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Trump Administration Uses Pandemic as Excuse to Expel Migrants

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 20, 2020
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Ruth Aracely Monroy helps her son, Carlos, with his jacket among tents set up inside a shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, March 5, 2019

© 2019 AP Photo/Gregory Bull

This week, the Trump administration indefinitely extended an order that gives United States immigration agents the power to summarily expel migrants arriving at the US country’s borders under the pretext of preventing the spread of Covid-19.

First issued on March 20, the order invokes public health to further an agenda of hostility to migrant children and their families.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have already used the order to expel more than 20,000 people along the US-Mexico border in March and April. CBP hasn’t provided a breakdown of expulsions by age, gender, and other characteristics, but Human Rights First estimates they included at least 1,000 unaccompanied children.

Summary expulsions occur without due process, so the US government returns unaccompanied children without giving them an opportunity to make their case for asylum or to appeal.

Children desperately need these legal safeguards. Many are fleeing death threats, rape, and torture, or after being targeted for other serious abuse.

US authorities are also taking other procedural shortcuts to swiftly remove unaccompanied children who were already in the country, many of whom it was keeping in prolonged immigration detention instead of transferring them to the care of family members. Some were “rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters and put on planes out of the country,” the New York Times said, deported with no notice to families or lawyers and no coordination with protection authorities in children’s home countries.

The claimed legal authority for the order is an obscure public health provision enacted in 1893 and last revised in 1944 – well before Congress overhauled US immigration laws in 1952 and subsequently added protections for refugees, victims of torture, and children at risk of being trafficked. The expulsions under the order also conflict with well-established US obligations under international refugee law.

There's no public health basis for summary expulsions. In fact, “The order is based on specious justifications and fails to protect public health,” according to 40 health experts.

If safety – the public’s and the children’s – were the administration’s concern, it would take the kinds of evidence-based measures recommended by public health experts and release detained migrant children to families as quickly as possible. Instead, it’s rushing to return them to the places they fled.

The Trump administration is using the coronavirus pandemic as convenient cover for a renewed attack on migrant children and their families.   

Bangladesh: Cyclone Endangers Rohingya on Silt Island

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 20, 2020
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NASA satellite imagery shows Cyclone Amphan over the Bay of Bengal in India, May 19, 2020, which made landfall on Bhasan Char May 20, 2020. 

© 2020 NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) via AP

(New York) – The Bangladesh government has kept over 300 Rohingya refugees confined on Bhasan Char, a remote silt island in the path of a “super cyclone” without adequate protections or safety measures, Human Rights Watch said today. Three people were reported killed in Bangladesh soon after the storm struck the coast.

The authorities should take immediate steps to ensure safety and transfer the refugees, including nearly 40 children, to the camps in Cox’s Bazar as soon as possible. The United Nations refugee agency and other humanitarian organizations are there, prepared to provide them with critical services and reunite them with their families.

“The Bangladesh government properly brought Rohingya refugees stranded at sea ashore, but holding them on a tiny island during a cyclone is dangerous and inhumane,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Our fear that Bhasan Char would become a ‘floating detention center’ has now turned into a fear of a submerged one.”

Cyclone Amphan made landfall on the Bangladesh coast on the evening of May 20, 2020, though it shifted course slightly so Bhasan Char is no longer in its direct path. Bangladesh’s Land Ministry has previously reported that Bhasan Char could be submerged by a strong cyclone at high tide. About 300 Bangladesh security officials are also on the island.

Bangladesh rescued two boats of Rohingya refugees in early May after Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Bangladesh authorities pushed them back to sea for two months. While Bangladesh initially stated that the refugees were being temporarily quarantined on Bhasan Char to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has since said they would “most likely” be held on the island indefinitely.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 Rohingya refugees, including both refugees on the island and their family members in Cox’s Bazar. They said that those on the island are being confined in prison-like conditions without freedom of movement or adequate access to food, water, or medical care. Some alleged beatings by Bangladesh security forces.

One refugee, whose daughters are on Bhasan Char, said he is worried about their safety during the cyclone because they told him that “it feels like a gust of wind could blow the structures over anytime,” and that it feels like “an island jail in the middle of the sea.”

India and Bangladesh are evacuating over two million people from the coasts to take shelter from Cyclone Amphan. However, Bangladesh authorities have failed to evacuate the refugees on Bhasan Char, a 40-square-kilometer island in the Bay of Bengal made of silt that has accumulated in the last two decades. When then-United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, visited the island in January 2019, she questioned whether the island was “truly habitable.”

The refugees had all been moved to a four-story shelter on the island ahead of the incoming cyclone, but Bangladesh authorities have yet to provide UN technical experts with sufficient access to the island to determine its habitability and to assess plans for emergency preparedness in the face of Cyclone Amphan.

Although the Bangladesh government has previously promised that no one would be forced to remain on Bhasan Char against their will, officials have apparently told refugees that they will not be transferred to the mainland. One refugee in Cox’s Bazar said that a Navy officer told his sister on the island that they “might be sent to Myanmar but not to the camp [in Cox’s Bazar] again. That’s impossible.” A refugee on Bhasan Char said that military officials told him, “Don’t even think to go back to the camps. Your whole family will be brought over here.”

Refugees on the island said that soldiers threatened and beat up male refugees, including children, while interrogating them about the smugglers who transported them. Women described hearing screams from the interrogation room. One child said that officials held him in the cell and beat him. “At one point they suspected I was one of the [smugglers] and they started beating me,” he said. “I still cannot walk properly and feel the pain of the torture in my body.” Another refugee said that an officer threatened him, saying “Don’t you know how the other men were beaten? Tell us the truth, otherwise you would face the same fate.”

Refugees also described officers punishing them. One Rohingya woman said that on May 17 she witnessed soldiers force two women to stand under the hot sun for over an hour as punishment for using their mobile phones, which are forbidden. Another refugee said that when he went to a shop to buy food, officers from the Coast Guard beat him for leaving the shelter. “There are bruises all over my body from that beating,” he said.

Disaster Minister Enamur Rahman has described Bhasan Char as a “super township” with facilities for food, water, medical care, cyclone centers, and electricity, but refugees reported shortages in drinking water and medical treatment. Children have no access to books or education.

Refugees said they are given two cooked meals a day and are rebuked if they ask for more. One woman said she was scolded when she asked for more nutritious food for her children, ages 5 and 7, by officers who said she had been “spoiled” by international aid agencies. Another said she was told to “be thankful to God and to Bangladesh that you are at least getting some food. You should be kicked out from this country.”

Refugees said that they are facing serious medical problems after being stranded at sea for months, but that there is not adequate medical care on the island. One refugee said: “Some of the women have skin ailments and diarrhea but are without proper treatment. If we were in the camp at least we would be able to go to the health post or MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres] hospital.” One refugee, whose sister is being held on the island, said that she is not able to obtain proper medication for her diabetes. Instead, refugees said that the doctors are only dispensing paracetamol tablets for pain.

There are concerns that women and girls may have faced sexual or other violence while they were on the boat or since then. One health worker said that “If there was any rape case or other sexual or gender-based violence, they will not be able to access much needed medical treatment or psychosocial counselling.” No protection services or appropriate medical services for sexual violence victims are available on Bhasan Char.

Even prior to the cyclone, Bangladesh authorities should have heeded concerns raised by the UN and nongovernmental organizations, and promptly transferred the Rohingya back to the Cox’s Bazar camps. On May 15, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the Bangladesh government to move the refugees to the camps following their two-week quarantine period, which ended on May 16 for the first group and will end on May 21 for the second. The cyclone highlights the urgency of transferring the Rohingya from Bhasan Char, Human Rights Watch said.

“The cyclone marks the beginning of monsoon season, adding further dangers for refugees who spent months on a crowded boat, starving and floating at sea, and now have been detained and beaten on Bhasan Char,” Adams said. “The Bangladesh government should immediately transfer the refugees to the camps where humanitarian agencies can give them the medical and psychosocial care they desperately need.”

Burkina Faso: Credibly Investigate Apparent Executions

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 20, 2020
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Family and community members in Fada N’Gourma bury 12 men allegedly killed after being detained by gendarmes on May 11, 2020. 

© Private 2020.

(Nairobi) – Burkina Faso authorities should credibly and independently investigate alleged extrajudicial executions of 12 men detained by gendarmes on May 11, 2020 during a counterterrorism operation near the eastern town of Fada N’Gourma, Human Rights Watch said today. Witnesses who saw and buried the bodies said it appeared the men had all been shot in the head.  

On May 13, the prosecutor for Fada N’Gourma, in Est Region, announced an investigation into the killings. The investigation should be transferred to the capital, Ouagadougou, to allow greater independence, impartiality, and security for witnesses, and its findings should be made public. The commander of the Tanwalbougou gendarme post, where the men in custody died, should immediately be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome. The Burkinabè government should seek necessary forensic and other technical assistance from international partners.

“Suspects winding up dead hours after being taken into custody during counterterrorism operations is a strong indication of foul play,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Killing detainees in the name of security is both unlawful and counterproductive. Those found responsible for these deaths in detention should be fully and fairly prosecuted.”  

Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone 13 people with knowledge of the incident. The interviews, with people in and around Fada N’Gourma and from Ouagadougou, included 4 witnesses to the arrests and 5 witnesses to the retrieval of bodies and burial of the victims. Witnesses provided a list of 12 victims, all men from the Peuhl ethnic group. The dead included at least one set of brothers and a man of about 70.

The alleged killings occurred amid a worsening security and humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso, which, since 2016, has been grappling with violence by Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel. Beginning in 2016, these groups, which have largely recruited from the nomadic Peuhl or Fulani community, have attacked security force posts and civilians throughout Burkina Faso.

Human Rights Watch has since 2017 documented the killing of over 300 civilians by armed Islamist groups. Government security forces have killed several hundred men for their alleged support of these groups, including 31 men allegedly executed in the northern town of Djibo on April 9.

In his May 13 statement, the Fada N’Gourma prosecutor said that Burkina Faso’s Defense and Security Forces had detained 25 people suspected of “acts of terrorism” from Tanwalbougou during the night of May 11 to 12, and that “Unfortunately, 12 of them died during the same night in the cells in which they were being held.”

The statement said that judicial police officers, gendarmes from Fada N’Gourma, and health officers were investigating the incident. The gendarme post at Tanwalbougou is under the direct command of gendarmes in Fada N’Gourma, about 50 kilometers away.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the arrests took place between 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. during an operation on market day in the town of Pentchangou, 5 kilometers from Tanwalbougou. They said that during the approximately hour-long operation, defense and security force soldiers, along with several members of a village-based defense force, known asVolontaires pour la défense de la patrie (VDP), blocked the village entrances and arrested numerous Peuhl men who were trading in the market, near the mosque, or in the street. They dragged some out of hiding places. The convoy left in the direction of Tanwalbougou.

“My arrival for market day in Pentchangou coincided with the arrival of the soldiers and a few VDFs,” a witness said. “The soldiers were in a few vehicles and the VDF on motorcycles. All were armed with automatic weapons.” A community leader who investigated the incident said, “People living around the Tanwalbougou gendarmerie told me they saw the gendarmes and a few VDF returning to the base with many detainees around 4 p.m.”

“I lost two brothers that day,” one man said. “As soon as the soldiers arrived, we took off running. I saw two vehicles and five soldiers, dressed in black t-shirts and camouflage pants. It was a manhunt … they were arresting any Peuhl man they saw.”

A woman working in the market said: “From where I hid, I saw a man running, but soldiers blocked the village exits. Two soldiers and another man in civilian clothing, all armed with military rifles, chased him, but the man was able to hide in a house. The soldiers turned their attention on another man, who they dragged out of another house, then beat with wooden sticks as they took him to their vehicles, which were a bit outside the village.”

While the government statement did not speculate on the deaths of the 12 men, family members and witnesses who retrieved the bodies from the morgue in Fada N’gouroma and participated in the burials, said they believed the men had been shot in the head. “It is obvious, clear, and evident that they all had head wounds,” said a man whose brother was among the dead. “Some had crushed skulls.”

Photographs and a video seen by Human Rights Watch showed the 12 bodies being taken to a cemetery in Fada N’Gourma in a vehicle, then laid on the ground in a line. The bodies were tightly wrapped in white plastic, taped around the victims’ legs, chests, necks, and heads. Significant blood was visible through the plastic, including around the victims’ heads.

Family members said they believed the men had been executed in the custody of the gendarmes based in Tanwalbougou. One said: “The prosecutor said they died overnight in the cell, and yet they’d bled profusely, like they’d been shot in the head. How can that be?” 

Most said they were only able to recognize their loved ones by their clothing. “We identified my brother by his boubou [wide-sleeved robe],” one said.  

“We saw our brothers, fathers, and sons leaving home that morning,” said another. “By the look of their bodies, they suffered something terrible.”  

The dead were buried in Fada N’Gourma on May 13 after being released to family members.

Three family members said that the authorities in Fada N’Gourma told them that autopsies had not been performed, and they expressed concern that this would affect the investigation. “As we waited to retrieve the bodies, I heard the prosecutor and a district medical officer saying they had no forensic capacity and that given the state of decomposition, the bodies should be taken for burial,” said the brother of a victim.

“The chief medical officer entered the morgue – spent just a few minutes – then said given the state of decomposition, the body bags could not be opened at all, not even for the families to identify their dead,” the cousin of another victim said.

Relatives and members of nongovernmental groups questioned the ability of local gendarmes to conduct a credible and impartial investigation. “The gendarme post of Tanwalbougou is directly under the command of the regional capital, Fada N’Gourma, tasked with the investigation,” said a family member. “Can we really expect a fair investigation?” In a May 14 news release, the Collectif Contre l’Impunite et la Stigmatisation des Communautes (Collective Against Impunity and the Stigmatization of Communities, CISC), a local human rights coalition, called for a special commission of inquiry, saying, “How can gendarmes investigate a case in which they are directly involved.”

Community leaders and CISC said numerous Peuhl men from villages around Tanwalbougou had in recent months been executed or forcibly disappeared after their arrest by local gendarmes and noted that victims would be too frightened to respond to judicial summons by local gendarmes.

“Promptly opening an investigation into these killings is an important first step, but to move forward, the authorities should transfer the investigation to the capital, ensure witnesses are protected, and suspend the gendarme commander pending the investigation’s outcome,” Dufka said. “The authorities should send a strong message of intolerance for grave violations of rights by holding to account all security force members implicated by the investigation, including the gendarme commander.”

 

 

Albanian Psychologists Prohibit Anti-LGBT “Conversion Therapy”

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 20, 2020
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Participants ride bikes during the Gay Pride Parade in Tirana, Albania, May 13, 2017. 

© 2017 AP Photo/Hektor Pustina

Albania’s Order of Psychologists has announced that it will prohibit members from offering “conversion therapy,” or pseudo-therapeutic attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The decision effectively bans conversion therapy in Albania, as registered therapists are required to be members of the group in order to legally practice.

Albania’s prohibition is a welcome development, even if discrimination against LGBT people in the country remains high. Studies have shown that efforts to change sexual orientation and gender identity are ineffective, and may foster anxiety, depression, suicide, and other mental health problems.

The World Psychiatric Association has criticized these fraudulent therapies as “wholly unethical,” and the Pan American Health Organization has warned that they pose “a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people.” A wide range of medical associations in places such as Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Lebanon, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States have similarly condemned these practices.

Therapies that purport to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity may also constitute serious human rights abuses. These efforts often involve discrimination, restrictions on movement, and physical and sexual abuse, and may at times amount to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.

In recognition of these facts, many countries have begun to proscribe these efforts, especially in psychiatric and medical settings.

Malta, Ecuador, and Germany have used criminal law to regulate the practice, punishing violators with fines and imprisonment. Other countries, like Brazil and Taiwan, outlaw it via professional sanctions. Lawmakers in many countries around the globe are considering bans on the practice, including in Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, and the United States.

As countries debate the scope of conversion therapy bans, one thing is clear – conversion therapy is widely recognized as ineffectual and psychologically harmful. In addition to banning the practice in psychiatric and medical settings, countries should take steps to educate mental health professionals and the public about the harm that it causes, provide support to survivors, and work to lessen the stigma that drives people into conversion therapy.

Albania’s decision should spur medical and mental health professionals in other countries to take a strong stance against conversion therapy, and to formally condemn it as a dangerous and discredited practice.

Brazil: Amazon Penalties Suspended Since October

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 20, 2020

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In this March 10, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, agents from Ibama measure illegally cut timber from Cachoeira Seca indigenous land in Para state in Brazil's Amazon basin.

© 2018 Vinicius Mendonza/Ibama via AP (São Paulo) – Fines for illegal logging in the Amazon in Brazil have been effectively suspended since October 2019 under a Bolsonaro administration decree, Human Rights Watch said today.

Federal enforcement agents have issued thousands of fines for illegal deforestation and other environmental infringements in the Amazon and elsewhere in Brazil since October. Yet due to new procedures put in place by the Environment Ministry that month, based on a decree issued by President Jair Bolsonaro last April, lawbreakers have been required to pay in no more than five of these cases, according to official information obtained by Human Rights Watch. 

“Federal agents are working hard to enforce the rule of law, in this case Brazil’s environmental laws – often at considerable personal risk – only to have their efforts sabotaged by the Bolsonaro administration,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The violent criminal networks destroying the Amazon rainforest and Brazilians’ enjoyment of a healthy environment aren’t going to be deterred by fines they don’t have to pay.”

Real-time alerts from Brazil’s Space Agency, INPE, show that deforestation in the Amazon region may have increased 53 percent between October 2019 and April 2020 compared with the same period a year before.

The Bolsonaro administration should stop shielding members of criminal networks engaged in illegal deforestation from being sanctioned for violations of Brazil’s environmental laws and undermining protection of the right to a healthy environment, Human Rights Watch said.

The effective suspension of fines is one of several steps the Bolsonaro administration has taken in Brazil to undercut the enforcement of environmental laws and protection of the environment in Brazil. Others include the removal of senior environmental officials in apparent retaliation for a successful operation against large-scale illegal mining and deforestation in the Amazon.

In October, the Bolsonaro administration implemented new procedures establishing that environmental fines should be reviewed at “conciliation hearings,” in which a commission can offer discounts or eliminate the fine altogether. The Environment Ministry suspended all deadlines to pay those fines until a “conciliation” hearing could be held. 

Only five such hearings have been held nationwide since October 8, when the procedure went into effect, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), Brazil’s main environmental law enforcement agency, told Human Rights Watch. That means that thousands of fines against those destroying the environment are on hold. According to reporting by The Intercept, fines issued from January through mid-April could be worth 412 million reais (US$82 million). Under Brazilian law, all unpaid fines lapse in up to five years, and, in some circumstances, in three years, after which violators no longer need to pay them.

Before October, when IBAMA field agents found a violation of environmental law, they would issue a fine and a ticket on the spot for immediate payment. The vast majority of lawbreakers did not actually pay right away but used repeated appeals to push proceedings beyond the period they remained in effect, an agency official told Human Rights Watch. He requested not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her superiors. 

Environment Minister Ricardo Salles presented conciliation hearings as a way of making the environmental sanctioning more efficient. But the change has in fact crippled the environmental agency’s already limited ability to sanction and deter environmental crimes by delaying proceedings even more. IBAMA agents continue to issue fines for illegal deforestation, mining, and other environmental crimes, but instead of a ticket for payment, they present violators with a citation for a hearing that may never take place.

While hearings are pending, violators have no obligation to pay the fine. On the contrary – if they prefer to forgo the hearing and pay the fine, they have to expressly ask the agency to issue them a ticket before they are permitted to make a payment. Violators have little incentive to do so, as they know that at the hearing they may be able to get their fines reduced by as much as 60 percent, as established by the decree issued by the Bolsonaro administration.

From October to early January, IBAMA held no conciliation hearings, the agency told Human Rights Watch. From January through April 28, it held only five. The agency has since suspended hearings indefinitely, citing the Covid-19 pandemic, even though hearings could be held remotely via videoconference. Since October, IBAMA agents have issued thousands of fines, although the exact number is not known because the public database is not up to date, as IBAMA itself told Human Rights Watch.

The conciliation hearing policy is one of several steps taken by the Bolsonaro administration that have weakened Brazil’s capacity to enforce its environmental laws. These include a bill that would grant amnesty for people who illegally occupy forests to raise cattle or crops and another bill to open up Indigenous territories to commercial exploitation. Since Bolsonaro took office, he has lambasted the government’s own environmental protection agencies, which he calls “industries of fines,” and has vowed to end their “festival” of sanctions for environmental crimes.

On May 7, Bolsonaro issued a decree putting the Armed Forces in charge of overseeing and coordinating environmental agencies in military operations to combat deforestation and fires in the Amazon, without ensuring or making clear how the enforcement agents will have the autonomy, tools, and resources needed to safely and effectively carry out their mission. 

In April, Minister Salles fired the director of environmental enforcement at the agency after a news program showed an operation against large-scale illegal logging and mining in Indigenous territories in the state of Pará. In a letter, 16 IBAMA agents said that they feared the top 2 enforcement agents, who are career officers, could also be removed in retaliation for the operation. After the letter became public, the government did remove those two agents, without any justification. Federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into those decisions.

With its anti-environmental measures, the Bolsonaro administration has empowered criminal networks to step up both illegal deforestation in the Amazon and the threats and violence against those who stand in their way, including IBAMA agents, Indigenous people, small farmers, and others, as documented by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. 

These actions conflict with Brazil’s international human rights obligations and its own constitution, which recognizes the right to an ecologically sound environment. The Inter-American human rights system, which is binding on Brazil, has held that states’ obligations to ensure a clean environment requires them to protect the elements of the environment, such as forests, rivers, and seas.

Under international standards, the government has obligations to act against environmental harm, which includes taking steps to establish, maintain, and enforce effective legal and institutional frameworks for the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The policies of the Bolsonaro administration flout those obligations.

“Brazil’s environmental enforcement agents are increasingly feeling under threat from both sides – from the criminal networks they confront in the field, and from the government they serve,” Canineu said. “They fear if they do their job right, they could lose it.” 

Kurdish Authorities Clampdown Ahead of Protests

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 19, 2020
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A view of the city of Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

© 2017 Laurence Geai/SIPA via AP Images

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRI) authorities have just hammered another nail into the proverbial coffin of free expression in Iraq, arresting dozens in an effort to prevent a planned protest.

According to a journalist  and two teachers from the city of Duhok in Iraq's Kurdistan Region, KRI government employees, including teachers, have not received salaries since February, reportedly because of crashing oil prices and the economic fallout from Covid-19. Delayed salaries have been a persistent issue since 2015, triggering protests that Kurdistan authorities regularly meet with arbitrary arrests.

On May 13, a group of mostly teachers submitted a request to the Dohuk governor’s office to hold a protest on May 16 calling for salaries to be paid. The requirement to request permission to protest -  which conflicts with international law’s protection of  the right to peaceful assembly - stipulates that if authorities do not respond to the request within 48 hours, permission is automatically granted.

On May 15, the governor posted a statement on his Facebook page saying he had seen “propaganda and calls for a protest” but that there was no permission for the protest and threatened “legal consequences” if it proceeded. But he did not actually respond to the formal request, a protest organizer said, nor invoke Covid-19 related restrictions as a reason for not granting permission.    

On May 16, security forces set up checkpoints and barriers to close off the park designated as the protest location. On May 15 and 16, security forces arrested dozens of protesters, at least two from their homes, as well as many who turned out on May 16. They also arrested at least eight journalists. Authorities released most of those arrested within five hours, but only after preventing this most recent attempt to peacefully protest.

On May 19, Dr. Dindar Zebari, the regional government's coordinator for international advocacy, acknowledged that the arrests were for “organizing unauthorized demonstrations” and justified the arrests by stating that the protests had violated Covid-19 prevention measures even though local authorities had lifted almost all movement restrictions and did not mention any gathering restrictions at the time.

Both Zebari and a security official in a video posted on the Dohuk governorate’s Facebook page  added that political groups were behind the demonstrations. If this accusation were true, so what? Since when was it illegal for protesters to have political leanings? These statements are dangerous in suggesting that in the KRI, you are not allowed to publicly represent your political views if they are different to those of the authorities in the area.

I have sat in over a dozen meetings with KRI officials over the last four years in which they laud their compliance with human rights, always “in contrast to Baghdad.” This most recent incident shows the Kurdistan Region is no bastion of peaceful assembly and free expression.

Urgent Opportunity to Assist Mozambique Civilians at Risk

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 19, 2020
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Residents of Naunde, in Macomia, Cabo Delgado, flee their village following an attack on June 5, 2018.

©2018 Human Rights Watch

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is meeting today in Harare, Zimbabwe, to discuss the increasing threat to civilians in Mozambique. Four heads of state are attending the summit, requested by the Mozambican government, namely Zambia’s Edgar Lungu, Botswana’s Mokgweetsi Masisi, and Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa – all representing the regional bloc’s political, security, and defense troika – as well as Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi. The meeting should map out a strategy to better protect civilians in northern Mozambique.

On April 30, the presidents of Zimbabwe and Mozambique met in the Mozambican city of Chimoio. A statement released after the meeting acknowledged that instability in Mozambique was on the agenda but gave no further details. Days later, the Zimbabwean government denied reports of deploying soldiers to Mozambique against the insurgency in the country’s Cabo Delgado province.

Fighting has been ongoing in Cabo Delgado since October 2017, when an Islamist armed group known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a (ASWJ), attacked a police station in Mocimboa da Praia district. The group has since reportedly carried out more than 350 attacks, killing over 600 people and leaving over 115,000 displaced. In response to the attacks, Mozambican security forces have also been involved in human rights abuses in Cabo Delgado, including unlawful killings, intimidation of journalists, arbitrarily arrests, and ill-treatment of detainees.

Today’s meeting is long overdue and could lead to regional efforts to improve civilian protection against ASWJ attacks, which have significantly increased over the past few months amid deafening silence from the SADC and African Union. This apparent indifference from the region and the continent as a whole has persisted despite continued reports of killings and other abuses.

The SADC should immediately act to support the Mozambican authorities by providing humanitarian aid to the affected populations and training for security forces tasked with protecting people in Cabo Delgado and elsewhere in the country, in accordance with human right standards. Today’s meeting should come up with a clear plan to improve security for civilians against armed attacks. The SADC leaders should also press the Mozambican authorities to end human rights violations by its security forces.

Pakistan Reopens Malls Claiming No Covid-19 Crisis

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 19, 2020
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People rush to shop for the Eid holiday that marks the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan after the government relaxed a weeks-long lockdown that was enforced to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Quetta, Pakistan, May 18, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Arshad Butt

Pakistan’s Supreme Court this week justified reopening shopping malls by claiming that Pakistan “is not … seriously affected” by Covid-19 and that there is no pandemic in the country. In fact, Pakistan has had at least 43,966 confirmed cases and more than 900 deaths since March, and the numbers keep rising. Given minimal testing, the actual count is almost certainly much higher. At least 500 Pakistani healthcare workers have been infected too, which shows that despite the justices’ denials, Pakistan is indeed “seriously affected” by Covid-19.

The Supreme Court ruling reflects a broader attempt by Pakistani federal authorities to trivialize the impact of Covid-19. Prime Minister Imran Khan has framed the pandemic response as a choice between death by starvation or death by infection. The federal planning minister has compared Covid-19 deaths to people dying in traffic accidents. And last week, Pakistan became one of a handful of countries to ease restrictions on markets and social gatherings even as the number of infections were rising, without putting in place rules on social distancing, the wearing of masks, or other measures to slow the spread of the virus.

By understating the threat of the pandemic, the Pakistani government is denying those returning to work the information they need to protect themselves from Covid-19. It has also failed to ensure protection for healthcare workers, and has arrested and intimidated medical workers who have raised concerns about the lack of protective equipment and the looming health crisis.

Experts in Pakistan have warned against the premature easing of lockdown restrictions, fearing an exponential rise in infections. One healthcare worker said: “Everyone’s scared and exhausted. But we are fighting, we are pushing the limits. All we ask is that government and people understand that they can help us help them by staying at home and providing us quality protective gear.” The Supreme Court decision effectively denies this plea and puts more lives at risk.

There are many important steps that Pakistani authorities need to take to protect the population, particularly vulnerable groups, in these extraordinary times. Hastily reopening shopping malls is not one of them.

US: Abusive Transfers of Asylum Seekers to Guatemala

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 19, 2020
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Two asylum seekers, one from El Salvador, one from Honduras, wait inside a migrant house in Guatemala City after being sent to Guatemala from the United States on Tuesday, December 3, 2019, under an “asylum cooperative agreement” between the two countries.

© 2019 AP Photo/Oliverde Ros

(Washington, DC) – An agreement between the United States and Guatemala effectively compels Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to abandon their claims, Refugees International and Human Rights Watch said today.

The joint report by Refugees International and Human Rights Watch, “Deportation with a Layover: Failure of Protection under the US-Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement,” shows that the US-Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement, or ACA, does not meet the criteria in US law for a Safe Third Country Agreement that would enable Salvadorans and Hondurans to seek asylum in a safe country other than the US. May 19, 2020 Report Deportation with a Layover

Failure of Protection under the US-Guatemala Asylum Cooperative Agreement

Under the agreement, the United States has rapidly transferred non-Guatemalan asylum seekers to Guatemala without allowing them to lodge asylum claims in the US. Given Guatemala’s inability to provide effective protection and the risk that some transferees face the threat of serious harm either in Guatemala or after returning to their home countries, the US violates its obligation to examine their asylum claims by implementing the agreement, the report says.

Refugees International and Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 Hondurans and Salvadorans who had been transferred to Guatemala. They described abusive conditions at the US border before their transfer and danger, insecurity, and a lack of support upon arrival in Guatemala that made them feel pressure to return to their home countries despite fear of what they would face there.

“All the transferees we interviewed said the US never gave them an opportunity to seek asylum in the US or to explain why they fled their home countries,” said Ariana Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch and one of the report’s authors.

A Salvadoran man said that a US Department of Homeland Security official told him “there is no asylum” and “there are no Central Americans allowed into the United States.” Two women showed Refugees International evidence of abuse by domestic partners – pictures of physical injuries from brutal beatings and a copy of a protective order from a court in El Salvador – that they said US officials at the border refused to let them present to support their claims of fear of return there.

Those interviewed said that while detained at the US border before their transfer, they were denied meaningful access to an attorney and only allowed to make between one and three rushed, non-private phone calls.

They said that when they arrived in Guatemala, they waited hours on the tarmac with no food, water, or adequate medical attention, including for those with small children. The registration process itself took a cursory two-to-three minutes, during which Guatemalan authorities did not provide any information about what would happen to them in Guatemala. Once transferees were registered at the airport, they had 72 hours to make the decision about whether they would remain in Guatemala, return to the countries they fled, or try to find refuge elsewhere.

“People transferred to Guatemala were thrust into a high-pressure situation in which they lacked adequate time and resources to make truly informed, voluntary choices about what to do,” said Rachel Schmidtke, Latin America advocate for Refugees International and another of the report’s authors.

Those interviewed said they had no family or support networks in Guatemala and that they feared for their safety there because some of the gangs who threatened them had a presence or connections in Guatemala. Many indicated they would return to El Salvador and Honduras despite their fear of persecution there.

“We interviewed people with well-founded fears of persecution who were not allowed to seek asylum in the United States and who believed they could not be protected in Guatemala,” said Yael Schacher, senior US advocate at Refugees International and another of the report’s authors. “The United States has shirked its responsibility and violated its international obligations by transferring people under the ACA.”

Transfers of non-Guatemalans to Guatemala under the agreement were suspended on March 16, 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before that date, the US had transferred 939 people to Guatemala. Although local nongovernmental partners for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that the vast majority of transferees they interviewed had international protection concerns, only 20, about 2 percent, had applied for asylum in Guatemala.

The US and Guatemalan governments should rescind the Guatemalan agreement rather than plan for its resumption, Refugees International and Human Rights Watch said. The US should also halt plans to begin transferring non-national asylum seekers to El Salvador and Honduras under similar agreements.

LGBT Africans Share Challenges of Life During Pandemic

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 19, 2020

AfroQueer podcast recently launched a special episode in advance of its upcoming third season. Checking in with queer Africans on how they are faring during the Covid-19 pandemic, the episode was aptly titled “How are you doing?”

The wide-ranging answers surfaced in the podcast reflect the different realities faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. There is no singular “LGBT experience” of Covid-19. United Nations agencies, activists, and some governments have rightly identified particular vulnerabilities of LGBT people that need to be taken into account in the pandemic response. But levels of vulnerability vary according to factors like economic status, immigration status, and where one calls home.

Prisoners’ rights are LGBT rights.

If you are LGBT and homeless in Uganda, you could find yourself in prison. AfroQueer interviewed Adrian Jjuuko, lawyer and director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, who tirelessly defended 19 homeless gay, bisexual, and transgender youth whom police detained shortly into Uganda’s Covid-19 lockdown on charges of “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease.” Their crime? Living in a shelter. For 50 days they languished in jail, where prison officials refused to allow lawyers to visit them on Covid-19 pretexts. The director of public prosecutions finally withdrew the charges on May 18.

Economic rights are LGBT rights.

In Burkina Faso, Emma, a trans activist, told AfroQueer the hardest thing for many LGBT people who have lost jobs, largely in the informal sector, is having to move in with family members to stave off hunger – “a terrible choice, as many of them have homophobic parents.” At least, Emma says, the government is providing free water to those who need it.

Refugee rights are LGBT rights.

David, a gay refugee from Nigeria, lives in Boston with his American husband. As a Lyft driver, he transports essential workers, sanitizing his car after each drop-off. The gig economy is hard, he says, but “I’m doing my best to keep the economy running, which I’m very proud of as an immigrant.” Juliet, a refugee in Sweden, may be safer from homophobia than in her home country of Zambia, but finds that far-right groups scapegoat immigrants and refugees as vectors of disease.

Protecting LGBT people’s rights during the pandemic will depend on addressing a range of rights issues. A more just world, on all levels, will keep LGBT people safer in future global crises.

This dispatch is the first of a six-part collaboration between Human Rights Watch and AfroQueer podcast, seeking to amplify the voices of LGBT Africans.

DR Congo: Bloody Crackdown on Political Religious Group

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 19, 2020
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Police officers raid Ne Muanda Nsemi’s residence, where more than 200 BDK supporters had gathered, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on April 24, 2020.

Photo source: Screenshot taken from a video Human Rights Watch received from sources via WhatsApp

(Kinshasa) – Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo repeatedly used excessive lethal force against a separatist religious movement in April 2020, killing at least 55 people and wounding scores more. The government crackdown against the Bundu dia Kongo occurred from April 13 to 24 in several towns in western Kongo Central province and in the country’s capital, Kinshasa.

The call by BDK leader Zacharie Badiengila, commonly known as Ne Muanda Nsemi (“the creative spirit” in Kikongo), for his supporters to “chase” out people who were not of Kongo ethnicity triggered the government response. The police raid against the group in the Kongo Central town of Songololo on April 22 resulted in 15 deaths and the raid on April 24 on Nsemi’s Kinshasa residence killed at least 33 people.

“Congolese authorities had a responsibility to respond to the BDK movement’s messages that incite ethnic hatred,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “However, the government response violated international standards on the use of force, causing a bloodbath.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone more than 50 people, including victims of abuses and witnesses, BDK members, hospital staff, government and United Nations officials, human rights activists, and journalists.

On April 12, Nsemi, a former member of parliament and self-proclaimed “president of the Federal Republic of Kongo Central,” published a new installment of his regular newsletter called “Kongo Dieto,” or “Our Kongo” in Kikongo, the language spoken by the Bakongo people, the main ethnic group in Kongo Central. The four-page document urged his supporters to “stand up and chase every Muluba, every Mungala, and every Muswahili [people from other ethnic groups]” out of the Kongo Central province and to be “ruthless” against them.

Tensions escalated between April 13 and 15 as hundreds of BDK members erected roadblocks in the towns of Boma, Kisantu, Sona-Bata, Lemba, and Songololo, chanting anti-ethnic slogans and threatening “foreign ethnic groups.” Some carried long sticks and palm nuts, while a few were armed with locally made rifles. Police forces deployed to disperse the small crowds at times fired live ammunition. Witnesses and police reports, among other sources, said at least six BDK members and one bystander were killed in the towns of Kisantu, Sona-Bata, and Boma. A BDK member allegedly fatally shot a police officer in Kisantu on April 13.

Before dawn on April 22, police encircled a house in Songololo where dozens of BDK members, including women and children, had gathered to plan demonstrations. Around 3 a.m., the police fired indiscriminately at the house, set it on fire, then shot and crushed people rushing outside in panic, killing at least 15 and injuring many others. Witnesses said local gang members chanting “It’s about to get messy!” in Lingala stormed the house shortly after the police had gone and attacked those left behind.

“I was asleep when the shooting began and [it] woke me up,” one BDK member who was in the house told Human Rights Watch. “I managed to escape before they burned the house.”

Another member said:

Some of us were praying when they started to shoot. When they realized that we weren’t coming out, they set the house on fire and used tear gas. We couldn’t breathe so we were forced out and they would shoot us as we were coming out. I took a bullet in my hip, but they were also using machetes. I have a machete wound on my head and another on my arm.

Some BDK members told Human Rights Watch that they tried to defend themselves against the police with whatever they could find. “I picked up rocks and I threw them at the police,” said another member. “I took a bullet in the thigh, but I also injured an officer in the face.”

Photos and a video alleged to have been shot on the morning of April 22, which Human Rights Watch authenticated, show over a dozen bodies and badly injured people, all of whom had apparently been moved from the house and displayed for a police delegation that attracted crowds of onlookers. In the video, a sharp wooden stick is thrown at one of the wounded and shortly afterward a police officer walks among the bodies with a machete in hand.

A witness said that some bodies had both bullet wounds and machete cuts, suggesting that they had first been shot and then struck with machetes or axes. Some of the bodies were apparently mutilated, the witness said. Human rights standards set out that the wounded should be transported to the hospital as soon as possible and the dead should not be degraded, Human Rights Watch said.

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The house where BDK members gathered in Songololo, Democratic Republic of Congo was burned and destroyed during a police raid on April 22, 2020.

© 2020 Private

The interior minister, Gilbert Kankonde, told Human Rights Watch by phone that investigations were still ongoing at the Kongo Central provincial level. “If wrongdoings were found at the command level, the military prosecutor’s office will have to take care of it,” he said. Kankonde added that according to the police, BDK members had attacked the police first with machetes and arrows.

On April 22, police and military police in Kinshasa encircled Nsemi’s residence while a delegation of government officials was inside, negotiating his surrender to authorities who had charged him with “rebellion, threatening the state security, and incitement to tribal hatred.” For weeks, he had been requesting, in writing and in video statements, the payment of his parliamentary allowance, the release of BDK members from prison, and the appointment of native Bakongo people in administrative positions in the Kongo Central province, among other demands.

On April 24, after negotiations failed, the police raided the residence, where more than 200 BDK supporters had gathered, and arrested Nsemi. Sustained gunfire could be heard throughout the neighborhood as police stormed the compound. The interior minister said in a media statement that during the April 24 assault, 8 people had been killed and 43 others wounded, including 8 police officers. However, Human Rights Watch found that at least 33 BDK members had been killed.

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BDK members leave Ne Muanda Nsemi’s residence in Kinshasa before being placed in police custody on April 24, 2020.

Photo source: Screenshots taken from videos Human Rights Watch received from sources via WhatsApp

Nearly 200 BDK members, including children, were briefly detained before being transported in buses to their towns and villages in Kongo Central. Forty-seven are now in prison and charged with “insurrection, rebellion, illegal possession of weapons of war, and incitement to tribal hatred.” Nsemi is being held at the Neuro-Psycho-Pathology Center in Kinshasa after doctors on April 30 diagnosed him with a mental health disorder caused by “repeated stress.” 

In Kongo Central, immediately after the raid, the police arbitrarily arrested and beat several BDK members. They included a woman who said that police stripped her in the street, later raped her, and detained her for two days in the town of Kisantu. The woman said she has not received medical care or counseling for the abuse.

Following Nsemi’s arrest, police looted his residence as photos emerged of officers walking away with items such as a TV set and his throne chair.

The authorities should conduct a prompt and impartial investigation into the deadly raids in Songololo, Kinshasa, and elsewhere, Human Rights Watch said. The investigation should examine police use of lethal force with the aim of holding to account those found responsible for abuses, including those bearing command responsibility. There should be a full accounting of those killed and injured in the raids and of those charged with criminal offenses.

“The government needs to get to the bottom of these violent raids and hold wrongdoers to account, whatever their rank,” Mudge said. “That’s the only way for the authorities to send a clear message that abuses and excessive use of force will not be tolerated.”

Bundu dia Kongo (BDK)

Bundu dia Kongo (in Kikongo, “The Church or Assembly of the Kongo”) is a politico-religious movement founded in 1969 by Ne Muanda Nsemi, a former chemist-turned-spiritual leader. The BDK, also known as Bundu dia Mayala, advocates a return to African authenticity and bases its teachings on visions revealed to Nsemi by the spirits of his people.

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Ne Muanda Nsemi, the leader of the BDK, in a vehicle after his arrest in Kinshasa on April 24, 2020.

Photo source: Screenshot taken from a video Human Rights Watch received from sources via WhatsApp

Nsemi alleges that the Bakongo people are oppressed and have little access to high-level positions, even in their home province. He favors removing “outsiders” from such posts and calls for the resources of Kongo Central (formerly Bas Congo) to be primarily used for the development of the region. The BDK had long aimed for greater autonomy for Kongo Central within a federal system. On April 12, Nsemi declared Kongo Central independent and proclaimed himself president of the “Federal Republic of Kongo Central.”

BDK followers worship in a temple, known as a “zikua,” the first of which was established in Kinshasa and served as the original center for recruiting disciples known as “makesa.” The Congolese government has long alleged that the BDK was an armed group and in 2008, the provincial government classified the movement as a “terrorist organization.” BDK members ordinarily carry sticks and other wooden weapons, though some have been using locally made rifles. The BDK claims to have thousands of supporters but this has not been independently verified.

Throughout 2007 and 2008, in a number of Kongo Central locations where BDK support was strong and state infrastructures weak, the BDK declared themselves in charge of local administrations. Their de facto authority was accompanied by episodes of harassment, violence, and summary justice meted out by BDK adherents.

Previous Crackdowns on BDK

In Kongo Central, in February 2007 and March 2008, state agents acting under then-President Joseph Kabila’s authority used excessive force against BDK followers when they protested, at times violently, against electoral corruption after gubernatorial elections. Police and government soldiers shot or stabbed to death 104 BDK supporters and bystanders. In March 2008, police conducted operations in Kongo Central, killing over 200 BDK supporters and others and systematically destroying the BDK’s meeting places. UN investigators said several elements suggested that “the authorities may have intended to considerably reduce the operational capacity of the BDK movement.” The Congolese government response when challenged about these actions was denial and cover-up.

Between January and March and during August of 2017, state security forces killed at least 90 people as part of a crackdown against BDK members in Kinshasa and Kongo Central. Some of the BDK members also used violence, killing at least five police officers.

Two weeks before the April 2020 crackdown, on March 30, the police opened fire on BDK demonstrators in Kinshasa, killing at least 3 people and injuring 11 others, according to a UN source. BDK members were marching to “chase the spirit of the coronavirus.”

No independent and transparent judicial investigation has been conducted into the abuses committed by state security forces in Kongo Central in 2007 and 2008, nor into the violence in Kinshasa and Kongo Central in 2017.

Government Response

On April 16, the National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignement, ANR) arrested journalist Carlys Kaluangila in Matadi and accused him of giving an erroneous death toll about the violence in Boma the previous day. He was released on April 17.

On April 22, in a news release, Interior Minister Gilbert Kankonde said that the police had conducted an operation in Songololo with the border police from Lufu to restore law and order, alleging that the BDK was planning a “hunt” against people coming from other regions. He added that the police faced “fierce resistance” and that the local population came to “lend a hand.” According to Kankonde, 14 BDK members were killed, 2 others seriously injured, and 7 police officers were badly wounded. In addition, a Kalashnikov assault rifle, 2 locally made shotguns, and 11 arrows were seized. The minister called on the Kongo Central’s military prosecutor to open investigations into the Songolo incidents.

On April 24, Kinshasa’s police commissioner, Gen. Sylvano Kasongo, said that the police officers who looted Ne Muanda Nsemi’s residence would be sanctioned. Many of his belongings have been returned to the residence.

Applicable Legal Standards

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials offer important guidance on the use of force by police and other state agents in circumstances of civil unrest. The principles state that officials exercising police powers shall “not use firearms against persons except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury … and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives” and that “[i]n any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Governments have a duty to investigate and prosecute serious violations of physical integrity under international law. International human rights law also enshrines the right to an effective remedy. A victim’s right to an effective remedy not only obligates the state to prevent, investigate, and punish serious human rights violations, but also to provide reparations. Among various reparations mechanisms, governments should restore the right violated and provide compensation for damages.

Greece: Move Migrant Children to Safety

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 19, 2020
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A child places his hands on a fence as Greek police officers stand guard at a makeshift camp for migrants and refugees in Greece.

© 2016 Reuters/Marko Djurica

(Athens) – Greek authorities should free the 276 unaccompanied migrant children currently detained in police cells and detention centers in Greece, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Releasing the children is all the more urgent amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The prime minister should act on his pledge to protect unaccompanied children and make sure that hundreds of vulnerable children are freed from dirty, crowded cells, sometimes alongside adults, where they are exposed to the risks of Covid-19 infection,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There is no excuse for failing to give these children the care and protection they need.”

According to the National Center for Social Solidarity, a government body, as of April 30, 2020, an estimated 276 children were in police custody awaiting transfer to a shelter. That is 19 more children behind bars than when Mitsotakis announced, in November 2019, the No Child Alone plan to protect unaccompanied children.

Human Rights Watch research has documented the arbitrary and prolonged detention of unaccompanied migrant childrenin police cells and other detention centers, in violation of international and Greek law. Under Greek law, unaccompanied children should be transferred to safe accommodation, but Greece has a chronic shortage of space in suitable facilities.

While they wait for placement in a shelter, unaccompanied children can be held for weeks or months in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, sometimes with unrelated adults, in small police station cells and detention centers where following social distancing guidelines is impossible. They often have little access to basic health care and other services, hygiene supplies, or even natural light. In many cases, they do not receive information about their rights or about how to go about seeking asylum, and many experience psychological distress.

The recent decrease in the time that an unaccompanied child can be held in protective custody, from 45 days to 25, is a step in the right direction. But international human rights standards hold that immigration-related detention, including so-called “protective custody,” is never in the best interest of the child and should be prohibited due the harm it causes, Human Rights Watch said. 

The detention of children for immigration reasons is prohibited under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. A 2019 UN global study on children deprived of liberty reported that even if detention conditions are good, detaining children exacerbates existing health conditions and causes new ones to arise, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts.

The study highlighted that governments have found non-custodial solutions for unaccompanied children, such as open and child-friendly accommodation, periodic reporting, and foster families. There are always options available other than detention of children for migration-related reasons, the UN study said, and detaining children for their “protection,” even if alternative care is lacking, “can never be a justification.”

The UN children’s agency UNICEF has said that all governments should release children from detention, specifically including immigration detention, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On April 14, Human Rights Watch opened a campaign to #FreeTheKids, urging people to press Prime Minister Mitsotakis to immediately release unaccompanied migrant children from detention and transfer them to safe, child-friendly facilities. Transitional options could include hotels, foster care, and apartments under a Supported Independent Living program for unaccompanied children ages 16 to 18.

The European Commission should financially support Greece to create additional long-term care placement places for unaccompanied children. Other European Union members should speed up family reunification for children with relatives in other EU countries and should offer to relocate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children – even if they lack family ties.

According to the latest government data, since April 30, only 1,477 out of the 5,099 unaccompanied children in Greece were housed in suitable, long-term facilities. The rest are left to fend for themselves in overcrowded island camps or on the streets or are confined in police cells and detention centers on Greece’s mainland. 

In Germany, Anti-Semitism Creeps into Covid-19 Protests

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 19, 2020
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Demonstrators gather at Rosa-Luxemburg Platz holding a sign reading, “Against racism and anti-Semitism” Berlin, Germany, May 16, 2020.

© 2020 Frederic Kern/Geisler-Fotopress/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Across German cities last weekend, thousands of people from many walks of life protested German government measures taken to control the spread of Covid-19. Yet some people used the protests as a pretext for displays of anti-Semitism, or open or thinly veiled support for neo-Nazi ideology.

The right to peaceful protest is fundamental, but when demonstrations become a platform for xenophobia, that has to be called out.

Some protesters reportedly wore yellow stars, drawing an inappropriate and offensive comparison between requirements to wear a face mask and the symbol Jewish people were forced to display on their clothing in the Nazi era. There were banners with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about compulsory vaccinations for Covid-19.

This had also happened in earlier protests against the German government’s Covid-19 containment measures, and groups monitoring anti-Semitism have observed a growth in anti-Jewish sentiments during these demonstrations. Thomas Haldenwang, president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency BfV said on Sunday: “We see a trend, that extremists, especially right-wing extremists, are exploiting demonstrations”.  

Sadly, this is not an isolated trend. In 2019 there were around 2000 attacks on Jewish people or Jewish institutions in Germany, a 13 percent increase on the 2018 figure of 1,799, according to media reports quoting the government’s annual report on politically motived crimes. Among the attacks last year, one that took place at a synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, left two people dead.

Germany should reinforce initial steps it has taken, such as expanding the BfV’s capacity in tackling right-wing extremism, to counter intolerance and xenophobia, including anti-Semitism. A time like this, in which far-right anti-Semites can weave their toxic ideology into what should be peaceful protests about public health measures, requires vigilance. Federal intelligence agencies and regional police forces need to be attentive to the far-right hijacking demonstrations.

Thorough and timely investigations of hate crimes, and prosecutions of those responsible, are important, as are education and information campaigns against intolerance. More assistance for survivors of attacks is key too, according to support groups.

Addressing Germany’s Jewish community on the night of the Halle synagogue attack, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared her government would “do everything possible to ensure that you can live in safety.” The Covid-19 crisis is a sad reminder that work is still needed to make this a reality.

Indonesia: Blogger Held Over Land Dispute Report

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 18, 2020

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On May 4, 2020, the South Kalimantan police arrested and detained blogger Diananta Putra Sumedi (left) in Banjarmasin, charging him with online defamation, which carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison. 

© 2020 Alliance of Independent Journalists (Jakarta) – The Indonesian police in South Kalimantan province should drop criminal defamation charges against a blogger for articles in which he interviewed indigenous Dayak leaders about a land dispute with an oil palm plantation, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release the blogger, Diananta Putra Sumedi, who has been detained since May 4, 2020.

Criminal penalties for alleged defamation are a disproportionate punishment, have a chilling effect on media freedom, and are frequently abused by the police. Those harmed by publications should seek redress through civil defamation.

“Threatening a writer with prison for criminal defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of speech for all journalists,” said Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher. “Civil defamation is a more proportionate response to alleged defamatory speech.”

Human Rights Watch in 2010 published an analysis of the negative impact of Indonesia’s criminal defamation laws including the internet law and urged their repeal. Those laws contain extremely vague language that has allowed retaliation against journalists and others who had made allegations of corruption, fraud, or misconduct against powerful interests or government officials.

In November 2019, Sumedi wrote on his blog, Banjar Hits, about PT Jhonlin Agro Raya, a palm oil company and subsidiary of the Tanah Bumbu-based Jhonlin Group. The company has had a dispute with Dayak villagers, including Sukirman, the head of a Dayak association. Sukirman is quoted saying he planned to file a lawsuit alleging that the company had illegally appropriated land in three Dayak villages.

Jhonlin Group contested the allegations, and, in accordance with Indonesian law, filed a complaint with Indonesia’s Press Council on November 11. The complaint was brought against Sumedi, his blog Banjar Hits, and Kumparan, a “media collaboration company” in Jakarta that sponsored and provided the platform.

Sukirman filed a report denying the quotes attributed to him. Banjar Hits and Kumparan published a letter from Sukirman denying the quotes. Jhonlin Group also filed a police report. Sumedi had not recorded the interview with Sukirman.

On February 5, the Press Council issued a statement that censured Sumedi for publishing unverified stories. It directed Kumparan to provide the Jhonlin Group the right to respond, saying that the stories were unethical and racially insensitive for creating tension between the Dayak and the Bugis, the ethnic group of the Jhonlin Group’s founder in South Kalimantan. In response to the Press Council recommendations, Kumparan on February 11 took down the stories from the internet, apologized to the Jhonlin Group, and later terminated its collaboration with Banjar Hits.

Three months later, on May 4, the South Kalimantan police arrested and detained Sumedi, charging him with online defamation, which allows pretrial detention and carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison.

A police spokesman said that his arrest and detention were necessary because Sumedi might continue to write stories about this case.

A 2017 memorandum of understanding between Indonesia’s National Police and the Press Council permits a petitioner to request the police to pursue a criminal defamation case if the petitioner is not satisfied with the outcome of a Press Council mediation. Most alleged defamation cases against journalists end at the Press Council, and do not become the basis for a criminal case.

It is not clear whether the Jhonlin Group was dissatisfied with the Press Council statement. Kumparan reported that Jhonlin Group did not use their right to respond. Human Rights Watch contacted the Jhonlin Group and its founder by email and phone, but received no response.

Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists have questioned Sumedi’s detention, asking the South Kalimantan police to drop the case because he had already been sanctioned.

In 2018, another Jhonlin Group company filed a defamation case against another reporter, Muhammad Yusuf, who was arrested and died five weeks later in South Kalimantan police custody.

Land disputes linked to oil palm plantations have been frequent. Konsorsium Pembaruan Agraria (Consortium for Agrarian Reform, KPA), an Indonesian organization, documented more than 650 land-related conflicts affecting over 650,000 households in 2017. Journalists and indigenous rights defenders covering land disputes have been arrested under various laws in addition to criminal defamation.

In December 2019, the immigration office detained an American editor, Phil Jacobson of the environmental news website Mongabay, in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, after he attended a hearing between the local parliament and an indigenous rights advocacy group. The immigration office accused him of breaking Indonesia’s immigration law, by entering the country without a journalist visa. He was deported on January 31.

On April 26, Hermanus, a Dayak farmer, died in a Sampit hospital in Central Kalimantan, while he was facing theft charges related to his efforts to defend Dayak villagers’ land from a palm oil plantation.

“The Indonesian police and aggrieved companies should stop bringing criminal defamation charges to intimidate, detain, or prosecute journalists and others exercising their freedom of speech,” Harsono said. “By having alleged defamation cases go before the Press Council, Indonesia provides a means to quickly address and rectify inaccuracy in the media.”

Nepal Failing to Protect Women from Online Abuse

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 18, 2020
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Women hold placards during a protest against sexual violence in Kathmandu, Nepal, March 8, 2020.

© 2020 Sujan Shrestha/Sipa via AP Images

Imagine discovering private – and perhaps intimate – photos of yourself online. Strangers are posting humiliating comments, with personal details, making you identifiable to the world.

This is increasingly a reality for women and girls in Nepal – with little response from the government.

The Kathmandu Post recently alleged that some social media groups were specifically targeting Nepali women and girls for abuse. The newspaper article claimed that group members circulate and discuss images, often obtained from victims’ social media accounts and shared without consent, but also through hacking, coercion, or blackmail. The article alleged that groups have hosted abusive images, including child sexual abuse material and depictions of sexual violence. One notorious group has 4,500 members.

Online gender-based violence is a growing problem globally, and the shift online caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is adding fuel to the fire. Nonconsensual sharing of intimate images can have a devastating impact on victims, harming their mental health, reputations, relationships, and access to education and employment – even exposing them to physical violence.

Nepal’s laws do not sufficiently protect the rights of women and girls. The existing law does not address online gender-based violence. And because the existing law does not consider the issue of consent around the distribution of images, victims could face charges alongside abusers.

The government plans to replace the Electronic Transaction Act with a new Information Technology Bill. The new bill is deeply problematic on free expression grounds, but does prohibit online “sexual abuse.” The government should revise the bill to protect free expression while strengthening provisions against online gender-based violence. Such provisions should be defined clearly and protect both free expression and everyone’s right to privacy.

The Nepal government also needs a comprehensive approach to online gender-based violence, including aiding victims through providing legal assistance, counseling, and assistance removing images from the internet and developing rights-respecting practices for law enforcement. Internet companies should take seriously their responsibility to prevent gender-based violence on their platforms, act swiftly to remove abusive images, reduce their spread, and provide remedy to victims, including by cooperating with law enforcement’s efforts to take action against abusers.

The most important steps to tackle the deep gender inequality underpinning abuse are measures like comprehensive sexuality education and improving the status of women. Under international human rights law, Nepal has an obligation to protect the rights of women and girls – it’s time they took it seriously.

Sri Lankan Officials Stoke Covid-19 Communal Hate

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 18, 2020
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A Sri Lankan firefighter sprays disinfectants near a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 10, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

Eleven years since the end of Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war, the government has disavowed promised steps toward truth, justice, and accountability for war crimes.

Instead, recent years have witnessed a surge of discrimination and hate speech against the country’s Muslim minority with little official response. Now the government is using the Covid-19 pandemic to stoke communal tensions and violate rights to religious freedom.

On social media, there have been calls to boycott Muslim businesses and false allegations of Muslims spreading Covid-19 deliberately, which the authorities did not contest. After senior government figures made public comments implying – falsely – that the virus was particularly rife among Muslims, leading activists and civil society organizations wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa raising concerns that this had led to “outpourings of vitriol, and hate speech against Muslims.”

In March 2020, the government published guidelines requiring that the remains of all Covid-19 victims be cremated, which goes against Islamic tradition. The World Health Organization had not recommended that governments do this and four United Nations special rapporteurs criticized the requirement as a violation of freedom of religion.

On April 9, authorities arrested Ramzy Razeek, a retired government official who argued against the burial ban on Facebook. He remains in custody. Several petitions against the ban are before the courts. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has written to the government complaining about the treatment of Sri Lankan Muslims.  

Since the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on May 18, 2009, there have been public consultations on post-war reconciliation in which ordinary people spoke of preventing the recurrence of hate. Yet after the Easter Sunday bombings on April 21, 2019, when Islamic State (also known as ISIS)-inspired extremists killed about 250 people, the government again adopted discriminatory policies and made arbitrary arrests. The authorities even arrested a doctor over false allegations of a Muslim plot to sterilize Buddhist women.  

President Rajapaksa, who as Defense Secretary during the final phases of the civil war was implicated in war crimes, is regarded with fear by Sri Lanka’s minority communities. His administration needs to stop stoking dangerous hatred and instead set out a path for genuine reconciliation. 

Rwanda: Major Step Toward Justice for Genocide

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 18, 2020
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Félicien Kabuga on his US Department of State wanted poster. 

Photo source: US Department of State

(Paris) – The arrest of Félicien Kabuga, one of the alleged masterminds behind the Rwandan genocide, in France on May 16, 2020 brings victims and survivors one step closer to justice 26 years later. Kabuga is charged by an international war crimes court with genocide and related crimes during the 1994 genocide, and was living in France under a false identity at the time of his arrest.

“Félicien Kabuga’s arrest is a major victory for victims and survivors of the genocide in Rwanda who have waited more than two decades to see this leading figure face justice,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Those implicated in brutal atrocities should take note that the law can catch up with anyone, even those who seem untouchable.”

Kabuga had evaded arrest since 1997, when he was first indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Kabuga is expected to be tried by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), which was established to handle the outstanding functions of the ICTR and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia once those tribunals closed. The mechanism has branches in Arusha, Tanzania, and The Hague, the Netherlands.

Kabuga was close to Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, who died when a plane carrying him and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on April 6, 1994. The crash triggered the start of three months of ethnic killings across Rwanda on an unprecedented scale. He was one of the chief financiers of the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which began broadcasting in April 1993.

Between April and July 1994, Hutu political and military extremists orchestrated the killing of approximately three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, leaving more than half a million people dead. Many Hutu who attempted to hide or defend Tutsi and those who opposed the genocide were also killed.

In mid-July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a predominantly Tutsi rebel group based in Uganda that had been fighting to overthrow the Rwandan government since 1990, took over the country. Its troops killed thousands of predominantly Hutu civilians, though the scale and nature of these killings were not comparable to the genocide.

Human Rights Watch documented the genocide and the RPF’s 1994 crimes in detail. Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Human Rights Watch Africa division for almost two decades and one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda, published the authoritative account of the genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story.”

“Radio RTLM, which had incited to genocide before April 6, communicated the orders for implementing the killings after that date,” Des Forges said in her account. “It instructed people to erect barriers and carry out searches; it named persons to be targeted and pointed out areas which should be attacked…. So important was this means of communication that officials admonished citizens to keep listening to the radio for instructions from the interim government.”

With Human Rights Watch, Des Forges also documented how Kabuga was implicated in ordering the thousands of machetes imported in 1993 and early 1994 and how he supported the military training for the Interhamwe youth militia associated to Habyarimana’s party, the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (Mouvement révolutionnaire national pour le développement, MRND).

The United Nations Security Council created the ICTR, based in Arusha, in 1994 in response to the genocide. The tribunal indicted 93 people, convicted and sentenced 61, and acquitted 14. It was expected to try mostly high-level suspects and those who played a leading role in the genocide. It tried and convicted several prominent figures for crimes committed during the genocide, including the former prime minister, Jean Kambanda, the former army chief of staff, Gen. Augustin Bizimungu, and the former Defense Ministry chief of staff, Col. Théoneste Bagosora.

The tribunal achieved important milestones and established jurisprudence in international criminal law. It was the first international tribunal to convict a woman of genocide crimes, including rape, and the first international court since the 1946 Nuremberg tribunal to convict media executives for crimes of genocide.

However, the tribunal had inherent limitations and attracted criticism. The tribunal handled a relatively small number of cases and had high operating costs. The trials were often lengthy and slowed down by bureaucratic processes. Some Rwandans have criticized the tribunal, citing its lack of reparation for victims and its location outside Rwanda, and complained that genocide convicts were allowed to speak to the media.

The tribunal’s unwillingness to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the RPF in 1994 was a significant failing of the tribunal, Human Rights Watch said.

The IRMCT, created in 2010, is tasked with addressing the remaining tribunal-indicted fugitives, seven of whom remain at large. It has retained jurisdiction over Kabuga and Augustin Bizimana and Protais Mpiranya, both fugitives. Five others are to be tried by the Rwandan authorities. 

The Rwandan justice system also tried a large number of genocide suspects, both in conventional domestic courts and in local, community-based gacaca courts. The standards of these trials have varied enormously and political interference and pressure resulted in some unfair trials. Other cases have shown greater respect for due process. The gacaca trials ended in 2012.

Court officials at the residual mechanism highlighted the cooperation by France, where Kabuga was living covertly with family at the time of his arrest, and a number of other governments to enable Kabuga’s arrest after so many years. The French justice ministry said in a statement that Kabuga “had with impunity stayed in Germany, Belgium, Congo-Kinshasa [Democratic Republic of Congo], Kenya, or Switzerland.”

“Arresting suspects can be one of the most difficult challenges for international courts to bring justice for atrocity crimes as they lack their own police forces,” Segun said. “Questions remain over how Kabuga was able to evade justice for over two decades, but cooperation between governments has made it possible for victims and survivors at last to see him face trial and should be replicated to secure the surrender of more international war crimes fugitives.”

April 4, 2019 Video Confronting Evil: Genocide in Rwanda

Alison Des Forges was Human Rights Watch’s senior advisor in the Africa Division and one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda. In the period leading up to the genocide, she worked tirelessly to alert world powers to the impending crisis in Rwanda. Her efforts did not stop when the genocide ended. She continued painstakingly gathering information on these horrific crimes, which she compiled into what has become one of the main reference books on the Rwandan genocide: “Leave none to tell the story: Genocide in Rwanda”, published in 1999. Alison Des Forges campaigned vigorously for justice for the genocide until her sudden death in a plane crash in the US on February 12, 2009. She also documented human rights abuses by the new government of Rwanda after the genocide and advocated for accountability for all abuses, past and present.

Panama: Government Takes Step to End Quarantine Gender Discrimination

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 18, 2020
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Police officers are pictured during the curfew as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Panama City, Panama, March 31, 2020. 

© REUTERS/Erick Marciscano   (Washington DC) – The government of Panama has taken an important initial step to address the discriminatory impacts of its gender-based quarantine measures on transgender people by communicating its concern to security agencies, Human Rights Watch said today. It has yet to issue guidelines to specify that transgender people may comply with quarantine measures in accordance with their gender identity, as Human Rights Watch recommended in a letter to President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen on April 23, 2020.   On May 11, the Public Security Ministry issued a statement noting that it “has spoken with the security sector to prevent any type of discrimination against the LGBTI population” in the implementation of Covid-19 related restrictions.   “The government’s statement is an important recognition of the discrimination transgender people have faced under the quarantine enforcement measures,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Panama’s leadership has expressed a commitment to address discriminatory practices by security agents, and we will continue to monitor the situation to make sure the new policy is carried out.”   On April 1, Panama put into effect a gender-based quarantine schedule in response to Covid-19, requiring women and men to remain quarantined on alternate days. However, as Human Rights Watch documented in a letter to the president, the measure resulted in police and private security guards singling out transgender people for profiling and, in some cases, arresting and fining them or preventing them from buying essential goods.   In a video released today, Human Rights Watch presents the experiences of two transgender people who were subject to discrimination when they left their home for essential needs. These cases occurred before the Public Security Ministry issued its statement and were described in the letter to President Cortizo.   The police detained Mónica, a transgender woman in Panama Province, when she attempted to enter a supermarket on a day designated for men. Police inappropriately touched her on the breasts and mocked her gender identity during a body search at Casa de Justicia Comunitaria de Paz Pedregal.   Heber, a transgender man in Colón Province, said police denied him entry into a supermarket on a day designated for women. The officers ridiculed him, saying they would not explain to other women in the queue “what he was.”   The experiences of Mónica and Heber demonstrate the importance of a clear articulation from the government that trans people can comply with the quarantine in accordance with their gender identity or expression, Human Rights Watch said.

 

Qatar: Reported Covid-19 Outbreak in Central Prison

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 18, 2020
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Doha Skyline, Qatar.

© 2018 Šarūnas Burdulis

(Beirut) – Qatar prison authorities should take urgent measures to better protect prisoners and prison staff amid an apparent Covid-19 outbreak in the Doha central prison, Human Rights Watch said today.

Qatar’s authorities should reduce prison populations to allow for social distancing and ensure that everyone in prison has access to information and adequate medical care. The authorities should also put in place appropriate hygiene and cleaning protocols, including providing training and supplies such as masks, sanitizers, and gloves to reduce risk of further infection.

“Qatari authorities should move quickly to avoid wider spread of coronavirus that risks infecting prisoners, prison staff, and Doha residents,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Qatar can start by releasing vulnerable prisoners such as older people and those held for low-level or nonviolent offenses and by ensuring that the remaining prisoners have adequate access to medical care.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed six foreign detainees in recent days. They described a deterioration in prison conditions in Qatar’s only central prison in Doha after several prisoners were suspected of having contracted the virus. The detainees said that guards informally told them in recent weeks about the suspected outbreak, though Qatari authorities have not publicly confirmed it.

The authorities sealed and isolated the block where the suspected outbreak occurred, but not before transferring some detainees from that block to other already-overcrowded and unsanitary sections of the prison. They said that the prison authorities also further restricted prisoners’ limited access to basic medical care, leaving older prisoners and prisoners with underlying health conditions at even higher risk of serious consequences if infected.

Prison authorities have given inconsistent and incomplete information to prisoners. A prisoner said that on May 2, 2020 a prison guard informed inmates that five prisoners in another block had contracted the virus, causing panic. “Since then more prisoners, possibly many who are infected, have come to our block,” the prisoner said. “We have beds for 96 people, and now we have around 150 prisoners in this block.” On May 6, the prisoner said, another prison guard told him that 47 cases had been recorded by then.

The prisoners said that their block has only eight bathrooms for 150 prisoners. “People are sleeping on the floor, in the [prison] mosque, in the library; and everyone is scared of each other, we don’t know who could infect us,” the prisoner said. “At a time when we should be isolated from each other, we are being kept like animals in a shed.” The other prisoners corroborated his report of overcrowding.

Prisoners said that over the previous week guards and prison staff started to wear masks and gloves and that medical staff had stopped visiting their block. “No one knows who could be sick,” said one prisoner. “This one person has [what appears to be] the flu in our block, but is it flu, is it virus, who knows? No one is checking. Until May, nurses used to come and check us and if we were sick and wanted to go to the hospital we could go, now there are no nurses and no hospital visits.

Another prisoner said: “The nurses who used to come and give insulin shots to patients with diabetes no longer come, the guards hand out the insulin injections and the patients inject themselves.”

The prisoners said that they have limited access to soap and water, have not received hand sanitizer, and that social distancing measures are impossible, given the crowding. Two said that as of May 7, they were all handed two masks each. One prisoner said that prison authorities have yet to sanitize their blocks and continue to provide only one bar of soap per month to each prisoner despite the need for better cleaning and hygiene protocols during the pandemic.

“Yesterday the guards gave me two masks for the first time,” one prisoner said on May 8. “They said wear them, but no one is wearing them. Most prisoners just put them away and the guards don’t really care, they aren’t telling anyone to wear them.” He said the administration has not officially confirmed to them the presence of the virus in the prison or communicated recent changes to them in a clear and transparent manner, causing increased fear and anxiety among the inmates.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Qatar continues to increase, with 1,733 cases recorded on May 14, the highest number recorded in the country in a single day.

Governments should reduce their prison populations through early release of low-risk detainees, including those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, or whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or unjustified, Human Rights Watch said.

Prisoners at high risk of serious effects from the virus, such as older people and those with underlying health conditions, should also be considered for release, taking into consideration whether the detention facility has the capacity to protect their health, including access to adequate treatment, and such factors as the gravity of the crime and time served. Prison authorities should publicly disclose their plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection in their facilities and the steps they will take to contain the infection and protect prisoners, staff, and visitors.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said in a March 25 news release that governments need to prevent foreseeable threats to public health and have a particular duty to protect the physical and mental health of prisoners, calling on them to reduce detainee populations as part of overall efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bachelet said that “Covid-19 has begun to strike prisons, jails and immigration detention centres … and risks rampaging through such institutions’ extremely vulnerable populations.” She described the “potentially catastrophic” consequences of neglecting the duty to protect the health of people in custody and urged governments to “act now to prevent further loss of life among detainees and staff.”

“The reported spread of Covid-19 in Qatar’s central jail could fast become a public health disaster,” Page said. “Qatari authorities have the power to reduce the harm, but they need to act quickly and decisively.” 

Development Finance for Covid-19 Crisis Should Uphold Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 18, 2020
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A worker fills a container with water at the Villa Maria del Triunfo shantytown in Lima, Peru, where people living in poverty have difficulty accessing clean water and meeting the hygiene recommendations by health officials. March 13, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Martin Mejia

(Washington, DC) – Human rights should guide the use of billions of dollars committed by development finance institutions to address the Covid-19 health and economic crisis, the Coalition for Human Rights in Development said today.

The Coalition of 98 social movements, grassroots groups, and civil society organizations across the world has found that the pandemic is hurting vulnerable communities affected by development projects and exacerbating issues around inequality, violence, militarization, and surveillance.

The Coalition has tracked commitments of about US$90 billion in emergency response from all the major multilateral development banks. Additional resources are likely to be earmarked towards economic recovery, with the World Bank Group saying it is prepared to provide $160 billion for the next 15 months. As these funds are disbursed, however, stories of mismanagement and waste have also started emerging.

“Every dollar from a development finance institution could make a real difference for a family facing joblessness, hunger, or eviction, but it needs to reach them,” said Komala Ramachandra, Senior Business and Human Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch, in Washington, DC. “Now more than ever, development banks should be guiding and overseeing their government and private clients to make sure their dollars have their intended impact.”

In a statement published today, the Coalition said that development finance institutions should ensure their funds – during the pandemic and beyond – reach the most vulnerable people and provide universal and equitable access to essential services, including health care, food, housing, water, sanitation, education, and sustainable livelihoods. This includes avoiding funding projects that harm the environment, displace people, or threaten food security.

The Coalition also said that institutions should include protections against corruption and provide for transparency, accountability, and meaningful consultation with affected communities.

“Development financiers should guarantee that their beneficiaries – whether governments or companies – have protocols to prevent, monitor, and address rights violations and to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on Indigenous Peoples,” said Aída Gamboa, Coordinator of the Amazon Program of Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Rights, Environment and Natural Resources, DAR) in Peru.

As Covid-19 containment measures have created additional risks and challenges for those speaking out against harmful development activities and standing up for their rights, the Coalition also urged development financiers to help protect civil society and ensure safety from reprisals.

“Environmental and land rights defenders are confronting increased risks and threats during this Covid-19 pandemic lockdown,” said Jaybee Garganera, National Coordinator of Alyansa Tigil Mina (Alliance to Stop Mining, ATM) in the Philippines. “Confined to our homes, we are unable to respond to destructive actions of mining, logging, dam projects, and other aggressive development activities. Meanwhile, for extractive industries it’s business as usual: mining operations are allowed to continue.”

Reports that resources previously earmarked for other uses are now being repurposed, often without transparency, have heightened concerns, the Coalition said.

“In the best of times, communities face enormous challenges in accessing information and participating in projects that will affect them,” said Elias Jika, Africa Program Coordinator for the International Accountability Project based in Malawi. “Development banks should follow the highest international standards to ensure communities’ right to information is fulfilled by proactively disclosing all funds that are being used for Covid-19 response and ensuring project information is accessible in local languages.”  

The Coalition said development finance institutions should ensure their funds do not exacerbate inequality issues through privatization or public-private partnerships, and that resources going to the private sector are used to support workers’ rights. The Coalition also urged development banks to cancel debt payments for borrowing countries at least until the end of 2020 and use their collective influence to push private actors to extend debt relief.

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