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China: Tibet Anti-Crime Campaign Silences Dissent

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 14, 2020

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Saohei Chu'e "anti-gang" campaign poster, photographed in Lhasa, 2019.

© 2019 Private (New York) – Chinese authorities in Tibet are using a national anti-crime campaign to crack down on peaceful expression by Tibetans suspected of dissenting views, Human Rights Watch said today. Those criminally prosecuted include activists defending Tibetan culture and environment, critics of official corruption, and suspected supporters of the Dalai Lama. The campaign is also targeting for possible prosecution or other punishment practitioners of unapproved religious activities and Tibetan government employees involved in any religious practices.

The government adopted a nationwide “anti-gang crime” campaign in January 2018 to suppress drug dealing, gambling, and other gang crimes. Since then, courts in Tibetan areas have used “gang crime” charges to sentence at least 51 Tibetans to up to 9 years in prison for peacefully petitioning or protesting issues related to religion, environmental protection, land rights, and official corruption. The authorities have also linked the campaign to disciplinary drives against Tibetan officials and Chinese Communist Party members and appear to be accusing them of criminal liability based on their personal views.

“Chinese authorities have long imprisoned people engaged in peaceful dissent in Tibet,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The anti-gang crime campaign has intensified the persecution of those deemed to be disloyal to Communist Party rule.”

The anti-gang campaign is known in Chinese as saohei chu’e, an abbreviation for “The Sweep Away Gangs, Root Out Evil Special Struggle.” Its political objectives were evident in the official document starting the campaign in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 2018. As Human Rights Watch detailed in “‘Illegal Organizations’: China’s Crackdown on Social Groups in Tibet,” the TAR Public Security Bureau issued a directive that any individual or group “holding themselves out as so-called ‘spokespersons’ for the masses” on issues such as environmental protection or the promotion of Tibetan language, folk traditions, and culture were to be classed as a form of “gang crime.”

It also banned non-officials from taking part in local dispute mediation, an important civil function in Tibet that lamas or other locally respected figures often conduct. The authorities had not previously considered such activity illegal.

The directive also stated that actions that “undermine local-level general elections,” or that involve a group of individuals “stirring up trouble in land acquisition, leases, demolitions, engineering projects, and the like” were to be considered a form of “gang crime.”

Chinese state media have recently reported that central government officials ordered regional authorities to target Tibetan dissidents under the campaign. Senior Beijing officials sent to inspect Tibet’s anti-gang drive told TAR authorities in July and August 2019 and again in November that they had to do more to “combine” the campaign with “deepening the anti-splittist struggle,” a reference to crushing any support for Tibetan autonomy and political dissent, however indirect or minor. This instruction meant that critics of government policy in Tibet should be treated as gang criminals, especially if they can be seen as a group, as spokespeople, or as supporting the exiled Dalai Lama.

In November, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie confirmed the inspection team’s demands by stating that regional authorities should “conduct smashing the crimes of gang crime forces along with … the anti-splittist struggle.” Wu sought to justify treating “splittism” or support for Tibetan autonomy as a common crime by saying that it provides “the grounds for gang crime forces to spread.”

Local officials, at public meetings to promote the campaign in rural areas, have told villagers “to voluntarily sever all connection with underworld forces and illegal organizations, and enthusiastically join the struggle against them,” said an official report on the campaign in some local villages in southern Tibet. The term “underworld forces” supposedly refers to organized crime, but in the Tibetan context, the term “illegal organizations” includes the civic activities listed in the 2018 directive at the start of the region’s anti-gang crime campaign, notably those promoting Tibetan language, environmental protection, and assisting local dispute mediation.

Officials in other Tibetan areas have made similar demands. The United States-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in February 2018 that when Sichuan province launched a “Provincial Leading Group” to manage the anti-gang crime drive, “threatening political security and penetrating into the political field” were among the 10 major types of crime it was targeting.

It also listed “grabbing or illegally occupying land in construction engineering, mineral resources, and other fields,” probably a reference to environmental protesters’ efforts to stop damage from infrastructure projects and mining. In the same report, RFA cited an unnamed source as saying that homes in Kandze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, Sichuan, had been searched for Dalai Lama pictures under the anti-gang crime drive.

In the rural areas of Tibet where most Tibetans live, the campaign appears to be intimidatory, with the authorities threatening to use force. Publicity materials promoting the campaign show troops or police with military-pattern weapons. Photographs in official media of a meeting to publicize the campaign in Achug (Axu) township, Derge (Dege) county, Sichuan, for example, show local residents seated in rows on the ground with armed police standing over them and a vehicle used to transport criminal suspects. Videos that local authorities issue to promote the campaign show the apparent use of unnecessary or excessive force against Tibetans, including monks.

The Chinese constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, as does international human rights law. The arrests and prosecutions of Tibetans under the anti-gang crime campaign for expressing peaceful opinions and engaging in political or faith-based activities violates their fundamental rights.

“The anti-gang crime campaign has singled out Tibetans for their opinions and normal social activities and treats them as criminals,” Richardson said. “Chinese authorities should end these abusive prosecutions and free all those wrongfully detained.”

For additional details about the campaign in Tibet and the arrests, please see below.

 

 

Criminalizing Peaceful Criticism

At least 51 Tibetans are known to have been convicted for peaceful activities as part of the government’s anti-gang crime drive. The most recent case involved 12 villagers from Sog county in northern Tibet. A court sentenced them on January 7, 2020 to up to 21 months in prison for being “members of an evil gang.”

A court document reported that the “gang” had “acquiesced with the spread and dissemination of negative religious influences throughout the village,” and had “inculcated feudal thinking among the masses [and] implemented feudal family laws.” The court document gave no further details about these “religious” and “feudal” ideas and presented no evidence that suggested the defendants had committed recognizable offenses.

Phrases such as “negative religious influences” and “feudal thinking” have been used to refer to expressions of support for the Dalai Lama and his religious authority, including his selection of reincarnate lamas and advice against the worship of certain local deities. Support for such ideas appears likely to have been the reason for the convictions in this case.

On December 6, 2019, 9 Tibetans in Gabde (Gande) county, Golok (Guoluo) prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to up to 7 years in prison, according to Free Tibet, a London-based advocacy group. The lawyer for the primary defendant, Anya Sengdra, said that he had been arrested as part of the anti-gang crime drive because he had tried to expose “illegal acts of local officials.” The official case summary that the court issued on July 26 confirms that Anya Sengdra had criticized a local official – the Party secretary in his township – after the official apparently disqualified Anya Sengdra from running in village elections in 2014 and then had him punished for protesting this decision.

The official indictment, dated July 26, said that Anya Sengdra and eight co-defendants were charged with “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” for setting up online discussion groups about local corruption, environmental protection, and petitions by local residents. The authorities also charged the nine with “gathering crowds to disturb social order” for staging a sit-in at a construction site to demand compensation for a fatal road accident. These details indicate that the defendants were not involved in any criminal activities, but in peaceful protests and petitions against local government policies.

In May 2019, 21 Tibetan villagers in Nangchen (Nangqian) county, Yushu prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to up to 6 years in prison under the anti-gang crime drive. Available facts indicate that they lobbied the local government about its polices on environmental protection – official media reports state explicitly that they were sentenced for activities including “mobilizing the support of a group of villagers to establish an ‘environmental protection committee’” and “creating hurdles for government policy [by] not accepting environmental conservation compensation.”

In April 2019, 9 Tibetans in Rebkong (Tongren) county, Malho (Huangnan) prefecture, Qinghai province were sentenced to from 3 to 7 years in prison for having “created an illegal organization.” They had organized a petition against local government officials’ seizure of community land in their village, said an exile monitoring group, which published a copy of their petition. The prefectural government had issued regulations in 2015 that declared “organizing illegal groups and illegal movements in the name of ‘language rights,’ ‘environmental protection,’ ‘literacy classes,’ etc.” a crime and described the case as the first “anti-gang crime” case in the prefecture.

The local regulations in Tibetan areas of China outlawing peaceful actions against government policies are administrative orders that do not overrule existing laws in China.

In addition to the 51 reported court cases, 3 Tibetans interviewed by Human Rights Watch described recent cases of Tibetans whom they knew police had threatened or detained as part of the anti-gang crime drive for their peaceful expressions of opinion. One specified a number of people imprisoned for political offenses. Although Human Rights Watch cannot confirm these reports, those interviewed were Tibetan academics or officials who had direct access to information about these events.

A Tibetan who spoke to local residents in one case said that that police in a nomadic area of northern Tibet threatened to use the campaign to punish a Tibetan who refused to sign an official document stating that the size of his herd had decreased, a target pursued by local officials. Another Tibetan in the area at the time told Human Rights Watch that police had detained local women as part of the anti-gang drive in Rebkong, Qinghai province, for gathering outside the local government offices to complain about lack of compensation for government-seized land.

A Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch in December that, according to internal information he had seen:

“there are 217 political prisoners in TAR Prison No. 1 [at Nyethang township in Chushul county, near Lhasa], and they are all people from Lhasa, or the nearby counties under Lhasa Municipality, arrested in the past few years. People are continually being arrested for political reasons.”

The Congressional Executive Commission on China, a body linked to the US Congress, lists 151 Tibetans as possibly detained for political reasons as of December, but notes significant underreporting and uncertainties.

Attacks on Unapproved Religious Activity

Under Chinese law, ordinary citizens may take part only in religious practices that are officially approved. Senior Chinese leaders in Tibetan areas have specified that unapproved religious activity is a target of the anti-gang crime campaign. The campaign guidelines from a Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai province in early 2019 state that the authorities must carry out “vigorous opposition to those with differing views and those who obstruct [state policies and ideology],” including “control by religion forces,” which they describe as “relatively strong in rural and mountainous areas.”

At the November review by the central inspection team of the campaign, Wu Yingjie, the TAR Party secretary, said that “religious extremist forces and underworld forces” were “using religion as a pretext to split the Motherland, destroy the unity of nationalities, and disrupt the normal order of the everyday life of the masses.” Discussing the anti-gang crime drive, Wu described the role of religion as “Tibet’s special contradiction” and called on regional officials to “vigorously smash” these religious forces.

Following the November meeting, regional leaders ordered officials to use the anti-gang campaign as “an opportunity to … completely eliminate the foundations and context of the Dalai clique’s splittist sabotage activities” to “completely ensure the harmony and stability of the religious sphere.”

The Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch that the campaign was being applied to monasteries in the region as part of a political education drive. He reported that as a result of investigations carried out under the campaign, five monks from Drepung Monastery had been given “education” for not showing a good attitude in political studies and had then been expelled for “not reforming their thinking” and “failing in political and legal knowledge exams.”

The official added that “such things are going on at many monasteries” and that “the government monitors the WeChat and social media activity of monks even more strictly than that of ordinary citizens.” Foreign media have described political education and expulsion of Tibetan monks or nuns for political non-compliance and recent cases of monitoring the social media accounts of monks and nuns and other citizens.

Tibetans with religious beliefs who work for the government have also been singled out for punishment as part of the campaign. China’s official media reported on August 6 that Zhu Weiqun, a senior Beijing-based official known for seeking to tighten government control on nationality and religious issues, told regional leaders that their implementation of the campaign had been “inadequate.”

Zhu was apparently referring to, among other issues, the failure to intensify religious controls over Tibetan “cadres,” a term that includes all government employees, only some of whom are Party members. The authorities went on to state at a campaign meeting in Lhasa on August 27 that the focus must include “solving the religious problems of Party members.”

Ending religious belief among Party members is a normal matter of internal Party regulations, since all members renounce religious belief as a condition of membership. However, the TAR authorities responded to Zhu’s remarks by issuing an internal order that month banning not just Party members but also all retired government employees in Tibet from public religious practices. The order banned specific religious practices that Tibetan Buddhists conduct and did not refer to any other religions, indicating that it targeted only Tibetan Buddhists who worked for the government. There have been no reports of similar restrictions for ethnic Chinese cadres in Tibet, or for believers of other religions.

Tibetan Party Members Face Prosecution for Views

The TAR authorities have used the anti-gang crime campaign in conjunction with a Party disciplinary drive against Tibetan Party members suspected of holding unapproved opinions. In addition to imposing disciplinary action, the authorities appear to have threatened these members with criminal liability.

Details of these cases are scarce, but a report by official media in February 2019 said that the disciplinary drive – known in full as “Resolutely oppose engaging with two-faced factions and being two-faced people” – is intended in Tibet to identify Party members who “claim loyalty to the Party while secretly sympathizing [with] and even working for separatists.” The drive to identify “two-faced people” in Tibet is described by the official media as part of China’s “tit-for-tat battle with the Dalai Lama and his group.”

In addition to imposing punishment for disciplinary violations, authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas have stated that Tibetan Party members suspected of political disloyalty, such as sympathizing with the Dalai Lama or supporting increased autonomy for Tibet, are also targets of the anti-gang crime campaign, indicating that they are classed as suspected criminals.

Notably, in April 2019, the head of the TAR leading group for the anti-gang crime campaign included “two-faced factions [and] two-faced people” in the list of criminal groups and “illegal organizations” that are campaign targets. This showed that this drive in the region is being handled not just by the Party’s disciplinary arm but also by the “Regional High Command for National Security,” which supervises the region’s “public security work” and deals with criminal cases.

The drive in Tibet against “two-faced factions and two-faced people” is thus different from its counterpart in mainland China, where it is not part of a criminal crackdown but is intended only to “control the political integrity of the cadre force.”

Officials have sought to justify treating allegedly dissident Tibetan Party members as criminals by claiming that they are organizers, enablers, or backers of gang crimes. An October statement by the “Regional High Command” described “two-faced people” as being “behind the illegal organizations” targeted by the anti-gang crime campaign. A senior TAR judicial official endorsed this view in April 2019, describing “two-faced people” as “the soil that breeds criminal gangs.” In Qinghai, where over a million Tibetans live, judicial authorities declared similarly in July 2019 that certain “Party officials” were a focus of the anti-gang crime campaign because they were “‘covering up’ for gang crime forces.” No evidence has emerged in Chinese media to support these allegations.

Only one recent case involving the political profiling and criminalization of Tibetan Party members suspected of disloyalty has appeared in official media. In February 2019, 13 local Party members – evidently Tibetans – were disciplined for “worshiping … illicit objects” in a cave in Nyalam county, a rural area of southwest Tibet. The media report said police handled the case and that the “objects” in the cave were “politically forbidden” – a hint that they were photographs of the Dalai Lama and that police investigated the Party members as suspected criminals, even though religious belief is only a breach of Party regulations, not a crime under Chinese law. The punishments imposed on the 13 are not known.

The Tibetan official from Lhasa told Human Rights Watch in December that “Tibetan officials in every government department have been punished under this [anti-gang crime] campaign,” but that details of these punishments are kept secret so that “there is no way we would come to know about individual cases.”

US: Lawsuit Over ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program Secrecy

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 14, 2020

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Migrants seeking asylum wait in line with their case paperwork on October 5, 2019, during a weekly trip by volunteers, lawyers, paralegals and interpreters to the migrant campsite outside El Puente Nuevo in Matamoros, Mexico. © 2019 Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP

   

 

(Washington, DC) – The American Immigration Council, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Human Rights Watch, and the law firm Winston & Strawn LLP filed a lawsuit in the US Northern District of California today to compel the release of records about the US Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program.

The suit, filed under the Freedom of Information Act, seeks records about the implementation and handling of the program by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The groups filing the suits are attempting to understand how the Migrant Protection Protocols, which DHS announced in January 2019, operate and what principles and agreements guide the multiple agencies responsible for their implementation after the government refused to disclose information.

“The ‘Remain in Mexico’ program has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, compelling thousands of people to live in camps along the border in dangerous and squalid conditions,” said Emily Creighton, legal director of transparency at the American Immigration Council. “This FOIA suit is a way to pursue accountability as we seek to understand the impact of the MPP on uniquely vulnerable asylum seekers. As challenges to MPP continue to wind through the courts, it is critically important that we have a full picture of how the program has been designed and implemented.”

The lawsuit challenges DHS-relevant component agencies’ failure to disclose information in response to a FOIA request submitted on December 21, 2019.

The US government has returned nearly 65,000 people seeking asylum in the country to Mexico to wait for their US immigration court hearings under the program. Asylum seekers, many of them families with children, have been forced to wait for months in extremely dangerous cities in Mexico.

Since the program began, only about 500 people, fewer than 1 percent of those in the program, have been granted asylum. As of February 2020, more than 1,000 cases of murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against people placed in the program had been reported. The unhygienic and often overcrowded conditions in camps and shelters in Mexico in which asylum seekers have been compelled to live place them at heightened risk of Covid-19, the groups said.

The program also prevents asylum seekers from meaningfully accessing their right to due process. Asylum seekers often face insurmountable barriers to obtaining and communicating with legal counsel and increased closure of MPP court hearings to the public.

Though the program was an unprecedented shift in US asylum policy and procedure, the government agencies responsible for carrying it out have not made guidance or information about how the program operates available to the public, advocates, attorneys, and asylum seekers directly impacted by the program.

“The operation of MPP has been shrouded from public view and understanding,” said Laura Lynch, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “We see the asylum seekers lawfully requesting a meaningful chance to have their claim to asylum heard arrive at the border and we see them shunted quickly back to dangerous conditions in Mexico. But the public has not been able to see the basic procedures and decision-making processes of this terribly unjust change in policy. Despite numerous requests, including a formal FOIA inquiry, the agencies have failed to respond and thus this litigation is necessary.”

The Department of Homeland Security and relevant component agencies – US Citizenship and Immigration Services, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and US Customs and Border Protection – have failed to disclose critical information about the program, including directives and guidance to DHS employees, agreements between the US and Mexican governments relating to the program, and communications among agency officials shedding light on how it is being carried out.

“As the inhumane ‘Remain in Mexico’ program causes more harm by the day, including in light of the Covid-19 crisis, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice have kept US taxpayers in the dark about what their money is being used for,” said Ariana Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The program inflicts long-lasting trauma on both children and adults, fails to protect vulnerable asylum seekers from harm, and runs roughshod over the right to due process.”

A copy of the complaint against DHS is here.

Detained Children Left Out of Covid-19 Response

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 14, 2020
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© jacktheflipper/Getty Images

  (New York) – Many governments are not addressing the safety of detained children in their Covid-19 response, Human Rights Watch said today. Available data indicates that the virus is spreading rapidly through closed facilities, including jails and prisons.   Only about 20 countries are known to have released children from detention facilities in efforts to limit the impact of Covid-19. A global survey of media reports found that, by comparison, adult detainees have been released in at least 79 countries in response to the pandemic. While in Afghanistan, Chad, Indonesia, and South Sudan children have been explicitly included in release orders, in most other countries, they have reportedly been left out.   “Child detainees seem to be an afterthought, if they are considered at all, by many governments responding to the Covid-19 crisis,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should act to substantially reduce the number of children in detention facilities.”   Detainees are particularly vulnerable to infection due to close proximity and a higher incidence of underlying medical conditions. Access to water, sanitation, and basic medical services is often poor. In many countries, prisons are severely overcrowded.   In March, 2020, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, appealed for urgent action to prevent Covid-19 from “rampaging” through places of detention. In the United States, Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institute has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world – more than 80 percent of the prison’s 2,000 inmates have tested positive for the virus. At a juvenile detention center in the same state, nearly half of the children detained have tested positive.   A 2019 global UN study found that on any given day, hundreds of thousands of children are detained in justice systems worldwide, and that as many as a million children are held in police custody each year. The study found that nearly three-quarters are in pretrial detention and have not been convicted of any offense. Many are held for “status” offenses such as truancy, running away from home, disobedience, underage drinking, and consensual sexual activity between teenagers. Studies in the US have concluded that most juvenile offenders could be released without jeopardizing public safety.   Restrictions imposed on detention facilities to prevent the spread of Covid-19 may help protect children from the virus but often have other negative effects. Many facilities now prohibit face-to-face family contact and restrict children to their cells for 23 or more hours a day. Such isolation can amount to solitary confinement. UN experts recommend a complete ban on solitary confinement for juveniles and say that for adults, solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture. In the US and UK, nearly all educational programs have been suspended.   International human rights law prohibits detention of children except as a last resort. A large body of research has found that community-based alternatives to detention are often cheaper and have better outcomes, including lower recidivism rates.   On April 9, the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, and the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action issued guidance regarding children in detention, urging governments to institute a moratorium on new children entering detention facilities, release all children who can be safely released, and protect the health and well-being of children who must remain in detention.   However, government release orders issued in response to Covid-19 have often prioritized older prisoners, nonviolent offenders, those who have served the majority of their sentence, women, and those in ill health – but did not include detained children. In Portugal, more than 1,500 adults have been released, but the Justice Ministry refused to release children, contending that juvenile detention facilities were under capacity and therefore safe. In South Africa, the president authorized parole for approximately 19,000 “low-risk” detainees nearing the end of their sentence, but children were not mentioned.   Afghanistan and Iraq have excluded from release detainees charged with terrorism or national security offenses, including association with armed groups. As a result, children who have been recruited as soldiers may be excluded from release orders. According to the UN, at least 2,588 children in conflict countries were detained for alleged association with armed groups in 2018. Under international law, children recruited illegally are victims and are entitled to rehabilitation and reintegration services.   Some jurisdictions have taken positive steps to release children or reduce the number of detained children in response to Covid-19. In Brazil’s São Paulo state, justice officials ordered the release of all children held for nonviolent crimes with staff follow-up after their release. In the US, a recent survey of juvenile justice agencies across 30 states found a 24 percent drop in the juvenile population during March due to a sharp reduction in new admissions and earlier releases. In the US state of Maryland, a judge ordered local courts to find alternatives to detention for child offenders and to review detention orders every two weeks.   The authorities should release all children held in juvenile detention facilities, prisons, and other places of detention who are not a substantial and immediate safety risk to others, Human Rights Watch said. They should provide a safe placement to those who do not otherwise have a safe home to return to.   When deprivation of liberty is unavoidable, children should have access to adequate hygiene, sanitary conditions, and medical services, adequate space to enable “social distancing,” and screening and testing for Covid-19 according to the most recent recommendations of health authorities.   “Children should never be detained unless all other options have been exhausted,” Becker said. “The threat of Covid-19 makes the release of children all the more urgent.”  

Iraq: New Government, New Legislative Agenda

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 14, 2020
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The opening session of Iraq’s new parliament on September 3, 2018 in Baghdad, Iraq.

© 2018 Getty Images

(Beirut) – The Iraqi government and parliament should pass legislation to address key human rights shortcomings in Iraq’s legal system and take measures to minimize the risks Covid-19 poses to people in prison, Human Rights Watch said today. With the formation of Iraq’s government on May 7, 2020, parliament can now focus on legislative reform.

Human Rights Watch has identified four key areas to advance human rights in Iraq, around which previous governments and parliaments have drafted and reviewed legislative proposals but did not pass them. There are many areas for which legislative reform is needed to bring Iraqi law in line with international standards, but the bills already offered address legal representation, torture, enforced disappearance, and domestic violence.

“Iraq has entered a new phase, with fighting against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) largely over,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should seize this opportunity to focus on protecting Iraqis’ basic rights and bringing Iraq’s laws in line with international standards.”

On March 29, 2018, before the May 2018 elections, the previous parliament completed an initial review of amendments to the Bar Association Law of 1965 that would guarantee defendants the right to have their lawyer in the room during an interrogation. Following this first reading, parliament members transmitted the amendments to the parliamentary legal committee for a second review. The bill carries no budgetary implications so is still pending before parliament and does not require further government action.

The Iraqi Constitution grants detainees the right to pick their own lawyer, or to ask to have one appointed by the government, who is allowed to be present throughout the investigative period. But detainees and lawyers have reported to Human Rights Watch for years that the authorities are not allowing lawyers to be present during interrogations. The amendments would require all facilities housing detainees and all courthouses to provide adequate space to allow for consultations with lawyers, including private rooms.

The amendments would require all authorities to allow lawyers to be present throughout judicial and investigative functions, to review all related documents, and to be alerted in advance about upcoming procedures in a case. It would prohibit interrogation of a suspect unless they are accompanied by a lawyer and nullify any interrogation in which that did not happen. The amendments include sanctions for authorities who interfere with lawyers’ rights and professional duties and order the authorities to inform the Bar Association if any criminal complaint is filed against a lawyer.

The parliamentary legal committee should support passage of the bill, Human Rights Watch said.

With the support of Heartland Alliance International, a human rights organization working in Iraq on detainees’ rights, a group of parliament members also prepared a draft Anti-Torture Bill in May 2017. The bill would require a judge to order a medical examination of any detainee alleging torture within 24 hours of learning of the allegation, which is often not occurring, Human Rights Watch said.

The bill also lays out the criminal sanctions for those who torture someone in their custody, calls on judges to dismiss all evidence gathered through torture and to dismiss the person who allegedly used torture from their role in the criminal case, and requires having a lawyer present for all detainees throughout the investigative period. Passage of this bill will help to address the extensive use of torture to extract confessions, Human Rights Watch said. The government should resubmit it to the parliament for review.

On May 14, 2020, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the new government urging it to take steps to immediately further reduce the number of people of prisons, jails, and other places of detention in Iraq to prevent the spread of Covid-19. For years, Human Rights Watch has documented the acute overcrowding in Iraqi prisons in extremely unsanitary conditions. Media reports allege that authorities released 20,000 prisoners in April as a preventive measure, but they have not shared any information publicly on which detainees were selected for release and the criteria for selecting them.

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Human Rights Watch has repeatedly asked Iraqi authorities over the past four years to share or make public the total number of people in Iraqi prisons. So far, authorities have refused to do so, making it impossible to assess whether the releases thus far have sufficiently reduced the acute overcrowding to enable social distancing.

An individual with knowledge of the situation inside Iraqi prisons told Human Rights Watch that he knew of at least one prison in Baghdad where prisoners and guards contracted Covid-19. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify this information.

In May 2017, Heartland Alliance International and a group of parliament members prepared the Bill for the Protection of People from Enforced Disappearance, which would make enforced disappearance a distinct crime under Iraqi law. The International Commission on Missing Persons, which has been working in partnership with the Iraqi government to help recover and identify the missing, estimates that the number of missing people in Iraq could range from 250,000 to 1 million. The International Committee of the Red Cross states that Iraq has the highest number of missing people in the world. Some of them are the subjects of enforced disappearances, including most recently some participants in the protest movement that began in October 2019.

Since 2014, Iraqi military and security forces have disappeared hundreds of people, mostly Sunni Arab men and boys, often during counterterrorism operations. The bill calls for appropriate restitution for victims of enforced disappearance and their families. The government should resubmit it to the parliament for review.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi committed on May 9 that the government would investigate the killings of over 600 protesters since October 2019. As part of the investigations, it should identify and make public the groups and security forces who engaged in or coordinated these killings and hold those responsible to account. It should compensate victims of all unlawful killings. Efforts are needed to locate demonstrators who were abducted and are still missing, with full accountability.  

Finally, the government should make key amendments to an Anti-Domestic Violence bill and resubmit it to Parliament. The strengths of the draft bill, which has been pending before the previous parliament since 2015, include provisions for services for domestic violence survivors, shelters, protection orders, restraining orders and penalties for their breach, and the establishment of a cross-ministerial committee to combat domestic violence. Measures to combat domestic violence are all the more urgent in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In recent years, security has dominated the legislative and governmental agenda in Iraq,” Wille said. “Under this new government, human rights should be the priority.”

 

Covid-19 Backlash Targets LGBT People in South Korea

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 13, 2020
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A rainbow flag is carried during a parade as a part of the Seoul Queer Culture Festival in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, July 14, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

South Korea is experiencing a marked increase in online threats and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people who are being unfairly accused of spreading Covid-19.

The backlash illustrates the need for governments to move proactively to stop the scapegoating of minority groups as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

The government began to relax restrictions in early May, citing a decline in new Covid-19 cases, and permitted bars and other venues to reopen. In the days that followed, dozens of new Covid-19 cases appeared, linked to nightclubs in Itaewon, where authorities estimate that 5,700 people may have been exposed to the virus.

Some media initially described the nightclubs as gay clubs, setting off a firestorm of online harassment and intimidation targeting LGBT people.

The backlash has exacerbated the already high levels of hostility LGBT people in South Korea face. Queer culture festivals and other LGBT events continue to be regularly targeted for closure, threatened, and harassed and marred by physical violence.

In addition to the persistent failure to tackle LGBT discrimination, the government’s response to the outbreak raises serious privacy concerns. As part of tracing efforts, authorities have disclosed personal information about people who have tested positive for Covid-19, including specific details like age, gender, and workplace. Others have tried to use those details to identify infected individuals, putting them at risk of discrimination and harassment.

If the government fails to counter the high levels of stigma around LGBT issues it may make it less likely that individuals who were exposed in the current outbreak will come forward, compromising the effectiveness of public health measures. The mayor of Seoul has said those exposed who do not come forward for testing will be visited at home accompanied by police, putting them at risk of discrimination and speculation about their sexuality as a result of their association with the outbreak.

South Korea’s government must be mindful of human rights in combatting Covid-19 – including the rights of groups who are vulnerable to discrimination.

Authorities have warned against disclosing public information about those who test positive for Covid-19, but stronger measures are needed. The government should emphasize that Covid-19 can be controlled without infringing rights to privacy and warn those using the pandemic to attack LGBT persons online and in social media that such actions sow discord and will only undermine the solidarity needed to overcome the pandemic.

Humor Comes at a Price in Morocco and Tunisia

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 13, 2020
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People shop in the Central Market of Tunis during the first days of Ramadan, Tunis, Tunisia April 28, 2020. 

© 2020 Mohamed Krit/Sipa via AP Images

It all started with harmless jokes. But because they chose humor to push back against the Coronavirus and lockdown-generated anxiety, a young Moroccan woman is now in prison, and a Tunisian woman could soon share her fate.

In Morocco, the story takes place in Merzouga, a small Saharan locality renowned for its postcard sand dunes. In early April, a young woman, perhaps to console herself for being locked a stone’s throw from a fabulous natural landscape, performed a comedy sketch. In a 15-second video posted on the social network TikTok, she imitates the “Caïda Houria,” a local security figure who gained notoriety from her unique way of scolding Moroccans who don’t comply with the mandatory lockdown. The imitation is well-executed and funny.

The authorities apparently didn’t laugh. A few days later, the young woman was arrested and sentenced to two months in prison, which she is currently serving in Errachidia. The main charge against her is that during the sketch, she wore a military uniform, in violation of article 382 of the penal code prohibiting “unauthorized public wearing of an official uniform.” The uniform she wore in the video belonged to a friend who is a member of local security forces.

Tunisian blogger Emna Chargui also wanted to share a smile when she reposted, on Facebook, a short text entitled “Sura Corona,” written and formatted, in a lighthearted spirit, in the manner of a Quranic sura. It backfired. On May 4, the judicial police summoned her. Two days later, no fewer than seven members of a public prosecutor’s office interrogated her. According to Chargui, one of them said: “There is no freedom of expression when it comes to religion.”

On May 7, Chargui was charged with “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence,” under article 52 of the press freedom decree-law. She faces up to three years in prison.

In crisis situations like the Covid-19 pandemic, international law allows authorities to exceptionally prohibit some types of speech, the consequences of which could endanger public health. This doesn’t include jokes, unless you consider laughing a health hazard.

Attack on Tajik Journalist Reporting on Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The media is literally under attack in Tajikistan. There was a total of over 80 attacks of all kinds, physical and non-physical – including cyber-attacks and attacks via judicial or economic means – on journalists in the country from 2017 to 2019. This week, journalist Abdullo Ghurbati, who works for one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Tajikistan, Asia Plus, became the latest victim.

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Abdulloh Ghurbati receives medical help after an attack on May 11, 2020, Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

© 2020 Asia Plus

On May 11, two masked men attacked Ghurbati near the entrance to his house in Dushanbe. “They only said ‘Who do you think you are?’” Ghurbati told Human Rights Watch. “One of them hit me in the head from behind. I hit the ground and both of them continued beating me.”

When Ghurbati started screaming, the attackers escaped. Ghurbati took a cab to a hospital where Asia Plus colleagues met him. Two hospitals would not admit Ghurbati because they were only treating Covid-19 patients. He eventually received treatment at another hospital for multiple injuries to his skull and ear.

Ghurbati had recently been reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic in Tajikistan, including government efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Even after admitting there were Covid-19 cases in the country on April 30, Tajikistan has not put in place policies seen in other countries to protect public health and slow the virus’ spread, such as imposing a quarantine or encouraging social distancing.   

The police have launched an investigation, including an examination of footage from CCTV cameras near Ghurbati’s home. Ghurbati said the footage shows that the attackers waited specifically for him.

Ghurbati has recently received multiple threats linked to his work as a journalist. After his reporting on Covid-19, government-linked online trolls called him a traitor. He received messages on social media warning him not to write critical posts: “behave right,” one said. He also received a call from a stranger who threatened to “find and deal with him.”

“The police promised to find the attackers and punish [them] by law,” Ghurbati told Human Rights Watch. Tajik law enforcement authorities should do so and ensure that journalists are able to carry out their work freely, whether reporting on Covid-19 or any other issue in the country.

Covid-19 Apps Pose Serious Human Rights Risks

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 13, 2020

 

(New York) – The mobile location tracking programs governments are using in the fight against Covid-19 pose serious risks to human rights, Human Rights Watch said in a detailed Q&A released today. The programs, whose utility in controlling the pandemic has yet to be proven, may introduce unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance measures in public health disguise.

Entitled “Mobile Location Data and Covid-19,” the Q&A examines the different ways that governments are using geolocation and proximity information from mobile phones and other devices and the risk they pose to privacy rights. It looks at how this technology has been used by China, Israel, South Korea, the United States, and other governments, and provides recommendations and guidelines to evaluate the human rights risks posed by any given tool or program using mobile location data.

“Some restrictions on people’s rights may be justifiable during a public health emergency, but people are being asked to sacrifice their privacy and turn over personal data for use by untested technologies,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Containing the pandemic and reopening society are essential goals, but we can do this without pervasive surveillance.”

While protecting human life and public health is a paramount concern of policymakers everywhere, Human Rights Watch warned that governments and the private sector should not promote or use unproven and untested technology. The long history of emergency measures shows that when surveillance is introduced, it usually goes too far, fails to meet its objectives, and once approved, often outlasts its justification. Mobile tracking programs intended to be temporary measures until the pandemic is under control and a vaccine is available may become permanent features of an expanded surveillance regime.

Excessively compromising privacy is a gateway to undermining other rights, such as freedom of movement, expression, and association. Mobile phone network data analysis creates granular, real-time targeting opportunities, which can be used by governments to enforce draconian quarantine measures. This is particularly problematic in the absence of transparent and meaningful limits on data collection, retention, and use. In the hands of governments that already have intrusive surveillance practices, such as China and Russia, this can magnify discrimination and repression.

Human Rights Watch also cautioned that over-reliance on mobile location tracking for Covid-19 responses could exclude marginalized groups who may not have reliable access to the internet and mobile technology, putting their health and livelihoods at risk. Some communities, such as migrant workers, refugees, and homeless people, live in cramped conditions that would undermine accuracy of contact tracing apps. Others that have suffered decades of abusive surveillance and repression may be very skeptical of these tracking technologies.

“Mobile tracking solutions create a two-tiered response to the pandemic that threatens to leave the poorest and most vulnerable people behind,” said Amos Toh, senior researcher on artificial intelligence and human rights. “Without meaningful input from minorities and other marginalized groups, tech-driven responses may reinforce systemic inequalities facing those hardest hit by the virus.”

There are serious questions as to whether the use of Covid-19 tracking initiatives can meet the international human rights standards of necessity and proportionality. Human Rights Watch said governments should first address the more fundamental question of whether such technologies are scientifically justified before using them or whether they may misrepresent an individual’s risk of infection or mislead the public. They should also assess whether there are ways to combat the pandemic that are less intrusive on rights, including proven containment methods such as manual contact tracing and expanding access to accurate testing and treatment.

“Before turning to data-driven technologies, we have to ask the basic questions: Will it work? And at what cost to our freedoms and health?” said Brown. “Time is of the essence, but a pandemic is no time to move fast and break things.”

It’s Not Just Covid-19 That Threatens UK’s Human Rights

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 13, 2020
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A man wheels his suitcase across Westminster Bridge looking towards the Houses of Parliament, at would normally be rush hour as the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus continues in London, March 30, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Frank Augstein

More than 40,000 people dead. Hard decisions about how to relax a lockdown that has confined millions to their homes. Covid-19 understandably continues to dominate headlines and the focus of United Kingdom policymakers.

That applies to human rights too. Coronavirus means new rights issues demand our attention, such as how to ensure access to education, protect medics and care workers, and secure privacy when tracking Covid-19 infections. The UK government has passed emergency laws giving it far-reaching powers during the outbreak, weakening safeguards for people with mental health conditions if they are detained, and relaxing standards in social care. That all requires scrutiny.

Covid-19 has also amplified longstanding rights concerns in the UK, including the failure to protect older people in the social care system, inadequate government support for domestic violence survivors, the many people who depend on food banks to feed their families, and the rising number of homeless people.

May 20, 2019 Report Nothing Left in the Cupboards

Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food in the UK

We shouldn’t forget the policies that have exacerbated the impact of this pandemic: a decade of economic austerity and deep cuts to public services. An openly hostile immigration policy. Unsafe housing and unequal justice.

We must not lose sight of vital rights issues beyond the pandemic, notably the Windrush scandal, where UK government policies deeply damaged the lives of Black Britons, and the lack of justice for the victims of overseas war crimes and torture by British forces.

There remains a real risk that this government will try to weaken our human rights in the future, whether through Brexit or undermining domestic human rights laws.  

It’s vital that Parliament, media, civil society, and the courts hold the UK government to account over its response to the pandemic and its impact on human rights.

That should include lasting solutions beyond the pandemic.

If authorities can find temporary shelter for hundreds of homeless people during this crisis, they should be able to do so permanently. If the government can help feed children in deprived areas during Covid-19-related school closures, it can surely do the same during regular term time. And if help is given to survivors of domestic violence attacks under lockdown, authorities should be able to address the severe shortage of refuge places in ordinary times. 

At some point, Covid-19 will no longer be a public health emergency. When that moment comes, we must be ready to tackle the other human rights challenges the country faces.

Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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A man wears a mask while walking in front of closed businesses on Grant Avenue in Chinatown in San Francisco, Saturday, March 21, 2020. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Jeff Chiu (New York) – Governments should take urgent steps to prevent racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination linked to the Covid-19 pandemic while prosecuting racial attacks against Asians and people of Asian descent, Human Rights Watch today. On May 8, 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “the pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” and urged governments to “act now to strengthen the immunity of our societies against the virus of hate.”

Government leaders and senior officials in some instances have directly or indirectly encouraged hate crimes, racism, or xenophobia by using anti-Chinese rhetoric. Several political parties and groups, including in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and Germany have also latched onto the Covid-19 crisis to advance anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories that demonize refugees, foreigners, prominent individuals, and political leaders.

“Racism and physical attacks on Asians and people of Asian descent have spread with the Covid-19 pandemic, and government leaders need to act decisively to address the trend,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “Governments should act to expand public outreach, promote tolerance, and counter hate speech while aggressively investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.”

The UN committee responsible for monitoring compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which 182 countries have ratified, has recommended that governments adopt “national action plans against racial discrimination.” Plans should lay out specific approaches to combat racism and discrimination, from enhanced policing of hate crimes to public messaging and education programming encouraging tolerance. Governments need to take urgent action to adopt new action plans to address the wave of Covid-19 racism and xenophobia.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Asians and people of Asian descent have been targets of derogatory language in media reports and statements by politicians as well as on social media platforms, where hate speech related to Covid-19 also appears to have spread extensively. US President Donald Trump’s use of the term “Chinese virus” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of “Wuhan virus” may have encouraged the use of hate speech in the US. Although by late March Trump stepped back from using the term and issued a tweet in support of “our Asian-American community,” he has not directed any specific governmental response toward protecting Asians and people of Asian descent.

The governor of the Veneto region of Italy, an early epicenter of the pandemic, told journalists in February that the country would be better than China in handling the virus due to Italians’ “culturally strong attention to hygiene, washing hands, taking showers, whereas we have all seen the Chinese eating mice alive.” He later apologized. Brazil’s education minister ridiculed Chinese people in a tweet suggesting that the pandemic was part of the Chinese government’s “plan for world domination.”

Increases in racist rhetoric have coincided with increases in racist attacks. Since February, Asians and people of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to attacks and beatings, violent bullying, threats, racist abuse, and discrimination that appear linked to the pandemic.

In Italy, the civil society group Lunaria since February has collected over 50 reports and media accounts of assaults, verbal harassment, bullying, and discrimination against people of Asian descent. Human rights and other groups in France, Australia, and Russia have also told Human Rights Watch of Covid-19-related attacks and harassment of people of Asian descent.

In the UK, Asian people have been punched in the face and taunted, accused of spreading coronavirus. Two women attacked Chinese students in Australia, punching and kicking one and yelling “Go back to China” and “you fucking immigrants.” Two men attacked a Chinese-American in Spain and beat him so badly that he was in a coma for two days. A man with a knife attacked a Burmese family in Texas.

In Africa, there have been reports of discrimination and attacks on Asian people accused of carrying coronavirus, as well as foreigners generally, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. In Brazil, the media have reported harassment and shunning of people of Asian descent.

In some instances, governments have imposed strict lockdowns that indiscriminately affect only foreign workers without providing adequate health care, financial assistance, or other services that many workers now need to survive. In early May, the Malaysian authorities carried out mass raids to detain refugees and migrant workers, suggesting without basis that the migrant community and Rohingya refugees were responsible for the spread of Covid-19.

Across the Middle East, persistent racist rhetoric in public discourse against foreign workers intensified after several Covid-19 outbreaks occurred in densely populated segregated areas for foreign workers, most of whom are Asian.

Discrimination against Chinese people has also been reported in South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia.

Discrimination hasn’t been limited to Asians or people of Asian descent. In India and Sri Lanka, where leaders have done little to stop rising anti-Muslim discrimination in recent years, many apparent Covid-19-related cases of attacks and discrimination against Muslims have been reported. In Myanmar, ultra-nationalist leaders have used the pandemic to justify threats and hate speech against Muslims.

In Guangzhou in China, there have been growing numbers of cases of racial discrimination against Africans. Guangzhou authorities have forced Africans and people of African descent to quarantine or demanded that building owners evict them from apartments or hotels.

“Repeatedly and publicly condemning racism is an important part of any government’s response to the coronavirus,” Sifton said. “Governments also need to adopt special public education initiatives, strengthen policing of hate crimes, and offer support to communities victimized by discrimination and racially motivated attacks. Social media companies should robustly monitor online space to prevent or mitigate the spread of hate speech and xenophobic content.”

Country-Specific Cases

United States

Anti-Asian incidents have continued in the US since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with numerous media reports in February and March about attacks and discrimination linked to Covid-19. By late April, a coalition of Asian-American groups that had created a reporting center called STOP AAPI HATE said it had received almost 1,500 reports of incidents of racism, hate speech, discrimination, and physical attacks against Asians and Asian-Americans.

In one typical incident, a Chinese-American reported “I was on the phone with my mom speaking in Mandarin when a woman walked by and yelled ‘get this corona virus chink away from me,’ directed at me.”

At least 125 of the incidents reported were physical attacks. Among the reported incidents: “A truck drove by and threw a [fast food franchise] drink on my back and yelled ‘Hey chink, you’re fucking nasty.’” In another, an Asian-American waiting for a bus said a man:

began berating me. I ignored him … [then] an object of substantial weight was thrown at me with high velocity – missing me but impacting the side of the bus with a sickening ‘thwack.’ Instantly, I sobered to an awareness in the amount of trauma the object would have caused if it had struck my head.

The group also reported hundreds of cases in which Asian-Americans were harassed in public or barred from businesses or transportation, yelled at in supermarkets, accused of “bringing coronavirus” to the US, or refused transport in car services like Uber or Lyft.

On May 4, the Anti-Defamation League released a list of near-daily incidents of racist attacks and cases of harassment from January through early May. For instance, on May 3, a stranger shouted at an Asian man on the New York subway “You’re infected China boy, you need to get off the train” and then attempted to pull the man out of his seat.

From March through early May, there were numerous public reports of violent physical attacks on Asian Americans including in California, Minnesota, New York, and Texas. NextShark, a website focused on Asian-American news, only received a few messages per day before the pandemic about cases involving anti-Asian bias; now it receives dozens.

Senior members of several Asian-American and other nongovernmental organizations have told Human Rights Watch that many members of the Asian-American community they work with have experienced abuse or harassment, or know someone who has.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other federal agencies have not taken any specific actions to address the rise in racist attacks and discrimination, although several state and local governments have set up hotlines and directed authorities to investigate cases of attacks or discrimination.

United Kingdom

Several violent attacks against people of Asian descent were reported when the Covid-19 outbreak began in the UK in February, including several physical attacks or beatings.

In early May, Sky News reported that data it had obtained through Freedom of Information requests to various regional UK police forces showed at least 267 anti-Asian hate crimes recorded across the country between January and March. In many jurisdictions, the figures for the first three months of 2020 were higher than all of 2018 or 2019. The figures from the British Transport Police between January and March, for instance, showed anti-Asian (or “anti-Chinese”) hate crime incidents matching the total number of complaints during all of 2019.

Stop Hate UK, an anti-racism group, reported in March that it had received increasing numbers of calls or reports of “racism, discrimination, and verbal abuse, arising from perceptions that they are members of the Chinese community.”

The senior-most UK police official responsible for hate crime nationally has stated publicly that police forces are monitoring anti-Asian hate crime and take such crimes seriously. In a recent release of crime statistics generally during the Covid-19 outbreak, however, police authorities focused on crime decreasing generally, without noting the rise in anti-Asian hate crime or indicating steps they are taking to stop it.

Several of the country’s local police forces did not provide information to the Sky News Freedom of Information requests about Covid-19-related hate crimes. This raises concerns about whether they are collecting data on anti-Asian hate crimes and whether they are monitoring and disaggregating hate crime by ethnicity, despite clear official guidance to do so.

Russia

On about February 20, after Russia banned Chinese citizens from entering the country, the state-owned transport company Mosgortrans began ordering drivers of public transport in Moscow to report Chinese passengers to the police. Staff stopped many passengers perceived to be Asian and asked for identification and the number of their metro pass to track their movements. The Chinese embassy sent a letter to the Moscow government on February 24 asking them to take steps to stop the discriminatory practice. During the last week of February, well before Moscow was placed under lockdown, police raided several locations to identify Chinese citizens and force them into quarantine, regardless of their travel histories.

The Russian group SOVA, which monitors xenophobia and racism, told Human Rights Watch that there had been increased attacks against Asians since February. It also reported a “wave of insulting and racist commentary directed at Chinese people and natives of Central Asia on social media” in relation to Covid-19.

A media report by Lenta on March 29 detailed several accounts, including cases of people yelling at Asians or Central Asians on the subway or in public, asserting that “the Chinese brought coronavirus to this country.” Through March, there were also reported incidents of discriminatory actions against Asian-looking people in Nizhnevartovsk, Ekaterinburg, Tatarstan, and Makhachkala, among other places.

Australia

A spate of cases of racist abuse and attacks and vandalism against people of Asian descent have been reported across the country since the outbreak of Covid-19. For example, there were reports in late March in Sydney of cases in which “Death to dog eaters” was painted in front of an Asian man’s house and of people screaming racist abuse at two sisters, calling them “Asian dogs” who “brought Coronavirus here” and “dumb whore.”

Near Melbourne, also in late March, a Chinese-Australian family’s suburban home was targeted with racist vandalism three times in the space of a week: on March 20, the family found the words “COVID-19 China die” spray painted on the door of their garage. Late the following night, an unidentified person threw a large rock though one of their windows. On March 29, the door of their garage was again spray painted, this time with the words “leave and die.”

On April 15, 2 women in a group attacked 2 female Chinese students at Melbourne University, yelling racist statements such as, “Go back to China” and “you fucking immigrants.” One of the women repeatedly punched one of the students in the head and, after pushing her to the ground, kicked her in the torso several times.

A survey focusing on Covid-19-related racism against Asians and Asian-Australians recorded 178 incidents during the first two weeks of April countrywide. The survey, by the community group Asian Australian Alliance, has received about 12 reports a day since April 2, ranging from racial slurs to physical assault. The majority of racist incidents reported – 62 percent – were against women. Australia’s Human Rights Commission also reported a spike in complaints about racist attacks. The Australian National University created a “prejudice census” to better collect information about the surge of incidents linked to Covid-19.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has criticized Covid-19-related racist attacks, telling Australians to simply “stop it.” Alan Tudge, Australia’s acting minister for immigration and multicultural affairs, also strongly condemned the rise in racist attacks, and a Labor parliament member, Andrew Giles, and other opposition leaders have called for the government to restart a national anti-racism campaign.

India

Hate speech against Muslims, already a serious and growing problem since the election of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2015, increased in connection with the spread of Covid-19.

In April, social media and WhatsApp groups were flooded by calls for social and economic boycotts of Muslims, including by BJP supporters. Several physical attacks on Muslims have also occurred, including of volunteers distributing relief material, amid falsehoods accusing them of spreading the virus deliberately.

Hate speech against Muslims appears to have grown after Indian authorities announced that a large number of Muslims had tested positive for Covid-19 after attending a mass religious congregation in Delhi, organized by the international Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat. BJP officials fanned the flames by calling the Jamaat meeting a “Talibani crime” and “CoronaTerrorism.” Some mainstream media supportive of the BJP have used terms like #CoronaJihad, causing the hashtag to go viral on social media.

The situation grew so serious that the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement of caution, noting that “it is very important that we do not profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not explicitly condemned hate speech against Muslims, but tweeted “COVID19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language, or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.” But Indian authorities at the national and local level have not taken adequate steps to stem the increasingly toxic atmosphere or conduct adequate investigations of attacks where appropriate.

Sri Lanka

Several government officials have made stigmatizing public comments about Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community in the context of the pandemic, as hate speech has been reported across the country. This includes claims that Muslims are responsible for deliberately spreading the pandemic, along with calls for boycotts of Muslim businesses. Muslim organizations wrote to the government on April 12 to draw attention to an increase in hate speech in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government issued a rule on March 27 that anyone who dies from Covid-19 complications must be cremated, which is at odds with Islam religious practice. The WHO has said that cremation should be “a matter of cultural choice and available resources,” and is not necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Four UN special rapporteurs issued a communication on April 8 finding that the rule was a violation of freedom of religion and also drawing attention to anti-Muslim hate speech and the stigmatization of Muslims who had tested positive for Covid-19. A Muslim man, Ramzy Razeek, who wrote against the cremation rule on Facebook, received death threats. When he complained to the police, he was arrested on April 9.

International Legal Obligations

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination obligates countries to “condemn racial discrimination” and undertake measures aimed at “eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races” while undertaking “not to sponsor, defend, or support racial discrimination by any persons or organizations.” Countries need to “prohibit and bring to an end, by all appropriate means ... racial discrimination by any persons, group, or organization” and “discourage anything which tends to strengthen racial division.”

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), set up to monitor the treaty’s provisions, has stated in a general recommendation on combating racist hate speech that “[f]ormal rejection of hate speech by high-level public officials and condemnation of the hateful ideas expressed play an important role in promoting a culture of tolerance and respect.” The CERD committee recommends that governments undertake “information campaigns and educational policies calling attention to the harms produced by racist hate speech,” and that training for police and legal systems is “essential” to foster “familiarization with international norms protecting freedom of opinion and expression and norms protecting against racist hate speech.”

Given the upsurge in anti-Asian and other racism and xenophobia related to the Covid-19 pandemic, all governments should adopt new action plans to address emerging forms of discrimination and xenophobia tailored to the new and changing circumstances, Human Rights Watch said. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights outlined best strategies for adopting action plans in a set of guidelines released in 2014.

Afghanistan: Attack on Hospital a War Crime

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 12, 2020
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Security forces patrol as smokes rises from a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, after gunmen attacked leading to shootout with the police and killing several people, May 12, 2020. 

 

© 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

(New York) – The attack by unidentified assailants on a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 12, 2020 shows blatant disregard for civilian life and is an apparent war crime, Human Rights Watch said today. A suicide bombing attack and ensuing gun battles killed at least 13 civilians, including 2 infants, and wounded at least 15. More than 80 patients, including children, were evacuated from the hospital. 

No armed group claimed responsibility for the attack on the hospital, whose maternity clinic is supported by the international aid organization Médecins San Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The Taliban have denied involvement. The Dasht-e Barchi neighborhood in Kabul, where the hospital is located, is predominantly Shia and has been the location of a number of attacks by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, a group affiliated with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

“An attack on a maternity clinic is simply unspeakable,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Right Watch. “This attack is the latest incident of an armed group in Afghanistan targeting patients, healthcare workers, and medical facilities.”

Deliberate attacks on health care in Afghanistan have increased sharply since 2017. Insurgents, including both affiliates of ISIS and the Taliban, have been responsible for many of these incidents, although the Afghan national security forces have also raided clinics, killing and assaulting medical workers and patients.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war – applicable to the armed conflict in Afghanistan – protects patients, including wounded soldiers, and all medical personnel from attack. Hospitals and other medical facilities are also protected from attack unless they are being used for offensive military operations. Commanders and combatants who wilfully violate these protections are responsible for war crimes. Fighters who may have dressed as doctors or other medical personnel would be committing the war crime of perfidy – feigning civilian status to carry out an attack.

“Those paying the price when armed groups attack medical facilities are not just the patients and medical staff but all Afghans, including children, who are denied essential care when hospitals cannot function,” Gossman said. “In the midst of a pandemic, Afghanistan needs its medical facilities more than ever.”

 

Peru: Law Protects Abusive Policing

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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Riot police walk in front of the closed congress building in Lima, Peru, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Martin Mejia (Washington, DC) – Peru recently enacted a law eliminating an explicit requirement that the use of force by police must be proportionate and granting police special protections against criminal prosecution, Human Rights Watch said today. This creates a real risk that police abuse will increase and can contribute to impunity for the most serious human rights violations.

“The new law on police use of force is a recipe for abuse and impunity,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of building a police force that is professional, effective, and accountable for abuses, Peru’s Congress is sending the message that police can get away with using excessive force, which could cause serious injuries or death.”

The president of Peru, the Ombudsperson’s office, the attorney general, and other institutions or groups with standing to do so should challenge the law before the Constitutional Court. Alternatively, Congress should repeal the law.

On March 27, 2020, Peru’s Congress enacted the Police Protection Act, Law No. 31012, which explicitly revokes the section of article 4 of Decree 1186 that establishes that any use of force by police to achieve a lawful law enforcement purpose must be proportionate to the threat.

Government obligations to protect the rights to life and bodily integrity include preventing excessive or arbitrary use of force by police under the principles of necessity and proportionality, as articulated in international human rights standards. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that law enforcement officers shall, as much as possible, use nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, and that they “may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective.” They also stress that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall … exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved” (emphasis added).

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has affirmed this principle in several rulings, including a 2015 decision on an extrajudicial execution case in Peru, in which it asserted that state agents may only use force when strictly necessary to achieve a legitimate aim, and that, when using force, state agents should use means and methods that are proportional “to the resistance exerted and the existing danger.”

The new law ambiguously states that it does not apply when police officers use force “in contravention of” the Peruvian Constitution and international human rights norms “recognized by the Peruvian State and this law.” However, by revoking the legal provision that codified human rights standards, it directly undermines those very norms, Human Rights Watch said.

The new law also establishes a presumption that police actions are lawful by binding judges to interpret “in favor of the police” the determination of whether the police actions were “reasonable,” given the circumstances and what the officer knew at the time. The law also limits judges’ authority to order the pretrial detention of police officers accused of causing injuries or deaths through the illegal use of force.

These legal changes amplify existing problems with an article in Peru’s penal code, which the law changed just slightly. The article says that the police and armed forces cannot be held criminally responsible for causing injuries or even death “when fulfilling their constitutional duty” and using their weapons “in accordance with regulations.”

In a September 2019 ruling, Peru’s Constitutional Court had held that officers must respect the use of force rules established by international legal instruments, follow the principles of proportionality and necessity, and use the minimum force necessary to achieve their law enforcement objective.

The court also said that it would not be appropriate to establish “particular criteria” for police officers when determining whether pretrial detention is justified, and that judges should apply the same rules to police officers as to anyone else, as provided for in Peruvian law and international standards.

Peru’s Congress passed the Police Protection Act despite the opposition of the ministry of justice, which concluded that it undermined the principle of proportionality and, in the ministry’s view, “limited the autonomy” of judges. President Martín Vizcarra did not sign the new law, but congressional rules allow the head of the legislature to enact a law 15 days after its passage if the president has not formally sent objections and requested its reconsideration. 

On April 9, the government adopted a state of emergency decree to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic that suspended some constitutional rights and gave police and the armed forces exceptional search powers and the power to restrict people’s movements to ensure compliance with social distancing rules. As of April 6, Peruvian security forces had arrested 52,000 people, for a few hours, for violating social distancing rules.

“At a time when police and the armed forces have emergency powers to ensure compliance with social distancing and other measures against the coronavirus, accountability for any abuse of those powers is critically important,” Vivanco said. “The new law makes that much harder.”

Lockdown Should Not Discriminate Against Migrants, Refugees

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 12, 2020
April 22, 2020 Video Greece: Refugees Working to Protect Moria Camp from Covid-19

A group of refugees in Moria camp formed the Moria Corona Awareness Team (MCAT) to spread awareness and protect the camp from Covid-19. Footage courtesy of ReFOCUS Media Labs FB/IG: @refocusmedialabs TW: @refocusmedialab

The Greek government has begun easing lockdown measures, given the country’s success in keeping Covid-19 under control. Starting last week, people could leave their homes without authorization, most shops have re-opened, and older students have returned to the classroom.

However, the same is not true for asylum seekers or migrants living in accommodation allocated for migrants, either on the Greek mainland or in the overcrowded reception centers on the Aegean islands.

On Sunday, the government said it would extend lockdown measures in those centers until May 21, saying “urgent reasons of public interest … make it necessary to take measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 in areas of overcrowding, such as the RICs [reception centers] and the structures hosting third-country nationals.”

While taking steps to contain Covid-19 infections is key, Greek leaders should treat everyone – including migrants and asylum seekers – the same, without discrimination. And while restrictions on freedom of movement to protect public health can be necessary and justified, they have to be backed by scientific evidence.

These restrictions have no such grounding. By May 11, 2,726 Covid-19 cases and 151 deaths have been reported in Greece. This includes 11 cases in the local population on the islands hosting asylum seekers, according to media reports. No cases have yet been identified in the island camps.

In fact, Greek authorities, despite financial support from the European Commission, have not taken basic steps to protect the people in these centers from Covid-19. They haven’t addressed the overcrowding and lack of health care, or the lack of access to adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene products like soap. Despite announcing on April 16 that it would transfer 2,380 people from the island camps, to date the government has transferred only 823 people. As of May 6, 34,052 people lived in the camps on the Greek Aegean islands – over 6 times their capacity.

Additionally, in 2 newly established migrant facilities on the mainland, in Malakassa and Serres, over 2,000 newly arrived people have been kept in forced quarantine since March in unsanitary and cramped conditions, without evidence that any of them have contracted the coronavirus. The World Health Organization recommends a 14-day isolation period.

The Greek government should continue to reduce crowding at camps, lift arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on migrants’ freedom of movement, and protect their health.

Israel: Discriminatory Land Policies Hem in Palestinians

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 12, 2020
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Jisr al-Zarqa, the only Palestinian town in Israel on the Mediterranean, bordered to the south by an earthen berm separating it from the predominantly Jewish town of Caesarea; to the north by Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, with its fish ponds; and to the east by Highway 2. Aerial photography taken between 2011 and 2015. 

© Lowshot Ltd

(Jisr al-Zarqa) – The Israeli government’s policy of boxing in Palestinian communities extends beyond the West Bank and Gaza to Palestinian towns and villages inside Israel, Human Rights Watch said today. The policy discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel and in favor of Jewish citizens, sharply restricting Palestinians’ access to land for housing to accommodate natural population growth.

Decades of land confiscations and discriminatory planning policies have confined many Palestinian citizens to densely populated towns and villages that have little room to expand. Meanwhile, the Israeli government nurtures the growth and expansion of neighboring predominantly Jewish communities, many built on the ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. Many small Jewish towns also have admissions committees that effectively bar Palestinians from living there.

“Israeli policy on both sides of the Green Line restricts Palestinians to dense population centers while maximizing the land available for Jewish communities,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East executive director at Human Rights Watch. “These practices are well-known when it comes to the occupied West Bank, but Israeli authorities are also enforcing discriminatory land practices inside Israel.”

The Israeli state directly controls 93 percent of the land in the country, including occupied East Jerusalem. A government agency, the Israel Land Authority (ILA), manages and allocates these state lands. Almost half the members of its governing body belong to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose explicit mandate is to develop and lease land for Jews and not any other segment of the population. The fund owns 13 percent of Israel’s land, which the state is mandated to use “for the purpose of settling Jews.”

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The Palestinian town of Jisr al-Zarqa and neighboring predominantly Jewish communities. Data from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.  Satellite image recorded on October 27, 2019. 

© Planet Labs 2020

Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute 21 percent of the country’s population, but Israeli and Palestinian rights groups estimated in 2017 that less than 3 percent of all land in Israel falls under the jurisdiction of Palestinian municipalities. The majority of Palestinians in Israel live in these communities, although some live in “mixed cities” like Haifa and Acre.

In preparing this report, Human Rights Watch compared neighboring Palestinian towns and Jewish or Jewish-majority communities in 3 of Israel’s 6 districts, interviewing 25 current and former local municipal officials, representatives of regional planning councils, residents, and planners. Human Rights Watch also visited each location and reviewed land records and aerial photography. Human Rights Watch received a substantive response from the Israeli Planning Administration (IPA) to its findings.

Beginning in 1948 and in subsequent decades, Israeli authorities seized hundreds of thousands of dunams of land from Palestinians (10 dunams equals 1 hectare). Much of the confiscation took place between 1949, when Israel placed most Palestinians in Israel under military rule, and 1966, when military rule ended. During this period, Israeli authorities confined Palestinians in Israel to dozens of enclaves and severely restricted their movement. They also used various military regulations and new laws to seize land belonging to Palestinians who had become refugees or Palestinian citizens who were internally displaced, including by declaring land to be “absentee property,” taking it over, and later converting it to state land. One historian estimates that of the 370 Jewish towns and villages established by the Israeli government between 1948 and 1953, 350 were built on land confiscated from Palestinians.

Land policies in more recent years have not only failed to reverse the earlier land seizures, but in many cases further restricted the land available for residential growth. Since 1948, the government has authorized the creation of more than 900 “Jewish localities” in Israel, but none for Palestinians except for a handful of government-planned townships and villages in the Negev and Galilee, created largely to concentrate previously dispersed Bedouin communities.

In the 1970s, Israeli authorities brought Palestinian towns and villages into the state’s centralized planning system, but planning processes have not significantly increased the land available for residential building. The authorities have zoned large sections of Palestinian towns and villages for “agricultural” use or as “green” areas, prohibited residential building in them, and built road and other infrastructure projects that impede expansion. A 2003 Israeli government-commissioned report found that “many Arab towns and villages were surrounded by land designated for purposes such as security zones, Jewish regional councils, national parks and nature reserves or highways, which prevent or impede the possibility of their expansion in the future.”

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The population density of the Palestinian town of Jisr al-Zarqa and of the predominantly Jewish communities it borders to the north and south. Satellite image recorded on October 27, 2019. 

© Planet Labs 2020

These restrictions create density problems and a housing crunch in Palestinian communities. The Arab Center for Alternative Planning, based in Israel, told Human Rights Watch that it estimates that 15 to 20 percent of homes in Palestinian towns and villages lack permits, some because owners’ applications were rejected and others because they did not apply knowing that authorities would reject their requests on the grounds that they were contrary to the existing zoning. The group estimates that 60,000 to 70,000 homes in Israel, excluding Jerusalem, are at risk of full demolition. A 2017 amendment to Israel’s 1965 Planning and Building Law, known as the “Kaminitz Law,” increases “enforcement and penalization of planning and building offenses.” As of July 2015, 97 percent of Israel’s 1,348 judicial demolition orders in force were for structures located in Palestinian towns.

By contrast, in the cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, planning authorities provided sufficient land and zoning permissions to similarly-situated, predominantly Jewish communities to facilitate their growth.

In responding to questions submitted by Human Rights Watch, a senior official in the IPA disputed that Israel hems in Palestinian towns and villages. The IPA, she said, has approved or is currently preparing master plans for 119 of the 132 Palestinian localities in Israel. Based on these plans, authorities approved 160,000 housing units in these areas between 2012 and 2019, including 42,000 in 2019, and “legaliz[ed] thousands of existing structures,” she said.

While these efforts have resulted in some residential development in certain towns, much has yet to be implemented, with many projects still requiring further approvals to come to fruition – and they have done little to date to change the reality of hemmed-in Palestinian towns and villages.

Israeli law permits towns in the Negev and Galilee (which comprise two-thirds of the land in Israel) with up to 400 households to maintain admissions committees that can reject applicants from living there for being “not suitable for the social life of the community” or for incompatibility with the “social-cultural fabric.” This authority effectively permits the exclusion of Palestinians from small Jewish towns, which Adalah, a human rights group based in Haifa, estimated in 2014 make up 43 percent of all towns in Israel, albeit a far smaller percentage of the country’s population. In a 2015 study, Yosef Jabareen, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, found that there are more than 900 small Jewish towns, including kibbutzim, across Israel that can restrict who can live there and have no Palestinian citizens living in them.

Human Rights Watch documented in 2008 discriminatory Israeli policies and practices that left tens of thousands of Palestinian Bedouins in southern Israel living in “unrecognized” informal settlements, where their homes face the constant threat of demolition, and in 2010, discriminatory planning in a Palestinian village near Tel Aviv.

International human rights law prohibits racial and ethnic discrimination, condemns “racial segregation,” and safeguards the right to adequate housing. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESR), which Israel has ratified, requires states to ensure that policies and legislation progressively realize the right to adequate housing for all segments of society. The body tasked with interpreting the covenant has said that “enjoyment of this right must … not be subject to any form of discrimination” and that “increasing access to land by landless or impoverished segments of the society should constitute a central policy.”

To address the housing shortage among Palestinian citizens of Israel and the legacy of land confiscation from Palestinian towns and villages, Israeli authorities should prioritize the growth needs of Palestinian communities in the zoning process, allocate state land to and expand Palestinian towns, and eliminate the legal loophole that permits discrimination by admissions committees.

“Israeli land policies treat towns inside its own borders in starkly unequal terms based on whether its inhabitants are Jewish or Palestinian,” Goldstein said. “After decades of confiscating Palestinians’ land, Israel confines them to crowded towns while enabling neighboring Jewish towns that exclude them to flourish.” 

Planning in Israel

Israeli law centralizes planning under the central government – historically the Interior Ministry, but that largely shifted to the Finance Ministry in 2015. The 1965 Planning and Building Law creates a three-tiered hierarchy of planning bodies that draw up and carry out master plans at the national, district, and local levels. At the highest level, the National Board for Planning and Building prepares national master plans, expressing a national vision for everything from land use to development, and submits it to the government for approval. Based on the national plan, district and local commissions formulate local plans.

While the planning process is designed to provide opportunity for engagement at the regional and local levels, in practice it marginalizes Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose representation in government planning bodies is far smaller than their proportion of the overall population and whose needs are rarely prioritized. Outside of the government committees, the only option for individuals to offer input is by filing objections to particular plans.

Israeli Government Response

The IPA wrote in a March 18 letter to Human Rights Watch that it disagrees that “Israeli policy restricts and confines Arab towns and villages.” It notes that it has “put a great deal of effort into planning through the entire hierarchy of planning institutions in order to advance and strengthen Arab communities” and has created “tremendous planning momentum in these communities.”

The IPA attributes the challenges of planning in these communities, including the “many unutilized agricultural enclaves,” primarily to the high percentage of privately owned land, estimating that about 20 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land. It further cites “a short supply of land for public use … large-scale unregulated building … challenging topographical conditions” and the prevalence of spread-out single-family dwellings, which “precludes solutions for young couples” and leads to “multi-generational construction,” “forcing the authorities to deliver infrastructure over an expansive area.”  

The IPA claims its recent planning efforts address these challenges by “legalizing thousands of existing housing units” and allocating “state-owned land that would allow large-scale construction of housing units” and “public spaces needed for these additional housing units.” The result, according to the IPA, is “masterplans that include new areas for development on an extremely extensive scale, and are suited to contain a number of housing units far exceeding the programmatic and demographic needs of the community.”

In December 2015, the authorities approved a 5-year, more than 10 billion NIS (US$2.93 billion) “economic development plan for the Arab sector.” Assessing progress in an “interim report” published in 2019, the Israeli group “Bimkom: Planners for Planning Rights” noted an increase in planning activity in Palestinian towns, including steps to allow for more housing construction, but observed that the housing shortage in Palestinian municipalities would continue without the state allocating them more state land.

Case Studies

Jisr Al-Zarqa (Haifa District)

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Jisr al-Zarqa, with fish ponds belonging to Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael in the distance. Aerial photography taken between 2011 and 2015. 

© Lowshot Ltd

Jisr al-Zarqa, between Netanya and Haifa in northwest Israel, is the only Palestinian town in Israel on the Mediterranean coast. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics lists its population as 14,700. Jisr al-Zarqa, a local council in the Haifa District with a size of about 1,600 dunams, is one of Israel’s poorest towns, with about 80 percent of residents living below the poverty line.

Policies of Israeli governments and institutions under the British mandate dating back almost a century have effectively boxed in its residents. In the early 1920s, the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, drained the swamps, from which local residents derived their livelihood herding buffalos and weaving reed mats, to make room for new Jewish settlements. Residents say they ended with roughly their current plot of land, far less than they had historically lived on.

While largely spared the destruction and displacement that befell the nearby towns of Tantura and Qisarya during Israel’s establishment in 1948, Jisr al-Zarqa nonetheless came under military rule, as did virtually all other Palestinian towns and villages inside Israel until 1966. During this period, Israeli authorities laid the basis for hemming the town in. Planning and zoning policies in the years since have further restricted its residents’ access to land and housing.

To its north, Israeli authorities in August 1949 granted thousands of dunams of state land to the Jewish Kibbutz of Ma’agan Michael, partly around a cemetery used for years by Jisr al-Zarqa residents. Ma’agan Michael in the 1970s built fish ponds on its land that extend south to the area west of the northern section of Jisr al-Zarqa. Israeli authorities established the Taninim Stream Nature Reserve east of the ponds to protect the stream. This 470-dunam reserve, where construction is prohibited, blocks Jisr al-Zarqa from expanding to the north. Murad Ammash, the head of the Jisr al-Zarqa village council, told Human Rights Watch that 90 of the dunams of this preserve consists of land privately owned by Jisr al-Zarqa residents.

Authorities also zoned part of the area for agricultural use, forbidding residential construction. One of the people who owns land in the area designated for agricultural use, Zaem Ammash, unrelated to Murad, but who serves as a civil servant at the village council, told Human Rights Watch that he sees the land “every day, through my window – there is only one street that separates my house from this land – and yet I cannot move and live on it.”

To the east lies Highway 2, which runs north to south, separating the town from agricultural lands to the east that used to belong to residents. Israeli authorities decided to build Highway 2 in the 1960s, when Jisr al-Zarqa residents, under military rule, had little means to challenge the route. Israel took over as state land the roughly 1,600 dunams east of the highway, much of which the Jisr al-Zarqa village council say its residents own and used to farm on. Most of these lands today fall under the jurisdiction of the nearby Jewish moshav, or community that maintains cooperative practices, of Bait Hanania.

Israel has not built entrance or exit ramps off the highway for Jisr al-Zarqa. Not having a highway exit adds 15 to 20 minutes to commutes north or south and leaves 2 options to enter Jisr al-Zarqa by car. One is an underpass originally used as a water aqueduct that is only slightly wider than a single car, and the other is a road between the northern end of the village and the Taninim Stream Nature Reserve.

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The predominantly Jewish town of Caesarea bordered by Jisr al-Zarqa to the north and Jewish-majority city of Or Akiva to the east. Aerial photography taken between 2011 and 2015.

© Lowshot Ltd.

To the south, Israeli authorities in 1952 established Caesarea on the site of the Palestinian village of Qisarya. The Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary group, expelled the Qisarya residents in February 1948, according to the Israeli historian Benny Morris. Today Caesarea, which is run by the Caesarea Development Corporation, a private company, is the upscale hometown of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It includes villas, a golf course, a harbor, an archaeological site, and an industrial and business park.

For years, many Jisr al-Zarqa residents worked in Caesarea, largely as house cleaners or manual laborers. However, in 2002, the Caesarea Development Corporation built an earthen berm, 1.2 kilometers long and between 9 to 12 meters high, between Caesarea and Jisr al-Zarqa. The berm blocks the view of Jisr al-Zarqa from Caesarea. Ammash, the village council head, said the berm blocks easy access for residents working in Caesarea and “deflated the morale and hopes” of residents. The berm, he said, made them feel like the people of Caesarea “don’t consider us human beings” and want to “cover up” their existence.

To the west lies the Mediterranean. Israeli law largely prevents building within 100 meters of the coast. Adjacent to the sea, Israeli authorities established two nature reserves.

Squeezed in all directions and with a rapidly expanding population, Jisr al-Zarqa faces a major density problem, a housing crunch, and serious socioeconomic challenges. Its population density of 9,178 people per square kilometer, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, is nearly 3 times that of the predominantly Jewish nearby city of Or Akiva (3,288), more than 10 times Caesarea (807), and more than 30 times Ma’agan Michael (304). Wardah Jurban, a 26-year-old student who lives with her family of 6 in a 95-square-meter house in Jisr al-Zarqa, says the town feels so crowded that “your neighbors can see the inside of your house from their window.”

Ahmed Juha, owner of Juha’s Guesthouse, the town’s only hostel, said that when he opened it in 2014 he had to seek an exception to an Israeli law that requires a dedicated parking lot, since the nearest one is 500 meters away. The Israeli rights group Bimkom estimated in 2014 that Jisr al-Zarqa would need 730 additional housing units to solve its housing shortage at the time.

The squeeze underscores the socioeconomic challenges facing Jisr al-Zarqa, which has no industrial zone, emergency health services, post office, bank, or bank-operated ATM machine, and few public or recreational sites or facilities. It lacks basic infrastructure and services. According to the Haifa-based rights group Mossawa, less than a quarter of the town’s students graduate high school and the life expectancy of its residents is twenty years below the national average. Ammash, the village council head, said “there is no quality of life in Jisr al-Zarqa” and that to him “the goal [of such polices] is clear: to suffocate and displace us.”

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Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, built on more than 5,000 dunams of state land, and its fish ponds, border Jisr al-Zarqa to the north. Aerial photography taken between 2011 and 2015. 

© Lowshot Ltd

The stark differences with its neighbors grow directly out of discriminatory Israeli policies. The state, for example, granted the kibbutz of Ma’agan Michael more than 5,000 dunams of state land. Nir Bracha, the kibbutz’s general director, told Human Rights Watch that the state zoned less than 10 percent of its land for housing, but in several instances over time reclassified land from agricultural to residential to accommodate the kibbutz’s housing needs. Bracha noted that, to help it surmount a housing shortage in recent years, the government required it to build some taller buildings as a condition for rezoning more land for housing.

The kibbutz also manages fish ponds larger than all of Jisr al-Zarqa and has an industrial zone that includes the headquarters of the major plastics company, Plasson. On Jisr al-Zarqa, Bracha acknowledged that “historical and political issues,” in particular “keeping land for the Jews,” has left the town “squeezed.” However, Bracha also stated that Jisr al-Zarqa has benefitted from “positive discrimination” in recent years – a reference to measures the state has taken to address the squeeze.

In 2016, the Israeli authorities approved a plan to expand Highway 2, which includes moving the section abutting Jisr al-Zarqa to the east and creating entry and exit ramps for the town. In 2018, the authorities approved a master plan for Jisr al-Zarqa that would, according to the IPA, create “new development areas” in the space created by moving the highway east, including “higher-density multi-story [residential] building, as well as public spaces.” Ammash, the village council head, said this plan would provide an extra 240 dunams for Jisr al-Zarqa, though noted that it falls short of the 1,200 dunams the municipality requested in this area in 2005 based on a needs assessment it conducted. The IPA said it has proposed plans that could create 700 housing units in this area.

The IPA also said the master plan authorizes construction of 1,500 housing units in the residential core. It also rezones some “green” areas, including a section north of the town near the Nahal Taninim Reserve, to allow for residential construction and permits some residential building near the coast. The IPA has proposed plans for these areas, it says, that could create 930 housing units.  

The authorities, however, have yet to authorize construction based on them and many steps remain before they could come to fruition. In January 2019, the Transportation Ministry claimed that it lacked the 600 million NIS ($174 million) necessary to reroute Highway 2, according to minutes of a governmental meeting with Jisr al-Zarqa residents reviewed by Human Rights Watch. Ammash said Jisr al-Zarqa proposed in May 2019 to develop this land even if Highway 2 stayed in place, but the authorities denied that request on the grounds that it would affect the territorial contiguity of the town, he said. The IPA, in an email to Human Rights Watch, said they expected that when a government is formed following March 2 elections, it would discuss the highway’s diversion.

Qalansawa (Central District)

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The dense residential core of Qalansawa, a Palestinian town in central Israel, with its lands zoned for agricultural use in the background. Aerial photography taken between 2011 and 2015.

© Lowshot Ltd

The Palestinian town of Qalansawa, home to 22,800 people, is in Israel’s Central District, in a heavily Palestinian region known as the “Triangle.” Although Qalansawa has roughly 8,400 dunams within its municipal boundaries, Israeli land and planning policies have confined the residential zone to the developed city center, which is about half that size, creating both a density problem and a housing shortage.

Qalansawa lost more than half its land as a result of the events around the establishment of Israel in 1948 and in the two decades that followed. A land survey cited in a 2017 letter by the Qalansawa municipality to the Interior Ministry reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows a land mass of 17,249 dunams, while a municipal official told Human Rights Watch that the actual size of the town’s boundaries before 1948 was closer to 30,000 dunams. Israeli authorities seized much of the land west of Qalansawa in the 1950s and 1960s, as documented in a 1976 publication by Palestinian lawyer and scholar in Israel Sabri Jiryis, during the period of Israeli military rule over most of the Palestinian population in Israel, including through laws allowing it to take control of land it designated as “absentee property.”

During the same period, Israel also began building infrastructure projects on Qalansawa’s territory, further limiting the land available for expansion. The first of these projects, a water pipeline system built in the 1960s, cuts a roughly 2.5-kilometer-long, 50-meter-wide swath through the city, according to Nadi Tayeh, the engineer in charge of planning for the municipality. The pipeline, at the western edge of the residential area, effectively demarcates the edge of the town’s residential core.

Israeli authorities in the 1990s built an electricity line through the city’s territory. The Popular Committee for the Defense of Land and Housing in Qalansawa, a grass-roots group that works on land-related issues, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli law prohibits building within a 150 meter zone around the line, which runs for 3.5 kilometers and reduces the land where residents can build by 500 dunams. They said that authorities have issued demolition orders for about 25 homes and 20 commercial structures allegedly built within the 150-meter zone. Tayeh, the municipal official, believes that the lines devalue land in the zone by 60 to 70 percent and worries about the safety and health risks for those living there.

Israeli authorities also prohibit building near the Alexander River, which flows through the municipality, including through the center of the residential area, for about four kilometers. The Popular Committee estimates that the prohibition, which covers 75 meters on each bank in the agriculture zone, and 35 in the residential zone, further reduces the land where residents can build by 500 dunams.

Israeli authorities only began formal planning in Qalansawa in the 1970s and until 2017 had not approved a comprehensive plan for the municipality, the Popular Committee said. Planning decisions have significantly restricted the land available for residential use. Most significantly, Israeli authorities zoned virtually all of north Qalansawa and parts of the east and west – a total of about 4,200 dunams, or half the municipality – for agriculture use and prohibited building of residential units there.

A 31-year-old Qalansawa resident said that her family owns a 400-square-meter property in an area restricted to agricultural use, only a few meters from the residential zone. She hoped to build their family house there, but, despite years of efforts through the municipality and directly with planning authorities, they were unable to change the classification of the land and instead moved to a nearby Palestinian village.

Mohammad Odeh, a 52-year-old father of 3, said he decided in 2015 to build a home on property he owns in an agricultural area despite not having a permit, to move out of what he described as the “storage closet” he lived in, which leaked and had an insect infestation. He received a demolition order within months of beginning construction in 2016. He filed a legal challenge, has organized demonstrations, and even recorded a video that went viral suggesting he would kill himself if the demolition were carried out. He lives in his unfinished home with the threat of demolition looming.

Tayeh, the municipal engineer, said that 600 to 700 structures – including some homes – in the agricultural zone face demolition orders for being built without a permit. Some residents in the residential center also never applied for building permits, in many cases because their homes do not comply with Israeli regulations, usually because they expanded in a way not allowed under the plan. The Popular Committee estimates that about 7,500 Qalansawa residents, or 30 percent of the population, do not own land in the town and struggle to make ends meet, while another 35 percent own property, but need to expand to accommodate their family’s needs.

During the process that led to approving Qalansawa’s first master plan in 2017, residents, activists, and municipal officials say they filed more than 4,000 objections to the plan. These objections included requests to rezone much of the agricultural land, allocate 1,200 dunams of state land near Qalansawa to the municipality, relocate the electricity line outside the municipality, and block plans to build 2 roads through Qalansawa’s territory.

In response, the authorities in 2016 amended Israel’s national plan to approve in principle rezoning 2,800 dunams in the agricultural zone for residential use. This amendment, though, was not reflected in the master plan for Qalansawa, meaning it could take a decade or more before any residential building can start, given all the approvals required, the Popular Committee said. It also noted that under the master plan, the state did not allocate any state land to Qalansawa and did not relocate state infrastructure projects.

The IPA says it has approved building 2,400 housing units in Qalansawa over the past 5 years and that the authorities are preparing “a new policy document” that could facilitate additional growth.

While Israeli authorities have demolished only a small number of homes in Qalansawa – 25 according to the Popular Committee, including owners who demolished their own structures in the face of demolition orders – the threat of demolition exacts a heavy cost. Tayeh links some of the town’s social ills, including drugs and crime, to youth feeling “there is no hope to build a home, family, and future in the town.”

Abu Ameed Makhlouf, a 60-year-old father of 9, said that in 2017, authorities demolished 2 homes he built for his sons on the grounds that he lacked a permit, and that another son pays 2,000 NIS ($583) in monthly fines and must obtain a permit within 2 years to avoid the same outcome. He said he built without permits because “[he] didn’t have an alternative,” that the family lives “under constant stress and fear,” and that the demolitions “ruined [their] lives.”

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Sha’ar Efraim, an all-Jewish community in central Israel, just east of the Palestinian town of Qalansawa. Aerial photography taken between 2011 and 2015.

© Lowshot Ltd

Sha’ar Efraim, an all-Jewish moshav built in the 1950s, borders Qalansawa to the east. The community has an admissions committee and faces few of the challenges that confront its neighbor. Iris Engel, director of the planning and construction committee for the regional council of Lev Hasharon, which includes Sha’ar Efraim but not Qalansawa, said that the national infrastructure projects have not restricted Sha’ar Efraim’s growth. Sha’ar Efraim, in fact, built gates at its entrances and sometimes prevents non-residents from using the road passing through it. Most of the moshav’s land is zoned for residential building. No homes there currently face demolition orders, and prior plans have permitted building on agricultural land, Engel said.

Ein Mahel (Northern District)

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Ein Mahel, a Palestinian town in northern Israel, beside a neighborhood in Nof HaGalil (formerly Nazareth Illit), a city whose population is about three-fourths Jewish, one-fourth Palestinian. Satellite image recorded on February 15, 2020. 

© Planet Labs 2020

Ein Mahel, a town of about 13,000 Palestinian residents with an area of about 5,200 dunams near Nazareth in Israel’s Northern District, is surrounded on all sides by the Jewish-majority city of Nof HaGalil, which until 2019 went by the name Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth). Nof HaGalil, with nearly 33,000 dunams of land, has a population of 41,200 people, many of whom immigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s.

Formally a “mixed city,” with about 26 percent of its population now Palestinian, Israeli authorities from the outset envisioned Nazareth Illit as a “Jewish town that will assert a Jewish presence in the area,” as Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote in 1957. As the Israeli army’s then-Planning Department Director Yuval Ne’eman put it, the town would “emphasize and safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee as a whole.” Nazareth Illit constituted a key part of the government’s strategy to “Judaize the Galilee.” The then-northern military governor, Colonel Mikhael Mikhael, wrote that Nazareth Illit would “swallow up” Nazareth, a Palestinian city, and result in the “transfer of the center of gravity of life from Nazareth to the Jewish neighborhood.”

Nof HaGalil, bordering Nazareth, wholly surrounds Ein Mahel and weaves between five other Palestinian towns and villages, impeding the establishment of a larger, contiguous Palestinian municipal area.

During the period of military rule over most Palestinian citizens, including the residents of Ein Mahel, the Israeli authorities in 1957 established Nazareth Illit in part on lands they confiscated from Ein Mahel including under laws governing “absentee property,” as documented in a book by a Palestinian lawyer in Israel, Hussein Abu Hussein, and the British human rights lawyer Fiona McKay. Confiscations continued after the end of military rule, including more than 1,000 additional dunams confiscated in the mid 1970s. Ein Mahel today is about one third its original size, according to the local council.

Planning policies restrict residents to building in the roughly 2,000 dunam residential core of the village. The first plan for Ein Mahel in 1982 and second plan in 1996 zoned the majority of Ein Mahel’s land for agricultural use. Sa’ed Abu Leil, a retired teacher, said that those who live in the residential core, as he does, face a housing crunch, with many young people moving reluctantly outside the village, including to Nof HaGalil/Nazareth Illit.

The plans did create some more space for residential construction, but much of the land allocated was privately owned, Abu Leil said. Rezoning privately owned land, though, will not necessarily create housing for those who do not own land and cannot afford to buy any – who, according to Abu Leil, account for 20 to 30 percent of Ein Mahel’s population. The allocation of state land may be required to achieve that objective.

A 53-year-old dentist, Marwan Habiballah, said Israeli authorities confiscated about 11 dunams of his land in 1976 as part of a larger government confiscation of about 20,000 dunams that triggered protests that activists mark annually on March 30 as “Land Day.” He said he filed a lawsuit which resulted in an offer of financial compensation that he refused. His family owns 9 to 10 dunams of land in the agricultural zone near the built-up area, but, unable to build on it, he says he has no choice but to remain in his home on land he inherited from his grandfather in the residential core that he says is too small for his family of 6. He contemplated moving to Nof HaGalil but said he cannot afford the rent there.

Saher Abu Leil, a 40-year-old physiotherapist with a graduate degree from Tel Aviv University and a father of five, said that he left Ein Mahel, where he grew up, for Nazareth Illit in 2010 due to the housing crunch. He said he would not have moved if he could have built a home on a roughly four dunam piece of land his family owns in southeastern Ein Mahel, but authorities zoned this area for agricultural use. He sought to buy a home in Ein Mahel in 2015, but said a bank denied him a loan, contending the property would not net a good return if he defaulted.

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Nof HaGalil, a city that changed its name from Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth) in 2019. Aerial photography taken between 2011 and 2015. 

© Lowshot Ltd

While boxing in Ein Mahel, Israel authorities have allowed Nof HaGalil to grow rapidly. Building on state land and designating it a priority development area, Israeli authorities invested heavily in Nof HaGalil, including establishing the Tziporit Industrial Zone, which includes factories and a park for high-tech companies and is slated to encompass 3,560 dunams. Nof HaGalil, also home to the headquarters of the Strauss-Elite chocolate factory, receives all the local tax revenues from these industries, with none going to the town it envelops, Ein Mahel.

The authorities have also not zoned any of the city’s land for agriculture, according to the city’s general manager Hava Bachar. Ein Mahel, by contrast, has no industrial zones and few dedicated public areas. As Sa’ed Abu Leil put it, Ein Mahel is “a place to reside, but not to live.”

Thousands of Palestinian citizens have moved to Nof HaGalil in recent years, largely purchasing property from Jewish Israelis who were resettled there as immigrants and earned enough to “head for a better life in the center of the country,” according to Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook. Bachar attributes the arrival of Palestinians in Nof HaGalil to the fact that “nearby towns do not have space to grow.” She noted that Nof HaGalil gave a piece of its land for a cemetery for Ein Mahel residents, but was unwilling to “give away land,” given “our ambition to reach 100,000 citizens.” She suggested instead that Israel should build “a new city for Arab citizens.”

Bachar said that the city is “bringing in Jewish families to settle” in order to “ensure it stays Jewish.” Nof HaGalil does not have a state school to serve the roughly 3,000 school-age Palestinian children, forcing most to commute to Nazareth, since Palestinian and Jewish Israelis attend separate schools. The then-mayor in 2013 told the Washington Post that “I would rather cut off my right arm than build an Arab school.”

IPA says it is in the process of approving a comprehensive plan for Ein Mahel. An Ein Mahel official said that the village has requested that the plan rezone agricultural land to permit residential construction and allocate it state land. The draft plan, it says, would – if approved – rezone agricultural land, including some outside the town’s jurisdiction, as a residential area with 12,000 housing units, as compared with the 3,000 housing units currently in the village.

Lebanon: People with Disabilities Overlooked in Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020
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School-age children in Lebanon.

Top photos, bottom left photo: © 2017 Amanda Bailly for Human Rights Watch. Bottom center and right photos: © 2017 Sam Koplewicz for Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Lebanon’s Covid-19 response has overlooked people with disabilities, who have not been provided with accessible information about the virus or consulted in preparing the government’s emergency response plans, Human Rights Watch said today.

People with disabilities are facing barriers in getting health care. Children with disabilities cannot access remote education on an equal basis with others, and families of children with disabilities do not have the support and services they need to help them cope with the crisis.

“The Lebanese government’s Covid-19 response has completely ignored the rights and needs of people with disabilities, who were marginalized long before the virus hit,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This exclusion is robbing people with disabilities of potentially life-saving information and services that they need to weather this crisis.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed six disability rights activists and six parents of children with disabilities, all of whom said that the government’s Covid-19 response overlooked the specific needs of people with disabilities.

The government should ensure that health care is accessible to all, without discrimination. But it has not made arrangements for people with disabilities – who may frequently need health care – amid the lockdown and stay-at-home orders, despite requests by activists, the activists and parents said.

Sylvana Lakkis, president of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union, said that her organization has been receiving a large volume of calls from people with disabilities asking for help in getting necessary medication. She said that some who need respirators for underlying health conditions said they have become more difficult to find amid the restrictions.

Accessible information on the pandemic is essential for people to make life-saving decisions about how to protect themselves and to get necessities and services during quarantine and self-isolation. But the government’s television and social media information campaigns may not be accessible and none target people with disabilities, said Dr. Moussa Charafeddine, president of the Friends of the Disabled Association in Lebanon.

Private initiatives and international organizations like UNICEF have produced some material about Covid-19 that is accessible for people with disabilities, but many people with disabilities are still not getting life-saving information, said Fadia Farah from the Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA) and Lakkis, of the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union.

The government’s communication strategies should include qualified sign language interpretation for televised announcements, websites that are accessible to people with various disabilities, and telephone-based services that have text capabilities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Human Rights Watch said. Communications should use plain language to maximize understanding.

The government should urgently consult with disability-rights experts to identify potentially life-threatening gaps in its Covid-19 response, Human Rights Watch said. Officials had contacted just one of the six groups Human Rights Watch spoke to, the Learning Center for the Deaf, to draft a guide for municipalities on people with disabilities in the pandemic. But Human Rights Watch was unable to determine whether the guide was finalized or published.

Children with disabilities have also been disadvantaged by school and institution closures since February 29 that have mandated online or remote learning without accommodating the needs of children with disabilities. Most children with disabilities in Lebanon are denied enrollment in schools, and for the few who can enroll, schools lack reasonable accommodations to help them learn. Some schools have set up distance learning, but this teaching method is often not accessible or cannot accommodate the needs of children with disabilities.

March 22, 2018 Video Video: Schools Discriminate Against Children with Disabilities in Lebanon

Lebanon’s public education system discriminates against children with disabilities. Children with disabilities are often denied admission to schools because of their disability. And for those who manage to enroll, most schools do not take reasonable steps to provide them with a quality education.

Amer Makarem, from the Youth Association of the Blind, said that online classes and lessons are generally not accessible for students with visual disabilities. Some teachers are sending lessons on WhatsApp, sometimes as image files that are not accessible, he said. Nadine Ismail, from the Learning Center for the Deaf, said that remote learning is especially difficult for deaf children, who need large screens to focus and programs that allow a teacher to use sign language and show documents simultaneously.

Parents of children with developmental disabilities said that the private schools at which their children were enrolled were merely sending videos to watch at home and were not conducting one-on-one educational or therapy sessions that the children had in school. All the parents interviewed said that they had nowhere to turn for educational support.

Even before the pandemic, the government’s only option for the majority of children with disabilities was to enroll in one of about 100 specialized institutions funded by the Social Affairs Ministry. The ministry owes these institutions substantial payments, interfering with their ability to provide quality education, and the lack of government monitoring raises serious concerns about their ability, in some cases, to fulfill the children’s right to education.

Nonetheless, for many families the specialized institutions are the sole providers of learning and other services, including food and health care. Their closure has deprived children with disabilities and their families of these resources and services.

Disability rights advocates that operate some of these institutions said that the government had ordered them to close with no guidance on continuing their educational programming remotely. Dr. Weam Abou Hamdan, general director of the National Rehabilitation and Development Center, and Dr. Mousa Charafeddine, president of the Friends of the Disabled Association in Lebanon, which offers learning and rehabilitation services to children with intellectual disabilities, said that their institutions started distance learning programs on their own initiative.

Under both Lebanese and international law, all children should have access to a quality education without discrimination. The government should recognize the disproportionate impact school closures have on children with disabilities and engage in continuous social and policy discussion with educators and organizations of people with disabilities to assess needs and agree on education measures for students with various types of disabilities.

As the schools might be transitioning back to onsite learning starting June 1, the government should make equity a top priority, and include tools and guidance for schools to support students with disabilities and to provide remedial teaching. The government should also measure possible increases in drop-out rates of children with disabilities and work with advocacy organizations to ensure children return.

“The Lebanese government should urgently take into account the needs of people with disabilities,” Majzoub said. “This includes making sure they have access to information, health care, and the resources children with disabilities need to continue their education, while taking meaningful steps to make schools more inclusive.”

No Justice 10 Years After Thailand’s ‘Red Shirt’ Crackdown

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020
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Thai activists use laser projectors to display the message “Searching for the Truth,” in remembrance of the 2010 military crackdown on the “Red Shirts” protest, May 2020.

© 2020 Private

On the evening of May 10, activists in Bangkok used laser projectors to display the message “Searching for the Truth” onto walls of many downtown buildings. These symbolic actions popped up in locations where, 10 years ago, I witnessed one of Thailand’s most violent political confrontations.

It is a sign of popular support for the demand for truth about the 2010 violence that the “Searching for the Truth” hashtag is now trending on Twitter in Thailand.

Sadly, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, just like its predecessors, has no answers for those demanding justice for at least 98 people killed and more than 2,000 injured between April and May 2010.

During that time, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – known as the “Red Shirts” – held a massive, continuous street protest against the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Human Rights Watch documented the military’s use of unnecessary and excessive force. Through designating “live fire zones” around protest sites, soldiers shot unarmed protesters, medics, reporters, and bystanders, sometimes in front of the assembled media’s cameras.

We also documented that some Red Shirts – including armed militants – attacked soldiers, police, and civilians. Some protest leaders incited violence with inflammatory speeches, urging supporters to carry out arson attacks and looting.

In the decade since, the authorities have conducted no serious investigations to prosecute government officials responsible for crimes. While protest leaders and their supporters have faced serious criminal charges, successive Thai governments have made paltry efforts to hold policymakers, commanding officers, and soldiers accountable.  

Under pressure from the military, authorities made insufficient efforts to identify the soldiers and commanding officers responsible for the shootings. Criminal and disciplinary cases were dropped against former Prime Minister Abhisit, his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban, and former army chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda over their failure to prevent the wrongful use of force by the military that caused deaths and destruction of property. To add insult to injury, Thai authorities have also targeted for intimidation and prosecution witnesses and families of the victims.

Hope for impartial justice fades with each passing year. This is not only a great injustice for the victims and their families, but sends a message to all Thais that there is little to protect them from government atrocities in the future. 

Uganda: Drop Charges Against 19 Homeless Youth

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020
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Ugandan police and other security forces chase people off the streets, after police cleared a stand of motorcycle taxis which are no longer permitted to operate after all public transport was banned for two weeks to halt the spread of the new coronavirus, in Kampala, Uganda Thursday, March 26, 2020. 

© AP Photo/Ronald Kabuubi

(Kampala, Uganda) – Uganda should drop the charges against 19 people arrested while seeking refuge in a shelter for homeless youth, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the director of public prosecutions. They were charged with committing “a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease,” as well as “disobedience of lawful orders.”

The 19 young people have been in prison since police arrested them on March 29, 2020, along with four others who were later released. They were arrested on the pretext that they had violated laws used to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by staying in a group home run by the nongovernmental organization Children of the Sun Foundation, in Nsangi in Wakiso district, outside Kampala. The commissioner general of prisons has prevented lawyers from the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum from visiting them or communicating by phone or video link.

“Prosecuting authorities should drop charges and release 19 Ugandan youth who have committed no crime,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It is not a crime to be homeless and live in a shelter, and the ongoing detention of the shelter residents is arbitrary, abusive, and contrary to public health.”

The Children of the Sun Foundation shelter serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, who are vulnerable to violence and discrimination in Uganda, where same-sex relations can carry a life sentence. Three of the youth are living with HIV, and because the lawyers have not been able to contact them, it is not known whether they have antiretroviral treatment in prison. Their immunity could be compromised and they could be at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 in prison because of crowded and unhygienic conditions there, Human Rights Watch said.

The detainees have not been granted bail. On April 28, the date of a scheduled bail hearing, the magistrate and prosecutor were not in the courtroom and the detainees were not transported from prison, even though their lawyers were present and prepared to represent them. No alternative arrangements were made with the lawyers for a bail hearing. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity have called for the release of the detainees, and UNAIDS has condemned the arrests.

“In any circumstance this arbitrary detention is an injustice, and with Covid-19 it is an imminent health risk,” Segun said. “The Director of Public Prosecutions should withdraw the charges against those arrested at the Children of the Sun Foundation shelter and release them immediately.”  

Colombia Should Protect Displaced People During Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020
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A photograph sent to Human Rights Watch showing the living conditions of a displaced indigenous community in Buenaventura, Colombia. Their limited access to water and health services means that Covid-19 could spread quickly through the community.

© Private

Internally displaced people in Colombia often live in overcrowded conditions with limited access to water and food. These families, who fled violence in their home regions and often struggle economically, face further risk from Covid-19.

At least 300,000 people have fled their homes due to conflict-related violence in Colombia since 2017. Roughly 60 percent were indigenous or afro-Colombian. Among them are roughly one hundred indigenous Wounaan in Buenaventura, a western port city. In February 2017, they fled violence and child recruitment by National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas in the neighboring state of Chocó. They have since been living in a community center with limited access to water and health services, increasing the likelihood that the virus would spread quickly during an outbreak.

People cannot go to work due to the national lockdown, in place since late-March 2020, a community leader told Human Rights Watch. In 2017, the government granted them a periodic stipend due to their displacement, but as they cannot leave the community center, they cannot collect or withdraw the cash, he said. All this means they have even less ability to buy food.

Conflict-driven displacement continues during the pandemic. In early April 2020, 74 indigenous Embera families fled their homes after the ELN and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, another armed group, began fighting in the area. They fled to a nearby village and are sleeping on the floors of peoples’ houses in overcrowded conditions. They lack basic hygiene supplies, as well as sufficient food, a humanitarian worker told Human Rights Watch. Like others in the community, they rely on rain for water.

Covid-19 has hampered the often-essential work of humanitarian agencies helping displaced people in Colombia. While the Foreign Affairs Ministry told agencies in March that their work is exempted from the lockdown, many of them limited their activities to reduce the risk of contagion for their employees and the people they assist.

Colombia’s Victims Law and international standards require authorities to provide displaced people with decent shelter, essential food, potable water, and essential medical services.

The government should urgently put in place measures that fulfill these obligations, and protect displaced people’s right to health, including by providing them with food, hygiene supplies, and living facilities where they can practice safe social distancing. It should not leave some of the country’s most vulnerable people to their own devices during this pandemic.

Kyrgyzstan Should Grant Rights Defender His Freedom

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020
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Ethnic Uzbek journalist Azimzhan Askarov, who was arbitrarily arrested, tortured, convicted after an unfair trial and jailed for life looks through metal bars during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. 

© 2020 AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin

After nearly 10 years in prison, an ailing human rights defender will plead his case for freedom before Kyrgyzstan’s highest court this week.  

Azimjon Askarov, who is serving a lifetime sentence after multiple, egregious miscarriages of justice in his protracted case, has no further options for appeal. He turns 69 this month. There would be no better way for him to celebrate his birthday than walking out of prison a free man.

By law he should already have been released. The United Nations Human Rights Committee – the independent expert body that adjudicates complaints regarding violations of individual’s civil and political rights – found that in 2016, Askarov was arbitrarily detained, denied a fair trial, and tortured, and ruled he should be released immediately and his conviction quashed. A Kyrgyz court in September 2010 had found Askarov guilty of participating in mass disturbances, inciting ethnic hatred, and abetting the murder of a police officer.

There are medical and humanitarian grounds for his release too. Askarov’s health has deteriorated significantly during his imprisonment. He suffers from cardiac and respiratory conditions and has not received appropriate medical attention in prison. More worryingly, during this Covid-19 pandemic, Askarov is a member of not one, but two high-risk populations. The coronavirus disproportionately affects older people and individuals with underlying illnesses. And poor access to sanitation and health care in prison and proximity to other inmates means Covid-19 can rapidly spread among people in detention.

There is also one more compelling reason: it is the right and just thing to do.

Come June, Askarov will have already served 10 years in prison, despite a deeply flawed trial and credible allegations of torture which were never investigated. He will never get that time back. Nothing justifies his continued detention.

In a recent interview, Askarov told Human Rights Watch that if he is ever released, he wants to visit the grave of his mother who died during his imprisonment. He also wants to travel to Uzbekistan to see his family, paint, and urge others to “live in peace and harmony.”

If Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court finally grants Askarov his freedom, he can do all those things and more.

Grant Askarov his freedom.

Top Human Rights Tweets of the Week

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, May 9, 2020

Trending rights tweets this week: A third Covid whistleblower, and healthcare worker, "falls" from a window in Russia; a 24-year-old Egyptian filmmaker died in prison two years after making a video mocking President Sisi – he never stood trial; a prison uprising in Venezuela left 47 people dead; and HRW investigates how a natural wonder became a place of horror in Syria.

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