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EU: Robustly Carry Out New Surveillance Tech Rules

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image European lawmakers stand up during a signing ceremony at the European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium, March 10, 2021.  © 2021 Francisco Seco/AP Photo

(Brussels) – The improvements to the European Union’s export controls rules on surveillance technology are so fragile that only rigorous efforts to carry them out will prevent EU technology from landing in the hands of abusive governments, Human Rights Watch said today.

The new rules, adopted after nearly a decade of lawmaking, regulate the sale of so-called “dual use” items produced in the EU, including mass and intrusive surveillance systems, aiming at preventing their sale to abusive governments. The types of technology covered include intrusion and interception software, deep packet inspection, and biometric surveillance. While some progress was achieved, the final text falls short of some of civil society’s key recommendations. In a joint statement on March 25, 2021, Human Rights Watch together with six other groups provide an analysis of the regulation and a series of recommendations for its implementation.

“The use of EU-made surveillance technology by authoritarian governments has led to abuses against many journalists, activists, and political opponents,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “While not ambitious enough, the new regulation includes meaningful provisions on mandatory transparency and assessing human rights risks, whose impact should be maximized through expansive interpretation and rigorous application.”

The new rules require the EU Commission to publicly report on the number of export license applications for each type of surveillance technology, for each Member State, and where they were sent. This landmark mandatory reporting requirement will allow the public, civil society, journalists, and parliamentarians to scrutinize licensing decisions and provide invaluable insight into the EU trade in surveillance technology. It also adds human rights risks as a criterion to be considered in the licensing assessment.

Since the 2011 Green Paper reviewing the EU’s trade controls on dual-use products, the beginning of this process, EU-based surveillance companies have continued to export their products to repressive governments.

For example, the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab found that the renowned Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was targeted in 2011 with FinSpy, produced by the German company FinFisher, and in 2012 with Remote Control System (RCS), produced by the Italian company Hacking Team. UAE authorities detained Mansoor for six months in 2011. He is currently serving a 10-year sentence, issued in 2018 for “cybercrimes,” in a prison in Abu Dhabi.

The basis for one of the charges against him relies on deleted email exchanges going back to 2011 as well as WhatsApp messages between Mansoor and representatives of international human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. Citizen Lab also found evidence in 2015 that FinSpy was being used by government agencies in over 30 countries, including many with abysmal records on rights, and in 2014 traced Hacking Team’s RCS to use in 21 countries, including by repressive governments.

In a communication to Human Rights Watch in April 2020, Memento Labs, which took ownership over Hacking Team in 2019, said it cannot comment on Hacking Team’s activities and that it has new policies and procedures to assess the human rights impact of its sales. FinFisher did not respond to a request for comment in April 2020.

The final agreement failed to meet some key civil society demands. For example, groups had called for a mechanism to update the list of technology subject to licensing restrictions in a transparent and consultative manner, and for denying export control licenses for non-listed items on human rights grounds.

Under the new rules, Member States can propose that new cybersurveillance technology be subject to licensing restrictions if an export control authority or exporter is aware that an export may be intended “for use in connection with internal repression and/or the commission of serious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law.” But, in effect, the regulation requires unanimity for such restrictions to be imposed and foresees no consultation with the public or the civil society organizations that have often been among the first to discover abusive applications of these technologies.

The joint statement with Access Now, Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists, FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), Privacy International, and Reporters Without Borders recommends that the commission, in consultation with civil society, should expeditiously develop clear guidelines to ensure adherence to the new measures and disseminate them among all national and business stakeholders. Most importantly, the commission should closely monitor Member States’ implementation of the new regulation and adopt all necessary measures under EU law to prevent, discipline, and remedy any possible breach that may occur.

The statement recommends that the term “cybersurveillance” be interpreted broadly and highlights the importance of including biometric surveillance technology, which creates unprecedented risks to privacy and other rights, in the EU control list. The statement further outlines recommendations for meaningful transparency on export licenses, such as making reporting publicly available on a regular basis, and including information on whether the license was granted or denied and why, to facilitate independent oversight.

Finally, the joint statement emphasized the need for national legislation governing the assessment of export licenses to take into account relevant European human rights standards as well as evidence from civil society. The EU is already developing rules to require companies to undertake human rights due diligence. EU-based producers of surveillance technology should be required to identify, prevent, and mitigate potential and actual adverse human rights impacts of their operations and provide access to effective remedy for people whose rights have been violated.

“The EU can’t make up for lost time,” Brown said. “But it can urgently and robustly implement the new surveillance export rules to minimize the risk that European spyware is ever again used to harm or silence critical voices.”

Russia-Linked Landmines Threaten Lives in Libya

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image PMN-2 blast mines recovered from Tripoli, Libya, December 2020.  © 2020 MEE/Daniel Hilton

Buried in a new report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on Libya comes disturbing news about recent transfers of internationally banned antipersonnel landmines. The report shows that antipersonnel mines manufactured in Russia were likely brought into Libya in the 2018-2019 despite an arms embargo.

Last year, Human Rights Watch reported the use of antipersonnel landmines and booby traps in southern suburbs of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, after Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), supported by several foreign states and armed entities withdrew from the city.

At the time, the internationally recognized Tripoli-based former Government of National Accord (GNA) shared photographs on Twitter showing Russian-made MON-50, POM-2, POM-2R, and PMN-2 antipersonnel landmines that it claimed were used by “mercenaries” supporting LAAF forces.

Several of the same types of antipersonnel mines have also been used in Ukraine and Syria, coinciding with Russian military presence in those conflicts.

Libya’s former government under Muammar Gaddafi acquired and stockpiled millions of landmines, which were abandoned or left unsecured when his government was toppled in 2011. But the types of antipersonnel mines described in UN and Human Rights Watch reporting were not seen in Libya before 2020.

Libya and Russia are not among the 164 nations that have committed to prohibit the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines. Since the adoption of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, transfers of antipersonnel mines have dwindled to a low number of illicit transfers.  

Antipersonnel mines of Soviet/Russian origin have been reported in more than 30 countries. But of the 37 countries that previously produced antipersonnel mines, there is no evidence to show any have transferred them since the treaty came into being. In the past few years, the only government forces to use antipersonnel mines were in Myanmar and North Korea.

Reduced transfers mean the stigma attached to antipersonnel mines is strengthening with time. But the appearance of Russian-made antipersonnel mines in recent conflicts raises alarm bells and shows that Russia may be deliberately flouting the emerging international norm against any transfers or use of these weapons, which have taken untold lives and limbs.

Japan: Pass Equality Act Before Olympics

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image From left, Yumiko Murakami, head of OECD Tokyo, Gon Matsunaka, head of Pride House Tokyo Legacy, Kanae Doi, Japan director of Human Rights Watch, Yuri Igarashi, co-representative director of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation, Yuichi Kamiya, secretary-general of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation, "Tokyo Rainbow Pride" representative co-director Fumino Sugiyama, and a soccer player Shiho Shimoyamada, attend a press conference to launch international signature campaign for the enactment of the LGBT Equality Act on October 15, 2020, in Tokyo, Japan. © 2020 AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

(Tokyo) – Japanese political parties should work together to submit and pass a bill at the national Diet to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, J-ALL, Athlete Ally, All Out, and Human Rights Watch said today. The groups submitted a petition containing 106,250 signatures from Japan and abroad to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, asking it to introduce the LGBT Equality Act.

The LGBT Equality Act should be passed during the ongoing Diet session, which is scheduled to end in mid-June 2021, so that this landmark, urgently needed legislation is in place before the Tokyo Olympics, which are set to start on July 23.

“It’s major progress that Japan’s political parties are discussing LGBT-related legislation, but many LGBT people in Japan still remain in the closet, unable to discuss with others out of fear and stigma,” said Yuri Igarashi, director of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation (J-ALL), an umbrella organization of 80 LGBT groups in Japan. “With the Olympic Games approaching, a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is urgently needed to protect LGBT people, not only athletes and spectators, but everyone in Japan.”

Tokyo was slated to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government postponed the games for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tokyo Summer Games are advertised as celebrating “unity in diversity” and “passing on a legacy for the future.” To do this, Japan needs to enact a national anti-discrimination law to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in a manner that meets international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

The #EqualityActJapan campaign has gathered 106,250 signatures (including 41,333 from Japan) during an online petition drive from October 15, 2020 to February 21, 2021. Many athletes and others affected by the lack of protections in Japan have added their names and support to the campaign for an Equality Law in Japan.

All of Japan’s political parties are considering the enactment of the country’s first LGBT legislation. As is customary, legislation initiated by lawmakers can only be discussed and passed by the Diet if all parties agree on the content of the legislation. The signatures in support of the legislation have already been submitted to the Japan Innovation Party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party, and the KOMEITO. On March 25, the signatures were submitted to the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan’s largest party, and they will also be submitted to the Democratic Party for the People and the Japanese Communist Party.  

The Olympic Charter expressly bans “discrimination of any kind,” including on the grounds of sexual orientation as a “Fundamental Principle of Olympism.” Japan has also ratified core international human rights treaties that obligate the government to protect against discrimination, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“The spirit of the Olympic Games unites us as a global sports community championing equality and inclusion for all,” said Joanna Hoffman, communications director at Athlete Ally. “Athlete Ally is proud to support the LGBT Equality Act in Japan, and to mobilize athletes around the world who believe all Japanese LGBT people should live free from discrimination of any kind.”

Japanese LGBT groups have pressed for six years to pass legislation to protect everyone’s rights. Their progress reflects sharply changing attitudes in Japanese society, with public support for LGBT equality surging in recent years. In November, a nationwide public opinion survey found that 88 percent of those polled “agree or somewhat agree” with the “introduction of laws or ordinances that ban bullying and discrimination (in relation to sexual minorities).”

Japan’s national government has not enacted anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. But in October 2018, the Tokyo metropolitan government adopted an ordinance that protects LGBT people from discrimination in line with the Olympic Charter. This municipal “Olympics” law was a direct result of a human rights consultation tied to the Olympics, and has proven popular. But it has also shown gaps in protection across the country and the need for a national approach, the groups said.

“Tens of thousands of people in Japan, and from around the globe, have come together to demand safety and equal rights for LGBT+ people in Japan,” said Stana Iliev, campaigns manager at All Out. “Japanese political parties need to act now to establish the LGBT Equality Act. The world is watching.”

Japan has increasingly taken a leadership role at the United Nations by voting for both the 2011 and 2014 Human Rights Council resolutions calling for an end to violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. But LGBT people in Japan continue to face intense social pressure and fewer legal protections than other Japanese. On March 17, a court in Sapporo called Japan’s current ban on same-sex marriage “unconstitutional.” Japan’s Supreme Court will eventually have to decide whether the Diet needs to amend the law to recognize same-sex relationships.

“If all political parties in Japan could come together to pass this landmark legislation to protect LGBT people including athletes, it will be a significant turning point for Japan as the global Olympic spotlight turns on the country,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director at Human Rights Watch.

Saudi Arabia: Labor Reforms Insufficient

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image Foreign laborers work on the construction of new luxury houses in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, April 2019.  © 2019 FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia introduced labor reforms in March 2021 that will ease restrictions and allow some migrant workers to change jobs without employer consent under certain narrow circumstances, Human Rights Watch said today.

The reforms, however, do not go far enough to dismantle the abusive kafala (visa sponsorship) system. And they exclude migrant workers not covered by the labor law, including domestic workers and farmers, who are among the least protected and most vulnerable to abuse. They allow migrant workers to request an exit permit without the employer’s permission for the first time but do not abolish the exit permit, which violates human rights.

“Saudi Arabia has one of the most abusive versions of the kafala system in the region, and the reforms are limited, problematic, and by no means dismantle the kafala system,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Millions of domestic workers and other workers are excluded from these reforms, leaving them entirely at their employers’ mercy.”

Millions of migrant workers fill mostly manual, clerical, and service jobs in Saudi Arabia, constituting more than 80 percent of the private sector workforce. They are governed by an abusive kafala system that gives their employers excessive power over their mobility and legal status in the country. The system underpins migrant workers’ vulnerability to a wide range of abuses, from passport confiscation to delayed wages and forced labor. Despite local media reporting the contrary, the changes do little to dismantle the kafala system, leaving migrant workers at high risk of abuse.

The reforms were first announced in November 2020 as part of the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s Labor Reform Initiative, which aims to “enhance the contractual relationship between workers and employers,” help establish an “attractive job market,” and “improve the working environment” in the country.

The reforms, introduced as a ministerial resolution and available through the Absher and Qiwa online platforms, only partly address two of five key elements of the kafala system that can keep migrant workers trapped in abusive situations: the need for employer consent to change or leave jobs and to leave the country. But even these changes are limited, and under international human rights law, everyone has the right to leave any country.

As of March 14, the reforms stipulate that migrant workers who fall under the jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia’s labor law can change jobs without their current employer’s consent after completing one year of their contract or once their contract expires. According to the ministry-issued Labor Reform Initiative (LRI) Services Guidebook, other situations in which a migrant worker can change jobs without conditions include: if the worker’s work permit expires; if the worker is not paid for three consecutive months; and if a labor dispute arises and the employer fails to attend two litigation hearings.

The English-language version of the guidebook appears to be an abbreviated version of the Arabic-language one and omits certain important guidelines.

The Arabic guidebook states that the new employer is responsible for paying any costs involved in the job transfer but does not elaborate on how the ministry plans to ensure that vulnerable migrant workers are not forced to incur those costs themselves. The “Frequently Asked Questions” section says that a migrant worker against whom an “absence from work complaint” had been filed cannot benefit from the job change reforms. The English-language version of the guidebook omits this point.

In Saudi Arabia and all other Gulf states, workers who leave their employer without consent can be charged with “absconding” and face imprisonment and deportation. Human Rights Watch research across the Gulf states has shown that migrant workers risk such penalties even when fleeing exploitation or abuse. Some employers file false absconding cases to sidestep their legal obligations to pay wages or to provide food and accommodation.

Under the ministerial resolution, migrant workers, who previously could not leave and re-enter Saudi Arabia without their employer’s consent, may now submit an online request for an exit and re-entry visa or a final exit visa from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development. The guidebook states that they must have a valid residency permit, a duly attested employment contract, and a valid passport. The Saudi authorities may deny exit if any debts or fines are outstanding.

The guidebook also states that the worker, not the employer, must bear any fees related to this visa, which currently costs SR200 (USD 53). According to the Arabic-language guidelines, the employer is notified when the migrant worker submits a request and has 10 days to lodge an inquiry into the request.

The exit and re-entry visa lasts 30 days, and a migrant worker cannot independently request multiple-use visas. Only the employer can extend that time period, and a migrant worker who does not return within 30 days is permanently banned from working in Saudi Arabia. A migrant worker who leaves Saudi Arabia using a final exit visa before the end of their contract is also permanently banned. It remains unclear what criteria the ministry intends to use to determine whether to accept workers’ exit requests and whether the employer’s inquiry could be used to deny the worker the exit permit.

The Arabic-language guidebook says that the new system for requesting these visas without employer consent does not replace the previous system by which an employer is responsible for issuing these visas for their migrant employees, but simply exists alongside it. This means that migrant workers, especially those in low-paid jobs who are dependent on their employers for accommodation, food, and transportation, and who may not be aware of the reforms or have difficulty accessing online platforms, may not be aware of the reforms or how to benefit from them.

Other abusive kafala elements remain part of the new system. Migrant workers – and their dependents – still must rely on their employers to facilitate entry, residence, and employment in the country, meaning employers are responsible for applying for, renewing, and canceling their residency and work permits. Workers can find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own when employers fail to carry out such processes, and it is the workers who suffer the consequences. Migrant workers will also still need their employer’s permission to change jobs if they have not finished their contract or worked less than a year, which is often when they are most vulnerable to abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition, passport confiscations, high recruitment fees, and deceptive recruitment practices are ongoing and largely go unpunished, and workers are banned from joining trade unions or striking.

Over 3.7 million domestic workers face the same serious abuses, including unpaid and delayed wages, long working hours without a day off, passport confiscations, and on top of that, forced confinement, isolation, and physical and sexual abuse. But they are denied all protections afforded to those governed by the labor law, including the newly introduced reforms.

This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia had claimed it was replacing or abolishing the kafala system. In 2000, it removed the term from its laws and replaced it with language referring to contractual relationships while allowing employers to retain the same powers.

It also introduced labor reforms in 2015 that introduce or raise fines for employers who violate regulations, including prohibitions on confiscating migrant workers’ passports, failing to pay salaries on time, and failing to provide copies of contracts to employees. However, the 2015 reforms also did not apply to domestic workers and others excluded from the labor law. Many of the abuses the penalties were meant to deter also remain rampant.

Over the past decade, other Gulf states have also embarked on reform of their notorious kafala systems, with most introducing more significant reforms than those of the Saudi authorities. However, many of the same violations against migrant workers’ rights persist across the region, most commonly unpaid and delayed wages and passport confiscations.

“Saudi Arabia’s labor reforms seem positive at the outset, but the details show that workers can still be trapped with abusive employers and the change allow exploitative practices against migrant worker to persist,” Page said. “The authorities should see these measures as the beginning of a larger overhaul of the kafala and labor system rather than its end.”

US Needs to Target Domestic Enablers of Corruption

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image © ArchOneZ/VectorStock

Since 2017, the United States has sanctioned 150 people and entities for corruption under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The list of those targeted ranges widely – from the daughter of the former president of Uzbekistan to an Israeli businessman who made a fortune from Democratic Republic of Congo’s natural resources – but it leaves out an important group: professionals and their firms, many US-based, that help officials and businesspeople steal and launder public funds.

Yesterday, speakers at a hearing organized by the bipartisan congressional Lantos Human Rights Commission urged Congress to address this gap when the Global Magnitsky Act comes up for reauthorization next year. Tutu Alicante, who directs EG Justice, a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights and good governance in Equatorial Guinea, spoke of the devastating human rights impact of corruption in his small but oil-rich country, and the failure of the US and other countries to hold those responsible to account.

TNO Magnitsky Submission - FINAL 20200114 TNO Magnitsky Submission - FINAL 20200114

Human Rights Watch and EG Justice have urged the US to sanction Equatorial Guinea’s vice president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, who was convicted in France in 2017 of laundering well more than US$100 million. But even if that eventually happens, sanctions on Teodorin, as he is known, would be insufficient.  A US Senate investigation of Equatorial Guinea’s ruling family - which triggered a Justice Department case that ended in a $30 million settlement - uncovered a network of US lawyers, real estate agents, and bankers who helped Teodorin funnel dirty money into the US. Those pilfered funds were used to buy a California mansion, a private jet, and an array of luxury items - including the crystal-covered glove the late-Michael Jackson wore on his Bad tour.

The gap in the Global Magnitsky Act is that it limits sanctions to foreign persons or entities – so misses the US-based enablers of Teodorin’s corruption.  A 2017 Executive Order broadens the law’s reach to include anyone, including US citizens and firms, who “provided financial, material, or technological support” to foreigners engaged in corruption, but perhaps because the Global Magnitsky Act is so foreign-focused the US government hasn’t made use of this language.

As Congress begins to shape a revised Global Magnitsky Act, it should make sure that it explicitly authorizes sanctions on corruption’s professional abettors in the US.

Myanmar: Elected Lawmaker Group Declared Illegal

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image Anti-coup demonstrators display placards supporting the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the group representing Myanmar's elected government ousted in the February 2021 military coup, in Mandalay, March 17, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar military junta’s designation of the group representing Myanmar’s elected government as an “unlawful association” raises the risks of arrest for anti-coup activists and journalists reporting on the group, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling State Administration Council should immediately repeal the abusive 1957 Unlawful Associations Act.

On March 21, 2021, the State Administration Council issued an order declaring the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and “its affiliated committees” to be an unlawful association under the country’s Unlawful Associations Act. Under the colonial-era law, Myanmar’s president can declare illegal any association he believes “has as its object interference with the administration of the law or with the maintenance of law and order,” or “constitutes a danger to the public peace.” Once a group has been designated unlawful, the law criminalizes almost any contact with or support of the group.

“The Unlawful Associations Act has an unsavory history of being used to prosecute political activists and journalists reporting on opposition groups,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. “By making the CRPH illegal, Myanmar’s junta is raising the stakes not only for its members, but for anyone supporting, writing on, or even just contacting the group.”

Under section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, anyone who “is a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association, or in any way assists the operations of any such association” faces a minimum of two years and a maximum of three years in prison.

Under section 17(2), anyone who “manages or assists in the management of an unlawful association, or promotes or assists in promoting a meeting of any such association, or of any members thereof” faces a minimum of three years and a maximum of five years in prison.

The Unlawful Associations Act was frequently used in the 1990s to arbitrarily detain political activists. It has also been used to arrest and detain ethnic minority civilians in conflict-affected areas. After the Arakan Army was designated an unlawful association in March 2020, the law was used to arrest and prosecute dozens of people in Rakhine State for allegedly supporting the ethnic armed group.

The law has also been used to arrest and prosecute people for mere contact with an ethnic armed group, including two interfaith activists who were sentenced to two years at hard labor for allegedly visiting the Kachin Independence Army, and three reporters who traveled to cover and report on a drug burning ceremony held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

Aung Marm Oo, the chief editor of the Development Media Group, has been in hiding since learning, in May 2019, that police filed charges against him under the Unlawful Associations Act. Although the police never provided him with any written notice detailing the grounds for the charges, he believes the charges are linked to the media group’s reporting on the conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. Past practice indicates a high likelihood that the law will be used against journalists and others reporting on CRPH activities, Human Rights Watch said.

Journalists in Myanmar are already under serious threat from the military junta. Since the February 1 coup, the State Administration Council has banned five media outlets and arrested and detained nearly 40 journalists. Ten journalists have been charged with violating section 505A of the Penal Code, a broad new provision adopted by the junta. Under section 505A, anyone who makes comments that “cause fear,” spreads “false news,” or “agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a Government employee” faces up to three years in prison.

“The Unlawful Associations Act is an abusive colonial relic that should have been consigned to the dustbin years ago,” Lakhdhir said. “The junta should repeal the law and drop all charges under it that are currently pending.”

Libya: New Government Should Put Rights First

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image Newly appointed Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabeiba addresses members of the Libyan House of Representatives, a day before his cabinet secured a vote of confidence from the body, in Sirte, Libya, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Hakim al-Yamani

(Beirut) – The newly confirmed Government of National Unity (GNU) should commit itself to significantly improve human rights conditions in Libya and ensure that elections planned for December 2021 are free and fair, Human Rights Watch said today.

Libya’s House of Representatives confirmed the Government of National Unity on March 10 as the country’s interim administrative authority, with Abdelhamid Dabeiba as Prime Minister and a three-member Presidency Council headed by Mohamed al-Mnefi. The GNU, backed by the United Nations, replaces the Government of National Accord and the Interim Government in eastern Libya.

“Libya’s new government needs to urgently prioritize the rule of law, justice, and accountability, all of which are key to ensure free and fair elections,” said Hanan Salah, senior Libya researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The litmus test for the government in the December elections will be whether the authorities can protect freedom of assembly, association, and speech for those participating.”

The GNU was sworn in on March 15 despite allegations of attempted vote-buying during political talks, as confirmed by a UN expert report. The new government’s core mandate is to conduct elections for a new president and a new legislative authority on December 24. The legal and constitutional basis for holding such elections remain unresolved.

Free and fair elections require an environment free of coercion, discrimination, or intimidation of voters, candidates, and political parties. In addition to protecting free speech and assembly, election rules should not discriminate or arbitrarily exclude potential voters or candidates. The rule of law will require a functioning judiciary able to deal fairly and promptly with election and campaign disputes, such as on registration, candidacies, and results. Election organizers need to ensure that independent monitors have access to polling places.

Five months after the signing of a ceasefire deal that ended more than a year of armed conflict between foreign-backed local parties vying for legitimacy and control of the country, the human rights situation in Libya remains precarious. The country is reeling from mass displacement, civilian casualties, unlawful killings, unexploded ordnance, and destruction of critical structures, including healthcare and child education structures. Hundreds of people remain missing, including many civilians, and the authorities have made grim discoveries of mass graves with dozens of bodies that remain unidentified.

Armed groups operating with impunity as well as the existing authorities have been responsible for systematic violations, including holding thousands of people in long-term arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and torture. The authorities arbitrarily detain migrants and asylum seekers who pass through Libya, who then face beatings, extortion, sexual violence, and forced labor in detention centers nominally under the state, and by militias and smugglers.

Restrictive laws have undermined freedom of speech and association in Libya, and armed groups have intimidated, harassed, threatened, physically attacked, and arbitrarily detained journalists, political activists, and human rights defenders. The penal code stipulates criminal penalties for defamation and for “insulting” public officials, the Libyan nation, or flag; and imposes the death penalty for “promoting theories or principles” that aim to overthrow the political, social, or economic system.

The new government should review or revoke Decree 286 (2019) on Regulating Civil Society Organizations, issued by the Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord, which restricts freedom of association and appears to be incompatible with international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

Laws on peaceful assembly unnecessarily limit citizens’ ability to freely express themselves through spontaneous and organized demonstrations with unduly harsh penalties. The new authorities should ensure that any restrictions on public gatherings are strictly necessary for protecting public order.

The criminal justice system as well as law enforcement and criminal investigation departments around the country are only partially functional. Civilian and military courts operate at reduced capacity, and where they are operational, there are serious due process concerns. Courts currently are in a limited position to resolve election disputes, including registration and results, and law enforcement often lacks the ability or willingness to execute arrest warrants.

Since 2011, only a handful of cases involving people accused of serious crimes have been adjudicated. Trials that took place were marred by grave due process violations, including forced confessions, ill-treatment, and lack of access to lawyers. Prison authorities are often only nominally under the Ministries of Interior, Defence, and Justice, and armed groups operate their own informal detention facilities.

Armed groups have threatened, intimidated, and attacked judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and government officials. In November 2020, unidentified armed groups in the eastern city of Benghazi murdered a lawyer, Hanan al-Barassi, who had spoken out against militia abuses.

The High National Elections Commission, responsible for organizing elections, was established in January 2012 by the National Transitional Council and has a mandate to register voters and conduct elections.

Voter registration should be inclusive, accessible, and ensure that the largest number of eligible Libyans inside and outside the country can register. Libyans held in long-term arbitrary detention without a criminal conviction should also be considered for registration in the absence of any legal basis for disqualifying them. Special provisions should be made for thousands of displaced people and others who are not in their usual place of residence and may not have access to the civil registry. The elections commission should also ensure regular transparent audits of its voter registry.

The legal and constitutional framework for holding elections remains unclear, as the House of Representatives needs to pass an elections law to enable the election commission to hold elections.

Violence that followed the last Libyan general election, in 2014, led to the collapse of central authority and key institutions, notably law enforcement and the judiciary. Unidentified armed men assassinated the prominent human rights activist Salwa Bughaighis in her home in Benghazi on election day and kidnapped her husband, Essam al-Ghariani, who remains missing.

As a party to international human rights treaties, Libya is bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which guarantee freedom of speech, expression, and association.

Libya is also bound by the 2002 African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa, which state that democratic elections must be held under “democratic constitutions and in compliance with supportive legal instruments,” and under a “system of separation of powers that ensures in particular, the independence of the judiciary.”

A draft constitution proposed by the Libyan Constitution Drafting Assembly in July has yet to be put to a national referendum. No date has been scheduled for the referendum.

“The new government faces many challenges, but at the very least it should publicly commit to conditions enabling candidates to campaign freely, have a robust security plan for polling places, an independent audit of the voter registry, and court security to allow adjudication of disputes,” Salah said.

Bangladesh: Refugee Camp Fencing Cost Lives in Blaze

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image A man climbs through barbed wire fencing at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, as a massive fire swept through the camps on March 22, 2021. © 2021 Private

(New York) – Barbed wire fencing trapped thousands of refugees while a massive fire spread through Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh on March 22, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The Bangladesh government should immediately remove the fencing surrounding the camps in Cox’s Bazar and promptly issue the results of its investigation into the deadly fire.

At least 15 people, including 6 children, were killed in the fire, and over 50,000 people were displaced. However, with nearly 400 people reported missing, the actual number of fatalities is yet unknown. Hundreds were injured, some while trying to escape the blaze by climbing over or cutting through barbed wire fencing.

“Refugees have horrifying accounts of being trapped inside barbed wire fencing as the fire swept through the Rohingya refugee camps,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately take down all fencing around the camps and make public the outcome of its investigation into the fire’s cause.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 witnesses and refugees who lost family members during the fire who said that they were unable to quickly escape because of the barbed wire fencing that authorities built around the camps.

Click to expand Image Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery collected after the fire in Kutupalong Refugee Camp on March 22, 2021. Imagery recorded the next day shows a fire-affected area of approximately 61 hectares. The majority of the destruction is concentrated in Camp 9, Camp 8E, and Camp 8W, including the estimated destruction of at least 10,000 shelters. Satellite imagery courtesy of Planet Labs Inc. 2021. Damage analysis and graphic © 2021 Human Rights Watch

The blaze erupted in camp 8W and rapidly spread to three adjacent camps – 8E, 9, and 10. Satellite imagery recorded on March 23 showed the destruction of roughly 61 hectares and at least 10,000 shelters in the camps. It was the biggest fire in the camps since refugees fled to Bangladesh from arson attacks and other crimes against humanity by the Myanmar military in 2017. This was the third fire in the camps in just four days.

A father who lost his 5-year-old son in the fire told Human Rights Watch that the fencing left refugees with only one option to escape through the camp’s main entrance. “My wife and I lost our son when everyone rushed to escape from the fire in camp 9,” he said. “Everyone was rushing to the main entrance of the camps, which is the only exit route. Other sides are surrounded by fencing.

“When my son got lost, he tried to go back to our shelter searching for us. This is where we found his burned body. We were able to identify him only by his red pants. If there had been no fence, people could have escaped using different routes.”

In 2019 the Bangladesh Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense had recommended building a security fence around the camps “so that no one can come out of the camps and no one can enter inside the camps.” Soon after, the authorities started fencing the camps. Rapid progress was made even during the months of severe restrictions on humanitarian access to contain the spread of Covid-19. However, instead of making the refugees safe, the fencing denied them freedom of movement and placed them at serious risk when they needed to evacuate in an emergency or if they needed to obtain emergency medical and other humanitarian services.

Click to expand Image Fire sweeps through the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 22, 2021. © 2021 Private

During the recent fires, the fencing in particular limited the ability of older people, children, and people with disabilities to flee. “People were frantically trying to escape the fire by climbing over or cutting through the barbed wire fence,” one refugee said. “I saw some of them were injured by the barbed wire. Especially the children and older people were the most affected. With so many people trying to escape, it was often children and older people who got trapped.”

A refugee who was visiting camp 9 at the time said that because of the fencing it took him nearly an hour to get out of the camp. “People were trying to escape using this one exit point,” he said. “If there had been no fencing, we could have escaped more quickly but people could not get out in time.”

Witnesses reported that the fencing blocked fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. As one refugee said, “We saw that firefighters were delayed due to the fencing because they needed to use different routes to reach to the fire.”

Bangladesh is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of movement. Governments may restrict movement under certain circumstances, but such limits must be enacted in law, necessary to protect national security or public order, and be a proportionate response to a specific security concern.

While the authorities have a duty to protect camp residents, security measures should not infringe upon basic rights and humanitarian needs. The fencing at the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps did not meet the international law standards of necessity and proportionality for restricting free movement. Restrictions on freedom of movement and other rights cannot be imposed on a discriminatory basis, including by nationality.

“Bangladesh authorities are failing in their obligation to protect the lives of refugees by dangerously fencing them inside camps,” Adams said. “The authorities should work with humanitarian agencies and remove the fences, and respect the refugees’ freedom of movement.”

US: Concerns of Neglect in Nursing Homes

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, March 25, 2021
Click to expand Image A nursing home resident holds his wife's hand. © Human Rights Watch

(New York) – Potential neglect and prolonged isolation may have caused serious harm to many people in nursing homes in the United States during the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch interviews with more than 60 people, as well as reports from independent monitors, revealed concerns including extreme weight loss, dehydration, untreated bedsores, inadequate hygiene, mental and physical decline, and inappropriate use of psychotropic medications among nursing home residents. Staffing shortages, a longstanding issue that was a significant problem during the pandemic, and the absence of family visitors, many of whom nursing homes rely on to help staff with essential tasks, may have contributed to possible neglect and decline. Federal and state authorities should investigate the situation and ensure accountability for abuse.

“Even before the pandemic, the US government failed to ensure that nursing homes were adequately staffed and regulated,” said Laura Mills, researcher on older people’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “The huge number of deaths in nursing homes from Covid-19 and emerging reports of neglect during the pandemic show that these failures have come at an enormous cost.”

More than 1.4 million residents and long-term care employees have been infected with the coronavirus and more than 178,000 have died, making up 34 to 40 percent of all United States deaths from Covid-19.

Even these numbers appear to underestimate the overall toll of the pandemic on nursing home residents. One analysis by the Associated Press estimated that there were about 40,000 excess deaths—beyond the normal number in a given year—in nursing homes nationwide that were not from Covid-19 between March and November. The precise causes merit investigation.

Nursing home staff and administrators told Human Rights Watch that understaffing influenced their ability to provide sufficient and consistent support to residents, and that the absence of family visitors who previously assisted with care exacerbated this problem. Family members and independent monitors, who were restricted in their ability to visit facilities during the pandemic, raised concerns about inadequate care and limited transparency.

One woman, who had visited her mother, who was in her 70s and had dementia, in a nursing home daily to support her with eating and bathing before the pandemic, said that when she was no longer allowed to visit, her mother appeared more lethargic and less talkative during video calls.

After staff could not wake her mother during a call in the fall, the woman insisted that they take her to the emergency room. There, she said, a doctor told her that her mother had lost a significant amount of weight since the start of the pandemic and had a large infected bedsore. She died soon after. According to her death certificate, seen by Human Rights Watch, the cause of death was sepsis from a staph infection, and she was dehydrated and had a bedsore at the time of her death.

“Before Covid-19, when I said something it got fixed,” said the woman, who said she was not informed of changes to her mother’s condition before her hospitalization. “But [during the pandemic], I had to believe what they [staff] were telling me. It was my only option because I [couldn’t] get in.”

Independent monitors, known as ombudspersons, and investigators have also reported receiving complaints about potential neglect during the pandemic. The New York Attorney General’s Office received “reports of neglect and abuse of nursing home residents seemingly unrelated to Covid-19.” A September independent investigation of Connecticut nursing homes found that depression, unplanned weight loss, and severe bed sores among nursing home residents worsened during the pandemic.

The pandemic exposed many existing gaps in nursing home regulation, particularly around staffing. Academic research has found that nursing homes are chronically understaffed. Staff, administrators, and independent experts told Human Rights Watch that during the pandemic, shortages became particularly acute, undermining some nursing homes’ ability to provide quality care.

One certified nurse aide who has worked in nursing homes for decades told Human Rights Watch that during the pandemic, “We’re working [with] anywhere from 12 to 15 residents in the morning now, [when] we are supposed to have 7 or 8. You give [residents] five minutes each to eat so that you can feed everybody, but if… they’re not taking it in, you have to move on. If you want to do oral hygiene you have to shortcut it in some way in order to get to everybody.”

These challenges were exacerbated by the absence of family visitors, who prior to the pandemic often helped with essential tasks such as eating and hygiene, emotional support, and communication with staff. In March 2020, the Centers for Medicare &Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal regulator for nursing homes, restricted all visitation in response to the coronavirus, with the exception of end-of-life situations. CMS expanded visitation somewhat in September, though family members told Human Rights Watch that visits remained limited. In March 2021, amidst high vaccination rates among nursing home residents, CMS reauthorized most visitation.

Other policies contributed to reduced transparency into nursing homes’ operations. In March 2020, CMS barred long-term care ombudspersons from visiting facilities, with limited exceptions, and suspended all routine inspections by state surveyors except for infection control. Standard ombudsperson visits and state inspections were resumed in September, although some ombudspersons reported barriers to entry due to limited personal protective equipment or testing, and inspections have been inconsistent across states.

Despite serious concerns about the treatment of nursing home residents during the pandemic, 32 states have passed laws or executive orders shielding nursing homes from civil liability during the pandemic, making lawsuits more difficult. Several states have included criminal liability protections as well.

Even before the pandemic, many nursing home residents faced obstacles to accountability through the courts. In July 2019, the administration of President Donald Trump authorized nursing homes to use pre-dispute arbitration clauses in their contracts with residents, forcing them to waive their right to sue. CMS had previously stated such clauses were “fundamentally unfair” for residents and had a “deleterious impact on the quality of care.”

Under international human rights law, everyone, including nursing home residents, has the right to the highest attainable standard of health and to an effective remedy for violations of their rights. Older people also have the right under US and international law to be protected from abuse, mistreatment, and neglect.

“The arrival of vaccines to long-term care facilities undoubtedly brings great relief to a population that has suffered disproportionately from Covid-19, but there needs to be accountability for neglect and abuse,” Mills said. “The pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to everyone that we need systemic reform to prevent this from ever happening again.”

 

Methodology

From October 2020 to March 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 61 people, including six nursing home residents, 30 relatives closely involved in residents’ lives, seven non-medical and two medical nursing home staff, three nursing home administrators, six ombudspersons, and leading long-term care advocates, lawyers, and experts in the US. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, LeadingAge, and the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) responded in writing to Human Rights Watch inquiries.

To view the communication between Human Rights Watch and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, LeadingAge, and the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL), please click here. To view the communication between Human Rights Watch and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, LeadingAge, and the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL), please click here.

Human Rights Watch also distributed a survey to online groups for relatives of long-term care residents in October and November 2020. The survey received 564 responses from people in 45 states. The survey was not intended to capture a representative sample of nursing home resident family members and therefore cannot be used to generalize about the experiences of nursing home residents across the US, but the results largely echo the accounts from people Human Rights Watch interviewed.

 

Critical Staffing Shortages and Inadequate Worker Protections

Insufficient staffing in nursing homes is a longstanding problem. CMS has failed to set minimum staffing requirements, despite repeated calls from advocates and experts. The agency says that facilities must have sufficient staff to provide “the highest practicable physical, mental, and psychosocial well-being of each resident,” but leaves that determination to facilities. Staffing has a direct impact on quality of care: a 2018 Human Rights Watch report found that serious understaffing contributes to abuses such as the inappropriate use of antipsychotic drugs.

Several analyses of national staffing data during the Covid-19 pandemic recorded that shortages at many nursing homes became even more acute at this time: from April to June, more than 300 nursing homes with Covid-19 outbreaks reported at least one day in which staffing levels fell 40 percent below levels on a comparable day in 2019. Even as late as December 2020, 20.6 percent of nursing homes reported shortages of certified nurse aides. A January 2021 report by the New York Attorney General’s Office found that already low staffing levels in New York State “decreased further to especially dangerous levels in some homes.”

Longstanding concerns for staff—the vast majority of whom are women— include lack of health insurance, paid sick or family leave, and low wages, all of which have contributed to extremely high turnover rates and understaffing. The pandemic exacerbated those issues. It also left many workers exposed to the virus without sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly early in the pandemic. A survey conducted in May and June by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents nursing home workers, found that 78 percent of surveyed workers felt their lives were at risk at work.

Nursing home staff and administrators said staffing shortages influenced their ability to provide sufficient and consistent support to residents, including with eating, drinking, hygiene, and emotional support.

A certified nurse aide in a facility in the northeastern US said that typically she cared for 10 residents during a shift, but in 2020, she often had to care for 12 to 14 people, undermining her ability to perform all necessary tasks:

If you have 16 patients you definitely have to scale back, you can’t spend 15 or 25 minutes getting each patient up [like you usually would]. If you have 2 or 3 patients that need a shower on the day when you have 16 patients, you may skip a shower. Male patients that need a shave? You may skip it.

A nurse aide in another northeastern nursing home said she was now often responsible for about 30 people each night shift, and it therefore sometimes took her an hour to respond to residents’ requests for bathroom assistance. Some residents also said they noticed fewer staff. “Jan,” a resident in a nursing home, who requires assistance getting dressed and out of bed, said in October: “There have been issues because we just don’t have the staff…. I used to be up by 10 or 10:30, but recently I am not usually up until 11:30 a.m.”

Even in facilities where staffing levels were relatively stable, staff said the absence of family visitors led to increased workloads. One nurse aide in the southeastern US said:

[Before the pandemic] some families [came] every day, some twice a day. It impacts our job…. Let’s say you have three or four patients who you need to feed. When one of those patients has a daughter who comes to feed her every day you get more time to feed others. It takes time because with some [people] you have to encourage them, talk to them, tell them a story.

The medical director of two nursing facilities in the southern US said that his facilities had not experienced major shortages, but staff were still stretched thin: “The idea of [family] visitation being some luxury is woefully mistaken. Family members provide an awful lot of care…. When there are no visitors, there is more work for everybody else.”

The administrator of a small not-for-profit nursing home in a western state said her facility avoided staffing shortages by providing hazard pay, benefits, and a base pay above the state’s minimum wage as incentives for staff. She said US federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) payments helped to cover additional staffing expenses.

Others were not as successful: the administrator of a nursing home in the northeast said the facility had more than 10 positions open after several people retired or quit during the pandemic. “That’s a significant number,” he said. “We’re usually fully staffed. I think the pandemic… took a mental and physical toll on a lot of people.”

In response to an inquiry from Human Rights Watch, CMS said in a February 2021 letter that the issue of chronic understaffing in nursing homes was “paramount,” and that it had waived training requirements for certified nurse aides in March 2020 in an effort to ensure stable staffing levels during the pandemic. Similarly, in response to inquiries from Human Rights Watch, the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) and LeadingAge, the two trade groups, expressed concerns about staffing.

 

Concerns About Neglect

Nursing homes recorded a high number of non-Covid-19 deaths during the pandemic. Academic researchers and the Associated Press estimated that there were at least 40,000 excess deaths not from Covid-19 between March and November alone.

A nurse practitioner who works in several nursing homes said: “I’ve lost a lot of my patients to Covid-19, but I’ve lost a lot of other patients from other conditions that I didn’t expect that they would have declined so rapidly from. I don’t know what the data is going to show, but we’ve lost a lot of people [from non-Covid-19 causes].”

Human Rights Watch spoke with six ombudsperson offices, which reported that complaints had increased significantly, including regarding neglect. Pennsylvania’s ombudsperson reported an 80 percent increase in cases between the 2020 and 2019 fiscal years. The Michigan ombudsperson reported twice as many calls, many related to quality of care, depression, anxiety, weight loss, psychotropic medications, and requests for ombudsperson intervention. One ombudsperson’s office stated, “We’ve seen neglect because relatives can’t provide support.” Another shared information about cases involving weight loss and falls, including due to the absence of staff available to help a resident use the bathroom.

An independent assessment of the impact of Covid-19 in Connecticut nursing homes that was released in September found that depression, unplanned weight loss, and severe pressure ulcers were more frequent during the pandemic. The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long Term Care, a leading advocacy group, reported that relatives had seen physical and emotional decline, poor hygiene, and significant weight loss.

Residents, family members, and nursing home staff shared concerns about significant weight loss, dehydration, untreated bedsores, inadequate hygiene, and worrying changes in prescribing of psychotropic medications. In the most extreme cases, doctors treating nursing home patients, as well as death certificates seen by Human Rights Watch, suggest that these conditions may have contributed to deaths.

Interviewees also described physical, mental, and emotional decline among residents. Due to visitor restrictions, family members faced serious difficulty monitoring their loved ones’ conditions and advocating for them. Many respondents to Human Rights Watch’s online survey also said they had observed signs of possible neglect, including bedsores and the deterioration of a loved one’s hygiene and physical appearance.

In its response to Human Rights Watch, CMS said, “restrictions on visitation as well as limited survey activities has led to some concerns of increased instances of neglect or decline amongst nursing home residents,” and that the agency was taking action to increase inspections, as described below.

Weight Loss, Dehydration, Bedsores

Before the pandemic, “Alice” visited her mother “Hannah,” who was in her 80s, daily in the nursing home where she lived, helping her eat and open the lids on her meals. After Alice was no longer able to visit, she noticed on video calls that her mother gradually stopped smiling and laughing.

In the late summer, Hannah was admitted to the hospital with low blood sodium levels. Alice said the hospital doctor told her that Hannah was either severely dehydrated or had not eaten any protein for a long time. Hannah died a few weeks later. Alice said: “I don’t know if she just gave up and stopped eating or whether they weren’t helping her [to eat]…. We weren’t in there to watch what and how she was eating or drinking.”

“Anne,” who had dementia and lived in a nursing facility, went from 106 pounds to 82 pounds over the course of eleven months according to her daughter, Clara. “We started calling them every day and asking how much of her meal she ate,” said her daughter, “Clara.” “Most meals it’s: ‘25 percent.’ They said she spits out her food or refuses it.”

Clara lobbied to visit so that she could support Anne to eat, but said she was not allowed to. In December, Clara recalls she was notified that her mother had not eaten for three days. Anne was discharged to home hospice care and died several days later.

“Nina,” whose mother “Sally” is in her 70s, has dementia, and lived in a nursing home until October, received regular phone updates from staff, who told her over many months of a gradual 20-pound drop in her mother’s weight after the start of the pandemic. But when Nina attempted to obtain medical records from the facility so as to lobby for permission to visit, she says she hit a wall. “I started [by asking] my [nursing home] social worker [for documentation]. Then I went to the [director of nursing] and nurse practitioner and they just said, ‘No.’”

Nina decided to enlist the help of long-term care ombudspersons, who she said were similarly unsuccessful: “They asked and asked and asked. Finally [the facility] sent her medical notes, but only one week’s worth.” Nina insisted that Sally be discharged to a hospital, where she says doctors said she was malnourished and had bedsores on her buttocks and toes.

Bedsores, or pressure ulcers, are painful and when not properly treated, can lead to serious infection or even sepsis, a body’s overactive response to infection that can lead to organ failure and death.

“Robert” lived in a nursing home after having a stroke in his 60s. While Robert could not always communicate easily, his daughter “Jill” said during one telephone call in July, he began to cry out in pain: “He was screaming, ‘My heel, my heel, my heel!’ Three days later they told us he had a surface bedsore on his heel.”

His daughter said that when Robert was hospitalized in August after what staff worried was a stroke, Robert had four bedsores, including on his heel, ankle, lower back, and his buttocks, the last of which was infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria (MRSA). During a second hospitalization in September, Jill said doctors indicated Robert had a total of nine bedsores on his body, including the four found earlier. Human Rights Watch reviewed September hospital medical records that confirm the first four bedsores and MRSA infection, and photos of the additional five bedsores that corroborate Jill’s information.

Several family members of residents in other nursing homes expressed concerns that other types of wounds may also not have been fully or appropriately treated.

Hygiene

Many family members expressed concerns about shortcomings in supporting residents with regular hygiene.

One woman said that nursing home staff did not promptly manage her 89-year-old mother’s hygiene: “My mom said she was left in a wheelchair in a diaper for hours and her bottom hurt so bad she wasn’t able to sleep. I had to write into her care plan that they couldn’t leave her sitting for more than two hours without checking if she needed a change.”

In some cases, family members said they noticed that their loved ones were rarely dressed or out of bed during video calls. One relative said that the facility lost all her father’s clothes and shoes, did not inform the family, and instead had him wear a hospital gown for over a week: “[A worker told us], ‘He has nothing in his closet.’ He had no shirt, no shoes, no pants... Stuff goes missing all the time but there’s never a point where everything is gone and stays gone,” she said.

Many family members said their relatives’ hair appeared unwashed and their fingernails and toenails were long and dirty.

“Susan,” whose 86-year-old mother “Emily” has dementia and lives in a nursing home in the midwestern US, said she often supplemented staff care before the pandemic by cleaning her mother’s dentures and hearing aids and washing her face, which would otherwise develop a filmy residue. Susan said she noticed changes in her mother’s appearance during online calls and later during outdoor visits, but could not fully understand her mother’s condition because she was wearing full PPE.

When Emily was hospitalized in October, Susan found her face caked in more yellow residue than she had ever seen before. She feared the facility had not washed her face for an extended period. Human Rights Watch reviewed photos of Emily’s unwashed face.

 “Joan,” whose husband “Michael” lives in a residential facility in the southwest and has dementia, said she had serious concerns about her husband’s hygiene when she saw him for the first time in September after six months apart:

He did not have any toothpaste. The toothbrushes were worn out and tinged a brown color. He didn’t have what he needed to brush his teeth with. It’s very possible that they asked him once a week if he needed anything, and he said no. But [because he has dementia] you need to take [the questions] further than that.

 

The Impact of Isolation

Research outside of the US, including in the Netherlands and in France, has found an association during the Covid-19 pandemic between isolation and negative impacts on older adults’ mental health. Studies have shown that isolation and loneliness more broadly are linked to negative physical and mental health outcomes in older adults, including premature death.

One ombudsperson told Human Rights Watch that through video calls, “I definitely noticed decline, people were not as happy, and not as understanding, very frustrated. I did see weight loss. I did see people [in distress].” Another reported, “We have so many family members who say, ‘I was able to talk with my mom a few times a week, now she just isn’t interested, says, ‘Why bother?’ She’s depressed.’”

Relatives and staff told Human Rights Watch that they saw increases in depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns among nursing home residents during the pandemic as well as physical and cognitive decline. Many respondents to Human Rights Watch’s online survey reported similar concerns.

A doctor shared his experience treating older people in nursing homes during the pandemic: “I’ve had patients die of loneliness, basically. People often become withdrawn, they don’t want to eat or drink… they become depressed and don’t respond to treatment of depression, and just sort of give up.”

The social services director of a nursing home in the south said residents were experiencing mental health distress in much greater numbers than before the pandemic: 

[Residents] are acting out. … They’re calling their families while they’re hallucinating. There were patients who may have been psychologically delicate, but they never hallucinated, and now they are. We’ve gone from being a vibrant and living community back to the psych wards where people lay until they die.

One resident who is over 100 years old and has mild dementia, described how she missed seeing family in person and was saddened by video calls:

I like personal meetings. [During video calls] the part where everybody disappears is so sad, it’s like you were talking to someone and they died…. All of a sudden, they disappear, and you wonder, where did they go?

“Blanche,” whose 94-year-old mother, “Kathy,” lived in a nursing facility in the southwest, described how Kathy struggled with isolation and was increasingly dejected in the months leading up to her death in the fall. “She felt abandoned,” said Blanche. “She would say, ‘I’m just an old piece of junk. Nobody comes to see me.’”

“Shirley” said her husband, “Joe,” who was in his 80s, had post-polio syndrome and lived in a nursing home in the west, was an active participant in the facility’s happy hours and taco nights before the pandemic. During the pandemic, Joe became depressed:

I’ll ask how his afternoon went, and… mostly he says he makes himself sleep to pass the time. I’ve heard him say frequently, in a really sad voice, ‘This is no way to live.’ He will cry during video calls … He was never like that [before].

Shirley said she asked the facility over the summer to allow Joe to see a therapist, but staff said they only allowed “psychiatric support,” which she understood to mean medication. Shirley said she was allowed to see Joe four times for 15 minutes each between March and November, when he died.

Increased isolation and the lack of stimulation and physical activity during this time appeared to have an impact on some residents’ physical and cognitive abilities, in addition to their mental health. Staff said that being confined and isolated to their rooms meant less physical activity for nursing home residents. “Even going to a group activity or meal is going to involve some exercise,” said a doctor who works in nursing homes, whereas in the absence of such activities, “There’s been even more loss of physical function.”

Relatives described many ways in which their loved ones lost physical function, including losing the ability to sit up in a chair, stand up, use their walker or wheelchair independently, or grasp objects in their hand.

“Luisa,” whose 93-year-old grandmother has dementia, uses a wheelchair, and lives in a nursing facility in the southwest, said: “Even [in April] she was wheeling herself around, but now she needs help to get into bed or into the wheelchair. She’s in bed all day.”

Family members, particularly those whose loved ones had dementia, described declines in their memory, ability to speak, or ability to participate in activities such as phone calls. “Beatrice,” whose mother has dementia and lives in a nursing facility in the northeast, said that her memory declined during the lockdown:

Before lockdown she knew me, knew my name. She could list all her children and ask relevant questions about them. She can’t do any of that now. She doesn’t know any of us.

Increased isolation during the pandemic was a direct result of restrictions on visitation by family members and limits on group activities within nursing homes. While some limits on visitation were reasonable and necessary public health measures to contain the virus's spread, the blanket ban on visitation by CMS in March 2020 was overly broad, as it was not tailored to specific contexts and needs and left no space for alternative approaches.

Even when restrictions were eased somewhat in September, relatives, residents, and staff said that in many cases nursing homes continued imposing restrictions that may have been unnecessary, contributing to residents’ isolation. Given the apparent harm from prolonged isolation during the pandemic, CMS and other authorities should review their approach to visitation policies and their enforcement, to assess whether they could have better mitigated the harm of isolation while also providing necessary protection from infection.

Some facility administrators took steps to mitigate potential harms of isolation. The administrator of a nursing facility in the west said that the staff psychologist saw five residents regularly before the pandemic, but now saw 15 or 20. A nursing home administrator in the northeast said that in response to increased depression and weight loss during the pandemic, the facility had varied its meal choices: “You have to be creative in a very limited environment,” he said.

 

Use of Psychotropic and Other Medications

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, long-term care reform advocates, US government agencies, and others documented serious concerns about the misuse of psychotropic drugs, which include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics, and sedatives, to control the behavior of older people in nursing homes, a practice known as chemical restraint. Psychotropic medications can pose serious health risks, including increased risk of death, for older people.

A 2018 Human Rights Watch report, based on research in six US states, documented pervasive chemical restraint. Facilities administer these drugs in many cases without obtaining informed consent from residents or their families. A July 2020 report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means found that approximately 20 percent of all skilled nursing facility residents– about 298,650 people every week– received some form of antipsychotic medication in the last three months of 2019.

The scope of psychotropic drug use in nursing homes during the Covid-19 pandemic is unclear, including because the relaxation of data reporting requirements on medication use and the absence of monitoring and visitors in facilities eliminated key sources of information on this issue.

Ombudspersons and some family members shared concerns with Human Rights Watch about initiation of or increases in psychotropic medication for residents, and changes in behavior that could be linked to those medications. Side effects included confusion, unresponsiveness, lethargy, and excessive sleeping, which can contribute to weight loss and other issues among older people.

Similarly, more than 200 respondents to Human Rights Watch’s online survey reported that staff had initiated or increased psychotropic medications during this time, with many reporting negative side effects. While the perspectives of people interviewed and surveyed for this report do not prove that these drugs were being used inappropriately, they raise concerns about prescribing practices during a time of reduced transparency, inadequate staffing, and lessened oversight.

One certified nurse aide said half of the 10 to 12 residents she typically cares for had been started on psychotropic drugs since the pandemic began. She said: “[Since the pandemic] a lot of them get medicated because they’ve started talking suicidally… They just want to be out and about doing their thing, but most of the time the doctor will go in... and their best bet will be up to the medicine."

In July, “Dana,” whose father “Thomas” lived in a nursing facility in the northeast, noticed he could barely stay awake during video calls:

I asked whether there was something making him groggy. They said it was [an anti-depressant], and that he’d been on it for two weeks…. I had had no idea he was on [it], and there is no way I would have authorized it.

Dana said the facility suggested that in lieu of the anti-depressant, they prescribe an anti-anxiety medication that they would administer only “as needed.” Dana agreed. However, she says doctors later told her that the facility had prescribed the drug not “as needed,” but twice daily.

Between March and August, Dana said, Thomas lost 25 pounds, which Dana worried was connected to him not being awake during meals. Among the most common side effects for anti-depressant he was on are fatigue, drowsiness, and weight loss. Those for anti-anxiety medication are sedation and unsteadiness.

In April, Blanche, whose mother Kathy lived in a nursing facility in the southwest, received a call from a nurse who said her mother was unresponsive, her eyes glassed over, and that she had not eaten in three days. It was only then that Blanche learned that the facility had prescribed her mother an anti-depressant. Kathy died in October. Blanche does not know the exact cause of her mother’s death, but expressed concerns that the medication may have contributed to the deterioration in her health.

“Victoria,” whose mother had dementia and lived in a nursing facility in the northeast, had obsessive compulsive behaviors and thoughts before the pandemic, though Victoria was usually able to support her to calm down. When the pandemic began, Victoria’s mother began hallucinating and shouting more frequently. The facility recommended prescribing an antipsychotic.

Victoria said staff did not inform her of the potential side-effects of the medication. Her mother began sleeping excessively and developed edema—a swelling in the limbs that can be caused by lack of movement:

When I was with her and she had meltdowns, I could talk her through it, re-direct her. I had a lot of techniques. They [staff] were trained in those techniques too, but I don’t think they had the time or the staff to use them.

CMS told Human Rights Watch that facilities are expected to ensure residents’ right to be free from restraint and to use individualized non-pharmacological approaches with residents. The American Health Care Association, one of the groups representing nursing homes, stated: “according to the medical literature, there are still situations where these medications may be necessary and beneficial to certain patients. But we believe in increasing education about the proper use of antipsychotics.”

 

Limited Transparency

Restrictions on visits by long-term care advocates and family members, as well as limited inspections by surveyors and reduced data reporting requirements, contributed to a lack of transparency into nursing facilities’ operations during the pandemic.

CMS contracts with state agencies to monitor facilities for deficiencies in quality of care, quality of life, safety standards, and other categories and to respond to more immediate complaints. On March 4, 2020, CMS announced that it was stopping all routine surveys and would only send surveyors into facilities to monitor compliance with infectious disease protocols, in response to specific complaints, and in “Immediate Jeopardy” situations involving risks of serious injury, harm, or death. In August, CMS reauthorized the routine surveys “as soon as [surveyors] have the resources (e.g., staff and/or PPE) to do so.” Comprehensive surveys should examine staffing levels, as well as issues such as the prevalence of pressure ulcers, weight loss, depression, etc.

Advocates including Consumer Voice expressed concerns with the CMS steps taken in August, including that under the revised guidance, many issues could still go unresolved if classified as minor, or “non-immediate jeopardy low.” The California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform reported that routine surveys had not been consistently reinitiated in that state, with surveyors remaining focused on infection control even almost one year into the pandemic.

In addition to fewer standard inspections, nursing homes’ operations also became less transparent as a result of restrictions on visitations by family members and long-term ombudspersons. Between March and September, visits by families were barred for all situations except end-of-life, and ombudsperson visits were banned outright. In September, CMS reauthorized ombudspersons’ entry into facilities.

Despite this, ombudspersons said that they were significantly limited in their ability to visit facilities even after September, for reasons including limited access to PPE and testing. “We generate many cases while conducting routine visits in nursing homes and without being able to do those in-person visits since March, we had to rely on residents, families, or staff members to reach out to us,” one said. She said their cases had dropped by 33 percent as a result. Another reported, “We have put some really good virtual communication systems in place… It’s good, but nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of accessing information during the pandemic.”

CMS also waived a series of data reporting requirements during the pandemic. From March to May, CMS suspended all requirements for facilities to submit staffing data. Following pressure from advocacy organizations, as of June, CMS required facilities to submit data from April onward. The House Committee on Ways and Means has raised concerns with CMS that Covid-19 and staffing data reported during the pandemic is incomplete and called for improvements to inform health officials’ policy decisions.

CMS also waived the timeframe within which facilities had to report information for the Minimum Data Set, a national database of comprehensive clinical assessments of nursing home residents, including on physical and mental health, indicators of neglect such as the presence of pressure ulcers, and medication use, including psychotropic medications. Advocates reported that this waiver meant that data was incomplete compared with previous years, making it impossible to analyze effectively. In May, CMS implemented new data reporting requirements specific to Covid-19, including rates of infection and deaths among residents and staff, availability and use of PPE, and testing.

 

US and International Law

The Nursing Home Reform Act of 1987 and associated regulations protect nursing home residents from neglect and abuse and guarantee the right to be treated with dignity and freedom from chemical restraint. Nursing home residents are also protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which bars discrimination against people with disabilities.

Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also protects the right to a standard of living adequate for health. Accordingly, governments are obligated to protect people from infringements of the right to health by others, including through effective regulation of nursing homes. Governments also have an obligation to provide effective judicial or other appropriate remedies for violations of human rights, including the right to health.

 

Recommendations

To the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services:

Immediately ensure all standard facility quality and safety surveys are reinstated with robust enforcement and meaningful penalties; increase the number and frequency of surveys, specifically with the aim of monitoring resident well-being; Ensure accurate and usable data on nursing homes and resident well-being: Reinstate preexisting timeframes for all data reporting requirements, including on staffing and the Minimum Data Set, which includes metrics on resident well-being and psychotropic drug use; Implement stronger oversight to improve the reliability of all data collected; and Ensure broad usability of data for the public; Strengthen enforcement of existing regulatory requirements to end inappropriate use of antipsychotic medication in nursing facilities; Reinstate staff training requirements that were waived during the Covid-19 pandemic; Establish stronger and specific minimum nurse staffing levels or ratios to provide residents care that is compliant with federal regulations; Support more stable staffing, by encouraging nursing homes to establish a living wage for workers, provide paid sick and family leave, and affordable healthcare; Reinstate civil money penalties for nursing homes for all deficiencies on a per-day basis as the default penalty, as a means to promote accountability; Ensure that nursing home residents and their family members or representatives have access to courts in the event of a dispute with the facility, by banning the use of pre-dispute binding arbitration agreements.

To the US Congress, including the House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means:

Consider investigating the scale and impact of neglect, psychotropic drug use, prolonged isolation, and the physical and mental health of nursing home residents during the pandemic, including by holding hearings; Consider legislation on creating a required federal minimum staffing ratio at all nursing facilities; Given longstanding issues of insufficient staffing and problems with recruitment and retention of staff in nursing homes, made worse by the pandemic, consider passing legislation that would establish a living wage, as well as paid sick and family leave and affordable healthcare, for nursing home workers.

To the US Department of Justice:

Consider investigations into allegations of neglect and other harms to nursing home residents during the pandemic.

To the States:

Repeal immunity laws or executive orders shielding nursing homes from liability during the pandemic; State Attorneys General, Health Departments, and other relevant agencies should open investigations into allegations of neglect and other harms during the Covid-19 pandemic, including any longer-term and systemic concerns that may have contributed to harms.

Human Rights Watch Names New Chief Operating Officer

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image Wisla Heneghan. 

(New York) – Wisla Heneghan has joined Human Rights Watch as its new Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer. In this role Heneghan will oversee finance, human resources, technology, development, security, and the general counsel office at Human Rights Watch, supporting a staff of almost 500 professionals in more than 50 countries.

“The human rights movement is needed more than ever right now,” Heneghan said. “I am so proud that my work will add to this important mission. I am excited to support Human Rights Watch shape its work from within, building a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment for our global workforce, as well as those we partner with.”

Heneghan is charged with developing and driving operational strategy, maximizing operational efficiency, helping to foster the safety and resilience of staff, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. She will sit on the Executive Committee and report to Executive Director Kenneth Roth.

Heneghan joins Human Rights Watch from The Nature Conservancy, where she was responsible for global operations. In addition to engaging in fundraising efforts, she served on the organization’s executive leadership team, which set strategy and drove implementation. Before that, Heneghan spent 15 years in the private sector, including as Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Staples, Inc. A lawyer by training, Heneghan began her career working for several US-based law firms, where she focused on environmental and commercial real estate matters.  

“We’re delighted that Wisla is joining Human Rights Watch at such a pivotal time,” Roth said. “She brings enormous experience, a track record of exceptional management skills, and a long and proven commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. She will help ensure that our organization protects and supports not only those who are the focus of our human rights mission, but our staff and partners as well.” 

Don’t Arm Robots in Policing

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image Boston Dynamics presents its SpotMini robot at a conference in Hanover, Germany, June 13, 2018.  © 2018 Photo by Laura Chiesa/Pacific Press/Sipa via AP Images

Elected officials and local authorities across the United States and around the world should consider replicating an innovative legislative proposal that would prohibit police from arming robots used in their law enforcement operations.

The bill, introduced on March 18 by New York City council members Ben Kallos and Vanessa Gibson, would “prohibit the New York City Police Department (NYPD) from using or threatening to use robots armed with a weapon or to use robots in any manner that is substantially likely to cause death or serious physical injury.”

The proposed law comes after a social media outcry over the use of an unarmed 70-pound ground robot manufactured by Boston Dynamics in a policing operation last month in the Bronx. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized its deployment “for testing on low-income communities of color with under-resourced schools” and suggested the city should invest instead in education.

In a statement published in Wired and other news outlets, Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter said that the company’s robots “will achieve long-term commercial viability only if people see robots as helpful, beneficial tools without worrying if they’re going to cause harm.” Playter also said that the company prohibits customers from attaching weapons to its robots. The company’s terms of service require buyers of its ground robot — which is unarmed — to not intentionally use it “to harm or intimidate any person or animal, as a weapon, or to enable any weapon.” Other technology companies such as Paravision, Skydio, and Clearpath Robotics have similar measures in place.

Such contractual requirements are a start, but laws are needed to ensure police forces don’t ignore these dangers as they expand their use of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies. Pledges not to weaponize robots will not prevent a future of digital dehumanization and automated killing.

Fully autonomous weapons systems need to be prohibited in all circumstances, including in armed conflict, law enforcement, and border control, as Human Rights Watch and other members of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have advocated.

Allowing machines to select and attack humans without meaningful human control crosses a moral line. Regulation in the form of new laws is the only viable option when faced with the serious ethical, legal, operational and other challenges raised by the removal of human control from the use of force.  

Jesuits Pledge Funds to Address Slavery in the US

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image Curved pews are seen inside of a church.  © 2016 AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Amid a growing national reckoning with slavery and its legacy in the United States, including systemic racism, several prominent religious institutions have begun acknowledging their own role in slavery, and taking steps to begin reparations processes or similar initiatives.

Last week, the Jesuits pledged USD$100 million for the descendants of enslaved Africans they once owned and profited from. The initiative, which they describe as a process of “truth, healing and reconciliation” rather than reparations, comes in partnership with descendants of enslaved Black people whom the Jesuits sold in 1838 to plantation owners in Louisiana. Together they formed a foundation aiming to raise USD$1 billion, over the long term. Current funding will go toward organizations engaged in racial reconciliation projects, providing scholarships and education grants for descendants, and emergency care for older descendants in need.

While this is one of the largest financial initiatives of its kind, it is not the first from a religious institution. Several Episcopal organizations, including the Dioceses of New York, Maryland, and Texas, have committed to studying their role in the institution of chattel slavery and providing funds for reparations. The Princeton Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary have started similar initiatives. 

Human Rights Watch supports reparations for slavery and continuing harms at the state, local, and federal government level. In 2020, we produced a case study on the need for the government to provide reparations stemming from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when a white mob killed several hundred Black people and destroyed a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Authorities never accounted or provided meaningful redress for the attack and destruction, compounding the harm flowing from slavery and continuing to impact Black Tulsans today.

Many prominent religious institutions in the US benefited from slavery. Increasingly, these institutions are acknowledging the history, not only through their own reparation initiatives but with their support for House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40), a bill that would establish a federal commission to investigate the legacy of slavery and recommend proposals for repair.

The federal, state, and local governments need to fully account for their roles in slavery and post-emancipation discriminatory policies. Religious institutions and others can also play an important role in addressing the deeply entrenched impacts stemming from the legacy of slavery. This most recent effort signals increased recognition of the need for meaningful redress. 

Bangladesh Police Arrest Children for Facebook Posts

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina meets with officials in Tokyo, May 29, 2019. © 2019 Kyodo via AP Images

Displaying absolute intolerance for peaceful criticism, Bangladesh authorities have arrested hundreds of people, including journalists, for criticizing or satirizing the country’s ruling party and its leaders. Even children have not been spared for posting anything to social media that could be interpreted as criticism of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed.

On March 20, authorities arrested a child for posting a video online “defaming” Sheikh Hasina and her foreign minister, as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

One day earlier, police arrested an 18-year-old for posting a caricature of the prime minister on social media. Last year, authorities arrested a child for “defaming” the prime minister after a local ruling party politician said the boy had “badmouthed…our mother-like leader” on Facebook.

These arrests have all come under the highly problematic Digital Security Act (DSA), a vague law passed in 2018 granting law enforcement the power to arrest anyone accused of posting information online which, for example, “ruins communal harmony,” “causes confusion,” or “injures religious feelings.”

Those arrested have been held in pre-trial detention for long periods, even facing physical abuse  as punishment. Cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, released on bail after months in jail, told the media he was beaten so badly during interrogation, his ear drum burst. Security forces showed him his drawings on a projector and asked him, “‘Who did you draw? Did you draw the prime minister?’” he said.

Mushtaq Ahmed, a dissident writer, was arrested in May 2020 for posting on Facebook that healthcare workers needed more personal protective equipment. He died in custody after he had been held in pretrial detention for nine months, during which it has been credibly alleged he was tortured.

These abuses violate the fundamental right to free expression, and flout public health guidance to cease arrests and release all children in detention due to the pandemic. Prime Minister Hasina should bring an end to this now and publicly direct the police to stop punishing children — or anyone else — for criticizing her or other government officials.

Colombia: Ensure Justice for Killed Protester

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image Police detain an anti-government demonstrator during a nationwide strike in Bogota, Colombia, on November 21, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Ivan Valencia

(Washington, DC) – Colombian authorities should respect the right of peaceful assembly and ensure independent and impartial investigations of police use of force, including killings against protesters, Human Rights Watch and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights said today as they submitted an amicus brief to the country’s constitutional court.

The amicus brief supports a petition to transfer the criminal investigation into the 2019 death of an 18-year-old protester, Dilan Cruz, at the hands of police to the ordinary justice system from the military courts, where it currently stands. The brief also outlines Colombia’s obligations to protect and respect the right to assemble peacefully as well as to ensure victims’ right to an effective remedy.

“The military justice system in Colombia fails to guarantee independent and impartial investigations into human rights abuses and should not handle Dilan Cruz’s case,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Colombian authorities should transfer the case to the ordinary justice system and ensure that Cruz’s family receives the justice they truly deserve.”

On November 23, 2019, Cruz was participating in a demonstration in downtown Bogotá when a member of a special anti-riot police force (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, ESMAD) shot him in the head. Cruz later died from that wound. Colombian authorities determined that he had been shot with bean bag rounds, which consist of a small fabric pillow filled with pellets, most commonly made of lead. They are intended to be fired at extremities to reduce injuries.

In December 2019, the Supreme Judiciary Council sent the case to the military justice system, where it has made little, if any, progress. So far, no officer has been charged in connection with Cruz’s death.

Cruz’s killing occurred in the context of a national strike that mobilized thousands of Colombians to the streets to protest issues ranging from tax reform proposals to the killing of human rights defenders. While the protests were mostly peaceful, some acts of violence by demonstrators were reported in Bogotá and Cali.

Human Rights Watch found that in several cases, the police used excessive force against protesters, including beatings, and carried out arbitrary detentions.

Abuses by police officers continued in 2020. In September, Javier Ordoñez, a lawyer, died at the hands of police who repeatedly shocked him with a stun gun. The killing prompted hundreds of Colombians to take to the streets in largely peaceful demonstrations. The police responded with force that often appeared excessive, leaving 13 people dead and hundreds injured.

“Colombia’s Constitutional Court should send a clear message that officers responsible for rights violations will be investigated, prosecuted, and punished,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Impunity in cases of police abuse can virtually guarantee that violations will continue.”

Turkey: Erdoğan’s Onslaught on Rights and Democracy

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, March 18, 2020. © AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

(Istanbul) – The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is dismantling human rights protections and democratic norms  in Turkey on a scale unprecedented in the 18 years he has been in office, said Human Rights Watch today. The government took further dangerous measures over the past week to undermine the rule of law and target perceived critics and political opponents.  

On March 19, 2021, the president issued a decree suddenly withdrawing Turkey from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, a groundbreaking treaty strongly supported by the women’s rights movement in Turkey. The move came two days after the chief prosecutor of Turkey’s top court of appeal announced that he was opening a case to close down the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), only hours after the Erdoğan-controlled parliament improperly expelled an HDP deputy.

“President Erdoğan is targeting any institution or part of society that stands in the way of his wide-ranging effort to reshape Turkey’s society,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The latest developments against parliamentary opposition, the Kurds, and women are all about ensuring the president’s hold on power in violation of human rights and democratic safeguards.”

President Erdoğan’s dramatic move to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention with an overnight presidential decree is part of efforts to shore up support from religious conservative circles outside his party and shows his readiness to use the convention as a pretext to promote a highly divisive and homophobic political discourse. That discourse disingenuously claims women’s rights undermine so-called family values and promotes a hateful and discriminatory view of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. 

The president’s communications chief on March 21 issued a written statement defending the decision to withdraw Turkey from the treaty, saying that it was “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.” The claim stems from the convention’s language prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Women’s groups across Turkey have been staunch supporters of the convention as it legally obligates governments to take effective steps to prevent violence against women, protect survivors, and punish abusers.

Given the hundreds of murders of women by partners and former partners in Turkey each year, Erdoğan’s move to withdraw from and weaponize the treaty for political ends and to ignore the treaty’s desperately needed protections for women is shocking, Human Rights Watch said.

“The decision to withdraw is a profoundly backward step in the struggle to protect women’s rights in Turkey and a major blow for all women across the political spectrum,” Roth said.

In response, on March 20, thousands of women protested in cities across Turkey, declaring that the women’s movement in Turkey will continue the struggle and demand government action to combat the entrenched problem of domestic violence and femicide.

The move by the chief prosecutor of the Court of Cassation on March 17 to close down the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the second-largest opposition party in parliament, came shortly after parliament expelled the HDP deputy Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu on the pretext of his conviction for a social media posting. Gergerlioğlu’s expulsion was in reprisal for his consistent focus on the thousands of victims of Erdoğan’s human rights crackdown, while the effort to close the HDP targets the rights of millions of Kurdish voters and subverts the principle of parliamentary democracy, Human Rights Watch said.

Over the past 30 years, Turkey has closed down five pro-Kurdish political parties. As in earlier cases, the chief prosecutor’s indictment accuses the Peoples’ Democratic Party of acting “against the indivisible integrity of the state with its country and nation” (separatism) and violating the constitution and laws, necessitating its full and permanent closure.

The prosecutor also asked the court to ban 687 named individuals, including current and former members of parliament and hundreds of party officials, from political life for five years and to cut the treasury funding that the HDP, like other parties, is entitled to. The evidence cited includes speeches and political activities by parliamentary deputies in office at various times over the past eight years.

“Initiating a case to close down a political party that won 11.7 percent of the vote nationally in the 2018 general election and has 55 elected members of parliament is a major assault on the rights to political association and expression,” Roth said. “The move could deny close to six million voters their chosen representatives in violation of their right to vote.”   

On March 20 and 21, Peoples’ Democratic Party voters turned out in force at Kurdish new year (Nowruz) assemblies in Turkey’s major cities, turning the gathering into a powerful expression of support for the party and protest at the onslaught on the rights of its predominantly Kurdish base. On March 22, the Diyarbakır prosecutor initiated an investigation into the party’s co-leader for his speech during the Nowruz celebrations. And an Istanbul court sentenced the party’s former co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş to three years and six months in prison for “insulting the president” in a 2015 speech.

The major developments of the past few days follow a series of grave setbacks for human rights in Turkey in 2020 and 2021. The Erdoğan government has repeatedly flouted binding European Court of Human Rights judgments ordering the release of the rights defender Osman Kavala and politician Selahattin Demirtaş.

In December 2020, the government rushed in a law giving it much wider powers to target civil society organizations on the pretext of combatting terrorism financing and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The government wrongly contended that the new rules are in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.

In January, the president moved to deepen his control over higher education, with the appointment of a rector to one of Turkey’s top universities and subsequent restructuring of the institution in the face of widespread protests by the university staff and students. Anti-LGBT speeches and social media posts by top government officials have become common – most recently against students arrested for an artwork with LGBT flags and on International Women’s Day.

The publication of a Human Rights Action Plan on March 2 is completely at odds with the reality on the ground, where arbitrary detentions and prosecutions of journalists, activists, and others are routine and intensifying. Two weeks after the President announced the Human Rights Action Plan, Öztürk Türkdoğan, the co-chair of a prominent human rights association, was arrested during dawn raids in Ankara. He was later released.

The European Union and US administration have acknowledged the profound setbacks for human rights but continue overwhelmingly to focus on Turkey’s strategic importance in the region, its foreign policy, its active role in regional conflicts, and migration policies.  

On March 25 and 26, EU leaders are to review their relations with Turkey. The European Council should speak out over the sharp decline in the human rights situation in Turkey. The council should make clear that an EU-proposed positive agenda with Turkey would be tied to ending attacks on opposition figures and measurable progress in upholding human rights.

“EU leaders should not pretend it is business as usual, while Turkey’s government is escalating its assaults on critics, parliamentary democracy, and women’s rights,” Roth said.

 

Women in US Need More Options than the Media to Combat Harassment

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image Lindsey Boylan, a former state economic development adviser for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaks to people at a rally in New York City, March 20, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

The sexual harassment accusations against New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo are mounting as women turn to the media — on Twitter, in a personal essay, and in high-profile interviews with national news outlets — to detail their allegations against him.

In the United States, the media has in recent years been a key channel for women to make complaints against powerful men. For some, it may seem like the only option, especially when formal channels of redress don’t feel safe or effective. But it comes at a heavy cost to their privacy.

Just Google “New York sexual harassment allegations” to see how every aspect of these women’s lives is in the public domain. Their work history, photographs, social media accounts, and credibility have become the focus of intense public curiosity and scrutiny. The validity of their allegations have become subject to the court of public opinion, and issues like whether Cuomo should resign or not, are subject to polling.

For some, speaking out publicly can be empowering, by lifting the silence and stigma around sexual harassment. For others it is a desperate measure, a last resort. Even this deeply intrusive option is not available to those whose harassers are not “worthy” of media interest, but are instead household employers, clients at restaurants, or fellow office workers.

As the #MeToo movement and decades of women’s rights organizing have powerfully exposed, the ongoing scandal isn’t just the abuse itself but how it continues, often with impunity.

The 2019 International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention is a landmark advance in the battle against workplace harassment. The convention provides strong, forward-looking guidance on steps governments and employers should take to end violence and harassment at work.

These steps include a comprehensive, proactive approach emphasizing prevention. These standards also obligate governments to ensure rigorous enforcement through inspections, investigations, safe and accessible complaints mechanisms, and whistleblower protections.

Some of these approaches are in 2019 reforms to New York State law. But these policies need to be backed by changes in organizational culture, including from the top, and a growing track record of successful implementation to be effective.

Workers, volunteers, job-seekers, and others linked to a workplace, such as clients, patients, and students, deserve real protections. The media plays a role in fighting sexual harassment, but is no substitute for trustworthy complaint channels, protection from retaliation, and accountability measures that work.

Egypt: Scholar Unjustly Detained

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image Ahmed Samir Santawy, an anthropology master’s student at Central European University (CEU) detained in February 2021. © Private

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should immediately release an anthropology master’s degree student at Central European University (CEU), or present evidence of actual criminal wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch said today.

Police arrested the student, Ahmed Samir Santawy, on February 1, 2021, and allegedly beat him. Prosecutors ordered him detained pending an investigation for allegedly “joining a terrorist group” and “spreading false news.” Santawy’s arrest is part of a pattern of arbitrary detention of Egyptian academics and critics when they return from abroad.

“Ahmed Samir Santawy’s arrest and detention appear to be completely arbitrary and part of a pattern of punishing independent voices,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately, he is just one of many academics and critics to be imprisoned and face so-called terrorism charges upon returning from abroad.”

Santawy’s Belgian partner, Souheila Yildiz, and another relative told Human Rights Watch that police held Santawy incommunicado for five days, until February 6, then took him before the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), an abusive branch of public prosecution that routinely oversees unjust detentions. Egyptian criminal procedures allow those prosecutors to detain people for up to five months without taking them before a judge.

When Santawy arrived from Vienna at Egypt’s Sharm al-Sheikh International Airport on December 15, 2020 on vacation, airport officers interrogated him for two hours about his studies abroad before allowing him to leave, Yildiz said. On January 23, seven armed Interior Ministry and National Security Agency officers and soldiers raided his family home in Cairo, searched it, and confiscated the home’s surveillance camera recordings without showing a search or arrest warrant, according to official complaints the family submitted to authorities that Human Rights Watch reviewed.

Santawy was not at home, and the officers left a note ordering him to see the National Security Agency officer at the Cairo’s Fifth Settlement police station, Yildiz and the relative said. They said that Santawy went to see the officer on January 30, but officers at the station told him to come back in two days. He went there again on February 1, but did not return home. The family believes he was moved to a National Security Agency building, where he was held incommunicado for five days with no access to family and lawyers.

Santawy appeared before the State Security prosecutors for interrogation on February 6. They added him to the Case 65 of 2021, accusing him of “joining a terrorist organization,” and “spreading false news.” The case includes the arbitrarily detained journalists Nermin Hussein and Naglaa Fathy Fouad, who were arrested in March and June 2020 respectively and ordered detained in this case despite court orders to release them in previous cases based on the same accusations. The State Security prosecutors routinely rubber stamp security allegations, unsupported by evidence, to detain peaceful activists.

The relative said that the interrogations focused on Santawy’s studies, activism, and Facebook posts that he denied writing.

Santawy’s lawyer told al-Manassa website that Santway told prosecutors that he was severely beaten during interrogation at the National Security Agency’s office inside the police station.

On February 17, the State Security Prosecution renewed Santawy’s detention for 15 more days without him or his lawyer present, Yildiz said. On February 23, the prosecution also accused him of “funding a terrorist organization,” based on investigations that neither Santawy nor his lawyers were allowed to review.

According to emails Human Rights Watch received from the president of the student union at the Central European University, Santawy’s academic work focused on women’s reproductive rights.

Santawy is one of a number of Egyptians arbitrarily arrested, and in some cases disappeared, and prosecuted on their return to Egypt. On February 22, the airport authorities arrested Gamal al-Gamal, a well-known political columnist, upon his return from Turkey and took him before the State Security Prosecution after holding him incommunicado for five days. The prosecution added al-Gamal to Case 977 of 2017, which includes dozens of journalists and activists, and ordered his pretrial detention on accusations of spreading false news and misusing social media platforms, apparently based solely on his writings.

On February 7, 2020, the authorities arrested Patrick George Zaki, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) researcher on gender issues, at Cairo Airport upon his return from his studies in Italy. National Security Agency officers allegedly tortured him, including with electric shocks, his lawyers told EIPR. Prosecutors and judges have since kept him in pretrial detention on charges that include spreading false news, calling for unauthorized protests, and incitement to commit violence and terrorist crimes, without presenting any evidence of wrongdoing.

Cairo International Airport security forces interrogated and later arrested Hisham Abdel Aziz, an Al Jazeera journalist, upon his arrival for his annual holiday from Qatar on June 20, 2019. State Security Prosecution ordered Abdel Aziz detained over charges of “belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false news.” He has been held without trial in Tora prison ever since. His health has been deteriorating and he needs medical care for his eye that is not available in prison, his wife, Samira el-Taher, said on social media. In January 2019, security arrested Ahmed Gamal Ziada, a photojournalist and reporter, when he arrived at Cairo Airport from a work trip in Tunisia and held him incommunicado for 14 days. Ziada was released on bail on March 9, 2019.

Security forces arrested Walid Salem, a University of Washington Ph.D. student, in March 2018 and detained him for seven months because of his research on the Egyptian judicial system. He was conditionally released in December 2018 but remains subject to a travel ban.

On February 14, 2018, National Security forces raided the house of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former presidential candidate and head of the Strong Egypt Party, a day after his return from London where he gave critical interviews to Al Jazeera and BBC. He has been detained without trial despite exceeding the two-year limit on pretrial detention in Egyptian law.

On November 29, 2015, security officers at Hurghada Airport stopped and interrogated Ismail al-Iskandrani, a freelance journalist and researcher, when he returned from Germany. State Security prosecutors ordered him detained on charges of belonging to an illegal group and spreading false news. He was referred to military prosecution in December 2017, and in May 2018, a military court sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

“The pattern of arresting critical voices upon their return to Egypt is a message to those abroad that they’re not welcome in their country and to those inside that they are not safe if they criticize the government,” Stork said. “The Egyptian government should end its zero-tolerance and arbitrary arrests of critics.”

The EU Should Stop Blocking Efforts to Increase Global Vaccine Access

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, March 24, 2021
Click to expand Image A person in Soweto, South Africa receives an injection as they participate in a clinical trial for a Covid-19 vaccine in June 2020.  © 2020 Siphiwe Sibeko/AFP via Getty Images

Pressure is growing on the European Commission and EU member states to reconsider their staunch opposition to measures that could open the possibility of a massive increase in Covid-19 vaccine production worldwide.

In an unprecedented joint appeal, hundreds of lawmakers across Europe have joined the Director-General of the World Health Organization, over 100 national governments, trade unions, and hundreds of civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, in urging the EU and its member states to support a proposal by India and South Africa to temporarily suspend certain intellectual property rules until widespread vaccination is in place globally.

October 29, 2020 “Whoever Finds the Vaccine Must Share It”

The proposal would facilitate technology transfers so that Covid-19 medical products, including vaccines, could be produced quickly and affordably by manufacturers around the world, in line with a rights-based approach to the pandemic and growing calls for a “peoples’ vaccine” freely available to all.

In the absence of such open sharing of know-how, the vast majority of vaccines currently available are going to some of the world’s richest countries, exacerbating global inequalities and leaving many low- and middle-income countries at the bottom of the waiting list. Human Rights Watch and many others have been warning against this situation for months.

As EU heads of state prepare to discuss the bloc’s response to the pandemic later this week, they should heed the calls coming from elected representatives and citizens and reconsider their opposition to the intellectual property waiver. As European lawmakers put it, “we will not defeat the virus until we defeat it everywhere.” And with new strains emerging all the time, we will hardly defeat it anywhere without a mass global vaccine rollout. The pandemic has already had an enormous human and economic cost. European leaders should stop standing in the way of a measure that could accelerate and increase global vaccine production and availability and bring us closer to ending the pandemic.

‘Crip Camp’ Brings the Inclusion Revolution to the Oscars

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 23, 2021
Click to expand Image Poster for the film, Crip Camp. © Netflix

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced last week that “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” had been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The film, released by Netflix in March 2020, and shown by the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, portrays a group of young people at a summer camp who helped spark the disability rights movement in the United States. This movement led to the adoption of major disability rights policies that paved the way for the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), groundbreaking legislation that influenced the disability rights movement worldwide. The film has had a huge impact in raising awareness about inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of society, including the arts.

Click to expand Image Still from the film Crip Camp. 

“Crip Camp” director and producer Jim Lebrecht uses a wheelchair. He and other wheelchair users should be able to experience that unique moment of surprise and thrill of taking the stage to receive an Oscar, just as other stars do. At the time of this publication, an Academy Award official said they are prioritizing gathering information about “specific needs” of Oscar nominees and their guests that they “need to be aware of and respond to,” but they could not yet specify what measures they would be taking to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities.

Physical accessibility for wheelchair users should include things like ramps and access to the same entrances that others use.   

People with disabilities worldwide are often segregated in many ways, including in education, housing, and employment. Having a separate entrance for an Oscar winner, for instance, would risk reinforcing the wrong idea that people with disabilities aren’t entitled access on an equal basis with others.  

The Academy has a huge opportunity to show its commitment to the inclusion revolution by installing a ramp to the stage when it presents its awards on April 25. Doing so is crucial to reinforce the powerful messages of “Crip Camp,” whether the film wins an Oscar or not.

Uzbekistan: Gay Men Face Abuse, Prison

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, March 23, 2021

(Berlin) – Men in Uzbekistan who engage in consensual same-sex sexual conduct face arbitrary detention, prosecution, and imprisonment as well as homophobia, threats, and extortion, Human Rights Watch said today. Uzbekistan should guarantee rights to personal security, privacy, and nondiscrimination by decriminalizing consensual sexual conduct between men.

Uzbekistan, a current member of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, has undertaken key human rights reforms since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, but the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct remains a significant stain on Tashkent’s record. Article 120 of the current criminal code punishes consensual sexual conduct between men with up to three years in prison.

Click to expand Image The Senate of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Independence Square, Mustakillik Maydoni, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. © 2013 Mel Longhurst/VWPics via AP Images

“Article 120, and abuses linked to it, has placed gay and bisexual men in Uzbekistan in a deeply vulnerable and marginalized position, leaving them with almost no protection from harassment by police and others,” said Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Uzbekistan should definitively turn a page from its abusive past and remove this rights-violating and outdated provision from its new Criminal Code.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed nine gay men and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists and reviewed other material, such as videos depicting and encouraging humiliation, insults, beatings, or sexual abuse of gay men that were posted online and in homophobic social media groups, such as TashGangs. The men interviewed, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they faced arbitrary arrests, threats, extortion, psychological pressure, and physical attacks by both police and non-state actors for being gay.

Article 120 is a carry-over from Uzbekistan’s Soviet past and is problematic because it violates fundamental rights protected under international law, such as to privacy and bodily autonomy, and is blatantly discriminatory. Only two states in the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, still criminalize consensual same-sex conduct. Turkmenistan has said that it will reconsider its law. While it seems that prosecutions based on article 120 are rare, police in Uzbekistan continue to use it to arbitrarily detain and threaten people, who may ultimately be prosecuted on other charges, such as prostitution.

Uzbekistan is considering a new Criminal Code, yet the draft published on February 22, 2021, retains the offense, in a new article, 154, with the wording unchanged.

Gay men who face human rights abuses have few legal remedies. One activist said that LGBT crime survivors do not seek protection from police “fearing they will be outed, [or] subjected to bullying and insults by the authorities [themselves].”

In a February 2020 report, the Eurasian Coalition on Health, Rights, Gender and Sexual Diversity (ECOM), an alliance of nongovernmental organizations working on LGBT issues, citing local activists, documented that police in Uzbekistan harassed gay men, detaining and interrogating several of them between August 15 and September 15, 2019. After an Istanbul-based LGBT activist from Uzbekistan, Shohruh Salimov, issued a video appeal in August 2019 urging President Mirziyoyev to protect the lives of LGBT people in Uzbekistan, police visited his relatives’ home and told them they were looking for him to arrest him, media reported.

Media outlets in Uzbekistan also reported on the shocking case of Shokir Shavkatov, a 25-year-old man who was found stabbed to death in his apartment in September 2019, just days after he came out as gay on his Instagram page. Police opened an investigation, and later a man was convicted for Shavkatov’s “intentional murder.”

Five men also told Human Rights Watch that they had paid bribes of up to the equivalent of US$1,000 to keep them from disclosing the men’s sexual orientation to family members or the public. Two of them said they had to pay a bribe to the police.

“Because of the violence and discrimination that LGBT people are subjected to, we had to stop most of [our] projects, news feeds or groups online,” one activist said, describing the climate of fear’s chilling effect on activism. “We’ve gone completely underground.”

Uzbek law has no provision for hate crimes, nor can crimes be prosecuted as aggravated offenses if they are motivated by hatred based on discrimination. Uzbekistan has yet to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected ground. As of September 2019, the last time it addressed the issue, the Uzbek government said there were no ongoing criminal investigations involving violence against LGBT people.

Multiple local and international human rights groups, as well as UN bodies, have called on Uzbekistan to decriminalize same sex conduct in recent years. The UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, three decades ago held that state laws prohibiting consensual same-sex conduct violate government obligations to respect the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination.

In July 2019, a group of LGBT activists sent a letter to President Mirziyoyev, urging him to repeal Article 120. They said that “this article opens a path to vigilantism and corruption.” In December 2020, nine international human rights organizations issued a statement calling on the Uzbek government to “stop punishing homosexuality and respect the human rights of all.” On March 5, after Uzbekistan’s draft Criminal Code was published retaining the offense, 44 human rights groups issued a joint statement urging Uzbekistan to decriminalize same sex conduct.

In its May 2020 conclusions, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the Uzbek government to repeal Article 120 and expressed concerns about “continuing reports of discrimination, harassment and violence, including extortion, arbitrary arrest, torture and sexual abuse, against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons by State officials and private individuals, including in places of deprivation of liberty, and about the mandatory disclosure of private medical information.” The committee noted a “high level of impunity for these crimes” and expressed concern that LGBT people are “unable to report violence and discrimination against them for fear of prosecution.”

Uzbek authorities have dismissed calls to decriminalize homosexuality. In March 2020, during the UN Human Rights Committee’s review of Uzbekistan, an Uzbek government representative said that the “lifestyle [of LGBT people] was not approved by Islam and was not in keeping with the Uzbek mindset.”

Uzbekistan should decriminalize same-sex sexual conduct by repealing article 120 of the criminal code and excluding any provisions criminalizing same-sex conduct from its new criminal code. The government should also investigate attacks and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including threats made by law enforcement officers to use article 120 against people, and hold those responsible to account. The authorities should adopt effective nondiscrimination policies, combat violence, harassment, and hatred against LGBT people, and facilitate the registration and operation of nongovernmental groups working on LGBT issues.

Uzbekistan’s international partners should press Uzbekistan to decriminalize same-sex conduct in keeping with its obligations to uphold key human rights standards. The European Union (EU), in negotiations with Uzbekistan over the EU’s GSP+ trade incentive, should set up a dedicated human rights monitoring process, including LGBT rights, involving domestic and international civil society groups.

“Criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct is fundamentally incompatible with international human rights norms and keeping it on the books contributes to an environment of fear and hostility for LGBT people in Uzbekistan,” Williamson said. “If Uzbekistan wants to show the world it is serious about respecting human rights, parliament should decriminalize consensual same-sex conduct before it adopts a new Criminal Code.”

For detailed findings on human rights abuses faced by gay men in Uzbekistan, please see below.

 

Human Rights Watch conducted a total of nine interviews with gay men from Uzbekistan and Central Asian LGBT activists in November 2020 and February 2021. The majority of interviews were conducted in person by Central Asian LGBT activists in collaboration with and under the guidance of a Human Rights Watch researcher in February. Interviews were conducted in Russian and Uzbek. Human Rights Watch used pseudonyms for all interviewees and withheld some identifying information to protect their privacy and security.

Arbitrary Arrests and Other Police Abuses

Muzaffar
In late 2019, the police detained Muzaffar, who is in his late teens, and his boyfriend after a park caretaker observed them kissing in a park in one of Uzbekistan’s bigger cities. The two men were taken to a police station for questioning.

At the station, the officer seized their phones and forced them to unlock the devices. “They searched our belongings and went through the phones without our consent,” Muzaffar said. “The police officer said that either we give them passcodes ‘the nice way’ or they will make it worse for us.”

Muzaffar said that the officer found photos and videos of the couple kissing in one of their phones and threatened them both with criminal prosecution under article 120. The police informed both Muzaffar’s and his boyfriend’s parents that they had been detained, and summoned them to the police station, outing them to their families. His boyfriend’s mother paid a bribe in return for their release, Muzaffar said.

Rashid
In summer 2020, Rashid, in his mid-20s, agreed to provide sexual services to a man who had contacted him online. When he arrived, three men attacked him and filmed the beating:

When I arrived at the apartment, the man told me to come in, go to the bedroom and undress and wait for him. After about 10 minutes, three men barged in. One of them was filming on his mobile phone. They started beating me on my head and body… They insulted me and said that I’m a prostitute, [that I] spread HIV… They also threatened me with article 120.

Rashid said that after the attack, the men continued to harass him, threatening to upload the video online, and report him to the authorities. After some time, the assailants took Rashid to the police station, where an officer forced him to confess that “he works as a prostitute for men.” The police also forced Rashid to take an HIV test.

The police officer told Rashid he had a choice. He could be an informant for the police or pay the equivalent of US$1,000 for their silence. The officer told Rashid that he had the video recording of Rashid’s confession, which the officer threatened he could upload, or use to charge Rashid for selling sex to men or for engaging in same sex conduct under article 120.

Rashid agreed to pay. Because of the officer’s threats and fears of being outed, Rashid did not seek legal assistance after the incident.

“Article 120 completely infringes on the rights and freedoms of LGBT minorities,” he said. “It’s scary to share your sexual orientation with anyone, also because someone could then use that information to blackmail you.”

Extortion by Members of the Public

Aziz and Farhod
In mid-2020, an acquaintance secretly filmed Aziz and Farhod, both about age 20, while they were kissing indoors. The acquaintance used the film to extort money from them, saying he would make their sexual orientation public on social media, out the men to their relatives and even file a police complaint unless they paid him US$500.

Aziz and Farhod said they had no choice but to pay. A month later, the man attempted to extort more money from them. This time they refused, cut off all communication with him, and blocked him on social media.

Aziz and Farhod said they did not report the incident to the police. Aziz said:

Article 120 violates the rights of a huge number of people. Fear of disclosure [of one’s sexual orientation], criminal prosecution, the constant beatings, calls for reprisals on social networks. It all constantly frightens representatives of the LGBT community in Uzbekistan. Vigilante justice is even more frightening. I think the government should repeal this article and introduce protection mechanisms for victims of violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Vigilantism should be punishable by law.

Alisher
In the summer of 2020, Alisher and a man he had been chatting with online agreed to meet. The man invited him to his apartment and Alisher agreed. After they entered the apartment building, the man grabbed Alisher’s mobile phone and punched him in the face. Another man joined the attack, hitting Alisher several times in the head. Both men then ran out of the building.

Alisher chased after them and demanded they return his phone, he said. But “the men threatened [me] with physical violence if [I] didn't stop calling for help – saying they will beat [me] up or even kill [me].” They promised they would give Alisher his phone if he paid them one million Uzbek sum (approximately US$100), threatening to take him to the police if he did not. The men claimed they were working for the police.

Worried that he would not get his phone back if the police got hold of it, Alisher agreed to pay. His phone contained all his contacts and access to his social media profiles. Before they left, the men forced Alisher to admit on video that he had chatted with a man online and is “a faggot.”

Alisher hired a lawyer and reported the attack to the police but did not mention the homophobic motive of the attack, fearing prosecution under article 120. The police opened a criminal case but did not take any meaningful steps to investigate the attack, Alisher said.

Timur
In the fall of 2020, Timur, in his mid-20s, began chatting with a man he met online in a gay dating group in Telegram. Their conversation included sexual topics and the possibility of meeting in person. Timur also shared naked pictures of himself with the man. Although their initial exchanges were friendly, after some time the man became threatening. Using obscene language, the man told Timur that “he hates ‘such people’ [gay men]” and that “Allah should exterminate all ‘such’ people.”

Timur described the harassment and threats he faced:

He continued threatening and putting psychological pressure on me by saying that he would disclose my [sexual] orientation to others, share our conversations with the police, and send my photos to homophobic online groups that publish personal data of LGBT people and call for retaliation against them.

The man also attempted to extort money from Timur, but Timur said that he “had no money and was not going to pay anything,” and blocked the man on social media. Two months later, however, Timur found a photo of himself in an online gay-dating group with a warning that he was “HIV-positive, blackmailing, and extorting money from people.” The post was removed after Timur contacted an administrator of the group.

He did not report what happened to the police, fearing that they would out him to his parents and community.

Timur explained that the criminalization of same sex relations “has a big negative impact on [our] health. The government should repeal article 120 to stop the intimidation and blackmailing, as well as criminal prosecutions, and ensure protection for LGBT people.”

Violence and Threats from Members of the Public

Umid
After Umid, in his late teens, was cornered by one of his roommates in late 2019, he admitted that he is gay. The roommate said he considered homosexuality a disease and that “such people [LGBT] needed to be [medically] treated.” He threatened to out Umid to his family unless Umid agreed to attend a mosque with him. Umid did, but after several days refused to continue.

In response, Umid’s roommates beat him up, and called Umid’s father, outing him, and saying that Umid “deserves to die.” Umid returned home after the attack, but his parents began pressuring him to get married. His family did not allow him to see a doctor after the beating.

After some time, Umid fled his parents’ home, but they continued to call him, threatening to report him to the police for being gay unless he agreed to get married. Umid said that he did not report the beating to police out of concerns for his family’s reputation, and for fear of prosecution under article 120.

“The police do not open criminal cases against attackers, and homophobes think that they have authority to punish gays,” said Umid.

Bekzod
Over the past few years, Bekzod, in his late 20s, has been involved in raising awareness about sexual orientation and gender identity, and has provided online support to other LGBT people in Uzbekistan. In response, Bekzod has faced online death threats, threats of physical violence, and other forms of harassment and intimidation, such as making his personal data public.

In mid-2020, an unidentified user sent Bekzod obscene and offensive messages saying, “We will destroy you… slaughter you like cattle. I have a big axe for you, which I will use to cut you apart.” Another message read, “I will take your life with my own hands, I'll give your bones to the dogs.” Bekzod said that his family and colleagues have also been the targets of online threats. For security reasons, Bekzod has had to stop his online activities:

My family members know about my sexual orientation and are tolerant… But I’ve convinced them not to go to the police. I’m afraid if they go and tell them all I’ve been experiencing, this could result only in more threats against me and people I know. I don’t think this is just a bunch of hooligans or homophobes, it looks like a gang that has carefully planned each and every step, targeting me.

Muzaffar
Muzaffar said that his tutorial videos on TikTok on how to apply makeup mean that he regularly contends with hateful comments and threats online. He said that under each video he receives bullying comments from “a radical part of the Uzbek society,” calling for reprisals against him in the name of religion.

Repealing article 120 of the penal code is one step toward equal treatment, Muzaffar said, but “attitudes towards LGBT people won’t change unless there is awareness raising and the media starts to cover these topics [e.g. the lives and stories of LGBT people].”

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