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South Africa Should Press Zimbabwe to End Repression

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Click to expand Image Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa addresses the media at State House in Harare, Zimbabwe, March, 17, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

A high-level delegation from South Africa has been dispatched to Zimbabwe to try to find a solution to the country’s escalating economic and political crisis. The team, led by the head of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) party Secretary-General Ace Magashule, will meet officials from Zimbabwe’s ruling African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Its priority should be calling on the government to urgently address the country’s deteriorating human rights situation.

While the Zimbabwe government insists there is no crisis, under Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidency, the abduction and torture of critics of the government has escalated, largely without the arrest of those responsible. In the past year, unidentified assailants, suspected to be state security agents, have abducted and tortured more than 70 government critics. Zimbabwe’s security forces have also increasingly committed arbitrary arrests, violent assaults, abductions, torture, and other abuses against the political opposition, dissidents, and activists. The police crackdown on anticorruption protests in July, in which 16 protesters were injured and a further 60 were arrested, including the award-winning novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga and the opposition MDC Alliance spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere, is only the most recent example. 

Rather than addressing the many genuine complaints about his government, President Mnangagwa has publicly denounced his critics, describing them as “a few rogue Zimbabweans” – despite the sizeable protests that have gripped the country. South Africa has appropriately dispatched a team to Zimbabwe and should now press the Zimbabwe leadership to uphold their human rights obligations and end the escalating repression. The ANC delegation should not only talk to ZANU-PF but meet with victims of abuses as well as representatives from churches, labor unions, human right groups, and opposition parties.

The delegation should also urge the Zimbabwe authorities to investigate all serious human rights violations over the last two years and carry out the recommendations of investigations so far. The authorities should appropriately prosecute those responsible for abuses, including members of security forces, in accordance with national law and international standards. And the government should reform the security forces, end their involvement in party politics, and ensure that they act professionally and according to law.

South Africa’s message to Zimbabwe’s government should be clear: this crisis cannot be resolved by repressing the people of Zimbabwe.

Guatemala: Rights Official at Risk of Criminal Prosecution

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Click to expand Image Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Jordan Rodas speaks during a press conference after a meeting with members of the organization "proud of my PNC" (Civil National Police), formed by relatives of police officers, in Guatemala City on July 17, 2018.  © 2018 JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – Guatemala should ensure that its human rights ombudsperson, Jordán Rodas, can continue his defense of sexual and reproductive rights without fear of prosecution or reprisal, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 12, 2020, Guatemala’s Supreme Court ruled that Rodas had failed to comply with a 2017 decision that ordered the Ombudsperson’s Office (Procurador de los Derechos Humanos, PDH) to cease activities that support or promote abortion, present access to abortion as a right, or promote its legalization. The court ordered the Prosecutor’s Office to investigate whether Rodas is guilty of non-compliance with a judicial decision, a crime under Guatemalan law punishable with up to three years of prison.

“The Supreme Court has put Ombudsperson Rodas in an impossible situation where he risks being sent to prison for doing what international human rights law – and therefore his job description – requires,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The judiciary and Congress urgently need to end their relentless attack against Rodas’ work protecting and promoting fundamental rights.”

The Supreme Court’s rulings contravene international human rights standards on sexual and reproductive rights and restrict the ombudsperson’s free speech and ability to protect and promote human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

In a 2017 ruling, the court ordered the ombudsperson’s office to stop distributing a 2015 handbook titled “Human Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and Pregnancy Care in Girls and Adolescents,” ruling that it promoted abortion and therefore violated the right to life. At that time, the Supreme Court ordered the ombudsperson’s office “to counteract the effects that the distribution of the material may have had with material that is consistent with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” The handbook did not challenge the legal status of abortion in Guatemala, but it raised awareness about rights recognized under international law.

In August 2020, a pro-life group called Family Matters Association requested the Supreme Court to rule that Rodas had failed to comply with the 2017 ruling. It said he had continued promoting abortion in Guatemala, including by calling on the government to adopt recommendations by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child about protecting the right to access abortion.

Ombudsperson Rodas reported to the court that his office had stopped publishing the handbook and that its statements supporting recommendations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child were not specific to abortion but also addressed broader issues, such as discrimination and gender violence.

The court held that he had not adequately counteracted the effects of the handbook’s past distribution, as his office had failed to “make an emphatic and categorical statement that it did not support abortion ... in defense of the right of the unborn child.” The court grounded its ruling in Guatemala’s constitution and abortion legislation, without taking into account Guatemala’s international treaty obligations.

In Guatemala, abortion is legal only when the life of a pregnant woman or girl is in danger. In any other circumstances, a person who has an abortion can face a sentence of up to three years in prison. In August 2018, the Guatemalan Congress approved a preliminary version of the “Life and Family Protection” bill, which would raise the maximum sentence for abortion from 3 to 10 years and would make it a crime to engage in “the promotion of abortion.” The bill remains pending before congress.

Several international human rights bodies, such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and the Human Rights Committee, have called on Guatemala to decriminalize and legalize abortion and ensure access to safe abortion services.

Meanwhile, Guatemala’s congress is seeking to remove Ombudsperson Rodas from office due to his public statements in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. On July 6, the legislature’s human rights commission summoned Rodas to a plenary session of congress “to be held accountable for his activities in office and the actions taken during his tenure.”

The Paris Principles establish that national human rights institutions have the responsibility to make recommendations to ensure that existing and proposed legislation and regulations respect human rights. This includes recommending “the adoption of new legislation, the amendment of legislation in force, and the adoption or amendment of administrative measures.”

The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has ruled that “once a State has ratified an international treaty … its bodies and judges are also subject to it, which compels them to make sure that the effects of the provisions of the Convention are not affected by the application or interpretation of laws contrary to its object and purpose.”

The Supreme Court’s rulings in Rodas’ case violate international human rights law, including on freedom of expression and the right to information, Human Rights Watch said. Guatemala’s laws on abortion also violate a large number of human rights norms, including the right to health, nondiscrimination, and the right to be protected from inhuman treatment.

Ecuador’s Assembly Approves Bill Furthering the Right to Health

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Click to expand Image The flag of Ecuador. 

Ecuador’s National Assembly has approved a new health code that would help all in Ecuador enjoy better access to health care.

The bill, nearly 8 years in the making, was approved on August 25 by a vote of 79 to 58, and now requires the signature of President Lenín Moreno to become law. The bill would guarantee the right to health universally and comprehensively, including for women, adolescents, and girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people. It also would guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health care, and provide comprehensive services based on scientific evidence.

The bill’s approval by the assembly represents a great accomplishment by the many women's rights organizations that supported the initiative.

In a country where every day, 7 girls below the age of 14 become mothers and the maternal mortality rate is 41.1 per 100,000 births, the new code could dramatically improve the lives of all Ecuadorians by increasing access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services. For example, it prohibits delaying emergency health care for any reason, including conscientious objection. This is an important step toward eliminating barriers to reproductive health care and ensuring that healthcare services are provided on a nondiscriminatory basis, in compliance with international law and some specific recommendations made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health. The bill still lacks clear guidance on non-emergency situations, where timely access to care is also urgent and unregulated conscientious objection might cause delays inconsistent with Ecuador’s human rights obligations.

The code reiterates the duty of healthcare professionals to respect medical confidentiality, including in cases of obstetric emergency. This is crucial in a country where Human Rights Watch has found nearly three out of four abortion prosecutions where files can be accessed are triggered by a healthcare provider reporting a patient to the police.

The code also reinforces the country’s prohibition on conversion therapy, already contained in the Criminal Code, which bars any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The new health code also provides protections for intersex children, including a prohibition on offering or performing medical procedures that violate the personal integrity of any person who has not reached puberty, except when the child’s health or life is at risk.

President Lenín Moreno has a chance to improve the health and lives of all Ecuadorians. He should join the majority of the legislative assembly and sign this bill into law.

Global Coalition urges UN to Address China’s Human Rights Abuses

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Click to expand Image U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon

(Geneva) – The United Nations should urgently create an independent international mechanism to address the Chinese government’s human rights violations, a global coalition of 321 civil society groups said today in an open letter. The groups hailed from more than 60 countries around the world – from Azerbaijan to Zambia, from Morocco to Malaysia, from Vietnam to Venezuela.

The signatories stressed the need to address rampant human rights violations across China, including in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. They also highlighted the impact of China’s rights violations worldwide, including the targeting of human rights defenders; global censorship and surveillance; and rights-free development that has caused environmental degradation. 

“This global coalition of organizations, 50 UN experts, and dozens of governments are all demanding an end to China’s impunity at the UN Human Rights Council,” said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN needs to act on the growing chorus of voices calling for China to be held accountable for its rights abuses.”

The groups’ call echoes an unprecedented statement by more than 50 UN human rights experts, who in June 2020 detailed the Chinese authorities’ serious rights violations and called for “decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China.”

“China’s disdain for human rights no longer affects only its citizens – its support for dictators and efforts to rewrite international standards are making the work of defending human rights harder than ever,” said Sarah Brooks, Brussels Liaison at the International Service for Human Rights. “This joint statement, for the first time, unites organizations from around the world fighting for their own communities with common cause”.

In their statement, the coalition highlighted China’s efforts to distort the mandate of the UN Human Rights Council by persecuting activists from China who use UN mechanisms to seek redress, and opposing initiatives to bring scrutiny of serious rights violations and international crimes in countries around the world. China typically rejects UN consideration of its human rights record as “gross interference.”

“China has systematically persecuted rights defenders in reprisal for their cooperation with UN human rights operations – torture, enforced disappearance, imprisonment, and stripping licenses from lawyers,” said Renee Xia, director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “The UN system should no longer tolerate such treatment.”

The coalition endorses the UN experts’ calls for a special session of the Human Rights Council to evaluate the range of violations by China’s government, and an impartial and independent UN mechanism focused on China. The groups also urge the UN Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights to take responsibility for publicly addressing China’s sweeping rights violations.

“The international community can no longer sit back and allow the Chinese authorities to trample on human rights at home and abroad,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, the head of Amnesty International’s China team. “Without decisive action now, things will only get worse. It is urgent for UN member states to work together and ensure that violations committed by Beijing are officially monitored and meaningfully challenged. No state should be above the law.”

Bahrain: Lawyers Prosecuted on Speech Charges

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Click to expand Image Abdullah al-Shamlawi © 2020 Private

(Beirut) – Bahraini authorities should not contest the appeal of Abdullah al-Shamlawi, a lawyer, to vacate his conviction and eight-month prison sentence for tweets, Human Rights Watch and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said today. The authorities should cease prosecuting Bahraini defense lawyers for exercising their right to free speech. 

Al-Shamlawi has represented prominent opposition figures, including Sheikh Ali Salman, the imprisoned leader of Bahrain’s largest opposition party, al-Wefaq. Bahrain’s High Court of Appeal is expected to rule on al-Shamlawi’s appeal on September 14, 2020.

“Bahrain’s prosecution of Abdullah al-Shamlawi represents the latest in a campaign of judicial harassment against defense lawyers and human rights defenders,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. “Bahraini authorities should stop using vague penal code provisions to punish people solely for exercising their right to free expression.”

On June 30, a criminal court convicted al-Shamlawi on charges of “incit[ing] hatred of a religious sect” and “misusing a telecommunications device.” The charges involved two September 2019 tweets in which al-Shamlawi expressed critical views on religious practices related to Ashura, the most important date in the Shi’a religious calendar.

The court also convicted al-Shamlawi of “deliberately caus[ing] inconvenience to others by using telecommunication devices” for his 2018 tweet regarding an article in the pro-government newspaper Al Ayam in which he incorrectly said that the Bahraini featured in the article was a naturalized South Asian. Prosecutors interviewed al-Shamlawi about the tweet at the time, but brought no charges. The decision to prosecute him almost two years later on this dubious charge, even though other people who at the time had posted the same misinformation were not charged, indicates an apparent determination to punish al-Shamlawi under any available pretext, the organizations said.

Al-Shamlawi is free on bail pending his appeal. On July 28, Bahrain’s Disciplinary Board of Lawyers prohibited al-Shamlawi from practicing law for one month, following a request by Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa. The board is comprised of lawyers and judges appointed by the justice minister for two-year terms.

Bahrain is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects freedom of expression. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets this treaty, has stated that prohibitions of “lack of respect” for religions or other belief systems are, in principle, violations of freedom of expression.

Al-Shamlawi’s prosecution reflects a pattern of official harassment of lawyers who criticize the government, the organizations said. In May 2019, the authorities charged a prominent human rights lawyer, Abdullah Hashim, with sharing “fake news” for eight tweets between May 2017 and April 2019 highlighting government corruption and other social and political issues in Bahrain. He is expecting the final verdict on his case on September 29.

Other prominent civil society figures, including the human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and the opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif, have faced similar judicial harassment for their social media activity in recent years, reflecting a concerted effort to punish online dissent.

“Lawyers who defend dissidents or unpopular defendants should not be targeted for reprisal by the government,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain should stop using dubious provisions in the law to harass and persecute the lawyers who defend opposition activists and human rights.”

Killings in Philippines Up 50 Percent During Pandemic

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Click to expand Image Police officers secure the road leading to the House of Representatives where President Rodrigo Duterte will deliver his 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 27, 2020 in Metro Manila, Philippines. © 2020 AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte administration’s bloody “war on drugs” worsened during the Covid-19 lockdown, according to the government’s own statistics.

Police killed 50 percent more people between April to July 2020 than they did in the previous four-month period. In total, since Duterte took office in June 2016, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) has officially recognized 5,810 persons killed as of the end of July 2020. 

Human Rights Watch analyzed the government’s statistics and found 155 persons were killed in the past four months. Before the Covid-19 crisis, police killed 103 persons from December 2019 to March 2020.

The number of fatalities in these ostensible drug enforcement raids, in which the police routinely claimed that the victims fought back, jumped dramatically from the 26 deaths recorded by the PDEA in five months from July to November 2019.

The PDEA’s figure of 5,810 killed only covers deaths in police anti-drug operations. Thousands of other drug suspects have been killed by unidentified assailants, many of whom are believed to be plainclothes police officers or vigilantes operating in coordination with local authorities. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, acting on a resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2019, reported more than 8,600 people have died in Duterte’s “drug war.” Human rights groups believe the actual number could be triple that. Only one case out of thousands has resulted in the conviction of police officers.

Since March 16, the Philippine government has imposed varying types of quarantines and lockdowns. The lockdown in Metro Manila, enforced mainly by police, has been relaxed, although movements are still restricted, and malls and restaurants operate on limited capacity. Filipinos aged less than 20 or above 60 years old are not allowed outside their homes, except for serious medical reasons.

The Human Rights Council should once again tackle the issue of rights abuses in the Philippines when it convenes this month. The government is expected to continue to deny the allegations rather than offer a constructive response. But as the government’s own statistics show, the atrocities in the “drug war” have worsened, even as the country suffers the worst in the region from the pandemic.

Caster Semenya Loses Appeal for Equal Treatment

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Click to expand Image South Africa's Caster Semenya competes in the women's 800-meter race during the Prefontaine Classic, an IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting, in Stanford, California, June 30, 2019. © 2020 AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

The Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland has ruled that sport regulations that violate women’s rights cannot be struck down as inconsistent with Swiss public policy, dealing a blow to the rights of all women athletes. The court came to this conclusion despite finding that the regulations in question – which create a regime of discriminatory surveillance and medical interventions on women – violate fundamental human rights of the South African runner Caster Semenya.

The Swiss court was reviewing an appeal by Semenya, who has been targeted for a decade by variations of the regulations, and ruled ineligible to compete. In 2019, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, upheld the most recent version of the regulations, which targets a subset of women with variations of their sex characteristics and naturally occurring elevated testosterone levels.

The regulations compel these women to undergo medical interventions or be forced out of competition. Identifying which athletes are impacted by the regulations will be done through subjecting all women athletes’ bodies to public scrutiny and requiring those that seem “suspect” to undergo a medical examination. Men athletes are subject to no such surveillance or compelled medical tests.

There is no clear scientific consensus that women with naturally occurring higher-than-typical testosterone have a performance advantage in athletics. For these women athletes, being compelled to undergo a medical examination can be humiliating and medically unnecessary, as well as disrespectful of their rights.

The regulations target women in running events between 400 meters and 1 mile. Semenya’s favored event was the 800 meter race, in which she won the gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In a report published earlier this year, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recommends immediately revoking eligibility regulations for women athletes like those enforced by World Athletics, track and field’s global governing body. The World Medical Association has recommended that physicians around the world should not observe the regulations as they violate medical ethics. The decision from the Federal Supreme Court means that the regulations will remain for now.

“I will continue to fight for the human rights of female athletes, both on the track and off the track, until we can all run free the way we were born,” Semenya said in a statement about the Swiss ruling.

In this Olympic year, athletes are looking to the International Olympic Committee to set guidelines to protect women athletes from abusive and invasive surveillance, testing, and bans. Caster’s case shows how urgent this is. 

Australian Journalists Forced to Leave China

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Click to expand Image In this image made from a video, Australian Broadcasting Corp. journalist Bill Birtles speaks to the media on his arrival at Sydney airport, Australia, September 8, 2020. © 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP

The Australian government helped two Australian journalists living in China leave the country yesterday after a five-day diplomatic standoff.  Amid fears for their safety, Bill Birtles of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation sheltered in Australia’s embassy in Beijing, while Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review took refuge in the Shanghai consulate. Both left China only weeks after Chinese authorities detained another Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, a business news anchor for the Chinese state-backed media outlet China Global Television Network. Chinese authorities have given no reasons for her arrest.

But for Chinese journalists and activists, there is no foreign embassy to come to their rescue. Journalists and bloggers in China take enormous risks to investigate and report on stories that the China government deems to be sensitive. In February, citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin were forcibly disappeared in Wuhan for reporting independently on the Covid-19 pandemic. They haven’t been heard from since.

Fewer foreign journalists in the country means less scrutiny of China’s human rights record at a time when serious abuses are increasing. In June, an unprecedented 50 United Nations human rights experts issued a joint statement expressing concerns at the Chinese government’s mass violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet, the suppression of Covid-19-related information, and the targeting of human rights defenders across the country.  They called on the UN Human Rights Council to “act with a sense of urgency” to monitor China’s human rights practices, including a council Special Session and the creation of an independent international mechanism.

The Australian journalists’ recent experiences make it clear why such scrutiny is necessary. The Human Rights Council’s September session will be Australia’s last during its current three-year term as a council member. It should make it count by working with other governments to call for a special session or urgent debate on China. Foreign Minister Marise Payne should also reconsider the government’s recent decision to abolish the human rights post at the Australian embassy in Beijing. More monitoring of the Chinese government’s human rights record is needed, not less.

Attacks on Students, Teachers, and Schools Surge in Africa’s Sahel

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Click to expand Image A school in northern Burkina Faso is abandoned after an attack by an armed group. © 2019 (Philip Kleinfeld/TNH)

(New York) – The Central Sahel has seen a significant spike in attacks on students, teachers, and schools since 2018, according to a new report released today by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). The report is launched ahead of the first ever United Nations International Day to Protect Education from Attack on September 9, 2020.

Supporting Safe Education in the Central Sahel noted over 85 attacks on education in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger between January and July 2020, despite Covid-19-related school closures between late March and May. At least 27 attacks on middle schools were recorded in Mali when schools reopened for children to take their exams in June.

These attacks follow an alarming increase in attacks on education across the Central Sahel in recent years. In Burkina Faso and Niger, attacks on education more than doubled between 2018 and 2019, contributing to the closure of more than 2,000 schools. In Mali, over 60 attacks on education took place in 2019 alone, with over 1,100 schools closed.

Non-state armed groups targeted state education across the Central Sahel, most commonly by burning and looting schools and threatening, abducting, or killing teachers, the report said. State forces and non-state armed groups also used dozens of schools for military purposes, including as camps and temporary bases.

Female students and educators are specifically affected by attacks, GCPEA found. Pregnancy from rape, the health consequences and stigma of sexual violence, the risk of early marriage, and the privileging of boys’ education over girls’ all make it particularly difficult for girls to return to school.

“The International Day to Protect Education from Attack is a crucial moment to highlight the scope and enormous cost that attacks on education have on the lives and futures of students and communities,” said Diya Nijhowne, executive director of GCPEA. “But it is also a time to recognize the significant progress made towards protecting students and educators, including through widespread adoption of the Safe Schools Declaration and advances in its implementation.”

The Safe Schools Declaration, a political commitment to protect students, educators, schools, and universities in armed conflict, currently has 104 state signatories. By endorsing the declaration, countries commit to take concrete steps to protect education in armed conflict, including by using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.

GCPEA calls for coordinated, targeted, and sustainable support to implement the Safe Schools Declaration and keep students, teachers, and educational facilities across the Central Sahel safe from attack. This includes prioritizing and funding measures to prevent, mitigate, and respond to attacks on education within humanitarian response and development plans and programs. As the three Central Sahel countries confront interlinked humanitarian crises, regional efforts should also be taken to reinforce monitoring and reporting of attacks and develop prevention and response plans.

The Ministerial Roundtable on the Central Sahel, to be hosted by Denmark, Germany, the European Union, and the UN on October 20, provides a key opportunity to place protection of education firmly on the humanitarian agenda.

The Central Sahel report draws on new data from the coalition’s flagship report, Education under Attack, which identified more than 11,000 attacks on education facilities, students, and educators between 2015 and 2019, harming, injuring, or killing more than 22,000 students, teachers, and academics globally.

As schools in the Central Sahel and globally resume after Covid-19 lockdowns, GCPEA urges governments to ensure that education providers conduct risk assessments prior to reopening and enact appropriate security measures where needed to minimize students’ and teachers’ risk of attack. Where schools and universities cannot reopen safely, alternative and distance measures should be put in place. GCPEA also urges governments and education providers to ensure that any post-Covid-19 “back-to-school” campaigns and catch-up classes include learners previously excluded from studies by attacks on education. Governments and education providers should also ensure that distance-learning programs established in response to Covid-19 are accessible to and benefit learners affected by attacks and insecurity.

“On this first International Day to Protect Education from Attack and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments and donors should act to keep students and educators, schools, and universities safe from attack in the Central Sahel and globally,” Nijhowne said. “As programs and policies are developed to support the continuation of education during the health crisis, there is an opening to ensure that they incorporate protection against attack, and include students excluded from learning due to past attacks.”

To access the report, please visit:

Notes to editors:
The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) is a coalition of UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations working in the fields of education in emergencies, protection, and higher education. Support for Education under Attack 2020 has been generously provided by the Education Above All Foundation, Education Cannot Wait, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and an anonymous donor.

Fellowship Honors Disability Rights Icon Marca Bristo

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 8, 2020

(New York) – Human Rights Watch has selected a Nigerian human rights advocate, Hauwa Ojeifo, as the recipient of its inaugural Marca Bristo Fellowship, an award created in memory of the pioneering disability rights icon, Human Rights Watch announced today. The fellowship honors emerging activists for their courageous leadership in disability rights.

Bristo, who passed away a year ago today at 66, played a pivotal role in the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act and successfully influenced other countries’ efforts on equality, inclusion and independent living for people with disabilities. She was a tireless partner and supporter of the Human Rights Watch Disability Rights program, serving as the founding chair of its Advisory Committee.

Click to expand Image Hauwa Ojeifo (center) together with Human Rights Watch researcher Anietie Ewang (left), speaks before the Nigerian National Assembly on the draft mental health bill on February 17, 2020.

“Marca was a true human rights hero, a visionary thinker, a relentless advocate and a compassionate supporter for all of us in the disability rights movement,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “We created this fellowship to honor her legacy by empowering extraordinary disability rights activists around the world, like Hauwa.”

Human Rights Watch first met Ojeifo in 2018, when she helped the organization conduct research on the shackling of people with psychosocial disabilities in Nigeria. In February 2020, together with Human Rights Watch, Ojeifo testified before the Nigerian National Assembly on a  draft mental health bill. She was the first person in the country with a mental health condition to publicly urge lawmakers to ensure inclusion of people with psychosocial disabilities in creating human-rights-respecting mental health legislation.

In 2016, Ojeifo, founded the mental health initiative She Writes Woman to offer services to women with similar experiences after she had a mental health crisis and was unable to find community support. Ojeifo is a survivor of sexual violence and has been one of the few women in the region to publicly announce her psychosocial disability to the local and international forum.

The women-led initiative created one of Nigeria’s first privately operated 24-hour mental health helpline that provides emergency intervention over the phone. Her organization also created a women-only monthly mental health support group called A Safe Place, which reaches over 900  women and girls across Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan, and Kaduna.

 “This fellowship – and my partnership with Human Rights Watch – means so much for me, and it’s an incredible opportunity to highlight the intersection between the rights of people with mental health conditions and women’s rights,” said Hauwa Ojeifo. “Women with mental health conditions like myself have something to say and we are being heard. It’s empowering!”

Ojeifo, 28, was chosen among several candidates nominated by staff who have worked closely with Human Rights Watch. As part of the fellowship, Ojeifo will receive training on research, advocacy, communication and fundraising from Human Rights Watch colleagues over the course of the next year.

She will also participate with Human Rights Watch in a major advocacy meeting, such as the UN Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in New York, tentatively scheduled for December. And she will travel to Chicago to visit Access Living, a disability rights organization founded by Bristo, where she remained president until her retirement in 2019.

“What a privilege to highlight the work of such an extraordinary woman, Hauwa,” said Daisy Feidt, executive vice president at Access Living. “Marca was deeply committed to empowering emerging disability rights advocates, especially women, who rise up to advocate for change in the face of so many obstacles. We are delighted to partner with Human Rights Watch in recognizing Hauwa’s achievements.”

China Delves into Past to Police Tibet’s Future

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 7, 2020
Click to expand Image People’s Police at the new Fengqiao-style police post in Chushul County, Lhasa Municipality, Tibet Autonomous Region, discussing their work, July 24, 2020. © 2020 Tibet Daily

Since the 2008 protests in Tibetan areas of China, Chinese authorities have often been at the forefront when it comes to innovating repressive tactics. There are tech-enabled “convenience police posts” on city streets, Communist Party cadre teams in every village, and a “grid management” system combining digital surveillance with paid overseers for each street block. These measures were soon replicated and scaled-up in the predominantly Turkic Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Now this system is being extended using a name that harks back to the darkest days of the Mao Zedong era: the Fengqiao-style Police Station. Villages in Tibet have rarely, if ever, had police posts, but according to a state media announcement in July, 17 of the 20 administrative villages in Chushul, a county near Lhasa, now do. In time, every administrative village is expected to have one.  

The “Fengqiao Experience” is named after a town in Zhejiang province in eastern China where, in the 1960s, the “revolutionary masses” were encouraged to handle “contradictions” within their communities. That meant identifying and re-educating “class enemies” among neighbors – a form of persecution that characterized the violent Cultural Revolution. Under President Xi Jinping, it has now been revived nationwide by the Chinese Communist Party for the digital age. A recent People’s Daily editorial proclaimed the Fengqiao Experience as a model for “social governance.”

In Xi’s “New Era,” it refers to the “screening and elimination of social contradictions” at the village level, which means the use of human and technological surveillance to detect and defuse potential threats to social stability. Official propaganda presents village-level police stations as bringing government services to the doorstep. In reality, the extension of policing means that it will be easier for authorities to spot and constrain people who want to take grievances to higher levels of government.

“Keeping small things in the village,” a Fengqiao slogan, is still seen as a necessity for social stability, perhaps especially now that more “New Socialist Villages” than ever are being constructed across the Tibetan countryside. These communities often house farmers and nomads relocated en masse under state “poverty alleviation” policies, partly induced by official promises of better housing and employment opportunities. If those promises fall short, as seems likely, the Fengqiao-style police stations will be on hand to keep complainants out of sight.

Turkey: Release Osman Kavala

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 7, 2020


Click to expand Image Osman Kavala © 2017 Anadolu Kültür

(Geneva) – Turkish authorities should immediately release human rights defender Osman Kavala, in compliance with the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers’ decision of September 3, 2020, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Human Rights Watch, and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project said today.

The decision followed a Committee of Ministers hearing to assess the execution of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Osman Kavala. The Committee, acting in its supervisory capacity for Court judgments, ordered the Turkish authorities “to ensure the applicant’s immediate release,” pointing to “a strong presumption that his current detention is a continuation of the violations found by the Court.”

“After the finding by the European Court of Human Rights that Kavala’s detention is unlawful, the Committee of Ministers has affirmed that Turkey is continuing to violate his rights by keeping him in detention,” said Roisin Pillay, director of the Europe and Central Asia Programme at the International Commission of Jurists. “European Court rulings are binding, and Osman Kavala should be released immediately.”

Despite the unlawful detention and an acquittal by the Turkish criminal court presiding over his trial, Osman Kavala has been kept behind bars under a newly issued charge of “espionage” since March 2020. His lawyers are currently challenging the lawfulness of the detention before Turkey’s Constitutional Court. However, the Committee of Ministers indicated in its decision that Turkey should not wait for a ruling of the Constitutional Court but should release Kavala immediately.

In June, the ICJ, Human Rights Watch, and the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project made a detailed submission to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, which oversees enforcement of European Court of Human Rights judgments. The submission argued that the sequence of events and repeated local court decisions to ensure Kavala’s detention subsequent to the European Court’s ruling in December 2019, demonstrated that Turkey was prolonging the violations found by the European Court.  

The European Court judgment in Kavala v. Turkey – Application no. 28749/18 – found violations of the following provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights: article 5(1), right to liberty and security; article 5(4), right to a speedy decision on the lawfulness of detention; and the rarely used article 18, limitation on use of restrictions on rights, taken together with article 5(1). The Court required Turkey to release Kavala and said that any continuation of his detention would prolong the violations and breach the obligation to abide by the judgment in accordance with article 46(1) of the Convention.

The judgment on Osman Kavala’s case is particularly significant because it is the first final ruling of the European Court of Human Rights against Turkey in which the Court determined that, in interfering with an individual’s rights, Turkey acted in bad faith and out of political motivations, violating article 18 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court said that by detaining Kavala since November 2017 and prosecuting him, the Turkish authorities had “pursued an ulterior purpose, namely to silence him as human rights defender.”

Kavala has been held in detention since November 2017, initially on bogus allegations that he used the 2013 Istanbul Gezi Park protests as a pretext for an attempt to overthrow the government, and that he was involved in the July 15, 2016 attempted military coup. On February 18, 2020, Kavala and his eight co-defendants were acquitted on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government by force and violence” in the Gezi Park trial.

But Kavala was not released, and a court ordered his detention again immediately on one of the grounds for his initial detention on November 1, 2017, namely the charge of “attempting to overthrow the constitution by force and violence” because of the ongoing July 15, 2016 coup attempt-related investigation against him. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had publicly criticized his acquittal just before he was detained again. Weeks later a court ordered his detention a second time on another charge, “espionage”, but under the same investigation file on the coup attempt and relying on the same evidence.

“The decision by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers confirms our submission that political considerations are behind the court orders prolonging Osman Kavala’s detention, and that there has been a concerted official effort to prevent Kavala’s release,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of complying with the European Court’s judgment, Turkey has continued to violate Kavala’s human rights.”

The targeted harassment in Turkey of rights defenders is part of a wider practice of arbitrary detentions and abusive prosecutions of journalists, elected politicians, lawyers, and other perceived government critics. This practice has been well-documented in many reports by the Council of Europe, the European Union, and human rights organizations.

“The campaign of persecution against Osman Kavala and the failure to release him and drop all charges have perpetuated a chilling environment for all human rights defenders in Turkey,” said Ayşe Bingöl Demir, co-director of the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project. “Ending this blatantly unlawful detention, which has been ongoing for over 1,000 days, will not only play a role in preventing further violations to Osman Kavala’s rights, it will also give a strong signal to the human rights defenders community that the oversight mechanisms in place to ensure Turkey’s compliance with its international human rights obligations can still be effective.”

Indonesia: Investigate Police Raid on ‘Gay Party’

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 7, 2020
Click to expand Image Men arrested in a raid of a gay party sit inside a vehicle after a news conference at Jakarta police headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 2, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

(New York) – The Indonesian government should urgently investigate a police raid on a private gathering of 56 men in Jakarta that highlights the threat to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 29, 2020, police forcibly broke up a party at a hotel, arresting nine men and charging them with the crime of “facilitating obscene acts” and under the pornography law, which discriminates against LGBT people.

The charges violate the rights to privacy, association, and equal protection of the law and should immediately be dropped.

“This latest raid fits into a disturbing pattern of Indonesian authorities using the pornography law as a weapon to target LGBT people,” said Kyle Knight, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government has been inciting hostility toward LGBT people for several years, and there is no accountability for abuses such as police raids on private spaces.”

Article 296 of Indonesia’s criminal code makes it a crime for someone to make “an occupation or a habit of intentionally causing or facilitating any obscene act by others.” The maximum penalty is 16 months in prison.

The Jakarta raid is part of a years-long pattern of authorities unlawfully apprehending LGBT people in private spaces. Indonesia’s central government has never criminalized same-sex behavior, but no national laws specifically protect LGBT people against discrimination. An uptick in anti-LGBT rhetoric and attacks since 2016 has resulted in the application of discriminatory clauses in the pornography law to target LGBT people for arrest and prosecution.

Indonesia’s 2008 Law on Pornography prohibits the “creation, dissemination or broadcasting of pornography containing deviant sexual intercourse,” which it defines to include: sex with corpses, sex with animals, oral sex, anal sex, lesbian sex, and male homosexual sex. Article 36 of the Pornography Law, which criminalizes facilitating obscene acts for a commercial purpose, has a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

A group of activists, including LGBT organizations, attempted to challenge the law in the Constitutional Court in 2009, but the court declined to review it.

While historically the law was not used to target LGBT people specifically, in recent years police have used it as a pretext for arbitrary raids and arrests, and courts have found gay men in private gatherings guilty under the law.

In September 2017, a court in Surabaya found seven men who had been arrested during a police raid on a gay party in April of that year guilty under the pornography law and sentenced them to between 18 months and 30 months in prison.

In October 2017, Jakarta police raided a club popular with gay men, arresting 58 people. Police released most of them the same day but detained five employees of the club – four men and a woman – and threatened to charge them with violating the pornography law. They were subsequently released without charge.

On December 15, 2017, the North Jakarta District Court sentenced 10 men to between two and three years in prison for violating the pornography law. Police had apprehended the 10, along with 131 others, during a raid on the Atlantis Gym, a sauna frequented by gay men in Jakarta, in May 2017. The 10 were convicted based on allegations that they were naked at the time of the raid, citing the law’s prohibition on performances that involve stripping.

In January 2018, police in Cianjur, West Java province, raided a private home where five men had gathered. Citing the pornography law, the police told reporters the men were caught at a “sex party,” using condoms and lubricant as evidence.

In a development similar to the application of the pornography law, in January 2020, the mayor of Depok, a city in West Java, ordered police to raid private residences to look for “immoral acts” and “prevent the spread of LGBT.” The National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) condemned the order, saying such rhetoric from public officials increases the risk of persecution of LGBT people.

According to the police report of the recent Jakarta raid, a 31-officer police unit, under Adjunct Police Commissionaire Jerry Raimond Siagian, had apparently been monitoring the private gathering and organized the raid.
Privacy rights are a fundamental protection that underlie everyone’s physical autonomy and identity and include protections for private adult consensual sexual behavior, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent body of experts that interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Indonesia is party, has stated, “It is undisputed that adult consensual sexual activity in private is covered by the concept of ‘privacy.’”

Indonesia has been a champion for privacy rights internationally, co-sponsoring a UN Human Rights Council resolution on the right to privacy. In the report on that resolution, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reminded governments that privacy rights (enshrined in ICCPR article 17) should be upheld jointly with the right to nondiscrimination (ICCPR, article 26).

Indonesian police should halt arbitrary raids on private spaces, investigate those that have taken place, and punish those who took part in the raids and those responsible in their chain of command, Human Rights Watch said. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who has voiced support for LGBT Indonesians in the past, should make clear the prohibition against discriminatory behavior by the police.

The Indonesian parliament should also substantially revise the proposed new criminal code to meet international human rights standards. It contains articles that will violate the rights of LGBT people. It has provisions that will punish extramarital sex by up to one year in jail. While this article does not specifically mention same-sex conduct, since same-sex relationships are not legally recognized in Indonesia, this provision effectively criminalizes all same-sex conduct.

“The combination of exploiting the discriminatory pornography law and a lack of accountability for police misconduct has proved to be both dangerous and durable,” Knight said. “So long as the government permits police raids on private gatherings under a discriminatory law, it will fail to curb anti-LGBT harassment and intimidation.”

Pakistan: Poor Conditions Rife in Women’s Prisons

Human Rights Watch - Monday, September 7, 2020
Click to expand Image A woman prisoner teaches fellow inmates and their children at a central jail in Mardan, Pakistan, November 8, 2018. © 2018 Saba Rehman/AP Photo

(New York) – Pakistan’s Human Rights Ministry has issued a report finding that women in prison face poor conditions and receive inadequate medical care, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately carry out the ministry’s recommendations to ensure adequate care and end mistreatment in women’s prisons.

The report, “Plight of Women in Pakistan’s Prisons,” submitted to Prime Minister Imran Khan on August 26, 2020, found that Pakistan’s prison laws did not meet international standards and that officials often ignore laws meant to protect women prisoners. Of the 1,121 women in prison as of mid-2020, 66 percent had not been convicted of any offense and were detained while awaiting conclusion of their trial. More than 300 women were detained in facilities outside the districts where they lived, making family visits nearly impossible. The prisoners included 46 women over the age of 60 and 10 girls under the age of 18. Only 24 female health workers are available to provide full-time care to women and girls in prisons across the country.

“The Human Rights Ministry has highlighted the massive scale of mistreatment of women in prison and the need for broad and sustained reform,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While an important step, this report can only bring change if Pakistani authorities follow its recommendations and end widespread abuse.”

The report was the work of a committee appointed by Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 29 to examine the situation in women’s prisons. The federal minister for human rights, Dr. Shireen Mazari, chaired the committee, which included representatives from provincial and regional governments and civil society groups.

On September 2, Khan ordered officials to carry out a Supreme Court decision compelling the release of women prisoners to reduce prison congestion and limit the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. The women to be released are awaiting trial for minor offenses or have served most of their prison terms. Khan also asked for “immediate reports on foreign women prisoners and women on death row for humanitarian consideration” and possible release.

The committee found that prison staff routinely failed to observe appropriate protections against the spread of the coronavirus. Prison staff failed to put social distancing measures in place or require prisoners and staff to wear masks. The committee urged comprehensive medical screening for all entering prisoners.

Children who accompany their mothers in prison face additional risks. The committee found that 134 women had children with them in prison, some as old as 9 and 10, despite the legal limit of 5 years. At least 195 children were housed in prisons as of 2020. A critical lack of funding in the prison healthcare system has meant that mothers whose children are with them in prison often lack essential health care, leaving both the women and the children at risk of contracting infections. One prisoner reported that her child, who had a developmental disability, was not offered any support services or medical care despite the prisoner’s repeated requests during her six years of incarceration.

The committee recommended reducing the proportion of prisoners held in pretrial detention, allowing women to be detained close to their homes to facilitate family visits, and reducing the number of women and girls in prison by developing alternative sentencing options and non-custodial measures for women and girls. The committee also said that individual cases should be reviewed to identify possible human rights violations and humanitarian needs, and recommended more training of prison staff, resources, and policies to address the mental health needs of women in prison, and development of post-release programs to help women and girls reintegrate into the community.

The report includes a detailed analysis of the extent to which Pakistan’s national and provincial laws comply with the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the “Bangkok Rules”). The committee found important gaps requiring reform in the provincial and national legislative framework. They found that only Sindh province has enacted prison rules that comply with international standards.

Under the Bangkok Rules, non-custodial alternatives to custody should be preferred where possible if someone facing imprisonment is pregnant or has sole child-caring responsibilities. Children accompanying their mothers must receive suitable health care, at least equivalent to that available in the community. The decision as to whether a child is to accompany their mother in prison or be separated from their mother must be based on individual assessments and the best interests of the child. Children in prison with their mother should never be treated as prisoners, and their environment must be as close as possible to that of a child outside prison.

Pakistan needs urgent and comprehensive prison reform, with a particular focus on the rights of women, children, and at-risk prisoners, Human Rights Watch said. Widespread problems in Pakistani prisons were previously highlighted in a January 2020 Human Rights Ministry report submitted to the Islamabad High Court. The ministry found at that time that almost 2,400 prisoners suffer from chronic contagious diseases such as hepatitis, HIV, and tuberculosis. A lack of adequate medical facilities and healthcare workers for prisoners has exacerbated the situation. Half of the positions for prison medical staff were unfilled, and there have been acute shortages of medical equipment and ambulances.

Overcrowding remains a major problem. A November 2019 government report found that 77,275 inmates were held in 114 prisons with a total capacity of 57,742. The majority of people detained were awaiting trial and had not been convicted.

“The Human Rights Ministry report is an opportunity for the Pakistan government to take meaningful steps to improve the treatment of women in prisons in the country and start a much-needed process of systemic, large-scale prison reform,” Adams said.

Algeria: Activist Facing Charges for Peaceful Support of Protests

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, September 6, 2020
Click to expand Image An Algerian demonstrator holds the Algerian national flag as he stage a protest against the government in Algiers, Algeria, Friday, Nov.29, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Toufik Doudou

(Beirut) – Algerian Authorities have brought charges against an activist for his peaceful support for the pro-reform Hirak protest movement and for boycotting the December 2019 presidential elections, Human Rights Watch said today.

The activist, Abdellah Benaoum, who lives in the western city of Relizane, is among some 45 Algerians currently detained and facing charges for their role in the protest movement, whose massive rallies have been suspended since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Benaoum has been detained since December. His trial opened in July, then adjourned due to his poor health, but the judge on September 2 again rejected a petition for his pretrial release. He suffers from a heart ailment that requires surgery, his lawyer said.

“Abdellah Benaoum may be less well known than the Hirak’s prominent figures in the capital,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But his imprisonment epitomizes the authorities’ determination to crush a nationwide, peaceful movement for democratic reform.”

Benaoum’s case file contains mainly printouts of Facebook posts from September to December 2019, in which he denounced those in power and urged a boycott of the planned elections, his lawyer, Abdarrahmane Laskar, told Human Rights Watch.

The authorities arrested Benaoum on December 9, three days before the presidential election, which the protesters had said should be postponed pending democratic reforms. The police searched his home and seized and went through his laptop and phone.

The Relizane police unit for combatting “information crimes” accused him of “inciting disobedience and a boycott of the presidential election,” says a report in the case file. The file also refers to videos of Benaoum giving “inciting political speeches” and states that his Facebook posts include such slogans as “No to attacking the people’s choice,” “No to army-led elections,” and “The constitution preferred by the army imposes its will over the will of the people.”

The case file also cites text conversations with Benaoum from another activist from Relizane, Khaldi Ali, also known as Khaldi Yacine, who was arrested the same day and is in jail facing similar charges. Ali is 38.

Benaoum, who turns 55 on September 9, is charged with five crimes, all of them defined in the penal code in such sweeping terms that they can be used to punish peaceful expression and activities: Facebook posts that “seek to demoralize the army,” (article 75); “undermining national unity” (article 79); inciting an unauthorized “unarmed gathering” (article 97 and 100); defaming a state institution (article 146); and casting discredit on decisions of the judiciary (article 147). The charges all carry prison terms, some of up to 10 years.

Prosecutors have brought similar charges against other Hirak activists. Charges that criminalize criticism of government institutions violate the right to freedom of expression.

The Hirak is a grassroots protest movement that began holding weekly street protests in various Algerian cities in February 2019 to oppose President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to run for a fifth five-year term. Bouteflika resigned in April, but the protest continued, with the movement demanding a consultative process to reform the political system before presidential elections. The authorities resisted the Hirak’s demands and held nationwide elections on December 12, won by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a prime minister under Bouteflika, with a historically low turnout.

President Tebboune initially declared that he is open to a dialogue with the Hirak movement and promised that the government would “consolidate democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

Despite Benaoum’s poor health, the judge handling the case has refused to release him, citing the serious nature of the charges. When the trial opened on July 16 in a Relizane court, the judge agreed to Benaoum’s request for a medical examination, which found that he was not fit to stand trial, Laskar said. The judge agreed to postpone the trial but not to release Benaoum in the meantime, a decision that the judge reaffirmed on September 2.

Under international human rights law, detention before trial should be the exception, not the rule. The state authorities should have to show the necessity of detention before trial in each individual case, with the burden on them to prove this increasing the longer the detention before trial continues.

Bennaoum has been transferred among prisons in Relizane and Oran since his arrest and is currently in an Oran prison.

Bennaoum had been free for only six months before his arrest in December. He had been serving a two-year sentence on political charges related to his peaceful expression when he was freed in June 2019, 10 months early, after he went on a hunger strike. In that earlier case, a court convicted him of “using or instrumentalizing the wounds of the National Tragedy [the 1990s political violence in Algeria] with the aim of undermining of the Algerian Popular Democratic Republic, to weaken the state, dishonor its agents who served it with dignity, or tarnish the image of Algeria internationally (article 46 of Law on Peace and National Reconciliation of 2006).

“Benaoum’s imprisonment is almost exactly as long as Tebboune’s presidency,” Goldstein said. “It stands as a grim refutation of his pledges of reform.”

Saudi Arabia: Prominent Detainees Held Incommunicado

Human Rights Watch - Sunday, September 6, 2020
Click to expand Image Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul had been on hunger strike for six days before Saudi authorities finally allowed her parents to visit on August 31, according to family members. Al-Hathloul had spent almost three months before that in incommunicado detention. © Private

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia has denied some prominent detainees contact with their family members and lawyers for months, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter requesting access to the country and private prison visits with detainees. The situation raises serious concerns for the detainees’ safety and well-being.

Saudi authorities have banned in-person visits with prisoners across the country since March 2020 to limit the spread of Covid-19. But Saudi activists and other sources say that the authorities have also unduly denied numerous imprisoned dissidents and other detainees regular communication with the outside world.

“Saudi authorities appear intent on making certain detainees and their loved ones suffer even further by denying them the ability to hear each other’s voices and know for certain they are ok,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All prisoners should be allowed unfettered communication with their families and the world outside their prison cells, but especially so during these trying times.”

A family member of a leading women’s rights activist told Human Rights Watch they have not received phone calls from their detained relative in over two months. A relative of a prominent imprisoned cleric, Salman al-Awda, said the family has not heard from him since May.

Family members of another prominent women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, said that the authorities finally allowed her parents to visit on August 31, after she spent almost three months in incommunicado detention. They said she had begun a hunger strike six days before the visit after learning that some other detainees had been allowed to call their families. Saudi authorities have detained all three for over two years or longer in what informed sources indicate are abusive conditions, while they face repeatedly adjourned trials based on charges that violate their basic rights.

According to lawyers representing the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, he has been detained without charge since his arrest in March, and his current whereabouts are unknown. While the prince has occasionally been allowed to make calls to family members, some of which were reportedly made under duress, the lawyers said that he has been denied visits with family members since his arrest and his personal doctor since his initial period of detention. The lawyers said they do not know whether the prince has received treatment for his diabetes and that there are serious concerns about his well-being and health.

Saudi authorities arrested al-Hathloul along with a number of other prominent Saudi women’s rights activists in May 2018, marking the beginning of a brutal crackdown on the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia. For the first three months, the authorities held her incommunicado, without access to her family and lawyer. In August, the authorities embarked on a second wave of arrests.

In November 2018, human rights organizations began reporting accusations that Saudi interrogators had tortured al-Hathloul and at least three other detained women, including with electric shocks and whippings, and had sexually harassed them.

Saudi Arabia brought charges against several women’s rights advocates, including al-Hathloul, that appear almost entirely related to their human rights activities and opened their trials in March 2019. As of August 2020, more than a year since, none of them had been sentenced and no new hearing dates have been set.

Al-Awda, 63, was among the first of dozens of people detained in mid-September 2017 by the Presidency of State Security, an agency established only months before, following Mohammad bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince. Al-Awda was held in solitary confinement, with no lawyer and a limited ability to contact family members.

In September 2018, Saudi prosecutors sought the death penalty against him on a host of vague charges related to his political statements, associations, and positions. None of the charges refer to specific acts of violence or incitement to violence. His relative said that he remains in solitary confinement, that his trial has been suspended since late 2019, and that his hearings have been postponed numerous times without explanation. Since May, Saudi prison authorities have denied him all contact with his family, leaving them seriously concerned for his health.

Contact with the outside world is an essential right of prisoners. International standards dictate that prisoners must be allowed to “communicate with their family and reputable friends at regular intervals, both by correspondence and by receiving visits.”vLimitations on contact and movement should be proportionate and measured, and a prosecutor or prison director may not arbitrarily withdraw a prisoner’s rights to such contact. International standards require that “communication of the detained or imprisoned person with the outside world, and in particular his family or counsel, shall not be denied for more than a matter of days.”

Even before the pandemic, Human Rights Watch had documented that prison administrations would often halt prisoners’ communications with relatives without explanation and would heavily monitor calls when they do allow them, cutting the lines if prisoners tried to discuss their cases or complain about detention conditions. Some prisoners also said that phone calls are usually restricted to 2 to 10 minutes.

Saudi Arabia has recorded a steady rise in Covid-19 cases since March 2, with 303,973 cases and 3,548 deaths recorded by August 20. Infectious diseases like Covid-19 pose a serious risk to populations in closed institutions like prisons and detention centers. In Saudi Arabia’s prisons, where human rights groups have long documented ill-treatment, overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and denial of adequate medical care, it is virtually impossible to adequately protect the mental and physical health of already vulnerable prisoners in case of an outbreak.

On April 24, a leading Saudi human rights figure, Abdullah al-Hamid, 69, died while serving a long prison term. The Saudi human rights organization ALQST reported that al-Hamid’s health condition had deteriorated in recent months, and that the authorities had delayed a heart operation a doctor told al-Hamid he needed in early 2020. ALQST said that authorities took steps to prevent al-Hamid from discussing his health condition with his family. He suffered a stroke on April 9 and remained hospitalized in a coma until his death.

On July 19, a writer and journalist, Saleh al-Shehi, died in the hospital two months after his release from detention. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called for an independent international investigation to determine whether there is a link between his detention conditions and his death from an illness that has not been formally identified but that some local media outlets said was Covid-19. Saudi authorities released Al-Shehi from prison on May 19 without explanation after he had served two and a half years of a five-year sentence on speech-related charges.

Saudi authorities should promptly allow independent international monitors to enter the country, regularly monitor prison and detention facilities, carry out impartial investigations into allegations of torture and suspicious deaths in detention, and conduct private and regular visits with prisoners, Human Rights Watch said.

“Following the devastating deaths of prominent detainees in suspicious circumstances, Saudi Arabia’s allies should demand that they immediately release all those unjustly detained for exercising their basic rights before it’s too late,” Page said. “The families of detainees held incommunicado should not have to spend another day anxiously wondering what has become of their relatives.”

China: Mongolian Mother-Tongue Classes Curtailed

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 4, 2020
Click to expand Image   Chinese paramilitary police wear face masks in Beijing, May 1, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo

(New York) – The Chinese government should reverse its new policy of increasingly replacing Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese as the language of instruction in Inner Mongolia schools, Human Rights Watch said today. Chinese authorities should also stop harassing those who have peacefully protested in support of Mongolian language education.

The US-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center reported on August 20, 2020, that education authorities had informed teachers that all elementary and middle schools in Inner Mongolia had to use Mandarin Chinese as the language of instruction for three subjects starting this new school year. Inner Mongolia is a region in northern China with 17 percent ethnic minority Mongols, who speak Mongolian as their mother tongue.

“As in Xinjiang and Tibet, the Chinese authorities appear to be putting political imperatives ahead of educational ones,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “While Mongolian students are being told they’ll still have some classes in Mongolian, their concerns about it being phased out are entirely warranted.”

Students in Mongolian-medium schools had previously been taught in their mother tongue, alongside a daily hour of Chinese language instruction starting from the third grade. Starting this September, the education authorities will expect schools to teach three subjects in Mandarin Chinese: language and literature, “morality and law (politics),” and history. Authorities may be giving priority to these three subjects because they reflect the government’s emphasis on political and ideological education. Other classes, namely mathematics, sciences, art, music, and physical education, as well as Mongolian language, will still be taught in Mongolian.   

In an August 31 statement, authorities in Mongolia said that the changes, following similar steps in Xinjiang in 2017 and Tibet 2018, also apply to ethnic minority schools in Gansu, Sichuan, and six other provinces and regions. The statement said that “Textbooks reflect the will of the [Chinese Communist] Party and the state … [and] directly concern the implementation of the Party’s educational guiding principle and the realization of educational goals.”    

Authorities did not initially communicate the changes publicly – perhaps anticipating objections. During closed-door meetings, officials only showed teachers the headings of the central government policy, and required teachers to sign documents promising not to discuss the order.

After the policy was leaked, international media reported widespread school boycotts and various protests breaking out throughout Inner Mongolia. Videos show students shouting slogans and walking out of schools. Authorities swiftly responded with a crackdown, detaining Mongolian activists and beating protesters.

On August 23, authorities shut down Bainu, the only Mongolian-language social media site in China. Many Mongolian speakers earlier had posted complaints on Bainu about the policy change. Many posts on popular Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat about “bilingual education” were censored. Authorities also allegedly harassed and detained some Mongolians who voiced their displeasure on these platforms. 

China’s constitution guarantees minority language rights, and minority-medium education began to be introduced in schools in the relatively liberal 1980s. But in recent years, the Chinese government has rolled back minority language education rights across the country, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet. The Chinese government calls these new efforts – in a confusing euphemism – “bilingual education.”

While many Tibetan parents support the idea of children learning in both languages, some are distressed at the near-total removal of Tibetan-language medium education, replacing it with classes conducted in Chinese. The developments reflect an assimilationist, Han-centric chauvinism that has gained momentum under President Xi Jinping’s leadership. The authorities now consider even local initiatives for the promotion of minority language activities in Tibet as “separatist,” punishable under the criminal code.

Authorities in the past have harassed and arbitrarily detained activists who criticized ethnic minority language policies and campaigned for mother-tongue education. In 2018, Tibetan language rights activist Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting separatism.”

China’s assimilationist education policy contravenes international human rights law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which China ratified in 1992, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China has signed but not ratified. Both treaties guarantee that children have the right to education in their own language and culture. China has also supported the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which both endorses rights to Indigenous language education and the right of Indigenous people to control their educational systems and institutions.

“Chinese authorities should be focused on providing genuine bilingual education, not undermining it and persecuting its proponents,” Richardson said. “Reducing mother tongue education flies in the face of China’s constitution, international standards, and expert consensus, and erodes Mongolians’ distinct identity.”

Philippines Soldiers Accused of Beating Indigenous People

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 4, 2020
Click to expand Image Filipino army troopers patrol a street in the Philippines in the early morning, March 15, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Soldiers in the Philippines allegedly detained and beat three Indigenous people in Zambales province, northwest of Manila, and forced one detainee to eat human feces. The incident occurred on August 21, after the Philippine military began counterinsurgency operations against the communist New People’s Army in an area populated by the Aeta indigenous group, according to Umahon, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for land rights.

In a Facebook post, Umahon alleged that soldiers from the army’s 7th Infantry Division beat three members of the tribal community in San Marcelino Town and forced one of the detainees to eat human waste. Two of the three men reportedly remain in custody. Umahon and Sandugo, another tribal rights group, also accused the military of bombing tribal communities during their operations. The governmental Commission on Human Rights says that it will look into/investigate the allegations.

The Philippine Army denied the accusations, saying that its operations, including bombings, were directed against the New People’s Army, not the Aeta community. It has threatened to take legal action against groups and individuals who shared Umahon’s social media post on the incident.

The Philippine security forces have a long history of committing abuses against Indigenous communities throughout the country. In recent years, military and paramilitary forces have bombed Indigenous areas, destroyed Indigenous schools and murdered educators, harassed tribal leaders who speak out against the government by accusing them of being communists, and killed tribal activists who oppose the operations of mining companies and other extractive industries.

The Commission on Human Rights and the Philippine National Commission on Indigenous Peoples should urgently investigate the range of issues surrounding the alleged incident in Zambales. They add to the long list of issues that the Philippines faces at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which will tackle the country’s catastrophic human rights situation at its 45th session this month.

India: Stop Using Pellet-Firing Shotguns in Kashmir

Human Rights Watch - Friday, September 4, 2020
Click to expand Image An Indian police officer aims a shotgun at Kashmiri protesters throwing stones, in Srinagar, India, May 8, 2018. © 2018 AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

(New York) – The Indian authorities should prohibit security forces in Jammu and Kashmir from using shotguns firing metal pellets to disperse crowds, Human Rights Watch said today. Indian police and paramilitary forces fired shotguns as well as tear gas at a Shia Muslim procession in Srinagar on August 29, 2020, injuring dozens of people.

The forces opened fire after marchers in Muharram defied orders to disperse under a Covid-19 ban. This sparked violent protests in which some protesters threw stones, injuring 15 security personnel, according to the police.

“Time and again, Indian law enforcement’s use of shotguns in Kashmir has resulted in shocking, grievous injuries of protesters and bystanders,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Indian authorities need to recognize that this weapon fired into crowds, even with violent demonstrators, will invariably cause indiscriminate and excessive injury in violation of international standards.”

Pellets fired from shotguns have caused thousands of injuries, including loss of eyesight, in the decade since Indian authorities first deployed them as an ostensibly “non-lethal” option for crowd control, to replace live ammunition. The move came after nearly 120 people were killed in Kashmir during weeks of violent protests in 2010.

Security forces typically use 12-gauge pump action guns to fire cartridges that are filled with dozens or hundreds of small metal pellets, which are sometimes referred to as “birdshot” or “dove shot” to reflect their role in hunting. While initially concentrated in a tight pattern as they are fired, the pellets spread out to create a constellation that can reach a wide radius, causing injuries indiscriminately, including to bystanders.

The Indian authorities have claimed that security forces use pellets only when necessary and in response to violence by protesters. However, international law bars any use of force, including against violent protesters, that causes indiscriminate or unnecessary harm.

Security forces’ use of shotguns in Kashmir has caused deaths as well as injuries. While there is no accurate data on casualties from shotgun-fired pellets, the Home Affairs Ministry told Parliament in February 2018 that 17 people had died from pellets between 2015 and 2017. According to the data journalism website IndiaSpend, pellets fired from shotguns blinded 139 people between July 2016 and February 2019. In January 2018, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the state assembly that 6,221 people had been injured by pellets between July 2016 and February 2017 and among them, 782 people had eye injuries.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has said that use of a shotgun “firing metal pellets is one of the most dangerous weapons used in Kashmir,” and has called for an immediate end to their use for crowd control.

In 2017, when questioned in parliament over the use of pellets, the Home Affairs Ministry said it had explored other non-lethal alternatives to disperse crowds, but that “if these measures prove to be ineffective in dispersing of rioters, use of pellet guns may be resorted to.” In December 2016, the Supreme Court said that the these weapons should not be used “indiscriminately or excessively” in Kashmir and that the authorities should use them only after “proper application of mind.”

In August 2016, the security forces told the Jammu and Kashmir High Court that it used cartridges containing 450 metal pellets each. The government has refused to release information on the metal used in these cartridges, citing national security concerns, though a doctor in Srinagar said they were usually a “lead ball.” While smaller pellets usually cause painful but superficial injuries, they can also be lethal when they strike vulnerable body parts such as the eyes. Government statements also reveal that paramilitary forces in Jammu and Kashmir are given only a three-day special training on the use of less-lethal weapons, including shotguns.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms “[p]rohibit the use of those firearms and ammunition that cause unwarranted injury or present an unwarranted risk.” The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stated in its General Comment No. 37 that “Firearms are not an appropriate tool for the policing of assemblies, and must never be used simply to disperse an assembly.… [A]ny use of firearms by law enforcement officials in the context of assemblies must be limited to targeted individuals in circumstances in which it is strictly necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

The 2020 UN guidance on “less-lethal weapons” in law enforcement says, “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.”

“Indian leaders who claim that their policies are improving the lives of Kashmiris cannot disregard that security forces are maiming, blinding, and killing people,” Ganguly said. “The Indian government should cease the use of shotguns firing metal pellets and review its crowd control techniques to meet international standards.”


Egypt: Man Dies in Unjust Detention

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 3, 2020
Click to expand Image Ahmed Abdelnabi Mahmoud and Raia Abdallah at their home in Dallas, Texas. © 2020 Facebook/The Free Raia and Ahmed Campaign Page 

(Beirut) – A 64-year-old Egyptian man whose United States-based family pleaded several times for his release because of his medical condition died in Tora Maximum-Security Prison II in Cairo on September 2, 2020, after nearly two years in detention without trial, Human Rights Watch said today.

Ahmed Abdelnabi Mahmoud was arrested on December 23, 2018 along with his wife, Raia Abdallah, 62, and their daughter, Yosr Abdelnabi, 24. Mahmoud and Abdallah were forcibly disappeared for almost three weeks before the authorities took them before a Supreme State Security prosecutor on January 10, 2019. Their daughter was detained at Cairo Airport for 22 days, then released without charge. Abdallah was conditionally released on May 23, 2019 pending trial.

“When Egyptian authorities take someone into custody, they become responsible for that detainee’s well-being,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to open a full investigation into the causes of Ahmed Mahmoud’s death to determine if medical negligence played a role.” 

The Egyptian authorities charged Mahmoud and Abdallah with belonging to an unspecified “illegal group.” Mahmoud’s two American-Egyptian daughters who live in the US told Human Rights Watch that he had several chronic illnesses, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma. He also developed kidney stones in prison but was unable to get adequate medical care or be examined by independent doctors.

They said he told them he was beaten during his initial secret detention, causing symptoms resembling post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he received no treatment. The family was not immediately informed of the cause and circumstances of Mahmoud’s death.

“For months he stayed in a dark, filthy, narrow cell with no access to clean water, food, medication, or medical treatment,” one family member said. “Prison doctors would tell him he was faking his illness every time he complained,” the relative said.

His daughters said that the authorities had never provided Mahmoud’s lawyers with a copy of the official charges against him and Abdallah and did not allow them to review or challenge any evidence of wrongdoing. 

Mahmoud’s daughters announced his death on their Facebook page. The Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, a local rights group, reported the deaths of three additional Egyptians held in different prisons over the course of just two days, August 31 and September 1. The others who died are Sobhy al-Saqqa, in Borg al-Arab Alexandria Prison; Sha’ban Hussein Khaled, in al-Fayoum General Prison; and Abdelrahman Youssef Zawal, in Tora Tahqiq Prison. Tora Tahqiq and Tora Maximum-Security Prison II are both parts of Cairo’s Tora Prison Complex.

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi effectively took power in 2013, hundreds of prisoners have died in detention by some estimates, many likely as a result of inadequate medical care or torture. According to the Committee for Justice, a Geneva-based independent human rights group, the number of detainees who died in Egyptian custody between June 2013 and December 2019 could be as high as 958. Almost none of these deaths has been meaningfully investigated. 

Two United Nations experts wrote in November 2019 that Egypt’s abusive detention conditions “may be placing the health and lives of thousands more prisoners at severe risk.” During the Covid-19 outbreak, Human Rights Watch with the Committee for Justice documented the deaths of at least 15 prisoners, most likely because of Covid-19 complications.

“Detainees and prisoners keep dying in Egyptian custody despite frequent pleas for adequate health care,” Stork said. “This reflects unacceptable negligence on the part of Egyptian prison authorities.”