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Opposition Leader Convicted in Azerbaijan

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 3, 2020
Click to expand Image Tofig Yagublu holds a sign calling for freedom at an unsanctioned opposition protest, November 3, 2017.  © 2017 Aziz Karimov

In another mockery of justice, a court in Azerbaijan today convicted Tofig Yagublu, one of Azerbaijan’s few alternative political voices, on spurious “hooliganism” charges and sentenced him to four years and three months in prison. The verdict did not come as a surprise, but it shows the extent Azerbaijani authorities are willing to go to subvert the rule of law to retaliate against government critics.

Yagublu, 59, is a member of the opposition Musavat Party and a senior politician in the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition parties and activists in Azerbaijan. A former journalist, Yagublu has often criticized Azerbaijan’s human rights problems.

It’s not the first time authorities have imprisoned Yagublu on politically motivated charges. He spent three years behind bars on false incitement charges, and following his release in 2016, he was arrested again in October 2019 after participating in an unsanctioned rally.

On March 22, days after President Ilham Aliyev implied he would use the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on the country’s political opposition, police arrested Yagublu, claiming he had attacked a motorist. Yagublu vehemently denied the allegation, saying he was sitting in his parked car when another vehicle sideswiped his car. The driver and a passenger got out and tried to attack him. Realizing the accident was a set-up, Yagublu immediately called the police, and remained in his car until they arrived. Nonetheless, authorities arrested and charged him with “hooliganism” following the incident.

The authorities rushed Yagublu’s trial, denying nearly all the defense’s petitions, including a request to retrieve and introduce CCTV footage that would have supported Yagublu’s story.

Yagublu’s conviction is the latest in the government’s relentless campaign to imprison its critics. Over the past several months, authorities have arrested, detained, and harassed dozens of rank-and-file members and senior opposition politicians.

Yagublu has protested his wrongful imprisonment and said he will hunger strike.

The Council of Europe and the United States have called on Azerbaijan to release Yagublu. Azerbaijan’s other partners that have not yet spoken up should follow suit, including the European Union (EU), which is negotiating a closer partnership with Baku. The EU should make clear that Azerbaijan’s continued crackdown is at serious odds with their partnership and should call for the release of those unjustly imprisoned, including Yagublu.

Hungary Continues Attacks on Academic Freedom

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 3, 2020
Click to expand Image Students barricading themselves at the University of Theatre and Film Arts, displaying banners reading, “We stand up for the freedom of our university” and “We won’t stay silent,” Budapest, Hungary, September 2, 2020. © 2020 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

In its latest attack on academic freedom and free expression, the Hungarian government has placed control of the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest into the hands of Prime Minister Orban loyalists. The school’s entire administration and several teachers have resigned in protest. Since August 31, students have barricaded themselves inside the university and blocked the entrance.

A new law, which came into effect September 1, transferred ownership of the state-run theater university to a private foundation whose members have close links to the Orban government. The Ministry of Technology and Innovation appointed five members to the new board of trustees, rejecting members proposed by the university’s senate – the university’s main decision-making body. The government claims the university will be more independent in private ownership. But the government effectively controlled all appointments to the supervisory board and the board of trustees, making that “independence” claim ring hollow.

In fact, the school’s senate has been effectively deprived of its decision-making powers on budgetary, organizational, and staffing issues. And those on the supervisory board, who have no knowledge of arts, are former advisors or rich businessmen loyal to Orban.

These autocratic and illiberal moves have become trademarks of the Orban government, which has spent the last decade dismantling rule of law, curbing free press, and exerting control over academia and sciences in an effort to root out teaching or scientific research that counter the conservative government’s agenda. Examples include shutting down the Central European University, banning gender studies, and stripping the Academy of Sciences of its autonomy.

Meanwhile, Hungary is under scrutiny by the European Commission for repeated failures to comply with European Union law, including article 7 proceedings – a mechanism that scrutinizes governments putting the EU’s values at risk, and which could strip Hungary of its EU voting rights. The EU is also discussing tying funding to respect for the rule of law. This latest example of disregard for freedom of expression and independent academia showcases the urgency with which EU institutions need to act to reverse the Orban government’s rights-abusing trajectory.

In the meantime, students protesting at the University of Theatre and Film Arts say they won’t give up until their demands are met, including the resignation of the new board of trustees and supervisory board, as well as a guarantee that the school can operate without government interference.

It’s Too Early to End Burundi Inquiry

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, September 3, 2020
Click to expand Image Doudou Diene, President of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, speaks at a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, September 5, 2018. © 2018 Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

The recent change in Burundi’s leadership has raised hopes among international partners that a somber chapter in the country’s history may finally be coming to an end. There’s optimism that new relationships can be forged with president Évariste Ndayishimiye and his administration to usher in rights-respecting reforms.

But these hopes should not come at the expense of much-needed independent human rights scrutiny. In a recent letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, 43 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged member states to adopt a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

The commission was established in September 2016 to investigate human rights violations and abuses in Burundi since the crisis broke out in April 2015, and a year later found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity were being committed. Its mandate has been renewed every year since. At the time, the European Union reacted strongly to the crisis by suspending direct budgetary support to the government and imposing targeted sanctions against four individuals – one of whom is a senior official in the current government – alleged to be involved in the crackdown.

The EU should avoid sending the government signals that would disincentivize human rights reforms, such as ending the commission’s mandate in the absence of measurable progress.

Despite some promising, piecemeal signs of potential reform, strong concerns remain. Since his election, Ndayishimiye has made disparaging comments about human rights defenders, whistleblowers, political dissidents, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and those generally perceived to be criticizing the government. Security incidents continue to be recorded by local media, who are still unable to work freely and independently, and the ruling party’s notorious youth league, the Imbonerakure, has not been reined in. In July, the commission’s experts warned “Burundi needs more than a new President to break the cycle of violence.”

This is not the time to relax scrutiny. As of today, the commission remains the only independent mechanism with sufficient resources and experience to document, monitor, and report on human rights violations in Burundi, and the only one tasked with identifying perpetrators and ending impunity. EU member states should support the renewal of its mandate and propose specific actions Burundi should take to facilitate a much-hoped for rapprochement with the international community. Failing to renew the mandate would signal to the government its strategy of stonewalling independent bodies investigating abuse has worked. Until Ndayishimiye shows a willingness to translate promises into action, the commission should continue its work.

Tanzania: Freedoms Threatened Ahead of Elections

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Click to expand Image A man reads Tanzania’s major English-daily newspaper The Citizen in Arusha, Tanzania. The cover story refers to Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda storming the offices of a private media company on March 17, 2017, with armed security officers to force staff to broadcast a video on television.  © 2017 STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Tanzania authorities have stepped up repression of opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations, and the media ahead of the country’s general elections on October 28, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since mid-June, the government has arrested at least 17 opposition party members and critics of the government, suspended a rights group and canceled the license of another, and blocked other major rights groups from observing the upcoming elections. The authorities have also imposed new restrictions on the media, revoking the license of a newspaper affiliated with an opposition member and restricting some news outlets because of their reporting on Covid-19, which President John Magufuli says no longer exists in the country.

“It’s no coincidence that the Tanzanian government has increased its repression of the opposition, activists groups, and the media so close to the elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of upholding the right to free expression at this critical time, authorities have instead adopted measures that raise concerns about the elections being free and fair.”

The government has arbitrarily arrested and briefly detained members of opposition political parties, notably the ACT-Wazalendo Party and Chadema, the main opposition party, on such grounds as “endangering the peace” or unlawful assembly. In July, the police arrested and held Issa Ponda, a Muslim leader, for nine days after he held a news conference calling for free and fair elections.

The government has also imposed new restrictions on the media and on freedom of expression online. It adopted regulations that ban Tanzanian broadcasters from working with foreign broadcasters without staff from the Tanzania Communications and Regulatory Authority or other government agency present. It also adopted regulations that criminalize a broad range of social media and online posts, including those that support organizing demonstrations or that “promote homosexuality.”

The authorities have also fined or suspended media outlets for covering politically sensitive topics, including the coronavirus. On July 6, the Communications Authority banned Kwanza TV, an online television station, for 11 months because of its Instagram post reporting on a Covid-19 health alert by the United States Embassy about Tanzania. The authority’s summons letter to Kwanza TV accused the station of being “unpatriotic.”

Two editors of independent newspapers, who did not wish to have their names used, said that officials had informally told them not to publish material that the government would not like. One of the editors said they had been “subtly warned” not to give prominent coverage to an opposition member Tundu Lissu and the former foreign minister Bernard Membe, who recently defected from the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).

The authorities have also taken action against key nongovernmental organizations to limit their ability to monitor the elections. In July, the National Electoral Commission issued lists of the organizations approved to act as election observers and to conduct voter education, excluding major organizations that have historically coordinated election monitoring in the country.

The authorities have also stepped up their restrictions on organizations working to promote the rights and health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people ahead of the elections. Human Rights Watch has documented the government’s repression of LGBT people and activism, including arbitrary arrests and the use of forced anal exams, a discredited method of seeking evidence of homosexual conduct that is cruel and degrading and can amount to a form of torture, in the context of a wider political repression over the past five years.

Since President Magufuli took office in 2015, the government has cracked down on the media and civic space by passing and enforcing restrictive laws and threatening to cancel the registration of organizations critical of the government. The government has also placed restrictions on political opposition and given the registrar of political parties wide discretionary powers, including to cancel parties’ registration.

The authorities have also placed new limits on public interest litigation, which raises concerns about the right to redress for rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. On June 10, Parliament limited the ability of groups to legally challenge a law or policy that allegedly violates the constitution’s bill of rights. The move appears aimed to prevent groups from filing public interest cases on behalf of victims of government abuses.

“All of the actions that the government has taken in recent weeks affect conditions for a fair electoral playing field,” Nyeko said. “If Tanzania's elections are going to be free and fair, the government needs to allow rights groups and the media to work independently, and for political opposition and critics to express their views freely."

For details of restrictions the government has imposed, please see below.

Restrictions on Nongovernmental Organizations; Election Observation; Voter Education

In June, the National Electoral Commission published lists of 96 organizations approved as official elections observers and 245 to conduct voter education or coordinate organizations that provide voter education for the forthcoming elections. Organizations had applied between November 27, 2019 and January 30, 2020 for accreditation.

The lists excluded major human rights organizations that had properly applied, including Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, the Legal and Human Rights Centre, and the Tanzania Constitution Forum (Jukwaa la Katiba Tanzania). The Legal and Human Rights Centre coordinates the Tanzania Civil Society Consortium for Election Observation, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations which monitors elections in Tanzania.

The organizations believe they were excluded because they have a high capacity to objectively monitor the elections processes. After the lists were published, the organizations appealed to the Electoral Commission. They have yet to receive a response.


The authorities have suspended organizations for perceived political activities and for work protecting the rights of LGBT people.

On May 20, two men who identified themselves as officers with the registrar of nongovernmental organizations visited the offices of Inclusive Development for Citizens in Dar es Salaam, which promotes freedom of expression and government accountability through strategic litigation on human rights and online activism. They questioned a staff member about an anonymous letter from a nongovernmental organization urging the World Bank to halt a loan to Tanzania for a secondary education program that they said would further discrimination against pregnant schoolgirls.

The officials asked the staff member if the organization had collaborated with an opposition politician, Zitto Kabwe, who had written a separate letter to the World Bank opposing the loan, and questioned why the organization works with Maria Sarungi-Tsehai, the organization’s director, who is known for her online activism and outspoken criticism of the government, and about Fatma Karume, a lawyer and government critic.

On May 21, the office of the registrar sent a letter to Inclusive Development for Citizens, accusing it of participating in or associating itself with “political activities” contrary to section 29 of the Non-Governmental Organisations Amendment Act of 2019. The letter, seen by Human Rights Watch, gave the organization 30 days to demonstrate why legal action should not be taken against the group. On June 24, the registrar suspended the group’s registration indefinitely.

The registrar also wrote to several organizations on mainland Tanzania on June 24 requesting documentation for their funding sources, expenditures, and activities, or risk losing their registration.

On the same day, the registrar instructed the coalition of human rights organizations to submit its donor contracts and registration certificates. The police also raided a training session by the coalition for human rights defenders in Dar es Salaam that day and arrested two staff, releasing them a few hours later. Police said the organization was not authorized to conduct the training, and the regional police commander, Mussa Taibu, told the media that police detained the staff because they “wanted to know what the exact theme of the meeting was.”

On August 17, police summoned Onesmo Olengurumwa, head of the coalition, and questioned him about failing to submit its donor contracts, in line with regulations. The coalition says it did in fact provide the contracts. Olengurumwa was released later that day on a 200 million Tanzania shilling (US$86,000) police bond. The next day, the organization suspended its activities after authorities froze its bank accounts, pending the conclusion of the investigation.

Separately, the authorities have intensified their crackdown on groups that advocate for the health and rights of LGBT people. On June 16, in Zanzibar, the registrar summoned Hamid Muhammad Ali, director of the AIDS Initiative Youth Empowerment and Development, an LGBT rights group, to a meeting in which officials questioned him and informed him that his organization’s registration was being suspended for “promoting homosexuality.” The meeting was later broadcast on television.

Ali told Human Rights Watch that four days later, police visited and searched his home and directed him to undergo an anal examination at Mnazi Mmoja Hospital the following day. He said he went to the hospital and was asked to provide his fingerprints and a copy of his national ID card but was not forced to undergo the examination. On August 10, the minister for regional administration, local government, and special departments cancelled the group’s nongovernmental organization license for going against the “religious and social values” of Zanzibar.

Ali and other LGBT rights activists in Zanzibar said that they believed officials carried out these actions to gain political favor ahead of the elections.

Arrests, Detention of Government Critics

The authorities have arbitrarily arrested outspoken critics of the government and of the elections process. On June 23, police arrested Kabwe and seven other opposition members during an internal meeting of their opposition party, ACT Wazalendo, in Kilwa, in the southern region of Lindi. The next day, the police released them. The party said that Kabwe and the others were charged with “endangering the peace,” but no details about the offense were provided. Kabwe and the others have been required to report to the police every three weeks.

Kabwe had previously been arrested several times for criticizing the government, including in 2017, for contradicting government statistics, and in 2018, for alleging that several people were killed during clashes between pastoralists and the police. On May 26, the Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court found Kabwe guilty of sedition for his 2018 remarks and ordered him not to write or say anything seditious.

On July 11, the police arrested Sheikh Issa Ponda, secretary of the Council of Imams, in Tanzania, at his office in Bungoni, Dar es Salaam. The media reported that the reason was for “allegedly circulating a document containing elements of incitement and breach of peace towards the 2020 general election.” The Council of Imams on July 9 had issued a document, seen by Human Rights Watch, calling for the government to ensure independent and fair elections, legislative reform, and equality for Muslims. Police detained Ponda for nine days, then released him on bail.

The police arrested eight members of Chadema, Tanzania’s main opposition party, including its youth wing chairperson, Nusrat Hanje, in the Singida region, west of Dodoma, on July 6. The police accused them of insulting the national flag by singing the Tanzanian national anthem while raising a Chadema flag during a party meeting on July 4. Prosecutors also accused the group of unlawful assembly and “attempting to communicate classified information.” The group remains in jail in Dodoma since a magistrates’ court denied them bail. On August 26, the High Court ordered that their bail be processed, but they remain in jail.

The media reported that on the night of June 8, unidentified assailants attacked and beat Freeman Mbowe, Chadema’s chairman, as he returned in the national capital, Dodoma, breaking his leg. Mbowe, a prominent critic of the government, has been arrested numerous times. In March, a court convicted Mbowe and nine other party leaders for making seditious statements during a public rally in February 2018, and imposed fines of up to 350 million Tanzanian shillings ($151,000).

Media Suspensions and Restrictions

The authorities have suspended licenses of media companies and summoned media professionals over coverage deemed controversial, including reporting on Covid-19.

On July 20, President Magufuli said there was no coronavirus in Tanzania. The government has not provided updated statistics on Covid-19 infection rates in the country since April, and has not imposed travel restrictions, curfew, or other measures to curb the spread of the disease.

On July 23, the director of the Information Department in the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports, Patrick Kipangula, revoked Tanzania Daima newspaper’s license over “excessive and repetitive nature of violations of the laws and the ethics of journalism.”

Newspaper staff told Human Rights Watch they felt that the government deliberately took the action ahead of the elections because the newspaper regularly covers the activities of opposition parties, and because its owner is married to Mbowe, the Chadema chair.

On April 20, Zanzibar authorities suspended the license of Talib Ussi Hamad, a journalist with Tanzania Daima, because of a Facebook post in which he said that another journalist had the coronavirus.

On April 2, the Tanzania Communications and Regulatory Authority fined Star Media Tanzania Limited, Multichoice Tanzania Limited, and Azam Digital Broadcast Limited 5 million Tanzania shillings ($2,155) each for disseminating “false and misleading information about Tanzania’s stance on Covid-19” after television stations they owned broadcasted news about Covid-19.

On April 16, the Communications Authority suspended the license of the online version of the Kiswahili-language newspaper Mwananchi for six months after it posted a video of President Magufuli buying fish at a market, apparently not complying with social distancing and Covid-19 restrictions. The agency accused Mwananchi of publishing “false information,” contrary to the Online Content regulations. Mwananchi later apologized for posting the video, saying it was old.

In June, the government amended the Electronic and Postal Communications (Radio and Television) regulations, banning Tanzanian radio and television broadcasters from working with foreign broadcasters without communications authority or other government staff present, suggesting that foreign broadcasters may not be able cover events in Tanzania without government permission.

Online Content Regulations

Since July, the government has passed new restrictions on online communications, effectively banning content critical of the government.

In July, the government passed amendments to the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations that provide criminal penalties for publishing online “content against the State and public order,” or calling for demonstrations, or that “promotes or favors what would raise sedition, hatred or racism.”

The regulations also prohibit promoting homosexuality, which could be used to prosecute people for conducting LGBT rights advocacy, or for publishing "information with regards to the outbreak of a deadly or contagious diseases" without government approval. Violators may be fined or sentenced to a minimum of one year in prison.

Online communication in Tanzania is already severely restricted by the Cybercrimes Act of 2015. The government has used this law to prosecute individuals for online posts and internet-based publications. In March 2018, the government adopted the Online Content regulations, which gave the Communications Authority wide discretionary powers to license internet-based content, including blogs, requiring them to pay fees of up to $900, which has prevented many from obtaining the licenses. Non-compliance is a criminal offense.

US Sanctions International Criminal Court Prosecutor

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Click to expand Image Illustration of the scales of justice replaced by two people shackled by their wrists and dangling in the air. © 2015 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration’s unprecedented imposition of asset freezes on prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) shows an egregious disregard for victims of the world’s worst crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 2, 2020, the administration announced that the United States had designated the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, and the head of the Office of the Prosecutor’s Jurisdiction, Complementarity, and Cooperation Division, Phakiso Mochochoko, for sanctions.

The US action gives effect to a sweeping executive order issued on June 11 by President Donald Trump, which declared a dubious national emergency and authorized asset freezes and family entry bans that could be imposed against certain ICC officials. The Trump administration had repeatedly threatened action to thwart ICC investigations in Afghanistan and Palestine into conduct by US and Israeli nationals, and revoked the ICC prosecutor’s US visa in 2019.

“The Trump administration’s perverse use of sanctions, devised for alleged terrorists and drug kingpins, against prosecutors seeking justice for grave international crimes, magnifies the failure of the US to prosecute torture,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The administration’s conjuring up a ‘national emergency’ to punish war crimes prosecutors shows utter disregard for the victims.”

The ICC is the permanent international court created to try people accused of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. Following the atrocities in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s, concerned governments set up the ICC to bring those responsible for serious international crimes, including senior officials, to justice. Currently, 123 countries have joined the court, nearly two-thirds the membership of the United Nations. The court has opened investigations into alleged atrocities in 12 countries, including Sudan, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.

In response to Trump’s executive order in June, 67 ICC member countries, including key US allies, issued a joint cross-regional statement expressing “unwavering support for the court as an independent and impartial judicial institution.” This was accompanied by statements from the European Union, the president of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties, and nongovernmental organizations in the US and globally. ICC member countries have repeatedly affirmed their support for the court.

These sanctions seriously affect those targeted, who not only lose access to their assets in the US but are also cut off from commercial and financial dealings with “US persons,” including banks and other companies. US sanctions also have a chilling effect on non-US banks and other companies outside of US jurisdiction who fear losing access themselves to the US banking system if they do not help the US to effectively export the sanctions measures.

The June executive order is designed not only to intimidate court officials and staff involved in critical investigations of the court but also to chill broader cooperation with the ICC, Human Rights Watch said. The order authorizes sanctions against non-US persons who assist in investigations to which the US administration objects.

The US, which is not a member state of the court’s foundational Rome Statute, objects to ICC authority over nationals of non-member countries unless a UN Security Council resolution authorizes it. Afghanistan, however, is an ICC member country, which gives the court authority to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by anyone – regardless of nationality – on Afghan territory or otherwise connected to the conflict.

Significantly, the ICC is a court of last resort, stepping in only if national authorities do not conduct genuine domestic proceedings. The Afghan government has asked the ICC prosecutor to defer her investigation, asserting that Afghan authorities can conduct credible national proceedings, although the Afghan government has not demonstrated the capacity and willingness to do so. Senior-level US civilian and military officials who could bear responsibility for authorizing the well-documented torture and other ill-treatment of detainees in connection with the conflict in Afghanistan, or for failing to punish those who carried out abuses, have not been held to account before US courts.

Because the ICC prosecutor’s office is assessing Afghanistan’s request and because of restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic, the court is not currently conducting active investigative steps in the country.

“ICC members have banded together before to stand with victims and defend the court’s mandate from unprincipled attacks, including from the US,” Dicker said. “These governments should stand ready to do all it takes to ensure the ICC remains on course so that no one, even from the most powerful countries, is above the law.”

Schoolchildren in England Should Not Go Hungry Again

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Click to expand Image Students wash their hands as they arrive on the first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London, England, September 1, 2020. © 2020 Press Association via AP Images

As children across England return to school this week, the government should prove it has learned from its mistakes after school closures during Covid-19 left pupils going hungry. Department for Education (DfE) guidance published late last week, just days before the start of term, offers three opportunities to help tackle child hunger.

First, the DfE guidance makes clear that, should the pandemic force schools to close again, its preferred option will be food parcel delivery. Our research exposed flaws in the government’s supermarket voucher scheme set up in haste in late March and showed that food parcels can work better. So too can direct cash transfers to families in poverty, as Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales’ devolved administrations have shown. The government should keep cash transfers open as an option for families in England.

Second, immigration status should not mean children from poor families have to go hungry during the school day. The DfE’s guidance temporarily continues meal support to children whose “No Recourse to Public Funds” immigration status meant they weren’t eligible for free school meals. The government should make this a permanent policy across the United Kingdom (UK).

Third, the government’s decision, under public pressure, to extend food aid through the summer vacation this year, was belated but important. A limited number of DfE-funded pilot food projects took place in previous summers, but more systemic action is needed to tackle “holiday hunger,” and the government should follow the National Food Strategy’s recommendations on this.

The UK government’s wider record on education in England during Covid-19 hasn’t been good. Consider the chaos generated by its algorithm-generated grading system, delays distributing laptops to kids who needed them for distance learning, and how a watering down of legal obligations left some children with disabilities and what are known in English law as special educational needs without adequate support. The pandemic has also strengthened calls to increase social security support for families with children, as families find their finances stretched.

There is – to use a classic schoolteacher’s phrase – “plenty of room for improvement.” But some of the things the government can and should do are really quite simple. Children can’t learn on empty stomachs, and the government should ensure children’s right to food. Children from families living in poverty should have enough to eat – whether schools are open or closed.

Nepal: Punish Rights Abusers; Protect Independent NHRC

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Click to expand Image Nepalese police disperse protestors in Kathmandu, Nepal, March 28, 2018.  © 2018 AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

(New York) – The Nepal government should act on the National Human Rights Commission’s findings to ensure accountability for grave human rights abuses by security forces, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should stop reversing the commission’s findings and ensure its independence.

There are mounting allegations of extrajudicial executions and deaths in custody resulting from torture, yet the Nepal authorities resist conducting credible investigations. Successful prosecutions for abuses by the security forces are practically unheard of.

“Nepal is still trying to grapple with delivering justice for unlawful killings during the armed conflict, but instead of keeping its promise of reforms and pledges against repeat offenses, the abuses continue to mount,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government uses rule of law rhetoric to appeal to foreign diplomats and donors but actually fosters a culture of impunity.”

Police in Sarlahi district killed Kumar Paudel, 47, a member of a Maoist splinter group, on June 20, 2019, in what officers claimed was an exchange of fire with members of a proscribed armed group. In October, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said it had found that Paudel was killed in custody and that the police officers responsible should be prosecuted, but the Home Ministry has asked the commission to review its recommendation.

In July and August, after two men died in separate incidents, independent activists and the NHRC called for investigations into allegations that they died after being abused in the custody of security forces. Both men – Raj Kumar Chepang, 24, who was detained by the army, and Bijay Mahara, 19, who was detained by the police – were members of marginalized communities, and there are concerns that the cases will not be credibly investigated.

On October 28, 2019, three United Nations special rapporteurs wrote to the government concerning the killing of Kumar Paudel as well as two others, the alleged extrajudicial execution of Dipendra Chaudhary on January 23, 2019, and the fatal shooting of Saroj Narayan Singh, an unarmed protester, on June 29, 2019. In all three cases the police refused to register first information reports (FIRs), the document used to initiate a criminal investigation. The government responded to the special rapporteurs on January 3, claiming that “It is explicit and obvious that extrajudicial killing in any form and manner is categorically outlawed by Nepal.”

Responding to the government’s request to the NHRC to reconsider its recommendation in the case of Kumar Paudel, secretary and spokesperson for the commission, Bed Bhattarai, told Human Rights Watch: “The Home Ministry is asking the NHRC to rethink the recommendation of the commission but actually we have clear evidence…. The NHRC has investigated and concluded it was an extrajudicial killing.” He said the victim’s body also showed evidence of other injuries, including a broken hand.

Following the death of Bijay Mahara (also known as Bijay Ram Chamar), 19, a member of the Dalit community, on August 26, the attorney general of Province 2 has recommended a police investigation, three officers have been suspended, and the NHRC has begun its own investigation. Police initially claimed that he had died of kidney failure, but Mahara recorded a video in hospital before he died alleging that he had been severely abused in detention.

Mahara’s family say he was in good health at the time of his arrest on August 16. Doctors found injuries on his hands and back. Activists working on the case told Human Rights Watch that, as of September 1, the police had refused to receive a first information report, but that Rs 500,000 (US$ 4,300) in compensation had been announced by the provincial government.

Research by the Nepali human rights organization Advocacy Forum in 2019 found that torture is widespread in police custody in Nepal, and members of the Dalit – formerly so-called untouchable – community are far more likely to be tortured than members of so called “upper” castes. Torture became a crime under Nepali law for the first time in 2018, but there have been no successful prosecutions.

According to the NHRC, the government has fully implemented only about 12 percent of 810 commission recommendations in the eight years to 2019. Most of those implemented involved paying compensation or relief, rather than legal action against individuals or groups. The government has frequently paid compensation to the families of victims of alleged extrajudicial killings and custodial deaths allegedly resulting from torture, without taking action against alleged perpetrators.

The terms of the current members of the NHRC expire in October. It is essential that the new commissioners are well qualified and independent, and appointed through a credible and timely process, Human Rights Watch said.

Nepal has a longstanding culture of impunity. A commitment in the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to address abuses committed during the 1996-2006 conflict between government forces and Maoist former-insurgents, who now form part of the government, has been repeatedly stalled.

The government has also failed to act against security officers responsible for using excessive and indiscriminate force against unarmed protestors in the southern Terai region in 2015. Violent protests and a security forces crackdown led to the death of 66 people, including 10 police officers.

Human Rights Watch found that some victims were bystanders and children shot dead by the police, or were taken under control by the police before they were killed. The government set up a commission chaired by a retired supreme court justice, Girish Chandra Lal, to investigate the violence, which submitted its report in 2017. Despite promises to release the report, the government has not done so.

Security forces did not fully cooperate with the Lal Commission. However, based on media articles describing leaked material, the commission found that the use of lethal force against protesters in the eastern Terai region could not have occurred “without the direction and orders from the local administration.” The commission said that the killing of bystanders and protesters involved excessive use of police force.

For many years, Nepal’s international donors have funded programs in Nepal intended to support respect for human rights, police reform, access to justice, and respect for the rule of law. The UK’s Integrated Programme for Strengthening Security and Justice, which began in 2014 and includes substantial financial aid to the police, aims to promote “citizen-friendly policing and human rights, and local accountability.” The United States currently has a program “promoting human rights and democratic policing,” while Norway is funding a project through the UN Development Program that aims at “enhancing the access to justice.”

While it is welcome that international donors are working to improve the rule of law in Nepal, these efforts have little meaning if the agencies that receive donor funds enjoy or support flagrant impunity for alleged extrajudicial killings, Human Rights Watch said.

Donors, including the UK government, which gives funding to the Nepal police, should publicly and privately insist that Nepal meets its basic obligation to investigate and prosecute grave violations, Human Rights Watch said. They should also ask the government to release the Lal Commission report.

In its successful bid to be elected to the current United Nations Human Rights Council, Nepal claimed in 2017 to respect the authority and independence of the NHRC and the judiciary, and said it will be pursuing a credible transitional justice process for conflict era abuses. The government has failed on all three.

It has introduced legislation that six UN special rapporteurs have warned risks “severely undermining the NHRC’s authority, effectiveness and independence.” The government has failed to comply with repeated Supreme Court rulings since 2015 to amend the transitional justice law to meet international standards, and instead has ignored numerous court orders relating to conflict-era police investigations and prosecutions.

“Nepal’s authorities love to speak of their commitment to human rights and good governance, but their actions are at odds with those standards,” Ganguly said. “Diplomats and donors should insist on measurable progress on rights protections if they hope to see their financial and technical support bear meaningful results.”

Cities Forcibly Evict Residents in South Africa

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Click to expand Image A South Africa soldier guards the entrance of a housing development while flats are being emptied in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday Aug. 12, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Jerome Delay

South Africa has been hit hard by the pandemic, with the fifth-highest number of cases – 625,059 as of 30 August – in the world. Yet despite a federal ban on evictions, the country’s local governments are evicting people from homes built on public land without providing alternative sites to shelter-in-place, a move that exposes those evicted to increased risk of infection.

The health consequences are especially problematic in the country’s provinces most affected by Covid-19: KwaZulu Natal, Western Cape, Eastern Cape, and Gauteng. It’s here where recent evictions by municipalities occurred.

On August 17 in Johannesburg’s Fleurhof area, officials demolished temporary structures that residents had built on municipal land. One week later, August 24, city agents forcibly evicted residents from municipal buildings in Fleurhof, depositing their belongings on the street.

While in lockdown, government officials demolished over 58,000 temporary houses on public land in Cape Town and have evicted families from informal settlements, disused government buildings, and spaces in other cities such as Durban. A High Court ruled that the City of Cape Town must obtain a court order to evict people or demolish their homes during the country’s state of national disaster.

Forced evictions violate international human rights law, including the right to housing.

More than 4 million people, or over 1 million households, live in informal settlements built on public land in South Africa. The recent evictions of informal settlements within urban areas will increase hardship for people already living in poverty and suffering job or income loss because of deep-seated inequalities that are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The country’s apartheid history, which restricted Blacks’ access to urban areas, movement to urban areas post-apartheid, and vulnerabilities experienced by women and migrants provide an insight into the economic and housing inequality that plagues most cities. Affordable government housing programs have an acute backlog and have failed to keep up with demand as people move from rural to urban areas. 

As the country eases up on lockdown restrictions in the coming weeks, more families are at risk of being evicted.

South Africa should stop these evictions and develop a coordinated plan on housing and land distribution that takes into consideration both its history and resultant inequalities. It should also speed up allocation of adequate housing to people that are most in need.

Syria: Health Workers Lack Protection in Pandemic

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Click to expand Image A health worker with a face mask walks inside a hospital, as hospitals enforce a series of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Damascus, Syria March 19, 2020. © 2020 Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

(Beirut) – Syrian authorities are failing to protect health workers at the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic in government-held territory, Human Rights Watch said today.

Doctors, aid workers, and civilians, including in government-held Syria, told Human Rights Watch that the country is overwhelmed, with hospitals beyond capacity, health workers facing serious shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and with many of their colleagues and relatives dying after suffering Covid-19 symptoms. The Health Ministry said that 76 health workers had tested positive for the virus as of August 21. A total of 2,765 confirmed cases and 112 related deaths were reported by August 31, 2020. However, evidence suggests that the numbers across the country could be significantly higher.

“It is bewildering that as the obituaries for doctors and nurses responding to the Covid-19 pandemic pile up, official numbers tell a story at odds with the reality on the ground,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian government has already engaged in crimes against humanity against its own people, so its lack of concern for the health of its front-line workers during a global pandemic is sadly no surprise.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed three doctors, one nurse, two aid workers, and two experts, reviewed social media posts by people or pages considered reliable sources, and collected reporting by reliable third parties to assess discrepancies in the Syrian government’s reporting on its own response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those interviewed said that shortages of adequate protective equipment and restricted access to oxygen tanks are most likely contributing to deaths among Syria’s health workers and the wider population. Health workers said that testing, oxygen, and basic medical care are available only to those who can afford it, violating the fundamental right to equal and affordable access to health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations with a health mandate should publicly insist on expanding testing capacities and transparent and accurate reporting on numbers of Covid-19 cases and equitable distribution of sufficient personal protective equipment to health workers throughout the country, including rural areas, Human Rights Watch said.

An independent outlet, Syria-in-Context, has estimated that there have been at least 85,000 cases of Covid-19 in the Damascus region alone. It based its conclusions on obituaries posted online from July 29 to August 1, satellite imagery of cemeteries, and interviews with doctors, and then extrapolated them using a model created by the Imperial College London model for Covid-19 transmission. The United Nations has indicated that it is unable to confirm or verify reports of additional numbers of cases.

Residents said their neighbors and relatives were falling ill or dying after exhibiting symptoms consistent with Covid-19, including high fever and severe respiratory distress. They said that their relatives who had attempted to go to a hospital or clinic were turned away for lack of capacity.

Nurses, doctors, and aid workers who work in hospitals or support their operation from outside Syria said that major hospitals that are prepared to deal with Covid-19 cases, such as al-Assad University Hospital, have exceeded their capacity, and other hospitals do not have the necessary infrastructure, citing a lack of availability of oxygen canisters, ventilators, and beds. Front-line workers said they do not have the necessary protective equipment, training, or protocols to treat complications from Covid-19.

On August 16, a list of 61 health workers who died in the period since Covid-19 was first detected in Syria was circulated on social media. Human Rights Watch was able to verify the deaths of 33 doctors on these lists by collecting obituaries posted by the Damascus Medical Association, all of which indicated that they died while responding to Covid-19. Two Syrian doctors said they personally knew at least some of the doctors on the list. The official total numbers of deaths from Covid-19 for the entire population at the time was 64. The death toll among health care workers calls into question whether the Syrian government’s reports are representative or accurate.

The deaths that are reported in official government obituaries are primarily members of the elite, such as heads of hospitals or former teaching doctors, doctors said. Doctors interviewed estimated that the number of deaths among front-line doctors and nurses is most likely much larger due to the failure to account for health workers in rural areas, and their own knowledge of doctors and nurses who have died.

While the exact causes of underreporting are difficult to discern, several factors play a role, including the government’s restrictions on informing aid workers of test results early on and a lack of widespread testing despite pressure by healthcare organizations to expand testing capacities. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the authorities’ refusal to collect and test Covid-19 samples in northeast Syria.

As a UN agency, WHO can only operate with the government’s approval, and the government controls reporting, a well-informed source said. Credible data on the number of Covid-19 infections is essential for a more robust response, Human Rights Watch said.

Access to PPE and basic medical care also appears to be discriminatory based on status and wealth. As of August 21, WHO has provided the Syrian government with 4.4 million items of PPE, including medical and respirator masks, gloves, gowns, shoe covers, and alcohol hand-rubs. However, doctors and nurses operating in government-held areas said that there are severe shortages of supplies, particularly in rural areas.

“Every Thursday, authorities would deliver 50 disposable surgical masks that are supposed to last for the week,” said a nurse in a rural area. “I ration them so that I use one mask per shift, when I am supposed to change the masks for every patient.” She and two other doctors said that relatives buy them protective personal equipment, as well as reliable drugs to treat the symptoms of Covid-19.

A doctor leading a program that imports protective equipment and oxygen tanks confirmed that it is raising funds and sending oxygen canisters, but not through the Syrian government, “because it can’t be trusted.” Human Rights Watch has previously documented the authorities obstructing humanitarian aid, including through restrictions on access, discriminatory distribution, and insistence on problematic partnerships.

Two aid workers said that in some cases, supplies were shipped to areas held by the Syrian government, but that those supplies did not make it out of the Health Ministry warehouses. On May 8, a member of the Finnish-Syrian Friendship society said that a shipment of medical supplies to Sweida, a governorate in southwest Syria under government control, has been held up for 14 months and remains in the ministry’s warehouses.

One doctor said that tests, protective equipment, and oxygen masks are available but that “how well-off you are financially determines if you get tested and if you get the drugs you need.” The doctor and a nurse said that an oxygen tank costs as least SYP700,000 (official US$557/black market $321), while ventilators cost approximately $12,000. Such costs are prohibitive for residents of a country where 83 percent of the population is below the poverty line and facing a deepening economic crisis.

The Syrian government has an obligation to protect health workers and patients in health facilities from infection and should provide health information and adequate protective clothing and equipment to minimize risk of infection. This means providing health workers and others involved in the Covid-19 response with appropriate training in infection control and with appropriate protective gear, across areas under its control or where it controls access.

On August 27, Human Rights Watch wrote to WHO, with its findings and recommendations. On September 1, WHO responded, indicating that it is “providing test kits, protective gear, and supplies needed to treat COVID-19 patients,” and that in July 2020, they recommended that the Syrian government increase testing and expand laboratory networks; strengthen infection prevention, including increasing availability of PPE to health workers; reinforce hospital capacity and community awareness. It remains unclear whether the government has adopted the recommendations made by WHO, and whether WHO has addressed the potential disparity in provision of health care across urban and rural areas, as well as the lack of training and support that healthcare workers reported.

The government should publicly state its commitment to increasing testing capacities across the country, including in rural and nongovernment-held areas, and take concrete steps to facilitate the development of more testing centers, that are equally accessible. If the Syrian government fails to act decisively, WHO, and other organizations with a health mandate, should make public their insistence on expanding testing capacities and transparent and accurate reporting on Covid-19 infections and related deaths, and clarify the specific reasons for the failure to report numbers accurately, as well as the challenges with distributing adequate amounts of PPE to health workers in a nondiscriminatory manner, including the imposition of government restrictions or their refusal to adopt WHO recommendations.

Given the long history of aid diversion, including of medical supplies, by the government, WHO should insist on delivery through independent organizations. Donors should actively press to UN and international groups operating in Damascus to collectively bargain with the Syrian government to allow for decentralized testing and equitable distribution of protective equipment.

“The Syrian government has essentially left health workers to fend for themselves in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and abdicated its responsibility to take the steps needed to save lives,” Kayyali said. “For once, it needs to put Syrian people first, and provide all health workers with adequate resources and protective equipment and issue accurate and transparent information.”

Myanmar: End Harassment of Rakhine Media Outlets

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Click to expand Image A screenshot of chief editor of Development Media Group (DMG), Aung Marm Oo. © 2015 Aung Marm Oo/Facebook

(Bangkok) – Myanmar authorities should stop using criminal laws, website blocks, and licensing delays to severely restrict the two ethnic Rakhine media outlets in Rakhine State.

The authorities have filed charges against Aung Marm Oo, chief editor of Development Media Group (DMG), under the rights-abusing Unlawful Associations Act, blocked access to the outlet’s English and Burmese language webpages, and failed to act on DMG’s application to renew the publishing license for its bimonthly print journal. Narinjara News, the only other ethnic Rakhine media outlet, has also been blocked since March.

“The Myanmar authorities’ relentless harassment of ethnic Rakhine news outlets is an outrageous assault on media freedom and the right to information,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser. “The authorities should immediately drop the baseless charges against DMG’s chief editor, renew the company’s publishing license, and unblock the websites of both DMG and Narinjara News.”

Because of fighting in Rakhine State and the increasing Covid-19 cases in the state capital, Sittwe, and surrounding areas, timely and accurate information about local conditions is crucial. The government restrictions on DMG and Narinjara News are an unjustifiable interference with media freedom and the right to information. The general election scheduled for November 8, 2020, heightens concerns about the media blackout.

On May 1, 2019, Aung Marm Oo learned that the Myanmar police had filed charges against him under section 17(2) of the Unlawful Associations Act, which provides a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone who “manages or assists in the management of an unlawful association, or promotes or assists in promoting a meeting of any such association, or of any members thereof.”

Aung Marm Oo, who has been in hiding since learning of the case, said that the police never provided him with any written notice detailing the grounds for the charges. He believes the charges are linked to the media group’s legitimate reporting on the conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army ethnic armed group.

On May 8, 2019, DMG sent a letter to the Myanmar Press Council, an independent body tasked with resolving disputes with the media, asking it to intervene in the case. The Press Council has yet to respond, the media group said. Meanwhile, police have interrogated multiple members of Aung Marm Oo’s family and DMG employees.

The Myanmar government has repeatedly used draconian laws against journalists for reporting on military abuses or ethnic armed groups. In 2018, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act after uncovering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were released on a presidential pardon after spending more than a year in jail. The two reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on that story.

On March 23, 2020, the Myanmar government designated the Arakan Army a terrorist organization under the Counter-Terrorism Law and as an “unlawful association” under section 15(2) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, a vaguely worded law that has frequently been used by the Myanmar authorities to arrest and detain ethnic minority civilians in conflict-affected areas.

In April, the Myanmar government detained Nay Myo Lin, editor of Voice of Myanmar, for more than a week and charged him under the Counter Terrorism Law for publishing an interview with the Arakan Army spokesperson. The court rejected the case and ordered him released. However, use of this rights-abusing law against journalists, which carries a penalty of up to life in prison, has a serious chilling effect on reporters seeking to report on the conflict.

While international human rights law allows governments to place restrictions on the media for national security reasons, these restrictions must be strictly necessary for a legitimate purpose and not be overbroad. They may not be used to suppress or withhold information of legitimate public interest not harmful to national security, or to prosecute journalists for reporting such information. For the government to fulfill this responsibility, journalists should be able to speak to and meet with a variety of people without fear of arrest or harassment – including those who are in conflict with the government or military.

All four mobile operators in Myanmar have blocked DMG’s English and Burmese language websites since March 24 under a government directive issued by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Narinjara News, the only other ethnic Rakhine media outlet, has also been blocked since March.

DMG’s editor-in-chief, Phadu Tun Aung, told local media in March that by blocking the only two ethnic Rakhine media outlets, the government had effectively silenced ethnic Rakhine voices. “By blocking our websites, [the government is] restricting the people’s right to information,” he said.

Any government restrictions on websites should be content-specific rather than whole domains, and clearly explain the reason for the content being taken down, and why it is proportionate to achieve a lawful aim.

DMG was forced to suspend publication of its bimonthly print journal in December 2019 because the Ministry of Information failed to act on its application to renew its news agency and publication licenses. The application, filed in March 2019, has been “pending” for almost 18 months. DMG told Human Rights Watch that its journalists are often denied meetings or interviews with government officials because DMG does not have a license to operate.

The loss of the printed journal has a particularly serious impact on access to information in parts of Rakhine State where the government has imposed an internet shutdown for over a year and where 3G and 4G services remain unavailable. While 2G data services can allow some limited downloading, the speed is drastically slower than 3G and does not allow access to webpages with pictures or videos. 

“The government has frequently charged journalists who are bravely covering fighting in Rakhine State and other conflict areas to hide military abuses from the public,” Lakhdhir said. “All journalists, whatever their perspectives, need to be able to report freely without fear of reprisals.”


Lebanon Should Stop Excluding Children from School

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Click to expand Image A classroom sits empty at a school in Loueizeh, east of Beirut, Lebanon, March 2, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Hussein Malla

As another school year is about to begin in Lebanon, the country’s education minister, Tarek Majzoub, has issued a decision which will mean many children cannot attend school. The impact of his decision is to exclude children whose mothers are Lebanese but whose fathers are not from enrolling in public schools.

Basic education is free and compulsory for Lebanese citizens, but under the country’s discriminatory 1925 Nationality Law, only children with Lebanese fathers are granted citizenship. For children whose sole Lebanese parent is their mother, they often have to wait to enroll in public school until all other Lebanese children have enrolled.

The nationality law restricts basic rights for thousands born to non-Lebanese fathers, including rights to affordable health care and to work and own property. Local rights groups have lobbied for decades to amend this.

Each August, the education minister specifies the criteria for enrolling students in the upcoming school year. A campaign, “My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family,” has persuaded past ministers to instruct school officials to enroll children of Lebanese mothers on an equal basis with children of Lebanese fathers.

Last year, campaigners convinced then-minister Akram Chehayeb to overturn his decision denying enrollment to children deemed “non-Lebanese.” Instead, he instructed school administrators to “properly care for the enrollment of students whose Lebanese mothers are married to a foreigner, to treat them as they would treat Lebanese students, and to make space available to them.”

The campaign has recorded 78 children who so far this year have been denied registration because their fathers are not Lebanese citizens, organizer Karima Chebbo told Human Rights Watch. The campaign brought the cases to the education ministry but was told to wait until the minister issued his formal decision on school enrollment. However, his August 26 decision left these children excluded once again.

International law says all children should receive free and compulsory primary education. But in Lebanon, this battle must be re-fought each year.

The Lebanese government should change its discriminatory nationality law, not reinforce it. Minister Majzoub should issue a new decision, stating clearly and unambiguously that children of Lebanese mothers be treated the same as children of Lebanese fathers, regarding their right to education. With months of Covid-19-related school closures leaving many children at risk of dropping out, which research shows is linked to vulnerability to child labor and child marriage, Lebanon’s education ministry should focus on ensuring more students return to school, not less.

Argentina: Legalize Abortion

Human Rights Watch - Monday, August 31, 2020

(Washington, DC) – The life and health of anyone who is pregnant in Argentina will be at risk as long as access to abortion and post-abortion care remains heavily restricted, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Congress should legalize abortion to protect their fundamental rights, given the insurmountable obstacles they face when trying to access abortion under the limited exceptions authorized by law.

The 77-page report named “A Case for Legal Abortion: The Human Cost of Barriers to Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Argentina,” describes the consequences of the Senate’s rejection of a 2018 bill that would have fully decriminalized abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Human Rights Watch documented cases of women and girls who have, since then, encountered an array of barriers to access legal abortion and post-abortion care. The barriers include arbitrarily imposed gestational limits, lack of access to and availability of abortion methods, fear of criminal prosecution, stigmatization, and mistreatment by health professionals.

“Since the Argentine Senate narrowly rejected the 2018 bill to legalize abortion, thousands of women and girls either had to overcome major barriers to access legal abortion or resort to clandestine, often unsafe, abortions that endanger their health and lives,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown have only exacerbated the limited access to reproductive health services, making legalizing abortion more urgent than ever.”

During his presidential campaign, President Alberto Fernández promised to submit a bill to Congress to decriminalize abortion. Since taking office in December 2019, he has publicly supported decriminalizing abortion. One of the first measures by his health minister was to update and improve the “National Protocol for Comprehensive Care of People Entitled to Legal Termination of Pregnancy,” which, if applied properly and consistently throughout the country, would contribute to improving access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health services. 

Submitting the bill was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Fernández’s top legal adviser has said that the government hopes to submit it this year.

Human Rights Watch visited the provinces of Salta, Chaco, Santa Fe, Entre Ríos, and Buenos Aires, as well as Buenos Aires City, in November and December 2019, and interviewed 30 people, including women and girls who sought abortion care in the public and private health systems, health workers, lawyers, and activists who support those seeking abortions. Human Rights Watch also conducted follow-up interviews, requested information from the Argentine government, and analyzed laws and policies, reports by United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations, official health data and public health studies, and medical journals and news outlets.

A nearly century-old “exceptions model” largely bans abortion in Argentina. The only exceptions, under Section 86 of the 1921 criminal code, are when a pregnancy endangers the life or health of a woman or girl, or when it results from rape. In all other circumstances, abortion is illegal and punishable with up to 15 years in prison. The sentence for self-inducing abortion or consenting to have an abortion is up to four years.

Human Rights Watch documented cases of women and girls whose situations fell within the legal “exceptions” but who faced insurmountable barriers to access abortion and post-abortion care. Obstacles included a lack of public information about the scope of legal grounds for abortion; health facilities imposing arbitrary hurdles or waiting periods; health officials illegally requiring production of police reports or court orders to proceed with the procedure under the rape exception; and lack of access to safe and legal methods or lack of nearby health facilities providing abortion services. The invocation of conscientious objection by providers also created severe burdens or delays.

Women, health professionals, and feminist activists said that stigmatization and fear of legal consequences, including criminal prosecution, deter people from seeking – and health professionals from providing – abortions, even when Section 86 of the criminal code exception requirements are met. Women and girls faced abuse and mistreatment, including cruelty and humiliation by healthcare providers, denial of access to legal health services, and violation of medical confidentiality in health care settings.

Access to legal abortion and post-abortion care depends heavily on a person’s location and socioeconomic background, Human Rights Watch found. A lack of clear and consistent regulations across the country has resulted in a patchwork of practices that disproportionately harms people with limited resources or little access to information about their rights. 

In addition, the Covid-19 lockdown has made access to any reproductive health care more difficult. Furthermore, the need to visit multiple health centers and travel sometimes for hours to obtain access to services multiplies the risks of contagion. 

Criminalizing abortion does not prevent people from ending unwanted pregnancies. It forces them to seek abortions outside the regulation of the state, and many are performed unsafely. Many, particularly those who live in poverty or in rural areas, resort to self-induced abortions or seek assistance from untrained providers. 

Unsafe abortions can lead to short- or long-term health problems, and even death. In 2018, Argentina’s National Health Ministry reported 35 deaths from abortion, constituting 13 percent of maternal deaths. Many of these deaths are preventable. 

In the latest available statistics, for 2016, 39,025 women and girls were admitted to public hospitals for health complications arising from abortions or miscarriages. Sixteen percent were ages 10 to 19. That is most likely a fraction of the total amount of pregnant people facing health consequences from illegal abortions, as stigmatization and fear of criminal prosecution often keep women who suffer complications from seeking care.

Authoritative interpretations of treaties ratified by Argentina have long established that highly restrictive abortion laws violate the human rights of women and girls, including their rights to life, to health, and not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. As long as Argentina criminalizes abortion, pregnant people will confront unjust difficulties in exercising their rights, particularly those who rely on the public health system, and who live in provinces that lack or do not implement abortion regulations. 

Argentina should decriminalize abortion in all circumstances and regulate it in a manner that fully respects the autonomy of those who are pregnant, Human Rights Watch said. Argentina should also ensure that pregnant people have access to legal abortion as currently regulated and that healthcare workers cannot invoke conscientious objection to refuse to perform abortions in public care services in a manner that imposes burdens or delays in accessing legal abortion services.

For selected cases documented by Human Rights Watch, see below.

Selected Cases

Veronica R. (pseudonym), 25, was receiving free contraceptive injections at a health facility when, in February 2019, the providers saw she had a new address and told her that, to continue getting free services, she would have to visit a health center closer to home. She went to a health center nearer her home and requested a tubal ligation, she told Human Rights Watch. A gynecologist there told her she was “too young and might want to have children in the future.” The gynecologist, because of his personal beliefs, also refused to provide any form of contraception. Veronica had neither the time nor the resources to find an alternative source of contraceptives, and, in April 2019, she became pregnant. At six weeks pregnant, Veronica sought a legal abortion, citing the health exception, at a clinic in a small provincial city. Healthcare providers there refused, offering no reason, so she went to another clinic, where a healthcare provider told her that she was too far along in the pregnancy to have an abortion there. Veronica became so desperate, she said, that she considered getting hit by a car to end the pregnancy. When she was 20 weeks pregnant, a feminist organization referred her to a medical team that performed the abortion in a city a 4-hour drive from where she lived.  

In September 2019, Leticia H. (pseudonym), 19, went to a public hospital in northern Argentina to end a pregnancy caused by rape. She was 17 weeks pregnant. The hospital denied the abortion, citing an informal rule under which the hospital provided abortions only up to 16 weeks. The rule lacked a legal basis. Leticia took medication to induce an abortion, a lawyer involved in the case told Human Rights Watch, but the abortion was incomplete; tissue remaining in her uterus placed her at risk of infection. Recognizing that something was wrong and that she needed medical intervention, Leticia went to a hospital, where health personnel left her waiting for two hours before treating her. Bleeding profusely, she lost consciousness several times in the emergency room corridor. “If you liked having an abortion,” a hospital employee told her, “you’ll now have to wait.”

In November 2018, Carmela Toledo, 23, found out that she was carrying a fetus with anencephaly, a condition that makes it difficult for the fetus to survive. Carmela was 25 weeks pregnant. She went to a public hospital in Buenos Aires province to request a legal abortion, but doctors told her that the bill decriminalizing abortion had not passed and added, falsely, that abortion was completely illegal. They said she had to wait until she was seven months pregnant, so they could say she had had a premature birth. When she was seven months pregnant, health professionals tried unsuccessfully to induce birth. The doctor involved frightened Carmela by outlining the risks of the procedure, including the possibility of difficulties in having a child later. She decided to continue the pregnancy, and whenever she felt the fetus move, she cried. She had a caesarean section at week 41 and delivered a daughter who died eight days later.

Saudi Arabia Reviews Child Death Penalty Cases

Human Rights Watch - Monday, August 31, 2020
Click to expand Image Ali al-Nimr is one of at least three Saudi men currently on death row for protest-related crimes committed when they were children. © 2011 Eshaparvathi/Creative Commons

On August 26, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced the judiciary would review three death sentences in accordance with a recent decree to halt capital punishment for child offenders. Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher were sentenced to death for allegedly committing crimes when they were children.

Under the decree, the commission stated, the 3 detainees will be resentenced based on the Saudi Juvenile Law, which has a maximum 10-year prison penalty. They will have completed 10 years in prison by 2022.

The statement concludes, “Human rights are a key pillar of the Vision 2030 platform for transformation,” a reform initiative led by the king and the crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman. Saudi human rights pronouncements count for little: the government has assassinated critics, persecuted women’s rights advocates, mistreated migrant workers, and committed countless laws-of-war violations against civilians in Yemen. But not executing three child offenders is a positive decision.

Saudi Arabia should now immediately halt all death sentences and tackle pervasive injustice in the justice system. The cases of al-Nimr, al-Marhoun, and al-Zaher are chilling. They were between 15 and 17 when arrested in connection with demonstrations in 2011 by the country’s minority Shia citizens against systematic governmental discrimination. They were held incommunicado and detained without charge or trial for up to 22 months.

Lawyers for al-Zaher and al-Marhoun said both boys were beaten and threatened with more if they did not sign confessions written by their interrogators. Al-Marhoun had trouble speaking and eating because of the beatings, a relative said. They confessed to throwing Molotov cocktails at police, but no evidence was presented of police injuries. Al-Nimr was also convicted of “crimes” like “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and “repeating some chants against the state.”

Courts convicted them almost solely on the basis of these alleged coerced confessions.

If Saudi’s rulers genuinely want to imagine what a rights-respecting country will look like in 2030, it is one where trials are fair, children are safe from abuse, officials who violate rights are appropriately punished, and the death penalty is a thing of the past.

Nigeria’s Rising Number of Missing Persons

Human Rights Watch - Monday, August 31, 2020
Click to expand Image Family members of the kidnapped Nigerian Chibok girls, Nigeria, October 18, 2016. © 2016 AP Photo/Olamikan Gbemiga

Hundreds of people are missing from a town in northeast Nigeria following an attack by suspected Boko Haram fighters on August 18.

Witnesses told me most were abducted by the insurgents or went missing as they fled the attack on the town of Kukawa in Borno state. Thousands of people have disappeared from northeastern villages and towns in the 11-year conflict between the insurgent group Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces. Boko Haram is responsible for the abduction of hundreds, including the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, many of whom remain unaccounted for.

Many other people have been forcibly disappeared after having been arrested by security forces and militias assisting in counterinsurgency efforts. Last year, Fatima Hassan, a 55-year-old woman from Gwange, Maidguguri, told me that she had not seen or heard from her two sons, Ibrahim, 35, and Musa, 30, since soldiers took them for “questioning” during a neighborhood raid in September 2012. “I have been to all the detention centers I know to look for them,” she said. “But nobody provides information. I don’t know if they are dead or alive.” 

Hassan is part of Jire Dole, a network of survivors and relatives of missing persons of the Boko Haram conflict. The group’s leaders have put together a list of more than 3,000 missing people in their communities and are documenting more.

The caseload of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nigeria, with nearly 23,000 missing people, is its largest in Africa, out of a total of 44,000 missing on the continent. It is the ICRC’s highest number registered in any country in the world.

In 2015, Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission announced that a database for missing persons would be established, but five years later the database is still not operational.

As a party to core international human rights and humanitarian law treaties, including the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the Geneva Conventions, Nigeria has obligations to provide information on suspects in custody and open inquiries on the fate of missing persons.

As families remember missing loved ones on this International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances, Nigerian authorities should provide information on their fate or whereabouts, release suspects in government detention facilities who have not been charged, and increase efforts to locate and return those in Boko Haram custody.

EU Member States Should Act on Philippines Abuses

Human Rights Watch - Monday, August 31, 2020
Click to expand Image Veiled protesters, mostly relatives of victims of alleged extra-judicial killings, display placards during a protest outside the Philippine military and police camps in Quezon City, Philippines on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Last year, European Union member states at the United Nations Human Rights Council voted decisively in support of a resolution mandating the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on grave rights abuses in the Philippines.

The report, presented in June, documented “widespread and systematic” extrajudicial killings, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, crimes committed in a climate of near total impunity; the murder of at least 208 human rights defenders between 2015 and 2019, and frequent threats and intimidation, police raids, arbitrary arrests, prosecutions, and shutdowns of civil society groups and media outlets.

The findings were unsurprising, confirming what has been previously documented by rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, and UN special experts. What has been surprising is the Human Rights Council’s reluctance to act on repeated calls for an independent international investigation into the extrajudicial killings and other abuses committed since 2016.

In a letter sent on August 27, 62 nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, reiterated their call for an independent international investigative mechanism on crimes committed in the Philippines. The groups also cautioned against giving credence to Manila’s recent creation of a panel to review more than 5,600 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings in the country, as the panel includes the very agencies implicated in the abuses.

While the EU has repeatedly expressed concerns over serious abuses by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, it has not taken concrete action beyond the June 2019 vote. The Philippines benefit from the EU’s GSP+ scheme, which grants preferential access to the EU market conditional on the ratification and implementation of 27 international human rights, labor, and environmental treaties. Despite noting major backsliding in the country’s human rights record, the EU has so far refused to trigger the mechanisms that could lead to the suspension of the trade benefits.

The EU’s and member states’ support at the Human Rights Council will be necessary to advance prospects for justice in the Philippines. Setting up the mechanism would increase pressure on the Duterte administration to stop the abuses and cooperate meaningfully with the international community. And if the Philippine government fails to do so, it could eventually lead to the Philippines having its EU trade benefits suspended, as Cambodia’s abusive prime minister, Hun Sen, knows very well.

Hurricane Katrina in the US, 15 Years Later

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, August 29, 2020
Click to expand Image People protest in front of the storm damaged city hall in New Orleans, Louisiana, over the city’s response to Hurricane Katrina. © 2006 Brian Root

Fifteen years ago, I sat in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hotel room, watching with a growing sense of dread as the first reports rolled in of the path of destruction cut through the southern US state by Hurricane Katrina’s fury.

I had only lived in New Orleans for a month; I had few friends, no vehicle, or plan to evacuate. Thankfully, my neighbors loaded me into their van to escape the storm. I returned to New Orleans four months later and spent the following three years pitching in on rebuilding the city and soaking up its culture and community of this unique city.

Yet on the eve of the 15th anniversary of Katrina, and as we assess Hurricane Laura’s path of destruction, human rights in Louisiana remain at risk, particularly for Black and brown people who are disproportionately imprisoned and impoverished.

If one ever needed proof of how cruel the US criminal legal system can be, they need only look to Katrina, where inmates were abandoned as toxic flood waters rose to their chests. Prisoners’ letters to Human Rights Watch describe their terror. Then, after inmates were finally evacuated from that traumatic experience, they faced fresh abuse at the prisons to which they were moved.

Louisiana counties currently have some of the highest jail incarceration rates in the country. Today, authorities’ duty to protect people in custody encompasses not just the threat of storms but also Covid-19. This includes protecting detained asylum seekers and others held in immigration detention. A huge portion of the country’s immigration detainees are held in rural Louisiana, where facilities have proliferated under the Trump administration.

Louisiana authorities have failed to protect the economic and social rights of those who live there. A quarter of the state’s children live in poverty. In New Orleans, white income is nearly three times higher than the average income of Black households. Black males live seven fewer years on average than white males in the state. More Black and Hispanic people in Louisiana did not graduate high school than earned a bachelor’s degree.  

These are only some of the problems bedeviling Louisiana. There are no simple solutions to the issues of rampant poverty and racial and ethnic inequality, but here’s a suggestion to start: reducing the role of police and the criminal legal system in addressing social problems, and instead directing more investment to communities.

Malaysia: Proposed Law Reverses Police Reforms

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020
Click to expand Image Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin attending parliament session at parliament lower house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, July 13, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Vincent Thian

(Bangkok) – The Malaysian government’s proposed police complaints commission would have no powers to punish rights-abusing police, Human Rights Watch said today. A bill to create an “Independent Police Conduct Commission” (IPCC) was submitted to Parliament on August 26, 2020, and a second reading is scheduled for the next parliamentary sitting.

The government should withdraw the police conduct commission bill from parliament and significantly revise it to ensure genuine accountability of the police.

“It’s crucial that Malaysia’s police complaints commission not only investigates police abuse but ensures that crimes by police are fully and fairly prosecuted,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The draft law plays a cruel joke on victims of police abuse by creating a toothless commission with no real enforcement powers.”

Allegations of police corruption and excessive use of force have dogged the Malaysian police for decades, culminating in the establishment of the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Force in 2004. In 2005, the commission recommended creating an independent body to investigate complaints of misconduct against the police and take necessary disciplinary action. The government created the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) in 2009, but it has failed to ensure police accountability because it is not empowered to prosecute or impose disciplinary actions for misconduct.

In July 2019, the then-Pakatan Harapan government submitted a proposed Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) bill for a first reading. That bill, while flawed, would have given the proposed commission the power to discipline police misconduct.

The current Perikitan Nasional government, which took power in March, withdrew the IPCMC bill “because the police objected to it” and instead introduced an Independent Police Conduct Commission bill that deprives the commission of enforcement powers. When an investigation discloses misconduct, the proposed commission can only refer the findings to the Police Force Commission, headed by the home affairs minister and with a membership that includes the police inspector general, with the “recommendation” that it take disciplinary action. The proposed commission would have no authority to compel that body to act, or even to require the Police Force Commission to report back on its actions. 

Similarly, when the proposed commission’s findings disclose “any criminal offense under any written law,” the bill states that the commission “shall refer the findings to the relevant authority.” It does not specify whether the “relevant authority” is the attorney general’s office or the police, nor does it empower the commission to take follow-up action if no investigation is pursued.

The commission is precluded from even investigating any act that is covered by the standing orders issued by the police inspector general. The standing orders, the contents of which are not publicly available, generally govern issues such as the conduct of arrests, the treatment of detainees, and permissible use of weapons.

While the proposed IPCC will have the authority to summon witnesses and compel the production of documents, a witness may refuse to answer any question “the answer to which would have a tendency to expose the member of the police force, officer of a public body or person to a criminal charge or penalty or forfeiture” or to disclose information if the head of the department in which the witness serves certifies that doing so “is prejudicial to national security or national interest.” 

The proposed law is a major step backward from existing law. Currently, a witness appearing before the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission is not excused from answering questions or producing documents because they “may incriminate or tend to incriminate the witness, or on any other ground of privilege, duty of secrecy or other restriction on disclosure, or on any other ground.” The existing commission also has the authority to conduct searches and seizures of relevant evidence, but the proposed commission would not.  

The bill would also preclude the IPCC from conducting unannounced visits to police lockups and other detention facilities. Under the draft law, the commission would have to give “early advance notice” of its intent to visit such facilities.

Some of the bill’s provisions raise serious concerns about the commission’s independence, Human Rights Watch said. Under the draft law, the home affairs minister would appoint the secretary of the commission and issue regulations governing the commission’s procedures. Unlike both the prior bill and the EAIC, the draft law does not bar the appointment of former police officers or current government officials to the commission.

“Passage of the proposed police commission bill would demonstrate that the Malaysian government has abandoned reforms that are the only real hope for a more rights-respecting police force,” Robertson said. “Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin should order the immediate withdrawal of this bill and direct the Home Affairs Ministry to consult widely with rights groups and other stakeholders to propose a law that compels real changes in police conduct.”

Jordan: Release Prominent Cartoonist

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020
Click to expand Image Emad Hajjaj. © 2020 Private

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities should immediately release and drop abusive charges against Emad Hajjaj, a cartoonist, Human Rights Watch said today. Jordanian authorities arrested Hajjaj on August 26, 2020, for publishing a satirical cartoon about the Israeli-United Arab Emirates (UAE) diplomatic agreement.

Hajjaj, 53, is a prominent Jordanian cartoonist whose satirical cartoons have appeared in major Jordanian daily newspapers for decades. A source close to him told Human Rights Watch that authorities arrested Hajjaj for posting a cartoon to his website and social media depicting a dove with an Israeli flag spitting in the face of the UAE de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed. The cartoon referenced recent reports that the Israeli government had urged the United States not to sell F-35 combat aircraft to the UAE despite the recent diplomatic agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE.

“Calling a satirical cartoon a terrorism offense only confirms that Jordan intends to muzzle citizens who speak freely,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This arrest sends the message that Jordanian authorities would rather abuse the rights of their own citizens than risk offending a gulf leader’s feelings.”

On August 27, prosecutors announced that they had ordered Hajjaj’s detention for 14 days and referred him to the State Security Court on the charge of “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state,” an offense under Jordan’s counterterrorism law. The arrest follows a trend toward increasing restrictions on free expression in Jordan, Human Rights Watch said.

The source told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian police detained Hajjaj on the evening of August 26 as he was leaving his farm in the Jordan Valley and held him overnight at the electronic crimes unit of Jordan’s Public Security Directorate. On August 27, the public prosecutor referred him to the State Security Court for prosecution.

Hajjaj faces possible trial under article 3.b. of Jordan’s counterterrorism law, an overly broad provision that prohibits “undertaking acts that expose the kingdom to hostile acts or disturb its relations with a foreign state or expose Jordanians to the danger of retaliatory acts against them or their money.” Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which the authorities have used this provision to punish Jordanians merely for publishing articles or social media posts critical of other countries, especially for criticism of gulf countries or their leaders.

International human rights law, including article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Jordan ratified in 1975, protects freedom of expression and opinion. It permits restrictions on these rights for the protection of national security only when they are necessary and proportional to that end. Punishing public criticism of other countries’ policies is neither necessary nor proportional, and amounts to a direct attack on free speech, Human Rights Watch said.

Hajjaj’s detention reflects a broader deterioration of protections for free expression and media freedom in Jordan in recent years. Human Rights Watch reported in August that journalists have experienced increased restrictions on their reporting in the form of gag orders and harassment by security forces. Most recently, following the closure of the Jordanian Teachers’ Syndicate on July 25, Attorney General Hassan al-Abdallat immediately published a gag order prohibiting the publication or discussion of details surrounding the case. Two journalists reported that Jordanian police assaulted them at recent demonstrations even after they identified themselves as reporters.

In addition to releasing Hajjaj and dropping the abusive charges against him, the Jordanian authorities should stop enforcing and work to remove overly broad articles from the country’s Penal Code, Electronic Crimes Law, and counterterrorism law that are frequently used to unduly restrict Jordanians’ right to freedom of expression. This should include removing entirely article 3.b. of the counterterrorism law, Human Rights Watch said.

“Jordan should be more concerned about harming its international standing through these politically motivated prosecutions than about its citizens peacefully criticizing other countries’ rulers,” Stork said.

Egypt: Veteran Human Rights Defender Bahey el-Din Hassan Sentenced to 15-Years in Prison

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020
Click to expand Image Bahey el-Din Hassan. © Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

(Beirut) – On 25 August 2020, the Fifth “Terrorism Circuit” of the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced Bahey eldin Hassan, a veteran human rights defender, to 15 years in prison on the basis of his critical tweets, 18 human rights organizations said today. The conviction of Bahey eldin Hassan, director and co-founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), over the abusive charges of “publishing false news” and “insulting the judiciary” is a new low for the Egyptian judiciary. The ruling was issued in absentia as Mr Hassan has been living abroad, in self-exile, since 2014.

This ruling constitutes the latest reprisal against Mr Hassan for his work promoting human rights in Egypt. In September 2019, a court sentenced him in absentia to three years in prison and a 20,000 EGP ($1,260 USD) fine in relation to a tweet in which he criticized the Egyptian public prosecution.

In March 2018, and as part of the continuous smear campaigns against him in government and pro-government media, he received death threats by an Egyptian TV show host after seven Egyptian independent human rights groups, including CIHRS, sent a memo to the UN Secretary-General regarding the presidential elections in Egypt.

These actions are clearly intended to punish Mr Hassan for his criticism of the Egyptian authorities’ appalling human rights record and to intimidate his colleagues at CIHRS and other independent Egyptian human rights organizations. 

The latest ruling cites several of Mr Hassan’s tweets as evidence against him for “insulting the judiciary” and “publishing false information that could undermine public security, its national and economic interests”. In these tweets, he criticized torture and lack of judicial independence, and mentioned the call for justice for the Italian student Giulio Regeni, who was killed in Cairo in January 2016, after being abducted and tortured.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian authorities have been cracking down on human rights organizations and activists in an unprecedented fashion. Dozens have faced arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, ill-treatment, and judicial harassment, including abusive investigations, travel bans, and asset freezes.

In addition, the Egyptian authorities have increasingly been targeting human rights defenders now in exile, including by harassing and arresting their family members inside Egypt in a clear pattern of intimidation and reprisals for their human rights work.

About Bahey eldin Hassan

Bahey eldin Hassan, one of the founding members of the human rights movement in Egypt and the Arab region, is director and co-founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), and a member of the boards and advisory committees of several international human rights organizations, including the Euro-Mediterranean Foundation of Support to Human Rights Defenders (EMHRF), Human Rights Watch (HRW) Middle East and North Africa Division, and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). Hassan is also one of the founding members of EMHRF and EuroMed Rights. He has published articles about Egypt in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

We, the undersigned organizations, strongly condemn Bahey eldin Hassan’s conviction and sentencing on trumped-up charges in reprisal for his legitimate human rights work, and urge the Egyptian authorities to quash the verdicts against Mr Hassan. We also call upon Egypt’s international partners to denounce the Egyptian authorities’ shameful pattern of reprisals against human rights defenders. We call upon the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the Human Rights Council, and other relevant mechanisms to immediately take steps to address the ongoing targeting of human rights defenders in Egypt.

Amnesty International
Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-violence Studies
Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana (ARCI)
Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales
Cultura è Libertà.
Egyptian Front for Human Rights
Egyptian Human Rights Forum
EuroMed Rights
FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Freedom Initiative
Front Line Defenders
Giuristi Democratici
Human Rights Watch
International Service for Human Rights
Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
Reporters Without Borders
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

Belarus: Internet Disruptions, Online Censorship

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020
Click to expand Image Protesters in Belarus, Minsk, holding up their smartphones. August 25, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Sergei Grits

(Moscow) – Belarusian authorities are disrupting internet access and restricting content online in response to peaceful, countrywide protests, Human Rights Watch said today. For over 18 days, protesters have demanded fair presidential elections and investigations into police brutality against demonstrators. 

Protests have been ongoing in Belarus since August 9, 2020, when the official results of the presidential election, which the demonstrators contend was rigged, were announced, prolonging Alexander Lukashenka’s 25-year rule. In response, police used rubber bullets, flash grenades, and physical force, with thousands of people detained and hundreds reporting torture and other ill-treatment.

“Belarusian authorities are interfering with internet access and restricting content online, apparently to demobilize protests and disconnect people in Belarus from information they have the right to get,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Belarusian authorities should ensure people’s rights to freedom of information and expression and investigate the reports about police abuse, instead of trying to silence their protests.”

The blocking appeared to be an attempt to silence information about protests and severe police brutality against their participants, Human Rights Watch said.

From August 9 to August 12, internet access in Belarus was severely restricted for a total of 61 hours, leaving access only to 2G networks, permitting text messages and voice calls. Lukashenka, the National Center for Response to Computer Incidents, and Beltelecom, the state internet service provider, blamed foreign cyberattacks for the disruptions. But independent experts and an independent monitoring group have attributed these disruptions to government interference.

Once connection was restored, reports of the full scale of police beatings and other violence against protesters spread online, leading even more people to join the protests.

Since August 12, there have been repeated internet disruptions, apparently in response to the larger protests and law enforcement engagement. On August 14, protesters were unable to connect to mobile internet at the Independence Square in Minsk while law enforcement officers started to gather in the city center, Telegram channels reported. Three days later, a 15-minute nationwide disruption was recorded during what was meant to be a pro-Lukashenka protest. The disruption took place as the crowd started chanting, in reference to Lukashenka, “Go away! Go away!.”

On August 23, when more than 100,000 protesters gathered in Minsk, mobile internet services were disrupted for over three hours as protesters moved toward the presidential palace. Three days later, cellular internet was restricted in Minsk again for about an hour, coinciding with arrests at a protest in the city center.  

Ahead of the disruptions on August 23, the privately-owned internet service provider A1 notified its users that there would be temporary bandwidth restrictions of the company’s 3G networks due to “requests by the authorities related to ensuring national security.” In a separate message, the company also noted that the vast majority of the country’s internet service providers were required to connect via Beltelecom and the National Traffic Exchange Center, both of which have the technical capacity for internet disruption. The company reported that connectivity had been restored half an hour after posting the notification.

The authorities have also blocked websites that covered the presidential election, subsequent nationwide protests, and police brutality.

Click to expand Image Notification saying that “the access to the website is blocked based on Belarus Ministry of Information decision in accordance with the Law On Mass Media”, August 26, 2020. © HRW 2020

On August 21, Tut.by, an independent Belarusian media outlet, reported that the Information Ministry had blocked more than 70 sources, stating that most sources’ websites featured an “access blocked” notification when users tried to access them. Among the sources listed as blocked there have been platforms for public initiatives for vote-counting based on users’ reports, human rights organization advocating fair elections in Belarus, websites of several of Lukashenka’s rivals who were imprisoned or barred from the presidential ballot, and independent news outlets reporting on the protests in Belarus.

The official registry of websites with restricted access in Belarus is only accessible to the authorities and internet service providers. The public does not have access to this list.

According to Tut.by, nine online sources received notifications that they were being blocked for “coordinating and calling for mass riots.” The notifications came from the Information Ministry, which is authorized by the Law on Mass Media to block content without needing judicial approval. The other sources that Tut.by reported as blocked did not receive any official confirmation, although access to them appears to be restricted “based on the decision of Belarus Ministry of Information,” Some of the sources listed in the Tut.by article are intermittently accessible. For example, the US government-funded Radio Liberty was accessible briefly on August 26, but inaccessible later that day.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that it has been blocked since August 9, although the Information Ministry had responded to its queries saying that no decision had been made to block the organization’s website.

The government also appears to be blocking censorship circumvention services such as virtual private networks (VPNs), used by millions in Belarus to access the blocked websites. 

In 2015, United Nations and regional organization experts said: “Using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.” Governments also have an obligation to ensure that any restrictions to information online are provided by law, are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat, and are in the public interest.

The UN General Assembly Resolution on “Promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association” says that governments should refrain from shutting down the internet as well as from imposing content restrictions that violate the legality, necessity, and proportionality criteria. Prohibition of internet disruptions by governments in relation to peaceful assemblies was reiterated by General Comment Number 37 on the right of peaceful assembly by the UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Belarusian authorities should not disrupt internet and censor online content in response to peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said.

“Instead of trying to demobilize demonstrations and silence reports on police abuse, the authorities should uphold freedom of peaceful assembly and ensure thorough and effective investigations into alleged police abuses and justice for the victims,” Williamson said.