant slogans during anti-corruption demonstrations in the capital Tripoli’s Martyrs' Square on August 25, 2020.  © 2020 AFP/Getty Images

(Beirut) – Armed groups in Tripoli linked with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) used lethal force to disperse largely peaceful anti-corruption protests in late August 2020 and arbitrarily detained, tortured, and disappeared people in the capital, Human Rights Watch said today.

Between August 23 and 29, armed groups in Tripoli arbitrarily detained at least 24 protesters, including a journalist covering the event, beat some of them, and used machine guns and vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft weapons to disperse protesters, wounding some and allegedly killing one. The groups included the GNA Interior Ministry-linked Al-Nawasi Brigade under the command of Mustafa Qaddour, the Special Deterrence Force under Abdelraouf Kara, and the armed group known as General Security, under Emad Al-Tarabulsi.

“These armed groups used heavy weapons and armored vehicles to muzzle dissent,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Tripoli authorities should waste no time holding accountable the armed groups members and commanders who detained and abused mostly peaceful protesters.”

Large-scale demonstrations kicked off in Tripoli, Misrata, and Zawiyah on August 23. A newly established grassroots youth movement, Harak Al-Shabab 23/08, organized the protests to criticize authorities in the east and west for “unbearable” living conditions. Protesters railed against power cutoffs that can last up to three days and demanded social justice and elections. Protests also began on August 24 in Zliten and Khoms, two cities east of Tripoli, and in Sebha and Obari in the south.

Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha condemned the violent conduct of armed groups, including kidnapping and forcibly disappearing protesters, and was subsequently temporarily suspended.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 people about the protests and violent response, including protesters, relatives and friends of protesters, journalists, lawyers, and activists, and reviewed photographs and videos of security forces using excessive force that were sent directly to researchers or obtained from social media. 

The protests in Tripoli and elsewhere were largely peaceful, three witnesses who attended one or more of them told Human Rights Watch. The Tripoli-based armed groups linked with the GNA responded by forcibly rounding up protesters and detaining them, initially in undisclosed locations, relatives of those who were detained and subsequently released said. In some cases, family members only found out where their detained relative had been held after the release.

Since August 24, armed groups have been quietly releasing detainees, and the current number of detained protesters in Tripoli remains unknown.

According to a media report from September 6, the General Prosecutor’s office announced that 13 protesters had been released and that “around 8 remained in detention over suspected participation in riots.” They added that doctors had examined some of the injured protesters but did not say how many people in total were detained or injured.

Criminal justice authorities should promptly present all remaining detainees to a judge to determine the legality of their detention and should either charge them promptly with a crime or release them, as detention before trial should be the exception not the rule, Human Rights Watch said.

Relatives and friends of two released protesters who were held for at least four days at a prison in Mitiga Military Base in Tripoli said both men reported being repeatedly beaten and forced to sign pledges that they would not participate in future demonstrations. The prison is run by the Special Deterrence Force under the command of Khalid Al-Buni.

A relative of one of the Harak Al-Shabab 23/08 organizers, who was arrested on August 23 by unidentified armed men in Tripoli with six others after they had left the protest area, said that the family had no contact with their detained relative and did not know the place of detention. The detainee was subsequently released on September 6.

Three witnesses said that the Nawasi Brigade, which controls the perimeter around Martyrs’ Square, was primarily responsible for using machine guns and heavy weapons to disperse protesters and arbitrarily arresting protesters there on August 23 and on subsequent days.

Two protesters said that police forces in Martyrs’ Square on August 23 and thereafter did not intervene to protect them. Video footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch corroborates this allegation, with a video posted on Facebook on August 23 showing police cars parked along the square as armed groups fired heavy weapons and machine guns to disperse protesters while the police made no attempt to protect them.

On August 26, the GNA Presidential Council imposed a four-day curfew, citing a spread of Covid-19. It extended the curfew for 10 days on August 30, banning outside movement from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., which some protesters say they saw as an attempt to prevent them from demonstrating and have mostly ignored.

Years of armed conflict and neglect have severely damaged Libya’s health system. On September 8, the National Center for Disease Control announced a record 1,000 new infections in the country. The World Health Organization declared Libya to be at high risk from Covid-19 and said that the country had weak capacities to detect and respond to the virus. 

The authorities can restrict public gatherings and freedom of movement based on legitimate public health concerns around Covid-19, the United Nations expert on the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association has said, but the restrictions must be “necessary and proportionate.” In addition, “the [health] crisis is no justification for excessive force to be used when dispersing assemblies.”

Three protesters interviewed said that the protests they saw on August 23 in Martyrs’ Square were largely peaceful, but that some demonstrators attacked one or more cars with stones or other objects, damaging at least one police vehicle. None of the witnesses who attended protests between August 23 and 29 saw any protesters use firearms.

Violence by some protesters, including stone-throwing, that is not an immediate threat to life, does not justify the authorities’ use of lethal force, Human Rights Watch said. Armed groups affiliated with the GNA and assuming security roles in Tripoli should immediately end the use of machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and anti-aircraft weapons to disperse protesters who pose no threat to their or others’ lives. The General Prosecutor’s Office should open an independent investigation into the abuses and make public the results.

International donors, most notably Turkey, which is supplying arms and ammunition to the GNA and its affiliated armed groups, should ensure they are not funding or contributing to this abuse.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require police to use nonviolent means, such as demands to vacate an area, before resorting to force. The police should adhere to a principle of measured escalation of force. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act proportionately to the threat posed and seek to minimize damage and injury.

“Political divisions and security concerns do not justify armed groups coming at protesters with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons to intimidate them and disperse protests,” Salah said. “Tripoli authorities should investigate and publicly disclose the names of the armed groups and commanders who failed to comply with basic policing standards and hold them to account.”

Witness Evidence

Because of fear of reprisals, those who spoke to Human Rights Watch have asked that their names be withheld.

Libya Alahrar TV, a Libyan satellite TV station, reported that a group of protesters harassed and attacked a TV crew from the channel on August 23 while they were preparing to cover the protests at Martyrs’ Square.

One Tripoli resident who attended the August 23 protest in Martyrs’ Square said that he observed a man in civilian clothes carrying a shotgun and shooting at protesters in the square before retreating toward armed groups who were stationed on the coastal road. This witness also observed a vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft weapon shooting at protesters:

When we saw violence take over, we wanted to leave the protest area as fast as possible, and almost ran into a pickup truck with a 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft weapon. We had barely made it 6 or 7 meters when the shooting began. It was just before the call to prayers, around 7:30 p.m. I was too preoccupied trying to make it out and so did not focus on any insignia other than it was a beige pickup truck. There were 10 or 12 people all wearing military uniforms with the exception of 1 militia member who was in civilian clothes.

Human Rights Watch reviewed video footage from the incident and corroborated the use of a vehicle-mounted 14.5-mm anti-aircraft weapon.

Another Tripoli protester said that protests on August 23 and 26 were met with violence, and that he recognized a member of Al-Nawasi Brigade who was shooting at protesters on August 23. He said protesters were mostly peaceful, with few exceptions:

On August 23, armed groups used anti-aircraft weapons against protesters and other weapons for around one-and-a-half hours. Initially they were shooting in the air. On August 26, a big convoy with over 50 military vehicles showed up at Martyrs’ Square that included Al-Nawasi Brigade, Bab Tajoura Brigade, and Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, and I saw many people being arrested. Although the police were present during the demonstrations on these days they did not intervene when armed groups used machine guns and heavy weapons and arrested people under the eyes and ears of the Interior Ministry. Al-Nawasi Brigade has power over police forces and they in return don’t have confidence to do anything.

A journalist covering the protests on August 23 said there was a lot of anger among the youth because of miserable living conditions and lack of opportunities in the country:

When I got to Martyrs’ Square at around 4 p.m., I saw people between 16 years and 40 years participate. People are ready to explode because there’s no water, no electricity, no cash or opportunities. People were calling for the removal of politicians and demanded an investigation into corruption allegations. When the shooting started it was directed above the heads and not at the protesters, and only when protesters responded with swearing did the armed groups start to shoot directly at protesters. I saw injured people being taken away to the Tripoli Medical Center, but then they were transferred to another hospital.

Media Analysis

Multiple social media posts claimed that an armed group known as General Security in Ghot al-Shaal, west of Tripoli, shot and killed a protester, Sanad Omar al-Suwai’i al-Megrahi, after an argument at a checkpoint that the group manned. Human Rights Watch reviewed two photos allegedly of al-Megrahi’s dead body that were posted on social media. Human Rights Watch could not verify the identity of the body or the cause or circumstances of death. The General Prosecutor should investigate the alleged killing, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed four photographs posted on social media that show an unidentified man with an injury to his right thigh that is consistent with an entry wound from a projectile fired from a firearm. The photographs were first uploaded on August 23 at 7:53 p.m. by a journalist who said that the man was wounded after protesters where shot on Tariq Al-Shatt, the coastal road adjacent to Martyrs’ Square.

On the evening of August 23, a Facebook user published four consecutive videos, three of which were livestreams recording the area around Martyrs’ Square. In these videos, gunfire, including from machine guns, can be heard. In the video posted at 7:51 p.m., at least three police vehicles can be seen in Martyrs’ Square making no apparent attempt to take any action as protestors flee from gunfire, but neither the origin nor direction of the fire can be established.

Two videos posted on Facebook on the evening of August 26 and morning of August 27, respectively, show men wearing camouflage clothing in and around Martyrs’ Square, carrying AK-style assault rifles, PK-style machine guns, and multiple pickup trucks mounted with ZPU-2 heavy machine guns and ZU-23 2 automatic cannons. The ZPU-2 and ZU-23 2 weapons fire 14.5-mm and 23-mm caliber projectiles and are designed to be fired at low-flying aircraft. In the video posted on August 26 at 11:44 p.m., a convoy of dozens of vehicles carrying light and heavy machine guns, as well as an ZU-23 2 automatic canon, drives unimpeded past marked police vehicles.

Legal Standards

International standards stipulate that security forces should use the minimum necessary force at all times. In dispersing violent assemblies, firearms may only be used when other less-harmful means are not practicable, but even then must only be used to the minimum extent necessary. Law enforcement officers may only intentionally make lethal use of firearms when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Live ammunition should not be used unless required to protect life or prevent serious injury. 

The use of live ammunition when there is no imminent threat to life or risk of serious injury and the use of shotguns, machine guns, and other heavy weapons that fire over a wide area with the potential to harm anyone in their path violates international human rights standards governing law enforcement officials’ use of force. The use of heavy machine guns and medium caliber projectiles, such as the 14.5-mm and 23-mm projectiles fired from anti-aircraft weapons, against people is likely to result in severe pain and suffering and thus may amount to excessive or unjustifiable force and a form of ill-treatment.

Given that shotguns firing multiple pellets, rubber or metal, are inherently inaccurate in nature with an indiscriminate impact, their use against demonstrators at any range should cease immediately, Human Rights Watch said. Armed groups should also cease the use of machine guns, shotguns, and other heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft weapons, against protesters.

The UN guidance on “less-lethal” weapons in law enforcement states: “Multiple projectiles fired at the same time are inaccurate and, in general, their use cannot comply with the principles of necessity and proportionality. Metal pellets, such as those fired from shotguns, should never be used.”

Protester Demands and Response of Authorities

In a manifesto issued on August 20, the Harak Al-Shabab 23/08 movement pledged to peacefully address 11 key concerns, including the lack of electrical power, cooking gas, and cash in banks; social justice; the need for elections; ratification of the draft constitution that was finalized in October 2015 by an elected Constitution Drafting Assembly; expansions of the health and education budgets; and the need to end nepotism in public sector jobs.

On August 23 and August 27, Minister Bashagha accused “infiltrators” and members of armed groups who he said were not affiliated with the Interior Ministry of firing on protesters with machine guns and artillery that resulted in protesters being injured and the creation of “chaos and a new crisis.” The August 27 statement accused armed groups of kidnapping and forcibly disappearing protesters. Since August 29, there have been no more demonstrations in Tripoli.

In a statement on August 26, the Interior Ministry stated that committees responsible for organizing protests needed to get advance permission, providing the date, time, and location based on Law 65/2012 on peaceful assembly. On August 28, the Interior Ministry announced that it had apprehended one person allegedly responsible for using firearms against protesters.

In a flurry of decisions between August 26 and September 1, seemingly to stymie the public anger that’s driving the protests, GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj temporarily suspended Bashagha pending an investigation into the ministry’s handling of the protests and appointed a new defense minister and chief of staff of the Libyan army linked with the GNA. On September 3, the Presidential Council re-instated Bashagha after conducting an investigation but did not release any details. The GNA also mandated that the Joint Operations Force in the Western Region under Osama Jweili and linked with the Defense Ministry would take over security of the capital in coordination with the Interior Ministry.

The GNA announced cash handouts under a family benefit program, mandated a committee to audit Health Ministry expenditures in 2019-2020, and ordered the Labor Ministry to review the status of unemployed people and create more public sector jobs. On September 1, the GNA also established a new ministry for housing and construction.

Governance and Conflict

Governance in Libya remains divided between two entities engaged in an armed conflict since April 2019 with the support of their respective foreign backers: the internationally recognized and Tripoli-based GNA and the rival Interim Government based in eastern Libya, affiliated with the armed group Libyan Arab Armed Forces under the command of General Khalifa Hiftar.

Hiftar has received military support from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Russia, including weapons and foreign fighters. Turkey is the main military backer of the GNA, which also has substantial foreign fighter support. The conflict parties and foreign backers largely ignore a two-way arms embargo ordered by the UN Security Council in 2011 and renewed multiple times, with the tacit consent of the Security Council.

The armed conflict in Tripoli and surrounding towns such as Tarhouna ended in June 2020 after GNA and affiliated forces pushed back Hiftar’s forces and their allies toward Sirte, a central coastal city 450 kilometers east of Tripoli. Despite intensive international mediation efforts, Hiftar rejected on August 23 a temporary truce negotiated between the GNA Presidential Council and the Speaker of Parliament. There are currently no armed confrontations between the parties.