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Lockdown Should Not Discriminate Against Migrants, Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel: Discriminatory Land Policies Hem in Palestinians

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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

© Lowshot Ltd

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

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

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

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


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

© Planet Labs 2020

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

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

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

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

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


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

© Planet Labs 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning in Israel

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

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

Israeli Government Response

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

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

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

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

Case Studies

Jisr Al-Zarqa (Haifa District)


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

© Lowshot Ltd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

© Lowshot Ltd.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

© Lowshot Ltd

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

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

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

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

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

Qalansawa (Central District)


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

© Lowshot Ltd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

© Lowshot Ltd

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

Ein Mahel (Northern District)


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

© Planet Labs 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

© Lowshot Ltd

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

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

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

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

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

Lebanon: People with Disabilities Overlooked in Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020

School-age children in Lebanon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020

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

© 2020 Private

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uganda: Drop Charges Against 19 Homeless Youth

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020

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

© AP Photo/Ronald Kabuubi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colombia Should Protect Displaced People During Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020

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

© Private

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyrgyzstan Should Grant Rights Defender His Freedom

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 11, 2020

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

© 2020 AP Photo/Vladimir Voronin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant Askarov his freedom.

Top Human Rights Tweets of the Week

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, May 9, 2020

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

Closing Pakistan’s Maternity Wards Puts Women at Risk

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, May 9, 2020

Pakistani women wearing face masks leave the Aga Khan hospital where a patient suspected of having contracted coronavirus was admitted, in Karachi, Pakistan, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. 

© AP Photo/Fareed Khan

With one of the highest maternal mortality rates in South Asia, Pakistan was already in crisis before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, the reported closing of maternity wards in Islamabad, the capital, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province could exacerbate an already grim situation, especially for impoverished women and girls.

Like other countries, Pakistan faces huge challenges providing essential health services, including sexual and reproductive health care, while responding to the pandemic. But restricting access to health care for already marginalized Pakistani women is not the answer.

Pakistani authorities say they need to close the maternity wards because staff members have been diagnosed with Covid-19. The gynecology ward in Lady Reading Hospital, Peshawar was closed after 29 staff members tested positive for the virus.

Instead of closing maternity wards and cutting off access to essential health care, the Pakistan government needs to do a better job protecting healthcare workers.

As of May 7, more than 500 Pakistani healthcare workers have been infected with Covid-19. Instead of doing everything possible to ensure protection for healthcare workers, Pakistani authorities have taken legal action and threatened force to silence doctors and medical workers expressing their concerns.

On April 6, police arrested 150 doctors and medical staff in the city of Quetta, Balochistan for protesting the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) after 13 doctors in the city tested positive for Covid-19. All those arrested were subsequently released. Doctors in Punjab province have been on symbolic hunger strikes to draw attention to their demands of PPE. The Punjab government responded with police carrying batons.

Sexual and reproductive healthcare, including pregnancy and birth care, is always an essential service and the staff providing this care are essential workers. They need to be kept safe through provision of adequate PPE and other measures such as creating conditions to isolate any patients with Covid-19 symptoms to prevent exposure for uninfected staff and patients.

The Pakistan government should act quickly to ensure that necessary measures are taken to safely reopen maternity wards and that sexual and reproductive health services continue to be available throughout the pandemic in a manner that is safe for both patients and staff.

Saudi Arabia: Prince in Incommunicado Detention

Human Rights Watch - Saturday, May 9, 2020
November 4, 2019 Video Saudi Arabia: Change Comes with Punishing Cost

Arrests, Torture, Murder Accompany Reforms

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities detained Prince Faisal bin Abdullah Al Saud, a son of the late King Abdullah and former head of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, on March 27, 2020 and have since apparently held him incommunicado, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have refused to reveal his whereabouts or status, a source with ties to the family told Human Rights Watch, which suggests that authorities may have forcibly “disappeared” him.

Prince Faisal’s case is the most recent known arbitrary detention of prominent Saudis, including royal family members, outside any recognizable legal process. The authorities previously detained Prince Faisal in November 2017 and held him along with over 300 leading businesspeople, royal family members, and current and former officials at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. The authorities reportedly pressured them to hand over assets in return for their release, also outside of any clear or recognizable legal process. The source said that the authorities released Prince Faisal in late December 2017 after he agreed to hand over assets and that the basis of his current detention is unclear.

“Despite waves of criticism, the lawless behavior of Saudi authorities during the de facto rule of Mohammed bin Salman continues unabated,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now we have to add Prince Faisal to the hundreds detained in Saudi Arabia without a clear legal basis.”

The arrests since 2017 have targeted many sectors of Saudi society, including clerics, intellectuals, human rights activists, businessmen, and royal family members, including sons of the late King Abdullah. Others among his sons detained in November 2017 include Prince Mishal bin Abdullah, a former governor of Mecca; Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, former National Guard minister; and Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a former governor of Riyadh. Prince Turki remains in detention without charge.

The New York Times report reported in March 2018 that 17 people required hospitalization because of ill-treatment by Saudi authorities in the Ritz Carlton in 2017, and that Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, an aide to Prince Turki, later died in detention.

The source said that the authorities imposed an arbitrary travel ban on Prince Faisal following his release on December 29, 2017. The source said that on March 27, 2020, security forces arrived at a family compound northeast of Riyadh, where Prince Faisal was self-isolating due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and detained him without revealing the reasons. The source said that family members have not been able to learn anything about Prince Faisal’s location or status since then, which may qualify as an enforced disappearance.

An enforced disappearance is defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

The source said that Prince Faisal has not publicly criticized authorities since his December 2017 arrest and that family members are concerned about his health as he has a heart condition.

Saudi authorities have targeted other royal family members in recent months. On April 15, 2020, a verified Twitter account owned by Princess Basma bint Saud, 56, a daughter of the late King Saud, issued a series of tweets stating that the princess and her daughter are being held without charge in al-Hair prison, south of Riyadh, and that her health is deteriorating. The tweets disappeared after several hours. On May 5, Agence France-Presse reported that since the tweets were deleted, family members have received no information about her well-being or status.

In early March 2020, authorities detained three senior princes including Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, King Salman’s full brother, along with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a former crown prince and interior minister removed by King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman in June 2017, after which he was placed under long-term house arrest.

“Saudi Arabia’s recent justice reforms have evidently not curbed rampant arbitrary detentions, including of prominent royal family members,” Page said. “The arrest and possible disappearance of Prince Faisal demonstrates again Saudi authorities’ blatant disrespect for the rule of law and the need for a full overhaul of the justice system.”

Thailand Should Free Detained Migrants Amid Pandemic

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 8, 2020

At least 65 detainees in Thailand’s Songkhla immigration detention center – including 18 ethnic Rohingya women and children – tested positive for Covid-19, raising serious concerns about the health and safety of refugees and migrants held in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.

The squalor and inadequate medical care in Thailand’s immigration detention centers are well-documented. With hundreds of people crammed together, sleeping and eating in the same space and sharing bathroom facilities, social distancing and other measures to prevent infections are impossible. In such conditions, Covid-19 can quickly spread, infecting detainees as well as staff who return home each day, bringing the disease into the surrounding community.


A photo showing Bangkok Immigration Detention Center taken in January, 2020. At least 65 detainees in Thailand’s Songkhla immigration detention center have tested positive for Covid-19.

© Sunai Phasuk

The test results at the Songkhla facility came about two weeks after an immigration officer, who later tested positive for Covid-19, visited the center. Now the remaining 50 detainees are also at risk. The lack of action to protect them and the wretched conditions they endure makes Thailand’s frequent claims about respecting the rights and welfare of refugees and migrants ring hollow.

Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and unsafe conditions in home countries, refugees and migrants can become stuck in indefinite immigration detention in Thailand. For many, as in the cases of ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar and Uyghurs from China, neither resettlement nor repatriation is possible.  

To stop the spread of Covid-19 inside immigration detention centers, the Thai government should heed recommendations by the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies by either releasing detained refugees and migrants or finding alternatives that allow for adequate space for social distancing and enabling migrants to secure food, hygiene products, and health care for at least the duration of the pandemic.

The Thai government should also ensure refugees and migrants have access to health services, including prevention, testing, and treatment, and are effectively included in the national response to Covid-19.

In addition, the Thai government should consider a temporary moratorium on police checks for migration documents. Temporarily ending arrests of migrants would prevent further overcrowding and the risk of exposure to the virus at immigration detention facilities. Migrants will not seek testing and treatment if they fear arrest – to the detriment of all.

Respecting everyone’s rights, including those of refugees and migrants, should be a cornerstone of Thailand’s response to the pandemic and will have a positive impact on public health.

Governments Call for Protection of Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 8, 2020

Women sing slogans during a march to commemorate International Women's Day, Friday, March 8, 2019, in Asuncion, Paraguay. Thousands of people marched in Asuncion's downtown to demand women's rights. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

© 2019 AP Photo/Jorge Saenz

During a global crisis, it can be a heavy lift to get many countries to agree on anything. Yet this week, 59 governments did just that, issuing a statement calling on governments to protect sexual and reproductive health and rights and promote gender-responsiveness in the Covid-19 crisis. The statement comes the same week that governments had been scheduled to participate in the first meeting of Generation Equality, marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, now cancelled due to Covid-19.

Even before the virus had reached pandemic levels, experts started to raise alarm bells that government responses to the public health crisis had a disparate impact on women and girls – data from China in February showed increasing rates of domestic violence. Since then, the many gendered impacts of the pandemic have come into focus – from new restrictions on access to abortion, to risks to maternal health, to girls’ education, to harms to women domestic, garment, and sex workers, among others.

It is therefore encouraging that in the absence of a global meeting to reaffirm commitment to gender equality, so many governments have committed to ensuring the pandemic does not reverse progress already made on realizing human rights for women and girls. Their statement is impressive in its scope, including a recognition that governments must prioritize “sexual and reproductive health needs, including psychosocial support services, and protection from gender-based violence.” It also recognizes the special attention needed for adolescent health, particularly with children out of school.

I’ve seen first-hand how epidemics – from cholera in Haiti to Zika in Brazil – have an outsized impact on women and girls. The negative effects often persist long after the epidemic and may never be remedied. So, I applaud these governments for boldly calling for the participation of women and girls in gender-inclusive response efforts. This pandemic is unprecedented and the demands on governments are many. This week’s statement should be a lodestar for ensuring the rights of women and girls are protected. Where governments fall short of their human rights obligations and their stated commitments, women around the world – forum or no – will be watching.

Iran: Prosecutions for Protests About Plane-Downing

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 8, 2020

In this January 11, 2020, people gather for a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of the Ukraine plane crash at the gate of Amri Kabir University in Tehran, Iran.

© 2020 AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File  

(Beirut) – Iranian courts since late April 2020 have sentenced at least 13 people to prison terms, apparently solely for peacefully protesting the Iranian forces’ deadly attack on a civilian airliner and the government’s initial denial of responsibility, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should halt all prosecutions that violate the right to peaceful assembly and protest.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on January 8 shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner, killing 176 passengers and crew. After initial denials, on January 11, the Armed Forces Central Command admitted that, following Iran’s retaliatory attacks against a United States base in Iraq, the IRGC forces had “mistakenly” shot down the passenger jet. Protests then broke out across the country. On January 14, Gholamhossein Esmaili, the judiciary spokesman, told reporters that about 30 people had been arrested in connection with the protests and that an unspecified number of people had been arrested in connection with the downing of the plane.

“Iranian authorities are following their usual playbook of dodging accountability,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While refusing to provide details about any investigation of culpability for the deadly mistake, judicial officials are wasting no time in sentencing people who protested the loss of 176 lives.”

On May 1, Mostafa Hashemizadeh, a civil engineering student at the University of Tehran, tweeted that Branch 26 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced him to 5 years in prison on a charge of “assembly and collusion to disrupt national security.” He said the court sentenced him to an additional year in prison, 3 months of public service at a mental hospital, and 74 lashes, and banned him from entering the university dormitory for 2 years for “disrupting public order.”

Amir Mohammad Sharifi, another University of Tehran student who attended the protests, tweeted that the same court sentenced him to six months in prison for engaging in “propaganda against the state.” He said the charge stemmed from his taking of photos of plainclothes officers entering the university dorm and posting the photos on Twitter.

On April 26, the news website Zeitoon published a copy of the verdict in which the revolutionary court in Amol, Mazandran province, sentenced 11 people to 8 months in prison on the charge of promoting “propaganda against the state” for “chanting slogans against the Islamic republic of Iran” and “taking photos and videos” during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the downing of the plane and during the protests afterward.

On January 14, Iranian authorities pledged to investigate the attack, but they have yet to share any details about their investigations. They have also not granted other affected countries access to key evidence. On March 11, the head of Iran’s delegation to the International Civil Aviation Organization told Reuters that Iran “has agreed to send black boxes from a downed Ukrainian jetliner to Kiev for analysis” but Iran still has not surrendered them.

After a member of Parliament said on April 6 that “members of the armed forces have performed their duties” and that “there won’t be any prosecution,” Shokrallah Bahrami, the head of the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces, rejected that claim and said that at the time, one person remained in detention.

On several occasions officials from Canada, whose nationals constituted the majority of the victims, and other countries whose nationals were on board, have called on Iran to cooperate with multilateral investigative initiatives. Families of the victims have said that they are worried that the Covid-19 pandemic is slowing down any momentum toward justice for their loved ones.

“Instead of prosecuting those who exercised their right to free expression and peaceful assembly, the Iranian authorities should conduct a transparent investigation and cooperate with international bodies to find out exactly what happened in this tragedy,” Page said. 

UN Security Council Should Renew South Sudan Arms Embargo

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 8, 2020

FILE: Opposition soldiers chant "Viva IO", meaning "long live the opposition", during a visit in August 2019 by a ceasefire monitoring team, at an opposition military camp near the town of Nimule in Eastern Equatoria state, South Sudan. 

© AP Photo/Sam Mednick

The United Nations Security Council should prioritize the protection of civilians in South Sudan by renewing the arms embargo and strengthening the monitoring to better enforce it.

Imposed in 2018 after five years of conflict, the embargo aims to stop the flow of weapons that would likely be used in abuses against civilians including killings, rape, and forced recruitment of children as fighters. But for the embargo to have a preventive effect against abuses, countries – especially South Sudan’s neighbors – need to comply with it.

Unfortunately, that is not happening, according to the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan.  

The UN experts found evidence that Sudan delivered weapons three times between March and June 2019, and that Ugandan troops entered the country without notifying the UN. Also, regional counties – as in previous years – failed to report required cargo inspections.

Amnesty International documented embargo violations, including that government and opposition groups recently received small arms and ammunition and that they concealed the weapons from monitors.

The facts on the ground justify the maintenance of the arms embargo. Although warring parties formed a unity government in February and major fighting has declined, civilians remain at risk. Envisioned security arrangements leading to disarmament have stalled. Government forces continue to fight rebels in parts of the Equatorias, while intercommunal fighting has flared in most states. The violence includes attacks on civilians, with thousands forced to flee their homes.  

Sudan and Uganda, both guarantors of South Sudan’s 2018 peace deal, can hardly claim ignorance of the conflict’s impact. They both host more than 800,000 South Sudanese refugees. By violating the arms embargo they are only fueling more killings and abuses.

The African Union – which has called 2020 the year of “silencing the guns” – should ensure that the three elected African UN Security Council members (South Africa, Niger, and Tunisia) support renewal of the arms embargo. This would send a strong signal to South Sudanese leaders that African governments will not tolerate further abuses and broken promises.

In addition to renewing the embargo, the Security Council should beef up compliance, including having ceasefire monitors in South Sudan inspect cargo exempted by the UN sanctions committee. They should also hold violating countries to account.

This step will likely help reduce violence against civilians, and it will also show that the Council prioritizes protecting people during conflict.

Pakistan: Ahmadis Kept Off Minorities Commission

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 8, 2020

A Pakistan Bureau of Statistics official and a soldier collect census information from an Ahmadi resident in Rabwah, Punjab, Pakistan in March 2017. © 2017 ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

© 2017 ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – Pakistan’s government has excluded the long-persecuted Ahmadiyya community from a new government commission aimed at safeguarding the rights of the country’s minorities, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 5, 2020, Pakistan’s cabinet established the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) and adopted the position of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony not to include Ahmadis among its members. Information Minister Shibli Faraz stated after the cabinet meeting that Ahmadis did not “fall in the definition of minorities.” An estimated 4 million Ahmadis live in Pakistan, a country of 212 million, and face widespread abuse and discrimination.

“The Ahmadis are among the most persecuted communities in Pakistan and to exclude them from a minority rights commission is absurd,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Keeping Ahmadis off the commission shows the extent to which the community faces discrimination every day.”

The government should immediately reverse its decision to exclude Ahmadiyya community members from the NCM, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that the new commission is independent and empowered to make policy recommendations, investigate human rights violations, and propose remedies.

The media reported that on April 15, the Religious Affairs Ministry had initially recommended including Ahmadis on the NCM, an unprecedented proposal since Ahmadis remain unrepresented in most government institutions. However, on April 29, the minister of religious affairs, Noorul Haq Qadri, denied that the government was considering allowing Ahmadis on the commission. None of the cabinet members objected to excluding Ahmadis.

The persecution of the Ahmadiyya community is embedded in Pakistani law and encouraged by the Pakistan government. In September 1974, the Pakistani parliament declared the Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. In 1984, Pakistan amended its penal code, giving legal status to five ordinances that explicitly targeted religious minorities and two laws specifically restricting the activities of Ahmadis, including prohibiting them from “indirectly or directly posing as a Muslim.” Ahmadis are prohibited from declaring or propagating their faith publicly, building mosques (or even referring to them as such), or making the call for Muslim prayer.

Pakistan’s electoral law effectively excludes Ahmadis. To register to vote, Ahmadis must either renounce their faith or agree to be on a separate electoral list and accept their status as non-Muslim.

The authorities routinely arrest, jail, and charge Ahmadis for blasphemy and other offenses because of their religious beliefs. In several instances, the police have been complicit in harassment and filing of false charges against Ahmadis, or stood by in the face of anti-Ahmadi violence.

Pakistani laws against the Ahmadiyya community violate Pakistan’s international legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including the rights to freedom of conscience, religion, expression, and association, to profess and practice their own religion, and to vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections. Pakistan ratified the ICCPR in 2010.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has previously excluded Ahmadis from government positions because of outside pressure. Hardliners objected when he appointed a Princeton University economist, Atif Mian, an Ahmadi, to his advisory council in September 2018.Khan initially said he would “not bow to extremists,” but later he removed Mian from his post. Two members of the advisory council resigned in protest.

Minority rights groups in Pakistan have rejected the NCM’s proposed constitution because it does not meet the standards set out for national human rights institutions in the UN Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions (“the Paris Principles”). Since 1990, the government has created several ad-hoc minority rights commissions, though they have remained non-functional and without statutory authority. The cabinet has not defined the powers of the new commission.

Under the Paris Principles, anyone holding a political office cannot become a member of a national human rights institution. However, the cabinet has nominated leaders of the ruling Pakistan Threek-i-Insaf as members of the commission.

“Pakistan needs an independent and inclusive national human rights institution, and not an exclusionary government-controlled one,” Adams said. “Excluding Ahmadis from the NCM is just the latest sign of its deeply discriminatory policies towards this persecuted group.”


Hungary Rejects Opportunity to Protect Women from Violence

Human Rights Watch - Friday, May 8, 2020

Candles and silhouettes representing victims are placed during a rally to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women outside the Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, November 25, 2018.

© 2018 Zoltan Balogh/MTI via AP

Amidst a disturbing global uptick in reports of domestic violence during Covid-19 lockdowns, Hungary has taken a leap backwards in protecting women. On May 5, parliament, where ruling party Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, blocked ratification of a regional treaty on violence against women.

The Council of Europe Convention on Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, establishes a gold standard of inclusion, recognizing everyone’s right to live free from violence, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, or other characteristics. It obliges state parties to uphold minimum standards for protection from and prevention and prosecution of violence against women.

But politicians in Hungary claim the convention promotes “gender ideology” – a term used to argue that gender equality undermines “traditional family values” and encourages homosexuality. They also claim the convention’s protection of migrant and refugee women contradicts Hungary’s efforts to crackdown on irregular immigration.

Hungary’s government has launched persistent attacks on gender equality and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and asylum seekers and migrants – all of which feed into a broader backslide on the rule of law in the country.

Hungary’s justice minister Judit Varga argues that national laws already protect women victims of violence, but women’s groups have long lamented insufficient services and poor police response to rampant domestic violence.

This week’s political maneuvers reflect a disturbing trend: Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Latvia have similarly refused to ratify the convention, Poland has threatened to withdraw, and Slovakia has also opposed European Union accession to the convention.

Over 20 percent of women in the EU have reportedly experienced domestic violence. In many countries, over 50 percent of women murdered die at the hands of partners or family members. Reports of domestic abuse have soared across Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic. Government resources to prevent violence against women and ensure services to support and protect victims can save lives, and they can’t wait.

The European Commission President and Equalities Commissioner have both prioritized EU accession to the convention. They should speak out as member states deliberately try to derail this process and misrepresent the convention’s essential protections for women.

Instead of using inflammatory rhetoric to block needed measures, European governments should focus on keeping all women safe.

Bangladesh: Mass Arrests Over Cartoons, Posts

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 7, 2020

A protester demands the release of Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh on May 5, 2020. 

© 2020 Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Bangladesh authorities have arrested four people and charged seven others for “spreading rumors and misinformation on Facebook,” because they criticized the government’s response to Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately drop all charges, which appear to violate freedom of expression, release the four people in custody, and repeal the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA).

According to the First Information Report (FIR) filed with Ramna Police Station, the 11 are being charged under the overbroad and widely misused Digital Security Act for “knowingly posting rumors against the father of the nation, the liberation war, and the coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation’s image,” and to “cause the law and order situation to deteriorate.”

“It is only an insecure and authoritarian government that uses a pandemic to arrest cartoonists, journalists, and activists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of filing cases that could result in life imprisonment simply for posting satire, the ruling Awami League should take note of the criticism and try to address any gaps in the government’s response to Covid-19.”

Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist; Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer and activist; Didarul Bhuiyan, an activist; and Minhaz Mannan Emon, director of the Dhaka Stock Exchange, are in custody. The others facing charges are Tasneem Khalil and Shahed Alam, journalists; Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger; and Saer Zulkarnain, Ashiq Imran, Philipp Schumacher, and Swapan Wahed – all of whom live outside Bangladesh. The authorities also have brought charges against 5 or 6 “unnamed” individuals.

The cases were filed amid the government’s ongoing crackdown on those who speak out against its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The government issued a circular on May 7, banning all government employees from posting, “liking,” sharing, or commenting on any content which might “tarnish the image of the state” or the government’s “important persons,” warning that violation of this order would result in legal action. The authorities have increased surveillance of anyone who might spread “rumors,” and has ramped up media censorship. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the country’s primary counterterrorism unit, recently formed a “cyber verification cell” to identify Covid-19 “rumors.” The police said the RAB-3 cyber team discovered the “I am Bangladeshi” Facebook page, which is at the center of these charges.

RAB officers raided Kishore’s home and confiscated his phone and computers, allegedly finding “evidence” that he is “spreading rumors to create confusion by drawing cartoons of ruling-party leaders.” Kishore had recently posted a series of cartoons on Facebook titled Life in the Time of Corona, which included critical satire of the ruling party and allegations of corruption in the government’s Covid-19 response.

Ahmed had recently published an article criticizing the shortage of personal protective equipment for doctors. Bhuiyan, a key organizer in the activist organization Rashtrochinta, has been a vocal critic of the government’s Covid-19 policies and is part of a recently-formed committee monitoring corruption and failures in the government’s response. In an inaugural news conference on April 30, 2020, the committee alleged inconsistencies and mismanagement in relief aid allocations, saying the poor were being left behind.

The police complaint alleges Khalil instigated much of the offensive content, accusing him of spreading “fake news and abusive comments on Facebook about the father of nation, the liberation war, the coronavirus pandemic,” and writing about the “security agencies and the military” to “damage the country’s image.”

Khalil is the editor of Netra News, an online news site that has been blocked inside Bangladesh since December 2019 after reporting allegations of corruption against a cabinet minister. Netra News recently published a leaked interagency United Nations memo estimating that up to two million people could die in Bangladesh unless immediate steps were taken to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The 11 have been charged under Sections 21, 25, 31, and 35 of the Digital Security Act (DSA). Section 21 criminalizes “any propaganda or campaign” against the liberation war, “the father of the nation, the national anthem, or the national flag” and carries a sentence of up to a life in prison. Section 25 criminalizes publishing “offensive or fear inducing” information or any content “tarnishing the image of the nation,” carrying a sentence of up to 5 years in prison. Section 31 criminalizes publishing any content that disrupts “communal harmony” or “threatens to deteriorate law and order,” carrying a punishment of up to 10 years.

The Digital Security Act has been repeatedly criticized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rightsthe United States, the European Unionjournalists in Bangladesh, and many others for violating Bangladesh’s commitments under international law. 311 members of Bangladesh civil society issued a joint statement calling for the government to uphold free speech and to release those held under the Digital Security Act.

There are serious allegations that RAB officials forcibly disappeared Ahmed and Bhuiyan and held them in secret detention before handing them over to the police. The First Information Report of the arrest says that Ahmed was arrested in the morning of May 5 and Bhuiyan was arrested on May 6. However, their families say that they had been picked up days earlier by men in civilian clothes claiming to be from RAB-3.

Bhuiyan’s brother-in-law told the media that their family and some colleagues were having their Ramadan evening meal on the evening of May 5 at Bhuiyan’s residence in Badda, Dhaka, when 7 or 8 men knocked on the door and identified themselves as RAB-3. The men collected Bhuiyan’s laptop, two computers, and mobile phone, and took him away in a black microbus. When the family inquired about his whereabouts, however, RAB officials told them that Bhuiyan was not in their custody.

According to his wife, Lipa Akhter, Ahmed was allegedly picked up from his home in Lalmatia, Dhaka, on May 4 by men claiming to be from RAB-3. However, RAB officers denied having Ahmed in their custody. About 24 hours later, Akhter said she “received a call from the Ramna Police Station saying my husband is with them and that I was to come over to the station and give him food.”

RAB has long been accused of serious human rights violations, including killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. Human Rights Watch has called for RAB to be disbanded and replaced with a rights-respecting force.

These arrests follow an April 9 government directive dropping media from the list of emergency services that would remain exempt from lockdown restrictions. Benar news and other websites were blocked in Bangladesh after reporting on criticism of the government's response to Covid-19. The government ordered all government hospital nurses to refrain from speaking to the media without prior permission and cracked down on doctors for speaking out over a lack of personal protective equipment and resources. Hundreds of doctors have tested positive for the virus.

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds. This includes the freedom to criticize the government and public figures and institutions. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy.

“It is vital for the Bangladesh government to recognize that freedom of speech is key in the battle against Covid-19,” Adams said. “The government should stop harassing journalists, activists, doctors, and nurses for voicing concern and instead address the urgent need for aid, transparency, and resources that have them raising the alarm in the first place.”

Human Rights Watch Film Festival, UK and Ireland

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 7, 2020

Screenshot from the film I Am Not Alone.

(London) – The United Kingdom edition of the 2020 Human Rights Watch Film Festival (HRWFF) is making a digital return for two weeks, from May 22 to June 5, following the festival’s early closure in March due to the Covid-19 health crisis.

The film festival, generously supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, will stream a collection of nine international titles on Curzon Home Cinema, co-presented with partners Barbican, Curzon, and Regents Street Cinema. Digital audiences also have the opportunity to join live and rigorous interactive discussions for every title with the filmmakers, Human Rights Watch experts, and special guests.

“At this time when the world feels most intensely the interconnectedness of humanity, the festival was more determined than ever to bring our UK audiences this digital edition,” said John Biaggi, director of the HRWFF. “These nine essential films present urgent human rights issues we can all relate to. Now more than ever, human rights are global. What impacts one society, what impacts one family, affects all of us.”

Gali Gold, head of cinema at Barbican, said:

The festival allows us to sympathise with others, learn about other peoples’ and communities’ experiences and points of view, and move us sometimes into action. At this particular moment in time these connections feel more important than ever. As the principle venue for the London festival, we are very pleased that our audiences can engage with this collection of films and discussions, albeit from their homes.

Available to audiences across the UK and Ireland, these documentary and feature films – most of which are made by and about women – expose and humanize crises related to women’s rights, inspiring leaders, the power of journalism, refugee and exiled individuals and families living with trauma, indigenous rights, the ongoing struggle for disability rights, and Bangladeshi women working in the fashion industry.

The following titles will be available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema from May 22 to June 5. For details about how to join the live webinar Q&A sessions, please see Human Rights Watch Film Festival. All Q&A times are correct for British Standard Time (BST).

Director Garin Hovannisian
2019, 90 minutes, documentary
Live webinar Q&A: Friday, May 22, 9:30 p.m. – Garin Hovannisian (filmmaker), Alec Mouhibian (producer), Rachel Denber, (deputy director, Europe and Central Asia division, Human Rights Watch)

On Easter Sunday 2018, Nikol Pashinyan put on his backpack and started on a 120-mile walk across Armenia to protest President Serzh Sargsyan’s attempt to stay in power for a third term. Nikol’s solitary act of peaceful protest would mark the start of a 25-day revolution that inspired thousands of protesters across the country to peacefully join together with one clear demand: Serzh Sargsyan must go. With remarkable access to key players reaching the highest levels of government and with footage recorded by phone-wielding protesters, I Am Not Alone captures the energy and hopefulness of grassroots protest and direct action. This emboldening “velvet revolution” started with one man who, standing firm in his belief that he was not alone, convinced a nation that it deserved more.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/i-am-not-alone?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Film website: https://www.iamnotalonefilm.com/
Publicity stills and film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press

Director Maya Newell
2019, 84 minutes, documentary
Live webinar Q&A: Saturday, May 23, 12:00 p.m. – Maya Newell (filmmaker) and special guest(s), moderated by Elaine Pearson (Australia director, Human Rights Watch)

“I was born a little Aboriginal kid,” explains 10-year-old Dujuan. “That means I had a memory – a memory about being Aboriginal.” Born in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), Australia, Dujuan has a strong connection to his culture, speaks three languages, and is regarded as a healer in his community. But within the colonized school system, his strength, gifts, and intellect go unnoticed, his culture ignored and deleted from schoolbooks, and he acts out, attracting attention from the police and child welfare system. At the time of filming, 100 percent of the youth in Alice Springs detention centres were Aboriginal. In this powerful portrait, made in collaboration with Dujuan's family, Maya Newell puts the beauty, resilience, and challenges of the Northern Territory’s Indigenous children in the spotlight.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/my-blood-it-runs?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Film website: https://inmyblooditruns.com/
Publicity stills and film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press  

Directors Hilla Medalia, Shosh Shlam
2019, 84 minutes, documentary
Live webinar Q&A: Sunday, May 24, 8:30 p.m. – Hilla Medalia (filmmaker), Shosh Shlam (filmmaker), Yaqiu Wang, (China researcher, Human Rights Watch), moderated by Gali Gold (head of cinema, Barbican)

In China, unmarried women over the age of 27 are deemed “sheng nu” or “leftover”. As an effect of the now-defunct one-child policy, there are 30 million more men than women, leaving single women under immense social pressures to marry, and fast, or be rejected from society. Public dating contests, “marriage markets” where city sidewalks are lined with parents advertising their children’s attributes, and government-sponsored matchmaking festivals are just some of the humiliating ordeals that unwed women face. This eye-opening documentary follows three women in their gruelling quest to find a husband, weighing the cost of family and society’s approval against their own chances of happiness.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/leftover-women?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Film website: https://www.metfilmsales.com/production/leftover-women/
Publicity stills and film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press

Director Eva Mulvad
2019, 112 minutes, documentary
Live webinar Q&A: Tuesday, May 26, 8:30 p.m. – Eva Mulvad (filmmaker), Yusaf Ciftci (VOICES Network ambassador)

An intimately filmed, epic love story introduces Leila and Sahand at the start of a turbulent five-year period beginning with their escape from Iran where, while married to other people, they fell in love. Since adultery is punishable by death, and divorce forbidden, they run for their lives and start over again as a family in Turkey with their young son, Mani, who doesn’t yet know that Sahand is his biological father. Suddenly living together in a strange new land, battling tightening asylum laws to find security after years in limbo, they are learning more about each other in the toughest of circumstances and facing hurdles that test the strength of their relationship.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/love-child?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Film website: http://www.autlookfilms.com/comvexx/film.php?view=wrapper&id=261 
Publicity stills and film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press  

Director Maryam Zaree
2019, 98 minutes, documentary
Live webinar Q&A: Friday, May 29, 8:30 p.m. – Maryam Zaree (filmmaker), Tara Sepehri Far (Middle East and North Africa researcher, Human Rights Watch), moderated by Gali Gold (head of cinema, Barbican)

When she was 12 years old, actress and filmmaker Maryam Zaree found out that she was 1 of a number of babies born inside Evin, Iran’s most notorious political prison. Maryam’s parents were imprisoned shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, a period in which tens of thousands of political dissidents were arrested and tortured. With Born in Evin, Maryam confronts decades of silence in her family and embarks on an exploration into the circumstances of her birth. On this vulnerable, lyrical journey, Maryam considers the impact of trauma on the bodies and souls of survivors and their children, leading her to question how her generation can relate to their own history while also respecting the people they love as they prefer to heal in silence.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/born-evin?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Film website: https://syndicadofs.com/born-in-evin/ 
Publicity stills & film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press  

Director Juliana Fanjul
2019, 79 minutes, documentary
Live webinar Q&A: Saturday, May 30, 8:30 p.m. – Juliana Fanjul (filmmaker), José Miguel Vivanco (executive director, Americas division, Human Rights Watch)

To millions of people in Mexico, the incorruptible journalist and news anchor Carmen Aristegui is regarded as the trusted alternative voice to official government spin, fighting daily against deliberate disinformation spread through news sources, government corruption, and the related drugs trade. When she is fired by a radio station in 2015 after revealing a scandal involving then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, Carmen – with her dedicated journalist colleagues – decides to build a separate news platform. Facing threats of violence in the wake of a prominent journalist’s vicious murder, they must overcome fear for their personal well-being to continue in a shared fight for democracy and justice.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/radio-silence?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Film website: https://www.akkafilms.ch/en/radio-silence/
Publicity stills and film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press  

Director Rachel Dretzin
2018, 93 minutes, documentary
Live webinar Q&A: Sunday, May 31, 8:30 p.m. – Andrew Solomon (film participant and author of “Far From the Tree”), Shantha Rau Barriga (disability rights director, Human Rights Watch), moderated by Graeme Reid (LGBT rights program director, Human Rights Watch)

This life-affirming documentary follows the lives of Jack, Jason, Loini, and Trevor, who don’t fit society’s narrow definition of “normal.” We meet them and their families and discuss how expectations placed on children, parents, and families have such power to turn “unconditional love” on its head by ways of extraordinary challenges. Fascinated with this idea, writer and film subject Andrew Solomon’s work on this issue stems from his own traumatic experience coming out as gay to his parents. Rejected and cast aside, he tried everything to regain his parents’ love and be “normal,” including conversion therapy. In a quest for understanding, this film encourages us to let go of our preconceptions – for example, about people with autism or dwarfism – and celebrate our loved ones for all that makes them uniquely themselves.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/far-tree?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Film website: http://www.farfromthetreedoc.com/
Publicity stills and film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press   

Director Hassan Fazili
2019, 87 minutes, documentary
Live webinar Q&A: Thursday, June 4, 8:30 p.m. – Ben Ward (acting UK director and deputy director, Europe and Central Asia division, Human Rights Watch), additional panelist to be confirmed

In 2015, after Hassan Fazili’s documentary Peace aired on Afghan national television, the Taliban assassinated the film’s main subject and put a price on Hassan’s head. Hassan looked at his wife and his daughters and knew they had to flee their home. Over the course of their multi-year saga in search of safety, the family grasped onto the only means they had to assert control over their situation: their camera phones.

Hassan and his wife Fatima are both filmmakers, and they are educating their daughters and encouraging them to be artists. The whole family shot this autobiographical film, which began when they sought and were rejected for refugee protection, and follows them along the notorious Balkan smuggling route. As they experienced increasingly degrading circumstances, the family latched onto filmmaking as a way to not just survive, but retain their humanity.

Midnight Traveler is a gripping vérité story made by a family on the run. Their unique access and artistic vision provide an intimate portrait of a loving family and the myriad fellow travellers they meet on their odyssey.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/midnight-traveler?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Publicity stills and film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press

Director Rubaiyat Hossain
2019, 95 minutes, drama
Live webinar Q&A: Friday, June 5, 8:30 p.m. – Rubaiyat Hossain (filmmaker), Nisha Varia (advocacy director, women’s rights division, Human Rights Watch), moderated by Annie Kelly (journalist and editor, The Guardian Modern-Day Slavery in Focus series)

Shimu works grueling hours for paltry pay in a clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. After a fire in the factory leaves a co-worker dead, Shimu is moved to start a union. Her attempts are met with resistance at every step, not just from her patriarchal employers but also her colleagues, who fear losing their jobs. In the face of threats from management and violent disapproval of her husband, Shimu discovers a wealth of courage and tenacity she didn’t know she had. Channelling real-life stories that Bangladeshi filmmaker Rubaiyat Hossain encountered as a women’s rights activist, this empowering, layered drama shines a light on an oppressive industry and demands our attention.

Film trailer: https://ff.hrw.org/film/made-bangladesh?city=London%20Digital%20Edition
Film website: http://distrib.pyramidefilms.com/pyramide-distribution-prochainement/made-in-bangladesh.html
Publicity stills and film press pack: https://ff.hrw.org/press

Prices for streaming HRWFF titles on Curzon Home Cinema:
Midnight Travellers: £4.99
Far From the Tree: £3.99
all others: £7.99
All live webinar Q&As: FREE

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Harvey: sarah@sarahharveypublicity.co.ukb; 07958-597426
HRWFF London: https://ff.hrw.org/london-digital-edition

For downloadable images and press kits, please visit:

Please note that this page includes titles playing in all editions of the HRWFF across various cities, but not all films are playing in all cities.

For festival updates, sign up for our mailing list at https://www.hrw.org/filmconnect

For more, please follow us on social media:
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Lebanon’s LGBT People Reclaim Their Power

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 7, 2020

Rana, 32, standing in Riad El-Solh Square, one of the main protest sites in downtown Beirut. December 22, 2019. 

© 2020 Marwan Tahtah for Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and their rights in Lebanon are part and parcel of the nationwide protests that began on October 17, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today in a web feature.

The web feature, “‘If Not Now, When?’ Queer and Trans People Reclaim Their Power in Lebanon’s Revolution,” shares stories of hope and solidarity told by queer women and transgender people who are active in the protests. By taking their struggle to the streets, through chants, graffiti, and public discussions, LGBT people have moved demands of their rights from the margins to mainstream discourse in a country where same-sex relations are punishable by up to one year in prison and transgender people face systemic discrimination.

Interactive: "If Not Now, When?"

A new web feature, “‘If Not Now, When?’ Queer and Trans People Reclaim Their Power in Lebanon’s Revolution,” shares stories of hope and solidarity told by queer women and transgender people who are active in Lebanon's protests.


“LGBT people are using the power of voice and presence in protests to demand their rights,” said Rasha Younes, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Their visible contribution has sparked new possibilities for the recognition of their rights and identities in Lebanon.”

Maya, 38, a trans woman refugee in Lebanon, described how her relationship with Beirut changed for her after the protests began: “Before the revolution, I would never stay out later than 9 p.m. Beirut for me was a city of caution and fear. When the revolution began, I went to the street, I saw the diversity, and I felt that this place is going to be safe for me because regardless of what happens, I would be protected by the people’s presence.”

For queer and trans people, walking through Lebanon’s streets is an exercise in self-censorship, forced to hide who they are to navigate their daily lives. Less than one month before the protests started, a gender and sexuality conference, held annually in Lebanon since 2013, had to be moved outside Lebanon for the first time, following General Security’s attempt to shut down the 2018 edition. General Security also indefinitely denied non-Lebanese LGBT activists who attended the 2018 conference permission to re-enter the country.

For many, being at protests was the first time they found a place to be in public without fear and with a newfound degree of safety and belonging. “I used to think that my sexuality and femininity, which are considered private matters by society, should be repressed,” said Malak, 26. “I am gay, I am someone who expresses my sexuality in general, and my sexual desires very strongly. The revolution was the first time I did not censor myself, because I felt that I am not alone in my pain.”

LGBT people took to the streets with the same demands as fellow protesters – dignity and equality, transparency and accountability. “Our presence in the street had no boundaries,” said Lor, 28, “It wasn’t that queers were in one place, separate from others. We were all together at the protest sites, healing collectively.”

Despite the strides made in the revolution for LGBT rights’ acceptance in society, LGBT people will continue to live on the margins unless the Lebanese government repeals article 534 of the penal code, which punishes same-sex relations, Human Rights Watch said. The government needs to introduce legislation that protects LGBT people from discrimination and upholds their fundamental rights to dignity, bodily autonomy, socioeconomic mobility, and freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.

Lebanon’s dire economic situation and increasing social inequality have been most devastating for communities already marginalized prior to the crisis, including LGBT people. The devaluation of the Lebanese pound by more than 50 percent, unfettered inflation, diminishing employment opportunities, and deteriorating health care have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable. The Covid-19 health crisis compounds the economic difficulties and LGBT people, who often face healthcare discrimination and economic marginalization, are all the more compromised.

Lebanese security forces on many occasions have used excessive force to quell largely peaceful protests. On April 27, 2020, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) unjustifiably used lethal force against protesters in Tripoli, killing one protester and injuring scores more. But violence by security forces has not diminished the determination of protesters to demand their rights.

The power of resistance and solidarity evident in the protests should serve as a warning to the country’s political establishment that Lebanon needs social, economic, and legal reform that uplifts the voices and rights of marginalized groups, Human Rights Watch said.

Responding to claims that the protests are not the time to talk about LGBT rights, Rana, 32, said: “I tell them if the time is not now, there is not going to be a time later. The revolution must be one that defends the rights of oppressed people, and LGBT people are among those oppressed. This is why we have to get our voices heard now.”


The Cruel Irony of Burundi’s Media Awards

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 7, 2020

From left to right: Térence Mpozenzi, Egide Harerimana, Agnès Ndirubusa, and Christine Kamikazi on their way to their court hearing in Bubanza, western Burundi, on May 6, 2020.

© 2020 Iwacu

Just when many thought press freedom had hit rock bottom in Burundi, the government-controlled National Communication Council’s (CNC) Media Awards this week have added insult to injury.

The theme of this year’s ceremony was to celebrate “the role of the media in ‘sanitizing’ the context for the 2020 elections in Burundi,” and honored an unlikely candidate with first prize in the TV category: the communications team of the Burundian national police. Setting aside the obvious – security forces being celebrated with a media award – police in Burundi have been implicated in countless abuses, including killings, excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and torture of suspected political opponents, and repeatedly harassing journalists who attempt to report on these crimes.

The winner of the print media category was Edouard Nkurunziza, a journalist with Iwacu, the last remaining independent media outlet in Burundi. He told Human Rights Watch that he could not collect his award because he has been living in hiding since he was threatened back in March by a lawmaker. Nkurunziza said that since he went into hiding, he has continued to receive threats. Iwacu wrote a letter raising the case with the president of the National Assembly, which has gone unanswered.

Nkurunziza has good reasons to be afraid. Yesterday, four of his colleagues appeared in court to appeal their sham conviction and two- and-a-half year jail sentence. They were arrested in October 2019 while on a reporting trip to cover fighting between rebels and security forces, and, after a flawed trial, were convicted of attempting to undermine state security. Another one of his colleagues, Jean Bigirimana, has been missing since he disappeared on a reporting trip in July 2016. Unconfirmed reports indicated that members of the Burundian intelligence services arrested him.

Only weeks away from the country’s next presidential elections, phony awards from the state’s media regulator add an ironic twist to the threats and attacks independent journalists in Burundi continue to face. In these critical times, reporters are needed more than ever to expose wrongdoing and speak truth to power.