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Syria: Government Co-Opting Recovery Efforts

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 28, 2019
June 28, 2019 Video Video: Government Co-Opting Recovery Efforts in Syria

The Syrian government is co-opting humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance, and in places using it to entrench repressive policies, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Donors and investors should make changes in their aid and investment practices to ensure that any funding they provide to Syria advances Syrians’ rights.

(Geneva) – The Syrian government is co-opting humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance, and in places using it to entrench repressive policies, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Donors and investors should make changes in their aid and investment practices to ensure that any funding they provide to Syria advances Syrians’ rights.  June 28, 2019 Report Rigging the System

Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria

The 91-page report, “Rigging the System: Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria,” looks at the government’s policies for and restrictions on humanitarian assistance and reconstruction and development funding to Syria. Human Rights Watch found that the Syrian government has developed a policy and legal framework that allows it to divert aid and reconstruction resources to fund its atrocities, punish those perceived as opponents, and benefit those loyal to it.

“While seemingly benign, the Syrian government’s aid and reconstruction policies are being used to punish perceived opponents and reward its supporters,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian government’s aid framework undermines human rights, and donors need to ensure they are not complicit in the government’s human rights violations.” 


Residents walk through rubble with damaged electricity lines at the mountain resort town of Zabadani in the Damascus countryside, Syria, on May 18, 2017. 

© 2017 Hassan Amma/AP Photo  

The report is based on 33 interviews with aid workers, donors, experts, and beneficiaries, as well as a review of publicly available data on humanitarian and development assistance and reconstruction. Human Rights Watch has interviewed staff from several major international aid organizations and United Nations agencies operating in government-held Syria, as well as beneficiaries and former residents of areas in which these organizations operate. 

Human Rights Watch found that the government restricts the access of humanitarian organizations to communities that need or allegedly receive aid, selectively approves aid projects, and imposes requirements to partner with security-vetted local actors. The requirements often mean that the aid is siphoned through the abusive state apparatus, to punish civilian populations it perceives as opponents, and reward those it perceives as loyal or who can serve its interests.

Humanitarian groups operating in Syria who are forced to accede to government demands may compromise their ability to serve populations in a rights-respecting manner. They have very little leverage to negotiate with the government.

“In Syria, you barter with the government for projects – everyone knows this,” an aid agency official said. “I say I will rehabilitate schools in this area. The government comes back and says how about these areas instead? Back and forth, until I commit to their areas to get approval for my projects.”

In some sectors, there is evidence of ongoing and systematic human rights violations. Examples are projects that contribute to or sustain forced displacement, or construction and operation of detention facilities, courts, or law enforcement operations with a record of serious abuse.

The restrictions prevent aid groups from fully addressing human rights concerns through their operations. Syrian authorities ban independent human rights monitors and restrict the ability of agencies that protect people’s rights to operate, aid workers and executives told Human Rights Watch. They said that if the government knows their projects include human rights protection the government will be more restrictive, deny access, and even threaten to revoke staff visas.

Entities engaged in the monumental task of reconstructing Syria face many of the same problems, including restricted access to project areas and the requirement to partner with individuals or organizations implicated in abuse. But they also must contend with urban planning and investment laws that grant the government vast power to seize and demolish property without due process or compensation, disproportionately harming poorer Syrians and perceived government opponents. Reconstruction projects that rehabilitate infrastructure of abusive government agencies can facilitate abuses.

United Nations agencies and government bodies that participate in abusive reconstruction efforts risk complicity with the government’s human rights violations. Individuals and other organizations may also risk criminal complicity by knowingly providing substantial assistance to the commission of international crimes.

Human Rights Watch supports providing reconstruction funding and humanitarian aid to all of Syria, including government-held areas, and recognizes that the ability of groups that deliver assistant to mitigate some of the risks may be limited. However, there are steps that could be taken to ensure that their work does not contribute to human rights violations.

Donors can operationalize a clearinghouse mechanism and create a consortium for humanitarian aid in Syria so that organizations and agencies adopt the same criteria for programming and prevent backsliding in standards when engaging with the government. Alongside humanitarian organizations, they should ensure that all humanitarian programming is accompanied by an independent monitoring system.

All aid groups in Syria should avoid contributing to serious human rights abuses including by ending operations where the risks are unavoidable and the likely human rights harm outweighs the benefits of their work.

Investors should conduct due diligence to ensure that they are not funding entities under sanctions for human rights abuses. If they are investing or engaging with agencies that have carried out serious human rights abuses, they should withhold their support until the violations cease, the abusive agencies are reformed, and victims are compensated.

“Without an attempt to reform the system in which they are operating, aid agencies and investors are risking effectively financing the machinery of repression in Syria,” Fakih said. “But with a collective push toward more transparency, due diligence, and access, donors can have greater confidence that their funds are not being used to oppress Syrians.” 

Iran: Release Detained Labor Activists

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 28, 2019

Activists, Neda Naji, Marzie Amiri, Atefeh Rangriz and Anisha Assadolahi remain in detention for peaceful protest. 

© Maydayarrests Telegram Channel

(Beirut) – The Iranian judiciary should release three women labor activists and a journalist who are still in jail two months after they were detained following a May Day demonstration in Tehran protesting the difficult economic condition workers face, Human Rights Watch said today. The four detainees appear to be detained solely because of their participation in the peaceful assembly.

On May 1, 2019, which is International Labor Day, plainclothes police arrested at least 35 activists who had gathered in front of the Iranian parliament in a peaceful demonstration organized by 20 independent labor organizations, including an independent trade union previously targeted by the government. Most were released on bail in the following days and weeks, but authorities continue to detain activists Neda Naji and Atefeh Rangriz and journalist Marzieh Amiri, on accusations of “disrupting public order” and “acting against national security.” On June 18, authorities re-arrested Anisha Assadollahi, an activist who had been released on bail a few days after her initial arrest on May 1. 

“It appears Iranian authorities are punishing these four women solely for their peaceful activism,” said Michael Page, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran’s judiciary has the authority to release them and should do so immediately.” 

Ministry of Intelligence officers interrogated Naji, Rangriz, and Amiri over the course of seven weeks in Evin prison’s Ward 209, according to two sources who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

Authorities then transferred Amiri to the women’s ward in Evin prison and Rangriz and Naji to Qarchak prison, where they are detained with 170 other inmates facing charges including theft and murder. Jamal Ameli, Naji’s husband, tweeted about the conditions his wife was being held in on June 24. According to Ameli, a number of detainees in Qarchak prison are suffering from diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, and hygiene and access to treatment in prison is “wretched.” Prison tap water is not drinkable and prisoners are forced to buy bottled water costing 40 times the market price, he added in a follow-up tweet.

Twelve security officers re-arrested Assadollahi in front of her workplace on June 18 and escorted her to her and her brother’s apartments, which they searched before transferring her to Evin prison, a source told Human Rights Watch. She is currently in solitary confinement and authorities have not allowed her family to visit her in prison, the source added.

Iranian law mandates the separation of inmates based on their alleged offenses. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules) requires that states provide prisoners access to adequate medical care and drinking water at all times.

Iran’s labor law does not recognize the right to create labor unions independent of government-sanctioned groups such as the Islamic Labor Council. Nonetheless, workers have formed large, independent unions, including the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Workers’ Syndicate, and the Iran Free Workers’ Union. Over the past decade and a half authorities have repeatedly harassed, arrested, and jailed workers affiliated with these and other independent trade unions.

Other labor rights activists currently in detention include Ismael Bakhshi, Sepideh Gholian, Amir Aligholi, Sanaz Allahyari, and Amir Hossein Mohammadifar, as well as Ismael Abdi, Mohammad Habibi, and Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi, three prominent members of Iran’s Teachers Union who have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 7.5 years for their peaceful activism. 

Nigeria’s Wavering Commitment to Freedom of Expression

Human Rights Watch - Friday, June 28, 2019

Two men check their phones in Kaduna, Nigeria, Saturday Feb. 23, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Nigerian authorities appear to be on a renewed drive to muzzle free speech.

Earlier this month, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) suspended the broadcast licenses of two subsidiaries of Daar Communications, the African Independent Television (AIT) and Raypower Radio station, only giving broad and vague reasons. Barely a week later, the Department of State Security Services (DSS) declared a crackdown on social media users for posting materials described as threatening to the country’s peace and stability.

The NBC, citing its powers under the National Broadcast Commission Act, sanctioned the stations for airing “inflammatory, divisive, inciting broadcasts, and media propaganda against the government.” AIT was cited for broadcasting “uncensored and unedited social media content.” The DSS subsequently arrested an unknown number of unnamed social media users for allegedly threatening peace and security by posting inciting statements. The DSS has been previously implicated in human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, and torture.

Social media has become a very important tool for shaping public discourse in Nigeria. The authorities have struggled to maintain a balance between regulating against extreme views and hate speech and preserving the right to free speech. The 2015 Cybercrimes law, which criminalizes of a broad range of online interaction, has been used to prosecute at least five bloggers.

Although AIT and Ray Power resumed broadcasting after a preliminary order by an Abuja Federal High Court overturning the suspension, the incident is only the latest in a series of efforts by Nigeria authorities against the media. In August 2018, the Nigerian Police arrested and prosecuted Samuel Ogundipe, a journalist with the Premium Times, an online newspaper, for allegedly refusing to reveal sources. Last January, armed soldiers raided offices of Daily Trust newspapers and temporarily detained staff for allegedly publishing classified military information.

Nigeria’s constitution protects the right to freedom of expression and provides that any restriction to this right must be justifiable in a democratic society. The Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa also provides that any restriction to freedom of expression must “serve a legitimate purpose, necessary in a democratic society.”

The authorities should not exploit concerns about hate speech or fake news as a pretext for repression of free speech. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari should preserve Nigerians’ free access to the marketplace of ideas, online or offline.

Philippines: ‘Drug War’ Devastates Children’s Lives

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, June 27, 2019

(Geneva) – The Philippine government’s brutal “war on drugs” has devastated the lives of countless children, Human Rights Watch said today in a new web feature. The United Nations Human Rights Council, whose 41st session began on June 24, 2019, in Geneva, should adopt the resolution initiated by Iceland that asks the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on the Philippines’ “drug war” and human rights crisis.

Launch Interactive View All Share Stories on the plight of children in the Philippines who have suffered from the emotional, psychological, and economic impacts of the “drug war” violence. No child should experience the loss of a parent or other family member to extrajudicial killings or witness such horrific violence at the hands of police or hitmen. The toll of the Philippines’ ‘drug war’ does not end with the killing of a drug suspect, but may extend to their children, often completely destroying families.


The web feature, “Collateral Damage: The Children of Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs,’” shares stories on the plight of several children who have suffered from the emotional, psychological, and economic impacts of the “drug war” violence. The administration of President Rodrigo Duterte should not only end the violence but provide the necessary services to mitigate the damage that abuses by the police and police-backed vigilantes have caused children who have lost parents and other family members, or witnessed extrajudicial killings.

“No child should experience the loss of a parent or other family member to extrajudicial killings or witness such horrific violence at the hands of police or hitmen,” said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher. “The toll of the Philippines’ ‘drug war’ does not end with the killing of a drug suspect, but may extend to their children, often completely destroying families.”

By the government’s own admission, more than 6,600 people have been killed since the “drug war” began after Duterte’s election three years ago. Other estimates are much higher. Children have been among those who died during police operations, either directly targeted or inadvertently shot by the police.

“Jennifer,” one of the children interviewed by Human Rights Watch, was 11 years old when police shot her father dead. She has since had difficulty eating, become withdrawn, and for a while stopped going to school.

“Kyle,” age 5, developed aggressive behavior after assailants murdered his father. Three other children interviewed by Human Rights Watch ended up living in the streets because nobody could take care of them. Most victims of the “drug war” come from poor families in impoverished urban areas in Manila and other cities across the Philippines.

“The tragic stories of children victimized by the Philippines’ ‘drug war’ should energize the UN Human Rights Council to bolster efforts to put an end to the killings,” Conde said. “The Philippine government needs to be held accountable for the suffering of these children.”

Alabama Law Finds Another Pregnant Woman to Punish

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, June 27, 2019

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey delivers the annual State of the State address at the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, January 9, 2018. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

When I predicted that the extreme abortion law just passed in the US state of Alabama would be used to punish women, I was told that I should read the law more closely because it has a specific article that says it will punish the people who perform abortions, not the women who have them. Sadly, the latest news from Alabama convinces me I’m right: a pregnant woman, Marshae Jones, has been indicted for manslaughter after being shot in the stomach by another person.

Alabama’s criminal laws are already being used to police the bodies of pregnant women and the new abortion law would make that worse. I read that “protective” article in context: as a provision of law serving as a fig leaf, paying socially appropriate lip service to protecting poor women from their own decisions.

Laws criminalizing abortion come about because the people who pass them believe abortion deserves criminal penalties, and where abortion is highly restricted, in practice it’s almost always the woman who is punished. The criminal justice system finds a way. In El Salvador, where there is a total abortion ban, the more than a dozen women imprisoned for terminating pregnancies are mostly prosecuted under homicide provisions

So it’s not abstract theory that women in Alabama could face prison time under the new law – it’s a reasonable expectation. Pregnant women in Alabama are already being punished for drug use, as Amnesty International documented in 2017.

Marshae Jones, 28, who was five-months’ pregnant, was indicted in Alabama yesterday – she’s apparently considered to blame for the death of her fetus for starting a fight and then allowing herself to get shot. A grand jury failed to indict the woman who fired the gun. Although Jones was shot, and lost her pregnancy, a police officer told press “the only true victim in this was the unborn baby.”

I write this from Alabama, where everyone you meet is friendlier than the last person. If you think Alabama’s new law isn’t about punishing women for not staying pregnant, then you aren’t paying close enough attention. Marshae Jones’s case should be dismissed and for the love of everything Alabamians claim to hold dear, she should get a sincere apology and redress.

Myanmar: Internet Shutdown Risks Lives

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, June 27, 2019


A telecommunications tower in Mrauk U township, Rakhine State, Myanmar. The township is one of nine where the government has imposed an internet blackout since June 21, 2019.

© 2018 Phyo Hein Kyaw/AFP/Getty Images (Bangkok) – The Myanmar government should immediately lift internet restrictions imposed on nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States, Human Rights Watch said today. The disruption to internet services since June 21, 2019 has exacerbated an information blackout and increased difficulties for humanitarian agencies and human rights groups to assist vulnerable populations in the face of increased fighting in the area.

Telecommunication providers said Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications ordered them to shut down internet services in Ponnangyun, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Maruk-U, Minbya, and Myebon townships in Rakhine State, and Paletwa township in neighboring Chin State, where fighting between Arakan Army forces and the Myanmar military is taking place.

“Myanmar authorities have imposed an internet blackout in Rakhine and Chin States that is depriving aid workers and rights monitors vital communications in a time of crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Governments and the United Nations should be pressing Myanmar to immediately restore full internet access crucial for the population’s safety.” Myanmar authorities have imposed an internet blackout in Rakhine and Chin States that is depriving aid workers and rights monitors vital communications in a time of crisis. Brad Adams

Asia Director

A number of international nongovernmental organizations who are working in the rural areas of Mrauk-U, Minbya, and Kyauktaw have reported the continued internet shutdown is creating difficulties for them to carry out their work. WhatsApp is key for international nonprofits operating in Rakhine, and working without it creates additional difficulties.

As the basis for the shutdown, Myanmar authorities issued a directive under article 77 of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which permits the suspension of a telecommunications service “when an emergency situation arises.” The government order did not specify when the shutdown will end. The Norwegian telecommunications provider, Telenor, issued a statement noting it “has been asking for further clarification on the rationale for the shutdown and emphasized that freedom of expression through access to telecoms services should be maintained for humanitarian purposes, especially during times of conflict.” The provider said it is in “continuous dialogue with the authorities to seek further clarity and ensure that human rights aspects as well as proportionality in terms of scope of the shutdown are being considered.”

The internet shutdown arose amid credible reports of military operations in affected areas of Rakhine and Chin States.

The media has reported that since services were cut, Myanmar military forces attacked Arakan Army forces in a remote mountain range in Mrauk-U township. Local media also reported that on June 22, Arakan Army fighters attacked a Myanmar navy tugboat moored near Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, killing two soldiers. Villagers said an artillery shell struck their village when the attack on the navy boat occurred.

Since November 2018, fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army has displaced at least 33,000 people. Humanitarian and media access has been severely restricted in these areas. A resident of Mrauk-U township told Human Rights Watch that since the internet shutdown began on June 21, 2019, they have only had telephone services.

Under international human rights law, Myanmar has an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm civilians’ ability to freely assemble and express political views.

The United Nations Human Rights Council in July 2016 condemned measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online, in violation of international human rights law, and said that all countries should refrain from and cease such measures.

“Myanmar should ensure that any internet restrictions are limited to a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern, but this action goes well beyond that,” Adams said. “Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate internet shutdowns to curtail the flow of life-saving information in a humanitarian crisis.”

US Border Prosecutions and the Devastating Cost to Families

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, June 27, 2019

Men recently deported from the US wait in line to be registered with Mexican authorities at the border in Nogales, Mexico.

© 2010 Associated Press

Americans watching the first night of the US Democratic Party primary presidential debates heard a lot about “1325,” as candidate Julian Castro challenged others on the stage to join him in calling for a repeal of this law. That’s a reference to Section 1325, in Title 8 of the US Code, which makes illegal entry into the US a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison. As Castro pointed out, the “zero-tolerance” policy based on this law was the justification the Trump administration used for separating families at the border.

While the issue has erupted under the Trump administration, the laws criminalizing illegal entry and illegal reentry (reentering the US after deportation) have had a devastating effect on families – and dominated the federal criminal docket – long before Donald Trump took office.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch published a report based on dozens of interviews with people who had been criminally prosecuted for illegal entry and reentry. We found many of the people charged under these laws are people who have lived in the US for many years, and who are desperate to reunite with family and community in the US. We met people like Rosa Manriquez, a grandmother with no other criminal history, who had spent most of her life in the US going to church and cleaning houses, and who had been prosecuted for illegal entry for trying to return to her US citizen children and grandchildren. We also met Gabriela Cordova-Soto, a former legal resident who successfully overcame her dependency on methamphetamine and reentered the US illegally so she could be a mother to her four US citizen children.

Judge Robert Brack, who has presided over tens of thousands of immigration cases in New Mexico, told Human Rights Watch: “I’ve been presiding over a process that destroys families every day and several times each day.”

To be clear, repealing these laws alone will not keep families together. A much broader overhaul is needed of the US immigration system. But treating unauthorized immigration as a civil violation rather than a crime would be an important step toward scaling back an immigration enforcement machine that destroys families every day.

Turkey Should Seek Follow-Up Inquiry on Khashoggi Killing

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, June 27, 2019

Candles lit by activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi are placed outside Saudi Arabia's Consulate in Istanbul. 

© 2018 Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

“It was premeditated,” concluded Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, describing the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

She added that the Washington Post reporter’s assassination on October 2, 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was “overseen, planned, and endorsed by high-level officials.”

In her long-awaited report to the Human Rights Council, Callamard found credible evidence that Saudi Arabia bears state responsibility for the crime. She also said there was sufficient evidence to warrant a follow-up investigation into individual culpability of top Saudi officials, including the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who she said condoned or allowed an escalation of repressive acts against journalists, human rights defenders, and others.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should now build on the report and work with Turkey to establish a commission of inquiry to identify those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and offer avenues to bring them to justice no matter how high up the chain the guilty parties sit. To remove any doubt about their position, Turkish authorities should formalize the request for an inquiry with an official letter to Guterres.

A UN secretary-general-mandated commission of inquiry can assist the ongoing Turkish investigation as well as monitor the Saudi criminal proceedings into Khashoggi’s murder, which are currently taking place behind closed doors and are widely suspected of being little more than a state-orchestrated cover-up meant to protect top-level officials.

So far, the UN secretary-general has shown little interest in helping secure justice for Khashoggi’s murder – and it’s not for a lack of precedents. Past UN secretaries-general have established similar inquiries, a notable example being Ban Ki-moon’s creation of a probe into the Benazir Bhutto assassination, which was triggered at the request of Pakistan.

Given Guterres’ lack of enthusiasm, the ball is now in Turkey’s court: unless it pens an official request to the UN secretary-general for a follow-up inquiry, those who ordered, condoned, or carried out Khashoggi’s assassination may well get away with murder.

When ‘PR’ does not rhyme with ‘BHR’: Public Relations, Business and Human Rights and the Khashoggi Report

Opinio Juris - Thursday, June 27, 2019
[Marie Davoise is an English-qualified lawyer who specialises in business & human rights and international criminal law. Previously in private practice, she is currently working as a Visiting Professional at the International Criminal Court.] When it comes to business and human rights, some sectors are considered as inherently high-risk: take for example the extractive industry, with its large mining projects...

No Space for Criticism of Rwanda

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, June 27, 2019

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, participates in a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2019. 

© 2019 Markus Schreiber/AP Photo

This week, Rwandan President Paul Kagame sat down for a joint France 24 interview with the European Union’s development commissioner to discuss some of his country’s efforts to eradicate poverty.

But soon, the conversation – which took place on the margins of the European Commission’s European Development Days forum – became heated. Faced with tough questions from an independent journalist, Kagame’s discomfort was obvious. When pressed on the European Union’s 2018 report of “serious civil and political rights violations” in Rwanda, his tone turned outright hostile.

Kagame dismissed the report as “ridiculous,” and brushed aside questions about critics being killed, physically attacked, jailed, silenced, or forced into exile in the lead up to the 2017 presidential election. Our own research suggests summary executions, enforced disappearances, unlawful arrest and detention, and torture remain all too common in Rwanda. At one point, he accused those raising concerns about human rights violations of suffering from a “superiority complex.”

Rwanda is often touted as a model for the continent based on its bold development policies. The government, formed by a former rebel group, has practically rebuilt the country since it ended the 1994 genocide.

But of late, critics have raised eyebrows at the Rwandan government’s decision to spend hundreds of millions on a new conference center and to sponsor Arsenal, the president’s favorite Premier League football team. Furthermore, recent academic research and reports of increasing poverty and high child malnutrition rates have challenged the aid-dependent country’s impressive growth statistics.

Free speech – or the freedom to criticize the government or the ruling party – has been severely repressed in Rwanda. Yet a free press and access to information are key to achieving development goals and holding governments to account.

For this reason, peaceful and just societies – built on respect for universal and indivisible human rights – are central to the achievement of the UN’s development agenda. If Rwanda is serious about leading the way towards sustainable development, the government should make space for debate and criticism, rather than cherry-pick which rights to uphold and quash the rest.

Trade Union Leader Faces Prison Time in Kazakhstan

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Erlan Baltabay, leader of the independent trade union “Decent Labor,” at his trial in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, April 16, 2019.

© 2019 Dilara Isa/RFE/RL

As pressure built against Kazakhstan at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) conference in Geneva this month to address the country’s poor record on trade union rights, authorities back home are seeking to jail an independent trade union leader.

Erlan Baltabay is the outspoken leader of a local trade union of oil workers in Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan. He is on trial, facing charges of misappropriating approximately US$28,000 in union dues. On June 25, the prosecutor asked for an 8-year prison sentence and a lifetime ban on holding trade union leadership positions. The court is due to deliver the verdict any day.

Baltabay doesn’t deny the funds are in his possession. But he denies there was any fraud or misappropriation and contends he was forced to act to safeguard the union dues after his trade union was suspended in 2015. Baltabay’s trade union was among a number of unions unable to reregister that year in accordance with the restrictive 2014 trade union law.

Baltabay and his lawyer have also argued in court that the individual who filed the complaint against him has no standing to do so under Kazakh law and that the authorities should have declined to bring criminal charges.

Baltabay has been in the authorities’ crosshairs in the past, including being subject to a criminal investigation on the overbroad charge of “inciting social discord” in 2013 (the case was ultimately dropped). In 2017, he spoke about the repression of independent trade unions at the International Labor Conference in Geneva.

At this year’s ILO gathering, the Committee on the Application of Standards criticized Kazakhstan for “its persistent lack of progress” fulfilling its obligations under ILO Convention 87 on freedom of association and the right to organize. It decided to include its conclusions in a special paragraph, one of the ILO’s highest forms of sanctions. Kazakhstan must report back to the ILO in September.

Having its prosecutors seek the imprisonment of an independent trade union leader and impose a lifetime ban on trade union leadership will only reinforce the ILO’s concerns about Kazakhstan’s treatment of independent trade unions. It would be far better for the Kazakh government to take much-needed and urgent steps to address the ILO’s concerns, so come September, the government has something positive to report.

How to Help Children Detained at the US Border

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Clint border patrol station, Texas, June 2019.

© 2019 Warren Binford

Prompted by public outcry over the news that children detained in US immigration holding cells don’t have enough food, water, or care, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said they’re looking for ways to make sure that what we saw in the Clint, Texas facility last week doesn’t happen again.

Here are four things you can ask the US Congress to do now:

  1. End family separation. Yes, it’s still happening. Congress can and should require US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to stop separating kids from parents and extended family members like grandmothers, aunts, and older siblings – people who are in many cases their caregivers.

Congress should also insist that the relevant US agencies dramatically speed up family reunifications.

  1. Make sure funding for CBP and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is responsible for long-term care of unaccompanied children and those separated from their families, is conditional on the agencies’ adherence to strict protection standards for children.

This includes time limits for their detention in border station holding cells. And yes, that means toothbrushes, soap, showers, and mattresses for children while they’re in these cells.

  1. Fund community-based alternatives to detention for kids who can’t immediately be placed with family members. That includes foster care arrangements and small, state-licensed group homes for teens, with appropriate supervision by social workers.
  1. Write child rights protections into law and ensure the law is followed. CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, have consistently treated their own standards as optional and disregarded court orders. They’ve just proposed regulations that would give them even more discretion to detain children indefinitely in abusive conditions. What’s needed is a statute on the books and a way to compel compliance.

Yes, these reforms cost money. But they are a better use of public funds than the cruel containment policy government agencies are currently paying for – more than US$1 million per day to run the largest ORR facility, in Homestead, Florida, and even more for the detention camp outside Tornillo, Texas.

When we add to that the cost of having Border Patrol officers do childcare tasks and the human cost of the trauma of abusive detention, the humane approach may well be the most economically prudent option as well.

ICC Prosecutor Seeking to Investigate Crimes Against Rohingya

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Smoke is seen rising from Burma’s Taung Pyo Let War village from across the border in Bangladesh.


© 2017 Private

On June 26, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will request that the court’s judges open an investigation into crimes relating to two waves of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Myanmar is not an ICC member. But last year, the court confirmed its jurisdiction over crimes where an element occurred in Bangladesh, an ICC member since June 2010.

The prosecutor’s move to bring victims, survivors, and their families, the vast majority of whom are Rohingya Muslims, one step closer to justice comes after the United Nations created a body to gather and preserve evidence of all possible crimes in Myanmar that could be used in future trials.

Both developments throw into sharp relief Myanmar’s farcical accountability efforts to date. In December, the chair of its justly maligned commission of inquiry created to look into abuses in Rakhine State said the commission had so far found “no evidence” to support allegations of grave abuses. In February, Myanmar told the UN women’s rights committee there was “no evidence” to support the “wild claims” that the military carried out brutal and widespread sexual violence during the 2017 operations. And Myanmar’s recently self-created military court to probe Rohingya atrocity allegations promises more of the same, judging from the country’s dismal track record on accountability.

But the military’s lengthy list of atrocities in Myanmar demands an even bolder response. Last August, UN appointed fact-finders concluded that Myanmar’s top generals, including Commander-in-Chief Sr.-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide in northern Rakhine State, as well as for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States. If the ICC prosecutor’s proposed investigation moves ahead, she couldn’t touch most of these crimes, as they were committed solely in Myanmar.

Though the UN Security Council should refer the entire situation in Myanmar to the ICC, council dynamics – notably Chinese and Russian opposition – make this extremely unlikely for now. UN member states, including those on the Security Council, should continue to call for a resolution referring Myanmar to the ICC. Doing so keeps focus on, and the political cost high for, those that stand in the way. Current Security Council dysfunction is no reason to give spoilers a free pass and absolve the council of its responsibility to act to end impunity for the worst crimes in Myanmar.

Italy: End Curbs on Rescue at Sea

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Italian Finance Police board the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 after it disembarked 47 migrants at the Sicilian port of Catania, southern Italy, January 31, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli, file

(Milan) – Italy’s deliberate, inhumane policy of stranding migrants and asylum seekers on rescue ships puts all on board at risk and highlights Europe’s wider failure on migration in the Central Mediterranean, Human Rights Watch said today.

Two weeks after rescuing over 50 people off the coast of Libya, the rescue ship Sea Watch 3, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) boat, is defying Italy’s refusal to let the vessel enter Italian waters. The ship’s captain rightly ignored instructions to return the people to Libya since it is not safe. European governments and institutions have been largely silent.

“Having stranded people at sea for weeks, Italy should not compound that abuse by prosecuting the Sea Watch captain for the vessel’s life-saving efforts,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s high time that European Union institutions and members started looking at their own responsibility for a heartless policy that would rather see people die at sea or tortured in Libya than delivered to safety in Europe.”

Since June 2018, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister Matteo Salvini has effectively denied or delayed letting rescued people disembark in the country, leading to numerous similar stand-offs. However, this is the first time Italian authorities have applied a new decree, in effect since June 15, that allows the interior minister to deny entry to Italian territorial waters on public order grounds. Ships who disobey the order face fines up to 50,000 euros and seizure of the ship in case of repeated offense.

The European Commission should put Italy on notice that it is examining whether the decree breaches Italy’s obligations under EU law, Human Rights Watch said. The measure arguably contravenes the Asylum Procedures directive, the Schengen Border Code, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Although the Italian parliament has 60 days to approve the decree, it already has the force of law and is having a direct impact on the lives of people concerned.

EU countries should also urgently agree on a mechanism that would ensure predictable disembarkation within a reasonable time to avoid these unnecessary stand-offs at sea, Human Rights Watch said. Any agreement should include provisions for sharing responsibility for disembarked people among EU countries.

In this most recent stand-off, the Sea Watch 3 rescued 53 people from a rubber dinghy roughly 47 miles off the Libyan city of Zawiya on June 12. According to the organization, they alerted Italy, Malta, Libya, and The Netherlands (the ship’s flag state). Libyan authorities assumed coordination of the rescue operation, but according to Sea Watch, a Libyan coast guard boat arrived only after the organization had completed transfers of people from the rubber dinghy to their ship.

When Sea Watch requested all four authorities to assign a safe port for disembarkation, only Libya replied and instructed the ship to disembark in Tripoli. Refusing to take people to Libya on the grounds that it is not a safe place under the terms of international law, the Sea Watch 3 captain headed towards Lampedusa as the closest safe port.

While Italy evacuated 11 people off the ship to Lampedusa, it refused to allow the Sea Watch 3 to even enter Italian territorial waters. Forty-two people, including six women and three unaccompanied children, remain on board.

The European Court of Human Rights, responding to an urgent filing on behalf of the rescued persons on board Sea Watch 3, asked Italy to “continue to provide all necessary assistance,” but failed to explicitly decline to order Italy to allow disembarkation. The Court adopted a similar position in January in a case also involving a Sea Watch ship, arguing both times there was no risk of irreparable harm.

There is mounting international concern over Salvini’s closed ports policy and the wider impact of EU policy on the human rights situation in the Central Mediterranean. Six United Nations (UN) experts recently called on Italian authorities to “stop endangering the lives of migrants, including asylum seekers and victims of trafficking in persons, by invoking the fight against traffickers. This approach is misleading and is not in line with both general international law and international human rights law.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet said measures that criminalize humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees, including those targeting sea rescues, “violate ancient and precious values that are common to us all, by penalizing compassion.”

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović issued a report on June 18 urging European countries to “ensure disembarkation only happens in safe places and without unnecessary delays,” as well as cooperate with rescue NGOs and “cease any acts of harassment.” The head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation’s Human Rights office has also criticized “judicial harassment and criminalization, smear campaigns, threats and even attacks” against organizations and individuals defending the rights of migrants and refugees.

Libya is a main hub for migrants and asylum seekers who attempt to reach European shores by sea. As a matter of policy and practice, Libyan forces take people they rescue or intercept at sea to Libya, where they face arbitrary detention in abysmal conditions and a well-documented risk of serious abuse, including forced labor, torture, and sexual violence. The UN has repeatedly emphasized that Libya is not a safe place to take people rescued at sea. Concerns about the dangers posed to those returned to Libya have been heightened as fighting rages around Tripoli among rival militia factions, putting detainees in detention centers there at further risk.

The law of the sea governing rescue operations imposes obligations on shipmasters to respond to situations of distress at sea and to take the people rescued to a safe place, which should be understood to mean a place where people would not face persecution or risk of torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees the right to asylum.

“It’s an upside-down world if the cost of a ship’s captain bringing people to safety on shore is breaking unjust laws and risking a massive fine,” Sunderland said. “Fundamental rights and compassion for those fleeing harm should prevail.”

LGBT Rights 50 Years After Stonewall

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Rainbow flags fly outside the Stonewall Inn bar in New York, June 3, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

On a summer night in 1969, a movement years in the making was invigorated and sparked at the Stonewall Inn.

On June 28, 1969, New York City’s then-underground queer community fought back against police oppression when officers raided the popular bar. The Stonewall riots became a pivotal moment in the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement.

This Pride Month, on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Human Rights Watch celebrates global progress towards decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations and marriage equality in a series of maps highlighting the state of LGBT rights around the world.

Since January, Angola and Botswana have decriminalized same-sex relations. Bhutan has taken similar steps, while Austria, Ecuador, and Taiwan have removed legal obstructions to same-sex marriage. Hong Kong’s high court struck down penal code provisions that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and recently granted same-sex spousal benefits, finding that “the absence of a majority consensus as a reason for rejecting a minority's claim is inimical in principle to fundamental rights.”

Botswana’s high court struck down “unnatural offenses” laws, stating any laws that “oppress a minority” amount to “discrimination against all.” Ecuador’s constitutional court, citing its constitution’s equality clause, ruled that authorities have an obligation to provide for same-sex marriage.

But a year worthy of celebration also witnessed setbacks. Kenya’s high court upheld its colonial-era discriminatory law and the US proposed reversing nondiscrimination policies protecting transgender people’s right to health. Brunei adopted an abusive penal code imposing the death penalty on sex between men, though responded to the international outcry by declaring a moratorium on capital punishment.

The fight will continue so long as governments do not fully respect and protect the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” – as the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights eloquently pronounces – regardless of their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

Fifty years ago, those who had grown tired of running away from the authorities – transgender people, bisexuals, lesbians, gay men, runaway youths – stood up against oppression at Stonewall. They have inspired generations of activists and jurists around the world, who have worked tirelessly to overcome legal obstructions to equality. Much of the progress we see today is owed to their courage. While we share both joy and tears this Pride Month, we continue to carry the spirit of Stonewall forward. We must not let the light go out.

Lawyers Appeal Detainees’ Convictions in South Sudan

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Defendants charged with treason among other offences sit in a courtroom during the second hearing of their trial in the capital Juba, South Sudan, March 25, 2019. 

© 2019 Sam Mednick

This week, defense lawyers for activist Peter Biar Ajak and others filed appeals against convictions handed down by a South Sudan high court for offenses related to an October 7 uprising in a detention facility. The trial was plagued by due process and fair trial violations, and the fact of the men’s arbitrary incarceration and abusive treatment was wholly ignored.

Ajak was sentenced along with Kerbino Wol Agok, Simon Dau Makuei, Dar Duer Dar, Benjamin Agany Akol, and James Bol Akec to prison terms of between 2 and 13 years. The men were initially arrested by national security service (NSS) officials in 2017 and 2018 for different reasons. Like other NSS detainees, they were held in squalid conditions in an NSS facility known as the “Blue House,” without charge and largely denied access to family, lawyers, and medical care.

When the men were finally brought to court on March 23, it was not for the reasons they were arrested – which remain undisclosed to them or their lawyers. Rather it was on charges of terrorism, sabotage, and treason stemming from the October 7 uprising at the Blue House. On that day, detainees took up weapons protesting unlawful detention and unlawful killings.  

Although the court dropped the treason charges against Ajak, it convicted him for “breach of the peace” because he spoke to foreign press by phone during the standoff – an indictment of free speech. 

The men had restricted access to lawyers and family, often in the presence of national security agents. Proceedings were conducted in Arabic – with poor interpretation and barely understood by the accused and lawyers. Despite indications of witness intimidation, the court declined to have witnesses testify in private. Michael Wetnhialic, a defense witness was arrested and detained by NSS after he testified in open court. One of the accused, Kerbino, was brought to the hearing by his NSS captors with blood stains on his clothes, raising suspicion that he had been beaten in custody for statements made in court.

The court raised no concerns about any of these issues. And when the men’s lawyers tried to introduce evidence that the detainees were being unlawfully held in an illegal facility, the court shut down the argument, refusing to consider it. 

This was the first time these men had been before a court since their arbitrary detention started – for some as long as a year, and the court could have decided that it had little choice but to address the fundamental human rights violations including the right to a fair trial at issue before it. By instead ignoring these issues and handing down convictions, the court has perpetuated the egregious injustices. It is a dark omen for rule of law in South Sudan when the court will not stand up for human rights.

Hope for Kenya’s Forgotten Victims

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Women take part in a protest along a main street in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi November 17, 2014. The demonstrators were demanding justice for a woman who was attacked and stripped in Nairobi by men who claimed that she was dressed indecently.

© 2014 Reuters

This weekend, I received the sad news that Chepkorir had died. Chepkorir, whose name I have changed to protect her privacy, was raped in December 2007. The men who raped her beat her badly and she had been struggling with poor health ever since.

Chepokorir is among thousands of women and girls who were sexually abused during the violence that erupted in Kenya between December 2007 and the end of February 2008 following the disputed presidential election. In our 2016 report, I interviewed 163 women and girls and nine men who had survived rape from that period of violence. These survivors endured all kinds of disturbing and brutal violence, including rape, gang rape, and having genitals beaten or mutilated. Most of the women and girls I spoke with were assaulted by more than four men and, in a few instances, more than ten. Women and girls told me they were penetrated with guns, sticks, bottles, and other objects, in attacks in which they were also badly beaten.

Kenyan authorities have largely failed to provide survivors with support to deal with the trauma of rape, or with medical care – either at the time of the violence or in the years that passed. More than a decade later, Kenyan officials have only convicted a handful of individuals for sex crimes related to the 2007-2008 election violence. Despite a commitment by President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2014 to establish a fund of 10 billion Kenyan Shillings to help victims of past injustices, including victims of the 2007 political violence, survivors of rape have not received any compensation.

Women have waited for years for Kenyan authorities to do what is right. Some, like Chepkorir, have died waiting. But there is hope: A bill has been introduced in parliament to provide for recognition and reparations for victims of human rights violations in Kenya, which would include rape survivors of the 2007-2008 election violence.

Kenyan parliament should move with speed to finalize the reparations bill, and the government should immediately carry out its provisions. This is the moment to right past wrongs against rape survivors. 

Gambia: Women Accuse Ex-President of Sexual Violence

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019
June 26, 2019 Video Video: Women Accuse Gambian ex-President of Rape

Three women have accused Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh, of rape and sexual assault while he was in office, Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International said today. Former Gambian officials said that presidential aides regularly pressured women to visit or work for Jammeh, who then sexually abused many of them.

(Dakar) – Three women have accused Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh, of rape and sexual assault while he was in office, Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International said today. Former Gambian officials said that presidential aides regularly pressured women to visit or work for Jammeh, who then sexually abused many of them.

Jammeh is currently in Equatorial Guinea, where he sought exile after losing the 2016 presidential election to Adama Barrow. A Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) is documenting human rights violations committed during Jammeh’s 22 years in power, including sexual violence allegations. The TRRC and the Gambian government should ensure that allegations of rape and sexual violence by Jammeh and other former top officials are fully investigated, and, if warranted, prosecuted.


Fatou (Toufah) Jallow receiving the award from President Yahya Jammeh as winner of the Miss July 22 Pageant. Banjul, Gambia, December 24, 2014. Jallow alleges that Jammeh raped her after she refused his advances.

© 2014 Private

“Yahya Jammeh treated Gambian women like his personal property,” said Reed Brody, counsel at Human Rights Watch who led the investigation. “Rape and sexual assault are crimes, and Jammeh is not above the law.”

Human Rights Watch and TRIAL interviewed three women who accuse Jammeh of rape and sexual assault, and a fourth woman who said that Jammeh’s aides confined her in an apparent set-up for sexual abuse. The organizations also interviewed eight former Gambian officials and several other witnesses. The officials, who said they have direct knowledge of the events, include two men who worked for the Protocol Department at State House (the presidential palace); four close protection officers for Jammeh or at State House; a woman who worked at State House; and a former National Intelligence Agency senior official. The officials and two of the women requested anonymity. Fatou Jallow (known as Toufah), who alleged that Jammeh raped her in 2015, asked that her name be disclosed because she wished to come forward publicly.

Those interviewed made detailed allegations against the former president, saying that he forced or coerced young women into having sex with him. Some were put on the state payroll and worked at State House as so-called “protocol girls.” Former officials reported that Jammeh and his subordinates gave the women cash and gifts and promised them scholarships or other privileges – powerful tools in one of the poorest countries in the world. Witnesses said that both consensual and non-consensual sex took place at the president’s residences.

Jammeh’s rule was marked by widespread abuses, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture and arbitrary detention. As president, Jammeh crafted a religious persona, preaching sermons and claiming to cure HIV and heal the sick. In March 2019, an official Gambian commission and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an investigative reporting platform, accused Jammeh of stealing up to US$1 billion from state coffers.

The three women who made the allegations against Jammeh described coercive, deceptive, and violent actions by Jammeh and his aides, and retaliation if the women refused his advances. Expand

Fatou “Toufah” Jallow, May 25, 2019. 

© 2019 Human Rights Watch

Toufah Jallow, then 18, was the 2014 winning “queen” of the main state-sponsored beauty pageant, which Jammeh lauded as “a means to empower girls.” Over six months, Jallow said, the president lavished her with a $1,250 prize and other gifts, and had running water installed at her family’s house outside of Banjul. He offered her a position as a “protocol girl,” which she declined. He asked her to marry him, which she also refused. She said that after aides brought her to attend a pre-Ramadan Quran recital at State House, he locked her in a room and told her: “There’s no woman that I want that I cannot have.” She said that he then hit and taunted her, injected her with a liquid, and raped her. Days later, she fled to neighboring Senegal.

Jammeh also personally hired and then sexually harassed the “protocol girls.” Former officials and two women who worked as “protocol girls” said that, in addition to their state salary, Jammeh and his aides gave the women gifts, cash, and privileges if they had sex with Jammeh. Sometimes the women carried out official functions such as serving drinks, typing, and preparing meetings, but mostly they were on call to have sex with the president. The women accompanied him during his frequent long stays in his home village of Kanilai. Some travelled abroad with the president, were required to live near State House to be more accessible to Jammeh, were not allowed to leave without authorization, or were discouraged from having boyfriends. A former top aide to the president said that Jammeh “handpicked young women to satisfy his sexual fantasies.”

One such woman, “Anta,” said that Jammeh spotted her at an event. She said that government officials put her on the payroll in the protocol department in 2015, and Jammeh gave expensive gifts to her indigent parents. She said that she refused when Jammeh first demanded sex, but that he said he “was supporting my family and that he could end it anytime.” On another occasion when he called her in for sex, he told her that she should not talk to anyone about it or she “would face consequences.”

Gambia’s Women Break Their Silence

During his 22-year dictatorial rule that ended in early 2017, Gambia’s former president, Yahya Jammeh, used his power as well as state institutions to entrap and sexually abuse young women. We spoke with researcher Marion Volkmann-Brandau about how she tracked down survivors of these crimes, the schemes Jammeh used to entice and assault young women, and the victims’ hope that he will face justice.


Another “protocol girl,” “Bintu,” said that in 2013 Jammeh offered her a scholarship to study in the United States. When she refused to have sex with him, Jammeh became angry and sent her away. She said Jammeh instructed his chief of protocol to bar her from going for her visa interview at the US Embassy and to terminate her contract at State House. He also rescinded his scholarship offer.

The three women and several officials identified Jimbee Jammeh, a female cousin of the president, as the person overseeing the “protocol girls” and the procurement of other women. The three women said she befriended them, phoned them, had them brought to State House, took them to Jammeh, and stayed with them and the president in his room before leaving them alone. Jimbee Jammeh went to Equatorial Guinea with Jammeh.

Jammeh’s exploitation of women was well known to those around him. Five former officials said that he ordered them and others to get the phone numbers of women he identified. They said they later saw some of these women leaving Jammeh’s house with money. Officials working with Jammeh said that he also had sex with women soldiers assigned to his close protection and other civil servants working under him.

Human Rights Watch and TRIAL also interviewed a fourth woman, Fatoumatta Sandeng, then a well-known band singer, who did not have direct contact with Jammeh, but said that in 2015 aides confined her in what she suspected to be a set-up for sexual abuse. She is the daughter of a Gambian opposition leader, Solo Sandeng, whose murder in custody in 2016 would galvanize opposition to Jammeh. Sandeng said she was ordered to come alone to see him in his hometown of Kanilai, barred from leaving her hotel there for three days, and finally released.

Sandeng is now spokesperson for the “Campaign to Bring Yahya Jammeh and his Accomplices to Justice” (#Jammeh2Justice), which calls for prosecuting Jammeh and others who bear the greatest responsibility for his government’s crimes.

Gambia president Barrow has said that Gambia will await the report of the TRRC before pursuing Jammeh’s possible extradition from Equatorial Guinea. In addition, the government of Ghana is weighing re-opening its investigation into the July 2005 massacre in Gambia of approximately 56 migrants, including 44 Ghanaians, following a May 2018 report by Human Rights Watch and TRIAL which revealed that the migrants were murdered by the “Junglers,” a death squad reporting to Jammeh.

The TRRC’s public hearings, widely followed in Gambia, have already produced multiple revelations, including allegations that Jammeh personally directed killings. The TRRC plans to schedule hearings on sexual violence, and has reached out to women to give statements “according to modalities that preserve their safety and dignity and protect them from stigmatization and retaliation.”

“These admirable women broke the culture of silence. It is now crucial that the TRRC and the government give them a path to redress and justice,” said Marion Volkmann-Brandau, lead project researcher for Human Rights Watch and TRIAL. “It’s time for the ‘shame’ of rape to switch sides.”

For further details, please see below.

Fatou (Toufah) Jallow

Jallow was a star drama student and qualified for the “July 22” pageant (named after the date of Jammeh’s coup), which the Ministry of Education organized in December 2014. The pageant was held in front of a live audience, including government ministers, media, family, and friends, and was broadcast live on national TV. Jallow was crowned “queen.”

“There was no routine on how much [prize money] you would get,” Jallow said. “It depended on how the president felt.” Jallow said that shortly thereafter she got a call from Jimbee Jammeh, the president’s cousin, asking her to attend an event at State House. She tried to decline, but Jimbee insisted and ordered other staff to call Jallow’s family.

In her first meeting with Jammeh, together with other contestants, Jammeh “was very jovial, making jokes about tribes,” she said. “He said that the purpose of the competition was to empower us. He told us not to get married right away and become housewives. He said ‘I am going to know about it. I’m not going to be happy about it.’” She said Jimbee gave her and the runner-up 50,000 GMD (approximately $1,250 in 2015). That was followed by an official meeting broadcast on state television with Jammeh and several ministers at which the contestants were all given money, a Mac computer and iPhones. Jallow later realized her movements could be tracked by the phone.

The women had to present a charitable project to the Ministry of Education for funding. Jallow’s was a community poverty alleviation project using drama. Jallow said Jimbee Jammeh repeatedly called her to finish up the project, then invited Jallow to State House to go over the project. “Jimbee did not tell me that I would meet the president,” Jallow said. Once there, she met Jammeh privately for the first time, together with Jimbee, and talked comfortably with Jammeh while Jimbee lounged nearby. After more than an hour, Jimbee “brought a box, with a gold chain inside. She said it was a gift ‘from us. You deserve more, you are really awesome.’”

Jallow said that one week later, Jimbee Jammeh visited her house. Jimbee reached Jammeh on the phone, who said: “Jimbee told me that you don’t have running water in your home…. I’m going to talk to Jimbee to settle that.” Soon thereafter, the state company installed running water. Jallow said that Jimbee Jammeh also bought the family expensive furniture.

The next time she met Jammeh privately, they had dinner with Jimbee Jammeh in his apartment. Jallow said that Jammeh told her she was beautiful and asked her if she ever thought of marriage. Jallow said she replied that she was only 18. She said he told her that there was nothing wrong with getting married to a man who supported her and asked if she had a boyfriend. She said she laughed and replied, “Are we supposed to talk about that?” He asked her who the boyfriend was, Jallow said, but she didn't answer. She said he then told her, “You know I’m the president, I can find out anything,” and then he said, “I have a surprise for you,” which was that Jimbee would give her money for her project.

In the meantime, Jallow said, an aide brought her another 50,000 GMD, which Jammeh told her was “for the bother of coming and waiting here.” Then he told her, “Honestly I cannot drag this out any longer. I want to marry you.” Jallow said she responded, “Why? You are three times my age? You are my dad’s age. It’s not you, I’m just not ready.” Jammeh then said, “Maybe you are confused right now, but get back to me.” She then left.

Jallow reported that the next day, Jimbee Jammeh took her on a tour of villas, saying that the president was ready to give her a villa and a car. She said that Jimbee told her, “He told you something yesterday and when that becomes possible, that’s yours.” She said Jimbee then changed tone and said, “What is wrong with you? Who gets an opportunity like this?” After that, Jallow blocked Jimbee’s number, but worried that she was being followed.

Jallow said that in June 2015, Jimbee Jammeh told her that as queen, Jallow had to come to State House for a religious ceremony marking the start of Ramadan. Jallow thought it would be with the other finalists, but Jimbee took her to a room where Jammeh soon appeared and later locked her in another room.

“He told me, ‘No woman has ever rejected me. And who do you think you are?’” Jallow said. “His face changed, his eyes were so red, different from the man before. He said, ‘No woman rejects me. You think you can get away with it?’” She said he then slapped her, and she fell on a chair: “He yelled at me, ‘This could have been nice, because I loved you but you decided to be this feminist girl to me.’” She said that she screamed, and he slapped her, told her to shut up, and then injected her in her arm with a needle.

She said she was reaching for the door when he warned, “If you make any move, I will kill you with my own hands.” He then pulled her dress off, she said, and said “Let’s see if you’re a virgin.” She said he rubbed his genitals in her face and touched them to arouse himself. She screamed that she was dying. “He said, ‘This does not kill, it’s fun.’” Jallow said he then held her hands down and raped her. She said she lost consciousness and when she woke up, Jammeh said, “Get out of here.” Jallow said that King Papa, an aide, told her as she was leaving: “He is the president, and we will do everything to protect him.”

Days later, Jallow fled to Senegal. After meeting with Amnesty International, Article 19, and various United Nations agencies, she obtained asylum in a third country, where she lives today.


“Anta” said she was pressured at age 23 to become a “protocol girl” after Jammeh spotted her at an event. She said Jammeh promised her a scholarship, and gave her a new smartphone:

One day, Jimbee [Jammeh] asked me to go with her inside the room where His Excellency was, so when we arrived, Jimbee’s other two sisters were there too. I was asked to sit beside him, when he started to rub my body. When I tried to stop him, he said to me remember that he was supporting my family and that he could end it any time. I kept quiet and later His Excellency gave us [the women] GMD 100,000 ($2,500) to share among ourselves.

A few days later, Jimbee took me to the president’s room and said that we should massage him. He gave Jimbee his foot and gave me his hands. We massaged for a while and Jimbee left us alone in the room then he started undressing me and saying that he was in love with me that he will do anything for me and my family that I should not tell anyone because if I do I will face the consequences. I felt I had no choice. That day he slept with me without protection and this made me feel very uncomfortable.

One month later, Jimbee asked me to move to State House. I did not want to but Jimbee came with a guard to collect my things by force saying I will go whether I like it or not because it is the president’s decision so I can’t disobey. You did not have a life at State House. I was only allowed to go out with Jimbee or if the next day was a day off – and even then, I was only allowed to go and see my mother.

I was called in another time at night. Around 1 or 2 a.m. my phone rang and Jimbee told me to come immediately to State House as the president wanted to see me. When I arrived, Jimbee was waiting for me. At one point, Jammeh came in and told me to follow him. He took me into a bedroom and I had to sleep with him.


“Bintu” said Jammeh sexually assaulted her when she was a 22-year-old “protocol girl”:

He [Jammeh] offered me a job at State House to be a protocol officer. He told me that I could choose a school abroad and that he would pay the scholarship for it. I wanted to go to a school in the US.

Protocol girls would prepare meetings, when guests were there we would serve something to drink. It was only when big events (birthdays, celebrations) were planned that we were really working (typing letters and invitations). But most of the time we would not work much, people did not ask us to do much because we are the “president’s girls.”

Whenever the president would go to Kanilai, the protocol girls would go with him. Sometimes we would stay there up to a month.

[In Kanilai, at night Jammeh] would call all of us to his house. So, while we were all gathered in a sitting room, or on the veranda, Jimbee goes into his room and then calls one girl to come into his private apartment. The rest of us sat and waited. The girls called in were many [names women], sometimes girls join us we don’t even know them. All the girls knew that when one girl was called in it was for sex. Some wanted it. They felt honored or wanted the money. My fingers were always crossed that he would not call me in. Sometimes he would call everybody inside and we watch TV. That was nicer.

Some of the girls who were called in talked to me. “Anta,” for instance. She told me that she had been abused.

The president did not protect himself, so it was risky. I know that some girls got pregnant – I know of two at least. When that happened, they would get fired.

When he had an affair with a woman, he treated her like his property. Sometimes the woman would get a house and a car but had to come in for sex whenever he wanted. So many were fed up with that. When the affair was finished, he took everything back.

During one of the president’s nationwide tours, Sanna Jarju, the chief of protocol, told me to go and take a girl’s number and her name. He said because it was his classmate – I later understood that it was for the president. I later saw that girl in Kanilai.

During another tour, in Basse, Jammeh spotted a light skinned girl in the crowd. Jimbee approached her. The next morning, I saw her coming out of his house – with a big envelope. The president was giving money to Jimbee, she would take her share and give the rest to the girl.

He is smart, he is very nice to the girls, he takes his time, and then he makes his move.

It happened in Kanilai. We were all there. One evening, Jimbee called me and told me to come with her to the president’s private apartment. He asked me to undress. He told me that I was young and needed protection so he wanted to apply spiritual water on me. We went to the bathroom and I undressed. I remember that I said, “It’s okay, because you are like my father.” Jimbee was there.

The next day, the president called me in again. In his private apartment, he asked me to undress and then he wanted to do things that were inappropriate. He started to touch my body. I was too young for this. I started crying. The president got angry and Jimbee told him that I was crying because I was shy. But I said no, that it was not because I was shy, it was because it was not appropriate. He got mad and sent me out.

The next day I was told to leave. It was a Saturday. On Monday, I was supposed to go for my visa interview at the US embassy. I had been admitted at an American college and Jammeh had promised me to pay for my scholarship. But Jammeh called Sanna Jarju and told him to tell me that I should not go. My contract at the State House was terminated and my scholarship was canceled.

Fatoumatta Sandeng

Sandeng got a call from Jimbee Jammeh in 2015 telling her “you are needed by the president tomorrow.” She said that Jimbee insisted that Sandeng come alone and not bring the other band members or her manager, as she requested. She said that at first she refused, but then received a call from chief of protocol Sanna Jarju who said that it was an “order” and repeated that she had to come alone.

Sandeng was driven to Kanilai by the same man who drove Jallow, “Anta,” and “Bintu.” She said that over the next three days, Jimbee prevented her from leaving the Sindola Hotel in Kanilai while her meeting with Jammeh was postponed. On the fourth day, Jammeh had to attend a funeral, and Jimbee gave her 50,000 GMD ($1,250) and allowed her to leave on the promise that she would come back. “Looking back, I was so lucky to get away and escape the fate of other women,” she said. 

An interview with Human Rights Watch’s Marion Volkmann-Brandau, who met and interviewed the women raped and sexually assaulted by Jammeh, can be found here: 

In Sudan, Repression of Protests by Another Name

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A group of protesters from the ministry of irrigation march at the sit-in outside the military headquarters, in Khartoum on Thursday, May 2, 2019.

© 2019 AP Images

Sudanese protesters were hopeful that the ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir would signal a break from 30 years of abuses. They spent over four months protesting in the streets despite violence by government forces that killed over 100 civilians and subjected many to unfair detentions and ill-treatment. Witnesses told us the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), Sudan’s intelligence agency, was at the forefront of those responsible for abuses against protesters. 

After overthrowing al-Bashir in April, the new Transitional Military Council, vowed to restructure NISS in response to protesters’ demands. However, we have seen no reform of NISS and no justice for violations by its officers. Instead, Sudan’s de facto leaders have promoted the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). 

These forces, which carried out abusive counterinsurgency campaigns in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile since 2013, led the attack on the Khartoum sit-in on the morning of June 3, killing well over 100 protesters. They are now deployed in large numbers in Khartoum and other towns, using violence against protesters. Their commander, Lt. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemedti”), is also deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, so the RSF is more powerful than ever before, with little reason to fear being held to account for violations and crimes against civilians. 

Increasingly, they are starting to act like the NISS. For example, on June 20, the Sudanese Journalists Network reported that journalist Amar Mohamed Adam was arrested and detained by Rapid Support Forces officials, who handed him over to NISS after hours of questioning. RSF also detained employees from the health ministry and the National Oil Corporation who had staged a stand in front of their work premises in Khartoum, on June 20. 

These forces have also prevented public events opposing the military council from taking place by occupying the designated locations hours before. They have also used force to disperse events, saying that organizers need permission from the Rapid Support Forces in advance, just as NISS had done. 

It is clear that the Transitional Military Council has just given the NISS another name. 

Pomegranate Propaganda: A Chinese Government Official’s UN Speech

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A Uighur woman picking up school children rides past a picture showing China's President Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uighur elders at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region, September 20, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

The vice governor of Xinjiang, a region in the northwest of China, made it through the first sentence of a 10-minute speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council today without misrepresenting any facts. He got a few other points right, too – including that 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

But the rest of Aierken Tuniyazi’s address was just another shamelessly misleading propaganda rant, as Beijing tries to paper over its gross human rights violations of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. At no point did the vice governor respond to the ample facts and concerns of those abuses documented by academics, diplomats, journalists, UN experts, and organizations, including Human Rights Watch.

Vice Governor Tuniyazi asked his audience to “allow [him] to repeat the above introduction in Uyghur language” – ironic, given that his colleagues in the Xinjiang government are denying arbitrarily detained Uyghurs the right to speak in their mother tongue. His insistence that ethnic minorities’ religion and culture are “protected by law” is impossible to reconcile with the now widely documented destruction of mosques and other cultural property. He raised the cases of four people – who may be guilty of no crime – to implicitly justify the arbitrary detention of approximately one million. And, yes: he insisted that all people in Xinjiang “are united as closely as the seeds of a pomegranate” – yet didn’t explain why Chinese authorities still feel the need to subject those close people to pervasive state surveillance.

That a Chinese government official offered a twisted version of reality to an international human rights body is hardly headline news. And perhaps he was given the floor to help generate more momentum within the UN system and among Human Rights Council member states to continue their quest for real accountability for human rights violations that are shocking in their scope and their scale.

But if Tuniyazi’s remarks – and the broader crisis in Xinjiang – go unchallenged by the council, it will represent another step in China’s long march to bending this institution to its politicized, anti-rights agenda. Now is the time for UN member states to make China accountable to the UN – before China reduces them to “pomegranate seeds.”