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One Year After Peace Deal, Little Has Changed in Eritrea

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, July 9, 2019
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Eritrea's President, Isaias Afwerki talks to Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed during the Inauguration ceremony marking the reopening of the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia July 16, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

Today marks one year since the historic peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended 20 years of intermittent conflict between the two countries. Eritrea’s leaders had long used the “no war, no peace” situation with Ethiopia to justify some of their most repressive policies, and many had hoped that the peace deal would usher in a new era of respect for human rights. Yet one year on, little has changed.

Among the most egregious problems is indefinite national service, in which all young Eritreans – men and women – starting in their last year of high school must serve indefinitely in the military or civil service for low pay, with no say in their profession or work location, and often under abusive conditions. While the threat from Ethiopia was previously used as a justification for this policy, there are no signs this has eased since the peace deal was signed. National service remains the primary driver behind the mass exodus of thousands of young Eritreans each month who brave dangerous foreign journeys and callous governments to reach safety abroad.

Eritrea’s leaders and their vocal supporters have claimed, with some justification, that the international community sided with Ethiopia during the dispute, and cite the range of United Nations sanctions and increased UN scrutiny on Eritrea’s human rights record as evidence of this. But international oversight should spur improvements in rights protections, not new excuses for violating them.

Eritrea’s government should recognize that its dire rights record and the mass migration that it fuels is the biggest threat facing the country. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should continue monitoring Eritrea, including by renewing the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea later this week. Eritrea’s international partners who want to see the country’s human rights record improve should continue exploring how they can support the government to demobilize indefinite conscripts. And the government should finally set a detailed timetable on demobilization and ensure that national service no longer lasts indefinitely.

Sri Lanka: No Justice for ‘Trinco 5’

Human Rights Watch - Monday, July 8, 2019
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Sri Lankan police officers stand guard outside the supreme court complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka. 

© 2018 Eranga Jayawardena/AP Photo  

(New York) – A magistrate in the northeastern town of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, acquitted all 13 defendants in the execution of five ethnic Tamil students on January 2, 2006, known as the “Trinco Five” case, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. On July 3, 2019, the magistrate acquitted 12 members of the police Special Task Force (STF) and a police officer due to a “lack of evidence.”

The global notoriety of the Trinco Five killings has made it a test case for the commitment of successive Sri Lankan governments to ensure accountability for grave crimes carried out during the three-decade-long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.

“Sri Lankan authorities have proven unable to obtain justice for the murders of five young people and the resulting coverup despite the considerable evidence available,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to convict anyone in this emblematic case after 13 years demonstrates the need for a court with international participation that can properly protect victims and witnesses.”

The Daily News reported the prosecution named 36 witnesses. Eight witnesses did not appear in court, including two who had obtained asylum in the United Kingdom and Switzerland. The prosecution of the case had long been marred by serious threats against the survivors and witnesses, which forced them and their family members to flee Sri Lanka.

On the evening of January 2, 2006, amid New Year’s celebrations at Trincomalee beach, Sri Lankan security forces shot and killed five students, at pointblank range, and seriously wounded two others. The government quickly claimed, without evidence, that the youth killed were LTTE insurgents carrying out a grenade attack.

Unlike most other crimes under international law and human rights violations committed during Sri Lanka’s long civil war, the Trinco Five case has received considerable global attention. It has been the subject of government-appointed commissions and discussions at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Human rights groups have reported both on those who allegedly carried out the killings and senior officials implicated in a cover-up.

In 2006, 12 Special Task Force police officers were arrested in connection with the killings, but they were soon released for lack of evidence. In July 2013, the men were rearrested but then released three months later because no proceedings had been opened against them.

In 2006, Dr. Kasippillai Manoharan, whose 20-year-old son, Ragihar, was among the five youths killed, testified at the government inquest. He described a phone call from his son, who said that he was surrounded by security forces. After Dr. Manoharan rushed to the nearby beachfront, soldiers stopped him, but he said he heard people shouting for help in Tamil, and then gunshots. For months afterwards, there were death threats against him and his family, and they eventually fled to the UK, where they received asylum. He later provided video testimony to a presidential commission and said that after the shootings a senior government official had offered him a house in Colombo and private school education for his remaining children if he kept quiet.

A US State Department cable from October 2006 released several years later by WikiLeaks shows that Basil Rajapaksa, the brother and adviser of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, told the US ambassador to Sri Lanka that the security forces were responsible for the killings, but claimed there was no evidence to convict them. “We know the STF did it, but the bullet and gun evidence shows that they did not,” Basil Rajapaksa is quoted as saying. “They must have separate guns when they want to kill someone.”

In February 2018, the then-UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, told the UN Human Rights Council that the Trinco Five killings were among those that highlighted impunity for serious human rights violations. The high commissioner’s report stated:

[T]he failure to show major progress in these emblematic cases strengthens the argument for the establishment of a specialized court to deal with the most serious crimes committed by State actors… staffed by specialized personnel and supported by international practitioners.

A consensus resolution on transitional justice for Sri Lanka, adopted by the Human Rights Council in October 2015, calls for an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors, and investigators. Little progress has been made on this or other elements of the resolution.

“The acquittals in the Trinco Five case mean that the government’s obligation to bring to justice those responsible for the murders remains,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director, Amnesty International. “Governments monitoring Sri Lanka’s compliance with the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution should put this case at the top of their concerns.”

Bloody Sunday in the Philippines

Human Rights Watch - Monday, July 8, 2019
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Activists hold a candlelight vigil for victims of extrajudicial killings in the government’s “drug war” in front of a church in Manila, September 16, 2016.

© 2016 TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Three people – an activist church worker, a provincial politician, and a businessman – were killed in separate attacks in the Philippines on Sunday by unidentified gunmen riding motorcycles.

The media reported that on July 7, gunmen shot dead Salvador Romano, 42, in Negros Oriental, a central province long wracked by killings over land rights. Romano was attacked as he left a church of the Philippine Independent Church, where he worked as a youth advisor. He formerly volunteered for the human rights group Karapatan, whose members have long been victims of extrajudicial killings.

Earlier that morning, Wenefredo Olofernes, 52, a well-known member of the Dinagat provincial legislature, was fatally shot once in the head by gunmen while riding his motorcycle home in Surigao City. Assassinations of politicians are common in the Philippines.

The media also reported the killing that day of Arnel Agustin, a businessman from Cagayan province, north of Manila. Gunmen on a motorbike killed him and wounded his wife in their pickup truck.

The three killings are unrelated, but share the modus operandi of killers commonly referred to in the Philippines as “riding in tandem”: two people riding a motorbike, wearing ski masks or balaclavas, and using a .45 caliber pistol (at least in the shootings of Romano and Agustin). According to the police, about four people are killed this way in the Philippines every day.

These three cases highlight the breakdown in law and order in the Philippines. Guns for hire – whether paid hitmen or local government-linked “death squads” – operate knowing that the risk of arrest, let alone successful prosecution, is miniscule. It’s no surprise that many of the hired guns are police officers. And as killings in the government’s “war on drugs” have expanded and come under increased global scrutiny, the police have outsourced many “drug war” killings.

“Riding-in-tandem” killings, and the government’s failure to stop them, are a daily reminder of the need for greater international monitoring. The United Nations Human Rights Council is poised to adopt a resolution on the human rights crisis in the Philippines. It may not end the carnage but will put the government on notice that it needs to.

The Distance Between Human Rights and the EU: the Libyan Migration Crisis

Opinio Juris - Monday, July 8, 2019
“From the big ship they were making calls, but said: ‘Sorry, we can’t take you, it’s not my fault, orders are that Libyans will come to take you’. Meanwhile, I could see people dying on the other boat, pieces of boat were floating and bodies too. [By the time] a small Libyan ship came to get us…all the people on...

The Sum of Four Fears: African States and the International Criminal Court in Retrospect–Part II

Opinio Juris - Monday, July 8, 2019
Max du Plessis is Senior Counsel in South Africa, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, an Associate Tenant at Doughty Street Chambers and an Honorary Research Fellow, University of KwaZulu-Natal. Christopher Gevers is a Lecturer in the School of Law at University of KwaZulu-Natal. In our first post, we identified how...

Egypt: Renewed Detention of Scholar’s Daughter Unlawful

Human Rights Watch - Monday, July 8, 2019

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should release Ola al-Qaradawi, the daughter of a well-known Islamic scholar, who was rearrested on July 4, Human Rights Watch said today. A prosecutor charged al-Qaradawi, 58, for membership and support of a terrorist group by “using her relationships in prison,” though she spent the last two years in solitary confinement.

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Interior Ministry forces arrested Ola al-Qaradawi, 55, and her husband, Hosam Khalaf, 58, without a warrant over an alleged Muslim Brotherhood link. 

© Private

A judge ordered the release of al-Qaradawi, the daughter of well-known Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, on July 3, on probation, after she spent two years in pretrial detention without charge. Egyptian law permits a maximum of two years in pretrial detention. Egyptian forces originally arrested al-Qaradawi and her husband, Hosam Khalaf, in June 2017. Khalaf, 60, remains jailed, though he has not been charged.

“The renewed detention of Al-Qaradawi, apparently for no reason other than the fact than she is the daughter of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, demonstrates how the Egyptian authorities shamelessly use the judicial system as a tool of oppression,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Facing the prospect of having to release her by Egyptian law after detaining her without trial for two years, they’ve now come up with fantastic charges of terrorist activity in prison, though she’s been in virtual solitary confinement the entire time.”

On July 3, a judge ordered al-Qaradawi’s conditional release pursuant to article 143 of Egypt’s Code of Criminal Procedure, which requires the release of any detainee held in pretrial detention for more than two years. Khalaf, who has also been held for more than two years without trial, was not brought by the prison authorities before the judge “for security reasons,” according to his lawyer. Egyptian police never released al-Qaradawi despite the court order. On July 4, a day after the order, a State Security prosecutor renewed the original charges against her, and as part of the new case regarding her activities in prison, sent her back to solitary confinement. The new case in addition to the previous charges mean that al-Qaradawi, who holds Qatari citizenship, could be held for two more years in pretrial detention under Egyptian law.

Al-Qaradawi’s family told Human Rights Watch that for the past two years, Egyptian security forces have held al-Qaradawi in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in al-Qanater prison. Her husband has been held in the notorious Scorpion prison, also in solitary confinement. The family also said that during this time, al-Qaradawi and Khalaf have had extremely limited access to lawyers and family, received no phone calls, and reported inadequate access to medical care, food, and medicine.

According to the family, al-Qaradawi’s physical and psychological health has been deteriorating over the last two years. A family member told Human Rights Watch that prison authorities have denied al-Qaradawi sunlight, a mattress, and a pillow. The family member added that they have never been able to speak to Khalaf since he was detained and do not have any knowledge about his medical condition.

Reports indicate that Egyptian authorities have failed to provide adequate medical care to thousands of political prisoners. On June 17, former President Mohamed Morsy died in a courtroom after years of grave abuses and insufficient access to medical care. Detainees have been complaining for years about the lack of medical care in prisons. Recently, the son of Abdelmonem Abolfotouh, a former presidential candidate and the head of Strong Egypt Party, told journalists his father has suffered two heart attacks in prison, where he has been held in a solitary confinement, adding that he fears for his father’s life because of the harsh conditions he faces in prison.

As Human Rights Watch reported in 2017, the detentions of al-Qaradawi and Khalaf appear linked entirely to their relation to al-Qaradawi’s father, who lives in Qatar and has citizenship there. He was sentenced to death in absentia along with the late President Morsy and 98 other defendants, only six of whom were in custody, in June 2015. Human Rights Watch’s analysis of the case shortly after the verdict found the trial was flawed and judges failed to establish individual criminal guilt.

Al-Qaradawi’s family told Human Rights Watch that following her detention renewal, al-Qaradawi officially declared to the prosecution that she is starting a hunger strike until she is unconditionally released.

After more than two years in detention, Egyptian authorities failed to bring any credible evidence to justify the charges enabling the couple’s prolonged and excessive two years of pretrial detention. Their detention has lacked any basic semblance of due process.

Under international and African human rights law applicable in Egypt, all persons arrested should be charged promptly and informed about the charge. Detention before trial should be the exception – not the rule – and the authorities should justify the necessity for continued detention before trial of individuals in regular hearings before a court. Everyone detained before trial is entitled to a trial within a reasonable period of time or be released. Prolonged solitary confinement is considered inhuman and degrading treatment and is strictly prohibited in all circumstances.

“Egypt’s prosecutors have made a mockery of the law, creating fantastic new charges of al-Qaradawi’s terrorist activities in prison, just to keep her imprisoned,” said Whitson. “Anyone who cites Egypt as a country governed by the rule of law  is choosing to ignore the despicable records of its use as a mere political cudgel.”

ICC: Congo Warlord Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity

Human Rights Watch - Monday, July 8, 2019

July 8, 2019 Video Video: Verdict on Former Congolese Warlord

The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) conviction of the Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda sends a strong message that justice may await those responsible for grave crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

(The Hague) – The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) conviction of the Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda sends a strong message that justice may await those responsible for grave crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. 

On July 8, 2019, a panel of three judges unanimously found Ntaganda guilty of 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity committed in Ituri, eastern Congo, in 2002 and 2003. The charges included murder and attempted murder, rape, sexual slavery, attacking civilians, pillaging, displacement of civilians, attacking protected objects, and recruiting and using child soldiers. The judges found that Ntaganda and others agreed on a common plan to attack and drive the ethnic Lendu population out of Ituri through the commission of crimes. Human Rights Watch issued a question-and-answer document on Ntaganda’s trial.

“The long-awaited judgment provides an important measure of justice for Bosco Ntaganda’s victims and puts others responsible for grave crimes on notice,” said Maria Elena Vignoli, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “But renewed violence in eastern Congo highlights the need to address the impunity for other abusive leaders.”

The resurgence of violence in Ituri since early June has left scores dead and displaced more than 300,000 people.

During earlier fighting in Ituri, Ntaganda was chief of military operations of the Union of Congolese Patriots (Union des patriotes congolais, UPC), a predominantly ethnic Hema armed group. The UPC was led by Thomas Lubanga, who was convicted by the ICC in 2012 for using child soldiers. Between 2002 and 2005, forces under Ntaganda’s command were implicated in many serious crimes, including ethnic massacres, torture, rape, and the widespread recruitment of children, some as young as seven. The ICC issued two arrest warrants against Ntaganda, one in 2006 and one in 2012. Ntaganda surrendered to the United States embassy in Kigali, Rwanda in March 2013.

If upheld on appeal, the case could become the first final conviction at the ICC for crimes of sexual violence, including against men. In addition to crimes against Lendu, the court found Ntaganda guilty of the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery against members of the UPC. This is the first time the ICC has convicted a commander for sexual violence offenses committed by his troops against other members of the same force.

Human Rights Watch documented ethnic massacres, killings, rape, torture, and recruitment of child soldiers by troops under Ntaganda’s command in the Kivus, and called for these charges to be added to his case at the ICC. However, his trial, which began in September 2015 and concluded in August 2018, only dealt with crimes related to the Ituri conflict.

In May 2019, Ntaganda filed a request to disqualify Judge Kuniko Ozaki, who in early 2019 briefly acted as Japanese ambassador to Estonia while still serving on the Ntaganda case. Ntaganda’s lawyers argued that the appearance of her judicial independence and impartiality had been compromised. In June 2019, a plenary of judges rejected the request, finding that the circumstances of Judge Ozaki’s tenure as ambassador did not disqualify her.

The court will schedule hearings in the coming weeks to determine Ntaganda’s sentence and reparations for victims. It should take all necessary steps to ensure that affected communities in Congo learn about the judgment and next steps, including participating in the reparations proceedings, Human Rights Watch said.

Ntaganda was the fourth person the ICC prosecuted for grave crimes in Congo. A fifth ICC arrest warrant is pending against Gen. Sylvestre Mudacumura, the military leader of a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group active in Congo, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Congolese authorities, with the help of United Nations peacekeepers, should act urgently to arrest Mudacumura and surrender him to the ICC, Human Rights Watch said.

The number and stature of Congo-related cases before the ICC have not addressed the scale of the crimes committed in the country since 2002, when the court’s jurisdiction started. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the ICC prosecutor to expand the investigation in Congo to include, for example, the role of senior political and military officials from Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda who supported, armed, and financed abusive armed groups in eastern Congo over the years, as well as other crimes, including those committed in the attacks that began in Beni, North Kivu, in October 2014.

The ICC prosecutor should formulate a clear strategy to address outstanding accountability needs in Congo, including by supporting Congolese authorities. This will help reinforce the rule of law and address Congo’s recurrent cycles of violence. The court, in turn, needs strong long-term support from ICC member countries, which should allocate sufficient resources to meaningfully address the court’s growing workload, Human Rights Watch said.

“The verdict against Ntaganda is important, but thousands of victims of atrocity crimes in Congo still await justice,” Vignoli said. “The ICC and Congolese authorities should work together to bring to trial many more of those responsible for grave crimes, including senior officials.”

Timeline on Bosco Ntaganda:

1973

Born in Kinigi, Rwanda.

1990

Joins Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels in southern Uganda.

1994

Fights with RPF to end the Rwandan genocide and joins the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA).

1996

First Congo War begins - participates on the side of the RPA/Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL).

1997

Joins the Congolese army.

1998

Second Congo War begins - joins the Rwandan backed Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) rebels in Goma.

1999

RCD splits. Joins the RCD-K-ML splinter faction in Kisangani.

1999/2000

Moves to Bunia, Ituri district, with the RCD-K-ML rebels.

2002

RCD-K-ML splinters. Joins the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) rebels.

2005

Joins the Revolutionary Movement of Congo (MRC) rebels, but the militia group is short-lived.

Nov 2005

Placed on UN sanctions list for violating arms embargo.

2005/2006

Joins the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) rebels and moves to Masisi, North Kivu.

Aug 2006

ICC issues sealed arrest warrant for Ntaganda for war crimes committed in Ituri.

April 2008

ICC arrest warrant for Ntaganda is made public.

Jan 2009

Overthrows Laurent Nkunda with the backing of Rwanda and takes over leadership of the CNDP.

2009

Promoted to general in the Congolese army and appointed as deputy commander of military operations in eastern Congo.

2011

Appointed acting commander of military operations.

March 2012

Ntaganda’s co-accused, Thomas Lubanga, found guilty of war crimes at the ICC.

April 2012

Ntaganda urges his loyalists to mutiny and desert the Congolese army, creating the March 23 Movement (M23).

July 2012

ICC issues second arrest warrant for Ntaganda for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ituri.

March 2013

Surrenders himself to the US embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, after the M23 breaks apart, and is transferred to the ICC.

February 2014

Confirmation of charges hearing.

June 2014

The Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC unanimously confirms 18 charges against Ntaganda for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

September 2015

Trial against Ntaganda begins.

August 2018

Trial against Ntaganda ends.

July 2019

Convicted on all 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity

The Sum of Four Fears: African States and the International Criminal Court in Retrospect–Part I

Opinio Juris - Monday, July 8, 2019
Max du Plessis is Senior Counsel in South Africa, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, an Associate Tenant at Doughty Street Chambers and an Honorary Research Fellow, University of KwaZulu-Natal. Christopher Gevers is a Lecturer in the School of Law at University of KwaZulu-Natal. This is the first of two blog...

Japan’s Dilemma in the Persian Gulf

Opinio Juris - Friday, July 5, 2019
[Craig Martin is a Professor of Law and Co-Director of the International and Comparative Law Center, at Washburn University School of Law. He is a frequent visiting lecturer at Osaka University, Graduate School of Law and Politics.] In the wake of the recent attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, there has been considerable discussion about Europe’s difficult position amidst...

EU Should Encourage Ukraine Government to Do More for Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Friday, July 5, 2019

On Monday, the EU-Ukraine summit will take place in Kyiv - the first for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy since he took office in May.  This summit – the 21st- is an important opportunity for the EU to reaffirm its expectations of Ukraine in terms of human rights protections. 

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Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, gestures while speaking during his inauguration ceremony in Kyiv, May 20, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Since 2014, the government has been at war with armed groups in eastern Ukraine fueled and financed by Russia. Although the conflict no longer generates headlines, it continues. At least 13 000 people have been killed,  including at least 3,300civilians. Under Zelenskiy’s predecessor, the government used the need to counter Russia’s military aggression, understandably an enormous challenge, to justify backsliding on several human rights issues. At the upcoming summit, the EU should press the Ukrainian government to break from this pattern and prevent the rights climate from deteriorating further. 

There’s an urgent need to investigate and prosecute hate-based violence and violence against civil society activists, which has proliferated in Ukraineover the past 18 months. Those under attack included people working to defend the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, protecting the environment, and campaigning against corruption. 

Efforts to curb media freedom and physical attacks on journalists continues. The media watchdog, Institute of Mass Information, has documented at least six casesof journalists beaten or injured just in the first five months of 2019. Last month, an investigative journalist Vadym Komarov died in Kyivfrom a brain injury after an attack clearly in retaliation for his journalism. The 2016 murderof Pavel Sheremet remains unresolved.  Effective investigations would send a strong message that there will be no tolerance for attacks against journalists in Ukraine.

Authorities should also do more to uphold the rights of Ukrainians who live in conflict-affected areas in eastern Ukraine, particularly older people in areas held by Russia-backed proxies. It is time for the government to end policiesthat discriminate against them by imposing unnecessary and unjustified hardship to get their pensions. 

Finally, there is a need for reformto ensure more transparency, respect for human rights, and accountability for Ukraine’s law enforcement and security service agencies. 

Good governance and strengthening human rights are among Ukraine’s commitments under the Association Agreement with the EU. In the spirit of these commitments, the EU should hold Ukraine’s leadership to account on its human rights obligations. 

The Statehood of Palestine and Its Effect on the Exercise of ICC Jurisdiction

Opinio Juris - Friday, July 5, 2019
[Steven Kay QC is Head of Chambers at 9 Bedford Row. He has appeared as leading counsel in many significant international criminal trials (Tadic, Milosevic, Musema, Gotovina, Kenyatta) – and represented heads of state and leading figures at UN tribunals and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Joshua Kern is a barrister at 9 Bedford Row. He specialises in complex criminal cases with an...

The EU and Migrant Detention in Libya: Complicity Under the Microscope Finally?

Opinio Juris - Friday, July 5, 2019
The situation in Libya is deteriorating, with each day bringing news even more dire than the previous, regarding the state of the conflict and the plight of civilians. Caught up in this complex situation are significant numbers of individuals fleeing from their countries and seeking refuge, who have been forcibly relocated to Libya and are now languishing in multiple detention...

Lebanon: Syrian Refugee Shelters Demolished

Human Rights Watch - Friday, July 5, 2019
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Men work to dismantle the walls of a shelter in a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon. Once dismantlement is complete, they will receive plywood and tarp from humanitarian organizations to rebuild the upper portion of the walls and the roof in compliance with Lebanese housing codes. June 21, 2019.

© Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – The Lebanese Armed Forces demolished about 20 Syrian refugee shelters on July 1, 2019, contending they did not comply with long-existing, but largely unenforced, housing codes, Human Rights Watch said today.

The armed forces also have been forcing refugees living in semi-permanent shelters on agricultural land to dismantle their own shelters’ concrete walls and roofs and replace them with less protective materials, or face army demolition of their homes. The forced shelter dismantlement under an order by the Higher Defense Council significantly reduces the adequacy of refugee housing to withstand harsh weather conditions, particularly in the Arsal region, where winters are severe.

“This crackdown on housing code violations should be seen for what it is, which is illegitimate pressure on Syrian refugees to leave Lebanon,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch, who watched Syrian refugees in Arsal and the Bekaa Valley demolish their shelters. “Many of those affected have real reasons to fear returning to Syria, including arrests, torture, and ill-treatment by Syrian intelligence branches”

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Dismantled shelters in a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon, June 20, 2019.

© 2019 Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

The order applies to 3,500 to 3,600 refugee families in Arsal, about half of the shelters in Arsal, according to the head of the Arsal municipality, Bassel al-Hujeiri. Some estimates say that up to 15,000 children in Arsal will be affected. It also applies to Syrian refugees living in hard shelters built on agricultural lands nationwide. The order is based on the 2004 Lebanese Construction Law Act, which nongovernmental organizations that have been operating in the camps for years say has rarely if ever been enforced. It applies nationwide, but with variations in demolition and materials specifications; it is currently also being enforced in the Bekaa Valley, Baalbek, and Hermel.

In late June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 40 affected refugees in Arsal and the Bekaa Valley, who said the orders coincided with more frequent army visits to the informal tented settlements, which some refugees characterized as “raids.” They said the army had been arresting men and boys, usually for brief periods, because they lacked proper residency papers or on suspicion of security violations.

The shelter order and the raids are not isolated pressures on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. They coincide with new Higher Defense Council decisions authorizing the summary deportation of Syrians crossing the border irregularly and crackdowns on unauthorized foreign workers and Syrian-operated businesses. New regulations from the General Directorate of Security limit Syrian childrens’ ability to acquire legal residency based on a parent’s legal residency under a Lebanese sponsor.

“The demolition order is one of many recent actions to crank up pressure on Syrian refugees to go back,” Frelick said. “They include ramped up arrests and deportations, closing of shops, and confiscation or destruction of unlicensed vehicles, on top of other long-standing restrictions, including curfews and evictions, and barriers to refugee education, legal residency, and work authorization.”

The demolition order also comes at a time of heightened anti-refugee political rhetoric. President Michael Aoun recently said that, “The wave of Syrian displacement has produced negative repercussions that have impacted all Lebanese sectors,” and that the return of refugees “can’t wait for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.” Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil recently accused Syrian refugees of intending to stay in Lebanon and called on them to return to Syria.

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A partially dismantled shelter in a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon, June 20, 2019.

© 2019 Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

“This is not about housing regulations,” the head of the Arsal municipality, al-Hujeiri, told Human Rights Watch. “It is a political decision. The reason the government is now suddenly making refugees tear their walls down is to pressure them to return. We wish the refugees would return to their country, but we shouldn’t be pressuring them to do so.”

But not a single refugee interviewed said that they would return to Syria because their shelters were less adequate.

“The Lebanese say we have come and taken over their country and live in villas, but just look at the condition of the bathroom – we live with insects and mice,” a 35-year-old widow from Homs whose husband died in detention after his arrest in 2011 said through her tears. “We ran away from war and murder to come here and find they don’t even want us to live like this. Everyone would like to live in his own country, but I cannot go back. Now my children will be in even more misery in this camp, but at least they will stay alive.”

Lebanon has hosted more than an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, the highest per capita number of any country in the world. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for other countries to increase their assistance to Lebanon and to resettle greater numbers of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Lebanon’s refugee-hosting fatigue has been exacerbated by a lack of international support. The UN appeal for more than US$2.24 billion in international aid to meet the humanitarian assistance needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon for 2019 was only 15.8 percent funded as of July 3, 2019. Donor countries should make protecting refugee rights and sharing responsibility for humanitarian needs their priorities.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that many of the refugee shelters on agricultural lands do not comply with existing Lebanese housing codes. However, in compliance with Lebanon’s obligations not to regress on ensuring the right to adequate housing for everyone in the country, and given that soft shelters will not be adequate to protect refugees from winter elements, the Higher Defense Council and other Lebanese authorities should temporarily waive the restrictions on concrete block walls for Syrian refugees in informal tented settlements, until suitable alternatives are available.

“Lebanese authorities should scrupulously respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which means not returning refugees to possible danger,” Frelick said. “Lebanon shouldn’t create pressures that cumulatively coerce refugees to return involuntarily in conditions that are not conducive to a safe and dignified return.”

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Reconstruction of a dismantled shelter begins in a Syrian refugee camp in Arsal, Lebanon.

© 2019 Bill Frelick/Human Rights Watch

Dismantling Shelters

On May 25, the Higher Defense Council reportedly set a June 10 deadline for Syrian refugees to dismantle their own shelters. The deadline was later extended to July 1. Rather than providing written orders, the Lebanese authorities passed instructions to international nongovernmental groups, leaving them to instruct Syrian refugees on specifications for compliance and to provide new shelter materials to comply with the order.

The order says that Syrian refugee shelters built on agricultural lands in Arsal are permitted only a foundation five cinder blocks high. Upper walls and roofs must consist of timber beams and plastic sheeting or canvas, and interior walls can, at most, be thin plywood. In the rest of the country, hard foundations can be no higher than two cinder blocks. Cement foundations are to be removed.

The Lebanese Construction Law Act, No. 646 of 2004, which forms the basis for the Higher Defense Council decision, says that a building permit is required to construct non-permanent structures on agricultural lands, and specifies building materials of wood and stone.

In addition to interviewing 40 refugees, Human Rights Watch interviewed municipal officials, landlords, and representatives of humanitarian organizations. The General Directorate of Security denied or did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. Names and other identifying information about refugees interviewed have been withheld for their security.

A 30-year-old refugee from Idlib with a wife and six children who had been living in an informal tented settlement in the Marj area of the Bekaa Valley said that he was awakened by loud knocking at his door at about 5 a.m. around three months ago. He said that soldiers were everywhere and four entered his shelter. One said that his shelter was not a tent and that they looked more like settlers than refugees:

The soldier said, “You should leave our land.” I told him I would go back now if I could. He handed me a pickaxe and told me I had to dismantle my shelter. He told me to destroy the walls all the way to the ground. He stood and watched me. By noon I had dismantled one wall. The soldier said he would come back to see that I had destroyed three more walls.

They are doing this now because they want Syrians to leave. This is not my opinion; it is the reality. Everywhere I go, all the authorities say to go home, we are feeling the pressure from raids on the camps, our shelters, I used to work in a shop, but I cannot afford to pay a Lebanese sponsor. Even a taxi driver said to me, “You took our land, our country. Why don’t you go?”

This man said that no one provided him with any new shelter materials. The Army said someone would come in three days with proper shelter materials, but he said no one came. “I had to clear the rubble myself and bought wood and fabric and put it up myself, though that put me US$200 in debt.”

In Arsal the army told refugees to dismantle their own shelters to waist height, or they would return to demolish them to the ground. A 63-year-old refugee at the Aqaba camp in Arsal said:

I dismantled my house myself. It took three days to do it. Look at the blisters on my hands. That was 15 days ago. Now I don’t have the money to rebuild my shelter the way they want me to, and no one has given me shelter materials, except some wood for beams. I don’t know why they are doing this to us.

The man tacked blankets to the wooden beams to serve as walls, and used thin scraps of plywood as a roof, though they are already sagging and moldy, and the sky is visible through cracks in the ceiling.

The impact of dismantling the shelters is immediate, especially for refugees who have not received acceptable replacement shelter materials. All refugees interviewed said they worry about how they will survive the coming winter.

A 33-year-old woman sitting in her partially dismantled shelter in the Ibn Walid camp in the Bekaa Valley said that insects and vermin are coming into the house and that she saw her children playing with a toad in the house that morning: “The corrugated metal roof blew away last winter. I can’t imagine what this winter will be like. We also had flooding. What will stop the water from coming in the shelter?”

Lack of Replacement Shelter Materials

International groups required to enforce the government’s orders have borne the brunt of much of the refugees’ anger and resentment. This has been exacerbated by often slow and inadequate provision of alternate shelter materials. A 28-year-old man in El Ekhwe camp in the Bekaa Valley poured out his anger and frustration:

The [he named the group] should have given us the wood to rebuild our shelters. They come here in their SUVs, their full stomachs, and clean clothes. One talked to me. He told me how I had to knock down the illegal walls of my shelter. Then he didn’t even come back to see how I am living now. The NGOs give us instructions and then turn around and forget what they have seen.

Anger spilled over in the Aqaba camp when a delivery of shelter materials by a nongovernmental group for 114 families fell short, leaving 14 families without materials. “I dismantled everything, but I still haven’t received my [supplies to rebuild],” said one of the shortchanged refugees. “I don’t have any cover from the sun.”

Camp Raids, Arrests

Refugees in Arsal and other parts of the Bekaa Valley report more frequent Army raids on informal tented settlements, with men arrested and motorcycles and other vehicles checked for improper licenses, and sometimes broken for not being properly licensed.

A 30-year-old woman who has been living as a refugee in Lebanon for eight years, said that the Army has been raiding Camp Walid in the Bekaa Valley with increasing frequency:

The Army came three times, in the early hours, around 5:30 a.m. During Ramadan, they arrested my sick uncle, my husband, and three of my brothers-in-law. They kept them for six hours and one of my brothers-in-law for 12 hours. They took my brother-in-law’s motorcycle and destroyed it.

The soldiers destroyed an empty shelter that they said looked more like a house than a tent. They pushed all the furniture and other stuff outside and destroyed the house. The neighbors were screaming. The only thing concrete in my shelter is the bathroom wall, but an Army officer told me I had to tear it down or they would destroy the shelter. I am worried they will come back and destroy my house. My husband is scared because we don’t have legal papers. We hear they are deporting people but so far they haven’t deported anyone from this camp.

A 35-year-old man living in the Aqaba camp in Arsal described an Army raid the previous day:

Yesterday, the Army came and took some people from the camp. They also took some motorcycles and broke them and threw them away. A soldier came to our shelter and said our walls were seven cinder blocks high and should only be five high, so we will have to knock down two levels of blocks. He asked me, “Why don’t you go back to your country?” I told him I can’t go back. I deserted the army, and they would take me again if I went back.

Similarly, a 45-year-old man in al-Rahma camp in Arsal said: “The Army came yesterday and took some people. I don’t know if they have been released or not.”

A Syrian refugee man whose age and camp are being withheld for his safety described his arrest:

The Lebanese Army came to our camp four months ago. They arrested about 400 men and boys. I was taken. They came to the camp at 5 a.m. I thought of running away, but the camp was surrounded, and running away could make it worse. The soldiers asked for my papers. I told them I didn’t have any. They put my hands behind my back with plastic handcuffs. They did not speak in a polite way, but didn’t hit me, only shoved me. I was loaded with about 35 others in an Army truck. They took us to an Army base, and then at 3 a.m. the next day, they released us, just leaving us there. It was only the Army, not the GSO. About 30 of the men were not released. They are in Roumieh Prison now.

Since I got back, the Shaweesh [camp leader] told me that Military Intelligence asked about me. Now I leave the shelter at 4:30 a.m. every day so I will not be captured. I am really scared. I am a defector from the regime, and I know they want to get me. I can’t go back.

Another man described his longer period of detention following his arrest in early 2019:

I was held for 43 days. The GSO arrested me in a shop where I was working illegally. They handcuffed my hands behind my back and shoved me into the back of a car. They pulled up on my arms, hurting my shoulders, and pushed my head down and kicked me in the head. At the GSO office, an officer in a GSO uniform punched me about 20 times, and when I fell to the ground, he would kick me. This took place at the GSO office in Beirut that is next to a bridge and that has a prison connected to it. He didn’t ask me any questions; he just beat me.

They transferred me to the Ministry of Defense in Beirut where I was well treated. They threatened to put me in Roumieh Prison for 75 years, but they didn’t hit me. They accused me of faking my ID, but it is a real ID and matches my passport. When they brought me before a judge, the judge laughed at the charges against me, and told me I could leave.

This man is still suffering from his ill treatment:

I never used to believe people who said they had mental health problems. But I have depression. I am too depressed to do anything. In Syria I used to cry if someone died. Now, I cry all the time, every time I lay my head on a pillow.

A 49-year-old woman said the army raided her camp twice, and one time arrested her 17-year-old son: “They put my son in handcuffs and took him away but brought him back at midnight the next night. In Syria, if they take your son to prison, he doesn’t come out. In Lebanon, he does.”

A Lebanese Landlord Speaks

A Lebanese landlord who owns the property on which one of the camps is built said:

Military Intelligence keep visiting me to tell me to make the refugees on my property destroy their homes. I told them, “You tell my refugees to leave the camp. I won’t tell them…If you want them out, you need to find them another place to stay. I’m not going to push them out.” Two days ago, they went to the camp and told the refugees they would have to leave.

The landlord estimated that he would lose about US$30,000 in property damage and reduced or lost rents if the army demolishes the camp on his property. He said, “The government’s rhetoric is about refugees building permanent structures and taking over our land. Well, this is my land. The refugees aren’t taking over anything.”

Other Pressures

Deportations, Departure Orders

The Higher Defense Council adopted several unpublished decisions on April 15 to stop Syrians from crossing the border irregularly into Lebanon and on May 13, the general director of General Security issued a decision to summarily deport all Syrians caught crossing the border irregularly after April 24, and hand them directly to Syrian government authorities. The state-run National News Agency reported on May 24 that the Lebanese Armed Forces, Internal Security Forces, and General Security had deported a combined 301 Syrians nationals to Syria since May 7.

On May 24, Human Rights Watch reported on the deportation of 16 Syrian nationals, including at least 5 registered refugees, from the Hariri International Airport in Beirut. Most of the refugees interviewed were aware that there was some new directive relating to deportations of Syrians, and many expressed concerns they might now be deported.

Others said that General Security has begun stamping “departure” in the passports of Syrians found living or working illegally. Syrians are restricted to working in agriculture, construction, and cleaning, and are not permitted to work without a Lebanese sponsor.

A 41-year-old refugee in Arsal said that his brother-in-law who was working as a carpenter had “departure” stamped in his passport. A Syrian refugee doctor said he was recently dismissed from his job at a health clinic and that General Security had put a “departure” stamp in his passport when he went to renew his legal residency, as he had done for several years without problem.

A Syrian professional woman who works in an office in an urban area described her rising fears of deportation after officials put a departure stamp in her passport:

I had renewed my legal residency for the past four years by falsely claiming that I was a domestic cleaning worker, rather than a professional office worker. But the most recent time I went to GSO to renew my legal residency, they said I was working illegally and stamped “departure” in my passport. I think my Lebanese neighbors must have reported me to the GSO. I am now living in constant fear that the GSO will come back for me and deport me. I know 15 other people through social media who have “departure” stamps in their passports in the past four or five months.

On June 27, Labor Minister Camille Bou Sleiman, reportedly set a July 9 deadline for Lebanese employers to legalize their foreign employees or face a penalty of 2 million Lebanese pounds (US$1,333). Bou Sleiman indicated that companies or shops that continue to break the law will be shut down.

Several people interviewed expressed concerns that the authorities would soon renew a campaign to close Syrian refugee-owned or managed shops. In December 2018, General Security had announced a campaign to close Syrian-owned shops and in February 2019, it was reported to have closed down Syrian-owned shops in Sidon. On June 9, OTV, a station owned by President Aoun’s family, showed a youth group affiliated with the president’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), entering shops in the Beirut suburb of Jdeideh to check whether they employed Syrians.

Other Obstacles

General Security has been creating new obstacles in its already convoluted and cumbersome procedures for Syrian nationals to renew legal residency and work authorization, reducing the number of Syrian refugees with legal residency. About 73 percent of refugees do not have legal residency. On May 17, General Security issued a decision that Syrian children under age 15 not born in Lebanon would no longer be able to establish legal residency in Lebanon based on a parent’s sponsorship by a Lebanese national. Human Rights Watch did not encounter any families who were aware that they were directly affected by the new decision, but nongovernmental groups told Human Rights Watch they regarded this as another measure to further marginalize Syrian refugees living in Lebanon.

Labor Minister Bou Sleiman reportedly said that only 1,733 Syrians have valid work permits out of the nearly one million Syrians registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Even the number of refugees is now unknown, since the government has not allowed UNHCR to register new arrivals from Syria since 2015.

Few of the refugees interviewed had valid legal residency, and some had not registered with UNHCR. Most said that the high cost of getting a Lebanese sponsor for legal residency was a barrier to renewing their legal residency, along with General Security’s annual $200 renewal fee, which is still often required even though the government has officially waived the fee. Some said that officials simply send them away repeatedly with instructions to come back later.

A 24-year-old woman said that she and her two daughters were able to register with UNHCR but that she could not register her husband and son and was told instead that they had to find Lebanese sponsors instead: “But my husband could not afford to pay for a Lebanese sponsor and he entered this country illegally, so he and my son are not here legally.”

According to a joint UNHCR and World Food Program (WFP) report, 69 percent of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon in 2018 were living below the poverty line.

UNHCR’s 2018 humanitarian appeal for Lebanon was only 48 percent funded, leaving a gap of US$1.194 billion. Some of the refugees interviewed said that UNHCR had stopped or cutback on humanitarian assistance. A 63-year-old man with a wife and seven children in the Aqaba camp said:

UNHCR stopped providing humanitarian assistance to us. We used to get 369,000 Lebanese pounds [about US$246, which would be US$27 per person] per month and then they stopped completely six months ago. My wife went to their office in Zahle to complain. They scanned her iris, but didn’t give her any reason for cutting our aid.

Even those receiving aid said that it is less than previously. A 70-year old man in the Aqaba camp in Arsal said:

Why did UNHCR stop the food card? They used to give us a good amount of help, but nowadays it is not enough, US$27 per person per month. We are broke because of the high prices in the shops here.

The inadequacy of humanitarian assistance is a constant refrain. In Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, a 49-year-old woman with five children and a husband missing in Syria said:

I have to pay a monthly rent of 85,000 Lebanese pounds [about US$57]. I can’t pay the landlord. I am drowning in debt. I receive about 200,000 Lebanese pounds [US$133, which is US$27 each] from UNHCR every month for myself and the four children under 18. My 18-year-old son is now the father of the family. He works hard, long hours, but does not have a Lebanese sponsor and his employer exploits him, and his clothes are old and ripped and he is always tired. He earns 100,000 Lebanese pounds [US$67] per week, and we still don’t have enough to eat.

New EU Office in Turkmenistan Needs Focus on Rights

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 4, 2019

Tomorrow the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, will be in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, to lay the groundwork to open an office of an EU delegation. The EU has 140 delegations around the world, and it’s a mark of prestige for this isolated country to host one. 

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A Turkmen choir dressed in green, the national flag color, sings the national anthem at the opening ceremony of the world weightlifting championships in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on Nov. 1, 2018. 

© 2018 Kyodo News via Getty Images

The delegation will have its work cut out for it: Turkmenistan has one of the most repressive governments in the world, with a long track record of locking up activists and human rights defenders. It ranked last in a 2019 index on global pressfreedom. Torture is widespread.

This is a far cry from what is envisaged in the EU’s brand new Central Asia strategy, which rightly calls on governments in the region to uphold human rights standards, allow rights defenders and journalists to operate freely, and eradicate torture.

If anything, Turkmenistan’s record is getting worse. More people are banned, without explanation, from foreign travel. The government has said little about the whereabouts of more than 100 people forcibly disappearedin the prison system following closed, unfair trials. Their families have had no contact, in some cases for more than 15 years. 

In recent years, the government has become more open to discuss disappearances, for example, with the EU and at the UN Human Rights Council,but there is little to cheer. Meanwhile, at least 27 have died in custody, ten of them in the past four years, as the government has “dialogued” with the EU about the issue. The prison sentences of at least 14 of the disappeared are set to expire through 2020, but absent strong pressure from external actors their fates are unclear - the courts could simply extend their sentences, as they just did to Gulgeldy Annaniyazov. He was serving an 11-year sentence set to expire in March 2019. Instead, he was handed another five years. 

The new delegation is supposed to enable the EU to “step up dialogue and cooperation” with Turkmenistan. But the EU shouldn’t waste time and money on engagement for its own sake. Mogherini should tell the government the new EU office will spare no efforts to press for real human rights changes in the country. Meanwhile, she should insist on the release of Annaniyazov and the other 14 whose sentences are ending, and for an end to the crimes of disappearance in the country. 

 

DR Congo: Police Fire on, Beat Protesters

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 4, 2019
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Supporters of the Lamuka opposition coalition protest in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, on June 30, 2019.

© 2019 Private

(Kinshasa) – Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo fired live ammunition, killing one person, in dispersing opposition protests on June 30, 2019. They also used teargas, beatings, and arbitrary arrests against protesters in Kinshasa, the capital, and the eastern city of Goma.

“Congolese authorities should thoroughly and impartially investigate the alleged excessive use of force by the police and hold those responsible to account,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Congo’s new administration should break from its past and show that abuse by the police will no longer be tolerated.”

The Lamuka (“wake up”) coalition, which backed Martin Fayulu in the December 2018 presidential elections, called for peaceful protests on June 30 – Congo’s independence day – against widespread corruption and election fraud. The country’s Constitutional Court recently invalidated the election of some 20 opposition members to parliament.

The police in Goma dispersed demonstrators with teargas and live ammunition. In Mabanga-Nord neighborhood, police shot 26-year-old Paluku Kamala. “I saw a young man hit by a bullet,” a protester said. “He fell, and then the police came to pick him up.” Police took Kamala in their jeep to the CBCA-Virunga hospital and left him there, though the hospital cannot treat injured people. An ambulance transferred Kamala to the CBCA-Ndosho hospital, which is better equipped to treat injuries.

“The bullet had reached his pelvis and hit his stomach,” a source at the hospital told Human Rights Watch. Kamala died on July 1, his death certificate said.

After Kamala was shot, people burned a bus and vandalized shops. The police said that protesters were hostile and erected barricades, and that a police officer was wounded. Col. Pierrot Mwanamputu, the national police spokesman, promised an investigation to “find out who fired the shot and on whose orders.” He said that the “police officer who fired the shot must be arrested because it is formally prohibited for a police officer to use a lethal weapon during the demonstrations.”

Police arrested at least four Lamuka supporters in Goma on June 30. One opposition supporter, 29, said that he was talking about the upcoming march with colleagues when five people in civilian clothes asked what they were doing. The activist explained that they were with the opposition and wanted to march peacefully: “Immediately, a man among the five in civilian clothes slapped me in the ear. I fainted. I didn’t really know what happened, but then my friend [name withheld] and I were arrested.”

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Two opposition supporters in jail in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, after police arrested and beat them on June 30, 2019. They were released the following day.

© 2019 Privé

“At the [Munzenze] police station, they beat us up and tore our clothes. When we entered [the cell], the police ordered the detainees who were there to beat us up too.” At least two men among those arrested were beaten. Human Rights Watch spoke with them and saw their wounds.

Later that day, five Lamuka supporters were arrested and held overnight with the others. Another opposition activist was arrested on July 1 after asking about the detention of protesters. They were all released later that day, after paying fines.

In Kinshasa, small groups tried to march in some parts of the city, but the police quickly dispersed them, in some cases firing teargas and beating protesters. Apparently to stop the march, police punctured the tires of two Lamuka leaders, Fayulu and Adolphe Muzito.

A video that circulated on social media showed the beating of Thythy Tshilambu, a journalist and administrative director from RTVS1, the radio and television station owned by Muzito. Tshilambu told Human Rights Watch: “I was wearing a shirt that showed I belonged to a media organization, but police officers dragged me out of the vehicle that I was filming from and then started beating me with their clubs and belts. They put me in a police jeep where other officers joined to beat me for several minutes. They then threw me out of the jeep, and I passed out.”

#RDC: Quelques militants de la @_Lamuka chicotés par les éléments de la Police nationale à #Kinshasa lors de la marche de l’opposition interdite par le gouverneur de la même ville. pic.twitter.com/SkAckWHM7I

— stevewembi (@wembi_steve) June 30, 2019

 

RTVS1’s signal has been cut since June 29 without explanation, Tshilambu said. On July 2, President Felix Tshisekedi denied responsibility: “I didn’t make that decision. When I was informed of RTVS1, I was told that this channel is known for hate speech.” He said he would follow up on this situation.

Some demonstrators in Kinshasa threw stones at the police officers. The police said that one officer was seriously injured. At least one demonstrator, Joel Ituka, a member of the “Zero Impunity” citizens’ movement, was arrested. He said that protesters threw stones after police beat him and other protesters. Police responded with teargas and took Ituka to the provincial police station. “They beat me the whole way,” he said.

At the police station, “one of them kicked me in the back, I couldn’t stand the shock; I fell and couldn’t get up.” He was accused of assaulting a police officer. On July 2, the prosecutor refused to interrogate him because of his condition, Ituka said. He was released later that day and sought hospital treatment.

The government has asserted that it lawfully banned the demonstrations. In a letter addressed to Lamuka representatives, dated June 27, the governor of Kinshasa, Gentiny Ngobila, said the march would be banned because it was to take place on “the sacred and commemorative date of June 30.” Kinshasa’s police commissioner, Gen. Sylvano Kasongo, then said in a statement to the media that any gathering of more than 10 people would be dispersed.

Under Congo’s constitution, organizers of political demonstrations must inform local administrative authorities in writing in advance, but they don’t need prior authorization. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Congo is a party, states that no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of the right of peaceful assembly “other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” Ngobila’s reason for banning the protest did not have a legal basis, Human Rights Watch said.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that security forces shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the authorities should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

In a June 29 interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI), President Tshisekedi supported the governor’s decision: “I agree with this ban…. The rights and freedoms of citizens are guaranteed, but we have the impression that there are some who confuse democracy and anarchy.” Tshisekedi said that security forces were trained to “maintain peace” and would not use violence against protesters.

Three Lamuka representatives told Human Rights Watch that a Lamuka member tried to deliver a letter to Goma’s mayor on June 28, to inform him about the planned protest, but his office refused to receive it, saying that the mayor and his secretary were absent.

Congo’s government in recent years has imposed significant restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Between 2015 and 2018, as then-president Joseph Kabila retained power beyond the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, security forces shot dead nearly 300 people during largely peaceful protests and arrested over 2,000 political opposition leaders and supporters – including many from Tshisekedi’s party – as well as pro-democracy activists and journalists. 

“After years of political repression under his predecessor, President Tshisekedi has the opportunity to create a climate conducive to the respect of public rights and freedoms,” Mudge said. “His administration should put an end to the excessive use of force by the police and ensure that all Congolese are able to express themselves without fear of reprisals.”

UK Gets it Wrong on Human Trafficking in Nigeria

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 4, 2019

This week, the United Kingdom Home Office, the country’s interior ministry, came under heavy criticism from the Nigerian anti-trafficking agency and UK politicians, human rights lawyers, and non-governmental groups for claiming Nigerian women and girls trafficked to Europe can return home “wealthy from prostitution” and “enjoy high social-economic status.” 

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Three women from Nigeria, work on the outskirts of Rome. Nigerian teenagers and young women selling sex is a common sight for motorists in Italy and are a haunting reminder Italy has largely failed to help a fraction of the migrants trafficked as sex workers.
 

© AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino 2018

The comments are contained in a 2019 official policy and information note on trafficking of Nigerian women, which is meant to provide information and analysis to Home Office officials handling particular types of protection and human rights claims. 

The Home Office’s claims ignore the reality in Nigeria. I have recently completed research for an upcoming Human Rights Watch report on abuses that women and girls trafficked within and outside Nigeria suffer, and assistance they receive when they are identified or return home. Many told me about suffering horrible abuses at the hands of their traffickers, including being exploited through forced prostitution and other forms of forced labor in slavery-like conditions. They told me they were raped, beaten, threatened with death, held in debt bondage, and not allowed to communicate with their families. Many said they had had no options and wished to return to Nigeria.

But their abuse did not end after returning home. Many said they returned penniless, to worse economic situations, and with mental trauma, physical injuries, and illnesses. Although some women and girls returned to supportive families, others said their families blamed them for returning home without money, or abused, mocked, and ostracized the survivors, compounding their trauma. They said they were humiliated in their communities for returning from abroad with nothing, or for being victims of sexual exploitation.

The Home Office policy note acknowledges some of these problems, but reaches a conclusion at odds with the facts and evidence it contains. The Home Office has said it will rewrite the policy note—it should do so immediately. The UK government promotes itself as a leading campaigner against modern-day slavery, including human trafficking. This reputation is undermined by the UK ignoring the facts on the ground in Nigeria, to the detriment of some of the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking. Trafficking is a crime and a human rights violation, not a money-making adventure for victims.

The Global Hawk Incident: Self-Defense against Aerial Incursions – Reflections on the Applicable Law

Opinio Juris - Thursday, July 4, 2019
Mohamed S. Helal is an Assistant Professor of Law at The Ohio State University Mortiz College of Law and an Affiliated Faculty with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies. I don’t want to say it, but I will anyway: I told you so! On June 4th, I posted a two part post on Opinio Juris (here and here) on...

Guinea: New Law Could Shield Police From Prosecution

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 4, 2019
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Gendarmes respond to an opposition demonstration in Conakry, Guinea, on November 15, 2018.

 

© 2018 Cellou Binani/AFP/Getty Images

Guinea’s president should not put into effect a new law that gives gendarmes too much discretion to use firearms and could shield them from prosecution in case of unlawful killings, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. Guinea’s security forces have a record of using excessive force in responding to often violent street protests

Guinea’s National Assembly passed a law proposed by the government on the use of arms by the gendarmerie on June 25, 2019. The law sets out several justifications for the use of force – including to defend positions gendarmes occupy – without making clear that firearms can only be used when there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury. The law’s explanatory note also notes the need to protect gendarmes who resort to force from vengeful prosecutions, raising concern that it will be used to prevent judicial oversight of law enforcement.

“With political tension rising ahead of the 2020 presidential elections, the last thing Guinea needs is a vague law that appears to give gendarmes too much discretion to resort to lethal force,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “President Alpha Condé should call on the National Assembly to revise it to comply with Guinea’s obligations under international and African human rights law.

Guinea has experienced violent street protests and frequent clashes between demonstrators and the security forces in recent years. More demonstrations are likely this year if, as many Guinean groups predict, President Condé seeks to amend the constitution to run for a third term.

Aladji Cellou Camara, the military’s director of communications, told Human Rights Watch that the new law is necessary to provide more guidance on when gendarmes can use force, particularly in view of the increased threat that Guinea faces from terrorism. The law’s explanatory note references terrorism but also notes that the security forces are responding to periods, “marked by intense and repeated interventions that are without precedent,” in an apparent reference to street protests.

Camara said that the law is not intended to replace Guinea’s 2015 law on the maintenance of public order, which provides guidance on the use of force by the security forces when responding to demonstrations. But while both the draft law and 2015 law require that force be exercised only when necessary and proportionate, they do not explicitly limit the use of firearms to imminent threats of death or serious injury. This raises concerns that other objectives, such as breaking up unauthorized protest, could justify the use of lethal force.

International human rights standards state that firearms should never be used simply to disperse an assembly. If the use of force to disperse violent protests is unavoidable, for example to protect law enforcement, participants, or bystanders against violence, the security forces must use only the minimum level of force necessary to contain the situation. They should rely on the proportionate use of less-lethal weapons, such as batons and other types of crowd-control equipment. Intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.

Camara said that, regardless of the legal framework, police and gendarmes are never armed when policing street protests. “If I saw a gendarme with a firearm, I would intervene immediately,” General Ibrahima Baldé, the head of the gendarmerie, told Human Rights Watch in April 2018.

Guinea, however, has a long history of excessive use of firearms by security forces during confrontations with demonstrators. Scores of demonstrators, as well as several members of the security forces, have been killed, most by firearms, in the last decade. Dozens of demonstrators and 2 law enforcement officers were killed in 2012-2013 in advance of parliamentary elections. At least 12 people were killed, including 6 by firearms, and scores injured prior to and following presidential elections in 2015. At least 21 people died during the 2018 demonstrations, with at least 12 alleged fatal shootings by the security forces and a police officer and gendarme killed by demonstrators.

Furthermore, if Guinea does experience a new round of violent demonstrations in the coming months, the government may characterize them as a threat to public security that requires a forceful law enforcement response. Guinean security officials frequently told Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that 2018’s demonstrations were not street protests but “urban violence.” In November 2018, following a spate of violent public protests, the Guinean government deployed army units to key trouble spots in Conakry

The law’s explanatory note states that it is needed “to protect [gendarmes] where there are criminal proceedings against them” that are an effort to “take revenge” against the public authorities. But this statement ignores the fact that Guinea has rarely prosecuted members of the security forces for the excessive use of force.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented dozens of alleged fatal shootings by the security forces since 2010. But the conviction on February of a police captain for the 2016 killing of a demonstrator was the first time a member of the security forces was brought to justice for shooting a protester dead since 2010.

To reflect established human rights principles, such as the Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, laws should state clearly that security forces should only use firearms when there is an imminent risk of death or serious injury to a person, or to prevent the commission of a serious crime involving a grave threat to life, and only when less extreme measures are insufficient to achieve these objectives. Laws should also contain clear reporting and accountability requirements to ensure that any instance of excessive use of force, and that the officer suspected of using it, is brought to justice in a fair trial.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly called for the creation of adequate oversight mechanisms, such as a special task force of judges, to more effectively investigate the conduct of the security forces during protests.

“As we approach 2020 presidential elections, now isn’t the time for weakening the regulation of the security forces,” said Francois Patuel, Amnesty International West Africa researcher. “The Guinean government should instead strengthen its ability to effectively investigate and prosecute alleged security force misconduct.”

 

Iraq: Thousands Detained, Including Children, in Degrading Conditions

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, July 4, 2019
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Juveniles’ cell at Tal Kayf prison, taken in April 2019 and shared confidentially with Human Rights Watch, shows extreme overcrowding at the prison.

© 2019 Private     (Beirut) – Nineveh’s extremely overcrowded detention facilities are holding thousands of prisoners in Iraq, most on terrorism charges, for extended periods in conditions so degrading that they amount to ill-treatment. The authorities should ensure that prisoners are not held in inhuman conditions and that there is a clear legal basis for detentions, Human Rights Watch said today.   “The Iraqi government urgently needs to rebuild and rehabilitate its detention facilities,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraq has a duty to ensure that detainees are housed decently, in line with international standards.”   Tal Kayf, Faisaliya, and Tasfirat (in the Faisaliya compound), the three pretrial detention facilities in the northern Iraq governorate, have a combined maximum capacity of 2,500 people, according to a senior Iraqi penitentiary expert who requested anonymity. As of late June 2019, they were holding about 4,500 prisoners and detainees. Of that number, 1,300 had been tried and convicted and should have been transferred to Baghdad prisons. The authorities had yet to take the steps needed to transfer them, the expert said, even six months after some were convicted.  Expand

Women’s cell at Tal Kayf prison, taken in April 2019 and shared confidentially with Human Rights Watch, shows extreme overcrowding at the prison.

© 2019 Private   The expert shared photos taken in May of female terrorism suspects with their children in one cell in Tal Kayf prison, and juvenile terrorism suspects in another. Two other people who had visited the prison corroborated the conditions of extreme overcrowding seen in the photos and their location. The expert said the cells at Tal Kayf prison holding detainees on other charges are less crowded because of lower numbers.   The expert said the detainees have no space to lie down in their cells or even sit comfortably. Prison authorities have not provided mattresses because there is no room for them in the cells, he said. “These prisons are meant to be a place for rehabilitation but if authorities house detainees in these kinds of conditions, I can only imagine what will happen to them after they are released,” he said. Lawyers do not have access to the prison to visit their clients – among other reasons, because there is no space for meetings.   Human Rights Watch has previously documented deaths in custody in Nineveh stemming from severe overcrowding.   The evidence shared with Human Rights Watch strongly suggests that conditions at the Nineveh pretrial detention facilities are unfit to hold detainees for extended periods of time and do not meet basic international standards. Holding detainees in such conditions amount to ill-treatment.   International norms regarding prison conditions, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Mandela Rules”) require that “[a]ll accommodation provided for the use of prisoners and in particular all sleeping accommodation shall meet all requirements of health, due regard being paid to climatic conditions and particularly to cubic content of air, minimum floor space, lighting, heating and ventilation.” The Mandela Rules state that “sanitary installations shall be adequate to enable every prisoner to comply with the needs of nature when necessary and in a clean and decent manner” and that “[a]dequate bathing and shower installations shall be provided.”   The Interior and Justice Ministries should, as an urgent priority, improve conditions and expedite the investigative process, guaranteeing everyone in pretrial detention a speedy and fair trial or release. Authorities should transfer all detainees from these facilities to official prisons built to accommodate detainees and equipped to meet basic international standards.   The authorities should ensure that there is a clear legal basis for detentions, that all detainees have access to legal counsel, including during interrogation, and that detainees are moved to facilities accessible to government inspectors, independent monitors, relatives, and lawyers, with regular and unimpeded access. Judges should order the release of detainees if there is no clear legal basis for holding them or if the government cannot fix the inhuman or degrading conditions in which they are held.   The Iraqi authorities should ensure that detention before trial is the exception, not the rule, and only applied on an individual basis where it is necessary.   Children alleged to have committed illegal acts should be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards, Human Rights Watch said. International law allows for authorities to detain children pretrial in limited situations, but only if they are formally charged with committing a crime, not merely as suspects. The authorities should release all children not formally charged.   Iraq should ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, allowing independent international experts to conduct regular visits to detention sites, and should create a staff of independent prison inspectors to monitor conditions.   “Concerns around overcrowding don’t solely affect the detainees, but also the community as a whole,” Fakih said. “The authorities should ensure that the conditions in Iraq’s prisons do not foster more grievances in the future.”

Sri Lanka: Muslims Face Threats, Attacks

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, July 3, 2019
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Sri Lankan security officers inspect vandalized shops owned by Muslims in Minuwangoda, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Chamila Karunarathne  

(New York) – Authorities in Sri Lanka should end arbitrary arrests and other abuses against Muslims and appropriately protect the community from violence, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 that killed over 250 people, which was claimed by Islamist militants, Sri Lankan Muslims have faced an upsurge in violations of their basic rights and assaults and other abuses from Buddhist nationalists. Sri Lankan officials and politicians should stop endorsing, ignoring, or exploiting hate speech and mob violence directed at Muslims by members of the Buddhist clergy and other powerful figures.

“The Sri Lankan government has a duty to protect its citizens and prosecute those responsible for the terrible Easter Sunday bombings, but it shouldn’t be punishing the Muslim community for this crime,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s crucial for the authorities to act swiftly to stop mob violence, threats, and discrimination against Muslims.”

In June 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed Muslim victims of abuses, activists, lawyers, and officials to document abuses against Muslims, often with state complicity.

Since the bombings, the authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained hundreds of people under counterterrorism and emergency laws. According to lawyers and activists, the vast majority of arrests are under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a long-abused law that the government pledged to the United Nations Human Rights Council to repeal. Lawyers said their clients had often been arrested without any credible evidence of terrorist involvement, for reasons including having the Quran or other Arabic literature in their possession during searches.

The governmental Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found in May that the government failed to protect Muslims during communal rioting. Police have repeatedly failed to act properly or prosecute perpetrators. For instance, the manager of a Muslim-owned business who was attacked said the police did not make any arrests “despite plenty of CCTV footage to identify the perpetrators.”

Officials have made little effort to discourage public campaigns by religious figures that put the Muslim community at greater risk. On May 15, Gnanarathana Thero, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior Buddhist monks, called for the stoning to death of Muslims, and propagated an unfounded allegation that Muslim-owned restaurants put “sterilization medicine” in their food to suppress the majority Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate.

Government leaders, instead of fulfilling their duty to protect Muslim citizens, have at times appeared to associate themselves with Buddhist nationalist elements. Many stood by when nine Muslim cabinet and junior ministers felt compelled to resign after the opposition accused them of supporting Islamist militants. On May 23, President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara Thero, the leader of the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) who has long been associated with instigating deadly anti-Muslim violence, freeing him after he had served less than a year of a six-year prison term for contempt of court.

Sirisena also ordered a ban on face coverings in public as one of a number of emergency measures imposed following the Easter Sunday bombings, which has led to the targeting of Muslim women even for using headscarves. One activist, explaining that Muslim women face constant harassment, including in government buildings and public spaces, said: “It is very difficult for them to bear. Their dignity is challenged continually.”

The criminal law has also been invoked to arrest peaceful critics of Sri Lankan Buddhism in violation of their rights to free expression.

The situation has caused mounting international alarm for the safety of Muslims and other minorities. In her opening statement at the UN Human Rights Council on June 24, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “disturbed by reports of anti-Muslim attacks” in Sri Lanka, including “recent statements by some religious leaders inciting violence [that] constitute worrying early warning indicators that should be addressed.”

European embassies in Colombo issued a joint statement in June that actions against Muslims are “undermining peace and reconciliation in the country. Prejudiced and unsubstantiated allegations repeatedly published by media serve only to fuel intolerance.”

A day after the resignation of Muslim cabinet ministers, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said: “The lives and livelihoods of Muslims, including their local stores and large business establishments, are threatened by the prevailing conditions with unforeseen, dangerous consequences.”

The Sri Lankan government should ensure the prompt and impartial enforcement of the law to protect the fundamental rights of all Sri Lankans. Crucial for ending abuses over the long term is for the government to implement its pledges to the Human Rights Council to ensure human rights reforms, transitional justice, accountability, and reconciliation, Human Rights Watch said.

“The ethnic violence and human rights violations that many Sri Lankans have suffered are now being directed against Muslims,” Ganguly said. “The Sri Lankan government needs to take a stand against discrimination and intolerance, use the law to punish those responsible for abuses and protect, rather than target, vulnerable people.”

 

For more information on how Sri Lanka’s Muslims have been targeted, please see below.

 

Arbitrary Arrest and Detention

As of June 4, at least 2,299 people had been arrested since the Easter Sunday bombings, according to the police. While most were later released on bail, over 500 remained in custody.

Human Rights Watch spoke to several lawyers who between themselves are representing hundreds of people. Most of those arrested have been Muslim and the grounds for their arrest and detention are unclear. A senior lawyer told Human Rights Watch: “Muslims have been arrested for having a Quran, or even the picture of a ship’s wheel [similar to a sacred Buddhist symbol] on their dress. The army picks people up and hands them over to the police. The police book them without an investigation. The authorities go slow in releasing people because they don’t want to be seen as soft by ultra-nationalists.” He said they were being arrested “[o]n a mere suspicion.” Several lawyers asked Human Rights Watch not to identify individual cases they described for fear the authorities would penalize their clients.

Most of the arrests have been under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows long-term detention without charge or trial. The authorities have also detained people under Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, No. 56 of 2007, which is intended to implement the ICCPR in domestic law. Section 3(1) of the act states, “No person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.” This provision has been misused in several cases to detain to harass activists, journalists, and others for expressing critical views.

Another law vulnerable to abuse is the Emergency Regulations (ERs), imposed in the aftermath of the bombings but still in force, despite the government’s claim that the security situation has returned to normal. The Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations both provide for lengthy periods of pretrial detention without needing to bring the detainees before a court, and bail can only be granted by the high court.

Lawyers said there is inconsistency and confusion over which law is being applied in any particular case. Often the detention orders that are required to hold suspects under the PTA have not been provided to their lawyers. Where these procedures have not been followed, the detention is arbitrary. “The police themselves are unclear what powers they are using,” said one lawyer.

A partial list of 105 detainees that defense lawyers provided to Human Rights Watch summarizes justifications given by the authorities for arrests, including: “Keeping money at home”; “Talking in playground (Breaking emergency law)”; “A post [he] had shared on social media 5 years back”; “Having English lecturer docs”; “Arabic song in Laptop”; “Traveling to Jaffna for job”; and “no reason.”

One lawyer said a Muslim family of 10 from Kiribathgoda was arrested after a neighbor reported that they had cloth the same color as that used for Buddhist monastic robes, apparently suspecting their intentions. The entire family was held for several days, although they explained they sold the fabric. The police released the family to a court after working hours, allegedly to avoid scrutiny. “Police never shared any information. There were no court reports,” said the lawyer.

Abdul Raheem Masaheena, a 47-year-old resident of Kolongoda, was arrested on May 17, for wearing a kaftan decorated with an image of a ship’s wheel, which police mistook for a Buddhist sacred symbol, the dharmachakra. In a fundamental rights petition, Masaheena asserted that her arrest was arbitrary and malicious, that she suffered degrading treatment in custody, and that she had been “singled out and subjected to hostile inimical discrimination based on both grounds of race and religion.”

Mohammed Thufail Mohammed Milhan has been in police detention since May 5, in connection with material posted on his Facebook page. He filed a petition in the Supreme Court on June 14, which asserted that: “No unlawful activity has been disclosed whatsoever.”

Such police abuses have long been prevalent in Sri Lanka but have remained unaddressed. In 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions found that, “The right to personal liberty has yet to be respected by law enforcement, security forces, judicial and other authorities,” that suspects remained in detention indefinitely, and that rights to the presumption of innocence and due process were yet to be fully recognized. These abuses have recently surged, and the victims are overwhelmingly Muslim.

Mob Violence

In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, angry crowds threatened and assaulted refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom were Muslims from other South Asian countries. Around 1,400 were forced to take shelter in unsuitable and crowded temporary accommodation for their safety.

Several days of mob violence occurred in towns primarily across the North Western province, in which Muslim-owned homes and businesses were attacked and at least one man died. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that: “There appeared to be no preventive measures taken although retaliatory violence against the Muslim communities was a distinct possibility after the terror attacks of 27 April.” The commission also found that villagers had called the police “a few hours prior to the incident seeking protection, despite which no preventive measures were taken.”

A Muslim man from Nikawaratiya in the North Western province, whose shop was partially destroyed by mobs, told Human Rights Watch that although the attack was anticipated, security forces did little to prevent it. “It seems clearly that the police did not do anything to stop the violence,” he said. “Two police officers were placed two or three shops away, for the protection of the mosque in the local area. And they were there when they [the mob] came and attacked the local shops, as shown by the photos and CCTV footage.” He said he provided CCTV footage that led to the arrest of some of the attackers, but that they were released after 14 days and have subsequently made threatening phone calls to him.

A Muslim business owner from Puttalam said:

When we heard that a wave of attacks were happening against the Muslim-owned businesses and Muslim neighborhoods, we reached out to Koswatta police. They assured us that nothing would happen and not to worry. The officer assured that they will send protection as well. But the police only showed up at 7 p.m. when they finished burning homes and there was no use of them showing up afterwards.

He said he provided the police with CCTV of those who attacked his property and that this led to arrests, but that the suspects were released “in a matter of a week or two.”

Police said they have made a number of arrests for the attacks on Muslims and for spreading hate on social media. Some of those who were detained, or who appear in video footage of the violence, are politicians or far-right activists who have been implicated in instigating anti-Muslim violence in recent years.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that the police had inappropriately released suspects detained for mob violence and concluded that this “clearly prevented equal protection of the law to affected citizens and also to the public at large.” A lawyer handling cases against Muslims said there was a discriminatory approach to law enforcement. “The unequal application of law is thus: monks are above it and the Sinhalese are indulgently treated. While the book is thrown at Muslims, those arrested over mob violence are booked under penal code and bailed.”

Discrimination Against Muslims

In April, as part of the Emergency Regulations, Sirisena issued a ban on face coverings, primarily affecting those Muslim women who wear a niqab, or veil. While the authorities said this was necessary to protect national security by allowing ready identification, the edict has contributed to a situation in which Muslim women, including those not wearing a niqab, but rather a hijab, or headscarf, have been excluded from public places, including government offices, as well as harassed and sometimes arrested and detained.

On May 15, 17-year-old Zavahir Rimasha went to have her photograph taken for her national identity card. She was wearing a hijab, which covered her hair. Zavahir Rimasha was 8-months pregnant with her first child, and while she was at the studio she was reportedly overcome by a moment of nausea. When she covered her face with her handkerchief, another customer complained that she had covered her face, and then called the police. She was arrested under the Emergency Regulations and held in custody for over three weeks until June 7, when she was granted bail.

The Human Rights Commission has said the regulation against face coverings has led to Muslim women, even those not covering their faces, being denied access to law courts and to government schools where they work as teachers. Media reports also show that Muslim parents and children have been denied access to government schools for wearing items of Islamic dress such as headscarves.

A May 29 government circular further limited what women are allowed to wear in public buildings, requiring all women to wear a sari or osariya (Kandyan sari), although this is not a tradition common to all Sri Lankans. (Men meanwhile are required to wear shirt and trousers.) These rules apply to all staff and visitors to government offices. The commission concluded that the rule is “irrational and arbitrary and is in violation of equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12(1) of the Constitution.”

A woman who wears a headscarf from the North Western province, where these issues have been particularly acute, told Human Rights Watch: “Why are Muslim women at the receiving end? Their dress had nothing to do with the heinous attacks.” She said since the government issued the regulations, low-level officials and ordinary citizens have taken to discriminate against Muslim women. “Since the circular got released, there were people from the majority community at the forefront of implementing it right away,” she said. “They are demonizing the cultural attire of Muslim women and turning people against Muslim women.”

There have been numerous reports from several parts of the country, including Puttalam in the west, and Batticaloa and Trincomalee in the east, of Muslim women being effectively confined to their homes; harassed; or denied access to hospitals, universities, public places, such as markets and businesses, and places of employment.

On June 24, K.V. Susantha Perera, the chairman of the local government of Wennappuwa, a town in Puttalam district, issued an order to prohibit Muslims from trading in the local market, claiming that this was necessary to “maintain a peaceful atmosphere” and that his decision had followed complaints from non-Muslim traders and marketgoers. The Marawila Magistrate Court has summoned him to explain his order.

The Human Rights Commission has also found lawyers in some towns refusing to represent Muslim clients.

Freedom of Expression, Religion

Authorities have taken actions against Muslims and critics of Buddhism, Sri Lanka’s majority religion, in violation of the rights to freedom of expression and religion. They have carried out several criminal investigations under the ICCPR Act, misusing the law to prosecute peaceful expression regarding Buddhism, without a showing of incitement consistent with international human rights law.

Shakthika Sathkumara, a 33-year-old novelist, has been detained since April 1. His short story, “Ardha,” which reportedly deals with issues of child sexual abuse in a Buddhist monastery, angered members of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy.

A prominent newspaper columnist, Kusal Perera, is under investigation for an article in the Daily Mirror titled, “From Islamic terrorism to marauding Sinhala Buddhist violence.” Perera later stated on Twitter that Sirisena had personally called him to say that he had intervened to prevent his arrest.

Dilshan Mohamed, a researcher and activist campaigning against violent Islamic militancy, had publicly and repeatedly spoken against ISIS-inspired ideas on Facebook for several years. Following the Easter Bombings, for which the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, he was arrested and accused of supporting ISIS on Facebook. He was charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act. The ICCPR Act charges were later dropped and he was released from custody on June 7, but the investigation under the PTA continues.

The government has announced it intends to introduce two new offenses under the penal code to combat “fake news” and hate speech, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. These proposals have not yet been published. However, Sri Lanka’s existing legislation is adequate to address speech that incites to violence, discrimination, or unlawful acts. In view of the current misuse of the ICCPR Act, there are serious concerns that these proposed laws will be used to further constrain the right to free expression in Sri Lanka.

Incitement Against Muslims

Sri Lankan authorities have failed to take appropriate action against those seemingly inciting violence against members of the Muslim community.

On June 16, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior monks, Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero, delivered a nationally televised speech in which he propagated widespread but baseless claims that Muslim restaurants are seeking to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate by putting “sterilization medicine” in their food. “Don't eat from those [Muslim] shops. Those who ate from these shops will not have children in future,” he said. “Some female devotees said that they [traitors] should be stoned to death. I don't say this, but what should be done is this.”

Analysts and leaders of the Muslim community describe a vast outpouring of anti-Muslim hate speech on social media and in parts of the broadcast and print media, often making similar unfounded claims that the small Muslim population is plotting to overtake the Buddhist population – 70 percent of the country – in the coming decades. The hate speech includes social media calls for Sri Lankan Muslims to be “erased,” and praise for atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

On May 24, police in Kurunegela arrested Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen, a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. The initial justification for his detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was an investigation into allegedly suspicious assets. However, as described in a fundamental rights petition filed on his behalf and numerous media reports, a newspaper article and social media posts then immediately insinuated that he had been responsible for sterilizing thousands of Sinhalese women during caesarean operations. The police then invited women to come forward to make allegations against Safi, who remains in custody. The police, who have collected a large number of statements, have sought to give these allegations credibility, which have been taken up by anti-Muslim preachers such as Gnanarathana Thero. Shafi’s hospital colleagues and medical experts have said the allegations are highly unlikely. On June 27, the police conceded to a Colombo Court that they had found no evidence against Shafi, who remained in custody.

On May 23, Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara Thero, a prominent monk who is leader of the Bodu Bala Sena or “Buddhist Power Force” and someone who has long been implicated in inciting anti-Muslim violence. Gnanasara showed his support for Athuraliye Rathana, a monk and member of parliament who went on a hunger strike demanding the resignation of the nine Muslim ministers in the cabinet and two provincial governors. Amid large demonstrations in support of the demand, Gnanasara threatened that there would be “a circus” nationwide if the ministers did not resign by noon the next day, remarks that were widely interpreted as a veiled threat of mob violence.

The Muslim community has been “terrified over the past two days,” said Rauff Hakeem, one of the nine Muslim cabinet ministers and junior ministers who stepped down on June 3. “Our people fear a bloodbath.”

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