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Myanmar: Crimes Against Rohingya Go Unpunished

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 22, 2019

Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed-wire fence in the “no-man’s land” border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh, April 25, 2018.

© 2018 Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar government should stop obstructing international efforts to investigate widespread crimes committed against Rohingya Muslims, Human Rights Watch said today. Donors and concerned governments should press Myanmar to protect their basic rights, facilitate international justice for victims, and ensure that any returns of Rohingya refugees are voluntary, safe, and dignified.

August 25, 2019, marks two years since the Myanmar military began a campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity that drove 740,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh. A United Nations-backed Fact-Finding Mission found sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior military officials for grave crimes, including genocide, in Rakhine State.

“Two years since the Myanmar military carried out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population, the government still denies its troops committed any atrocities,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The bulldozing of Rohingya homes to destroy evidence after the ethnic cleansing is emblematic of the government’s campaign to whitewash its crimes.”

The Myanmar government has not acted to improve conditions or address the causes underlying the human rights crisis facing Rohingya in Rakhine State.

An estimated 500,000 Rohingya remain in appalling conditions in Rakhine State. Security forces have confined them to camps and villages and severely restricted their freedom of movement. The government has denied them fundamental freedoms and deprived them of access to sustainable livelihoods and basic humanitarian services including adequate food, medical care, and education.

The government restricts access to Rakhine State by news media and aid workers and since June 21 has imposed an internet blackout across nine townships, including one in Chin State. The disruption of internet services has increased difficulties for humanitarian agencies and human rights groups to assist vulnerable people in the face of increased fighting in the area. The government should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm civilians’ ability to assemble freely and express political views.

The government should immediately amend its discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law to provide Rohingya equal access to Myanmar citizenship. The government should also take necessary steps to ensure the security of the Rohingya population from abusive security forces and other groups.

In July 2018, in the face of mounting criticism from the UN and various governments for the lack of accountability for grave crimes, Myanmar authorities established the Independent Commission of Enquiry to investigate alleged human rights violations during the Rohingya crisis. In March 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that following discussions with the Myanmar commission’s chair, the High Commissioner was “seriously concerned about the impartiality of the mechanism and whether it can implement its mandate independently.”

“The composition, mandate, and statements of the Independent Commission of Enquiry reveal that it is following the same failed path of past commissions,” Robertson said. “The Myanmar government has demonstrated its inability and unwillingness to investigate and prosecute grave crimes committed by its security forces.”

In September 2018, the UN Human Rights Council created the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar to collect and preserve evidence of crimes for possible use in future criminal proceedings. The Myanmar government should cooperate with this body and with other UN bodies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, is seeking an investigation into the crime against humanity of deportation, since Rohingya were deported to Bangladesh, a party to the ICC. However, even if the judges grant her request, an ICC investigation would not cover most of the crimes committed in Myanmar. The UN Security Council should refer the situation in Myanmar to the ICC so that all ICC crimes can be considered.

The Security Council and other governments should also impose or expand targeted sanctions on Myanmar military leaders and key military-owned enterprises. Sanctions should include travel bans, asset seizures, and restrictions on access to financial institutions, as well as a comprehensive military embargo.

The Myanmar government recently verified that 3,450 people are eligible to return to Myanmar out of an overall list of 22,000 refugees submitted by Bangladesh authorities. The Bangladesh government asked the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to consult individually with these refugees and determine who among them may wish to return at this time.

Many of the refugees with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said they feared returning under the current conditions. They said they did not feel safe going back to a country where they faced systematic persecution and violence. “On the way to Maungdaw, the law enforcers will stop and harass you, demand bribes, or end up finally torturing you,” one refugee said. “All of this they can just do because we are Rohingyas who don’t have any freedom of travel to anywhere. All this has to end if they want us to repatriate, so that we can live there as citizens and without discrimination.”

Returnees will be required to sign up to a digitized National Verification Card (NVC) process that effectively identifies them as a foreigner and could subsequently deny them Myanmar citizenship rights. They said that without recognized citizenship before they return, they felt they would be subject to further persecution in Myanmar. “If we will take NVC cards, then the Myanmar authorities will never recognize us as Rohingya,” one man from camp 24 said. “Because taking NVC means you are acknowledging yourself as a foreigner.”

Human Rights Watch and other human rights and humanitarian groups have determined that conditions for voluntary, safe, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State do not currently exist. The Myanmar government has restricted UNHCR from reaching or monitoring areas where the Rohingya would return, and so the UN agency has not publicly stated that conditions are suitable for their return. In an August 22 statement, UNHCR said that they visited families in shelters to establish whether they wished to return to Myanmar, but none had accepted: “So far, none of those interviewed have indicated a willingness to repatriate at this time.”

Before any refugee returns, the Myanmar government should significantly improve conditions and address the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and military impunity for grave violations.

“Myanmar’s rampant atrocities and the failure over two years to address them has been made even worse by the Security Council’s apathy,” Robertson said. “For Rohingya languishing in camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar, concerted international action to provide them with justice could not come a moment too soon.”

Australia: Retain Emergency Medical Care for Refugees

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 22, 2019


Protesters holding banners march in Sydney to urge the Australian government to end the refugee crisis on Manus Island on November 4, 2017.

© 2017 PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images (Sydney) – An Australian bill to change the current system of medical transfers would risk the health of refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 16, 2019, Human Rights Watch made a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill 2019.

Australia’s offshore processing policy has had a severe impact on the physical and mental health of refugees and asylum seekers sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The medical transfers provisions facilitated bringing refugees and asylum seekers from the two countries to Australia for medical treatment. Under the law, if two or more treating doctors assess that refugees or asylum seekers on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island or Nauru require urgent medical treatment, they and their families should be transferred to Australia.

“Medical facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru have proven unable to cope with the complex medical needs of asylum seekers and refugees,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “For some, woefully inadequate medical treatment over the years has meant that health concerns have become more serious and now require urgent attention.”

The bill introduced by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton would repeal the medical transfer provisions and reinstate the government’s sole authority to make decisions about medical transfers. The bill will enable the return of people to Papua New Guinea or Nauru after treatment.

Before the medical transfer provisions passed in February 2019, the Australian government had delayed or denied medical transfers of refugees and asylum seekers against the recommendations of doctors, sometimes for months or years. Lawyers representing refugees or asylum seekers often had to take the government to court in order for medical transfers to be approved. The coroner’s report into the death of an Iranian, Hamid Khazaei, found that his death was “preventable” and a result of significant delays in his transfer from Manus Island to Australia. It recommended that doctors working offshore should be able to approve medical transfers to Australia.

“Australia’s offshore processing system has taken a huge toll on the health of many refugees and asylum seekers,” Pearson said. “Australia has an obligation to ensure they receive needed medical treatment.”

European Court Slams Russia Over Domestic Violence Case

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 22, 2019

In February 2017, parliament decriminalized first instances of battery among family members.

© 2018 Rebecca Hendin for Human Rights Watch

In a landmark ruling – its first on a domestic violence case in Russia – the European Court of Human Rights found that Russia’s lack of legislation to combat domestic violence, as well as the absence of protection orders, indicated a systemic failure to address this critical problem.

The court’s July 9 ruling extensively cited the Human Rights Watch October 2018 report on domestic violence in Russia, exemplifying how the court considers our work to be an authoritative source.

In its ruling, the court said that Russian authorities are “reluctant to acknowledge the gravity” of the problem of domestic violence and its “discriminatory effect on women.”

The court ruling means that at least one victim of domestic violence in Russia has seen some justice in her case: the court ordered the authorities to pay the applicant, Valeria Volodina, 20,000 euros for damages she suffered.

October 25, 2018 Report “I Could Kill You and No One Would Stop Me”

Weak State Response to Domestic Violence in Russia

But the ruling will hopefully have further consequences. The court communicated to Russia that it is looking at four other cases concerning domestic violence, which may lead to the court adopting the so-called pilot judgment procedure for these cases. Under this procedure, the court, when considering similar cases, not only examines if a violation has occurred on the facts of the case before it, but also reaches determinations about a systemic problem and instructs the government to adopt policy and legal changes to prevent similar violations in the future.

Domestic violence in Russia is pervasive, and official studies suggest that it affects at least one out of five women. As is the case with domestic violence statistics worldwide, this number is most likely underreported.

HRW’s report detailed obstacles survivors of domestic violence face in reporting abuse and obtaining help, including social stigma and distrust of police. It described common patterns of abuse, including how violence escalates systematically over time. Women described being choked, punched, burned, threatened with weapons, sexually assaulted and raped, and subjected to psychological abuse, among other offenses.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch found that police treat survivors of domestic violence with hostility and often fail to open criminal cases or conduct investigations in cases of domestic violence. Instead, they force victims to seek justice through private prosecution, a process that is both expensive and demanding upon the victim.

Russia lacks a national law against domestic violence and does not recognize domestic violence as a stand-alone offense, which makes it difficult for Russian government agencies to keep comprehensive statistics. Russia has even decriminalized the first instance of battery among family members – meaning that the first time domestic violence is reported to police, it is treated as a minor transgression with mild penalties, signaling to abusers that the violation is a less serious offense. Russian law also has no protection orders, which help keep women safe by prohibiting contact between a victim and her abuser. And Russia doesn’t have enough shelters for domestic violence survivors.

After the report was published, Human Rights Watch held meetings with government officials, members of parliament, police officers, and government and nongovernmental groups providing services to victims of domestic violence to share the results of the report and discuss remedies. We keep an active voice in Russia’s ongoing public discussions about domestic violence through regular media and social media engagement, participating in public events, and engagement with Russian activists. The lack of adequate legislation to protect women from domestic violence contradicts Russia’s international obligations, and regularly calling on the government to address this endemic problem is a core part of our international advocacy on Russia.

Saudi Arabia: Travel Restrictions on Saudi Women Lifted

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Saudi government Absher app on a phone in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, which both allows people to pay traffic fines online, but also facilitates male guardians’ granting or denying women permission to travel.

© 2019 Amr Nabil/AP Photo  

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities announced further changes to regulations that now allow women over 21 to travel abroad freely and obtain passports without permission from their male guardian. However, the new regulations do not positively affirm the right to travel abroad, leaving open the possibility that male guardians could seek a court order to restrict female relatives’ travel.

On August 20, 2019, the Saudi Press Agency reported that the Departments of Passport and Civil Status have begun enforcing the amended Travel Documents Law and regulations, and media reports suggest that women have been allowed to travel abroad without permission.

However, the online and mobile platform Absher, which Saudi citizens use to request or renew passports, has not been updated to reflect these changes. Further, women activists who have peacefully sought these changes remain in prison or on trial for their women’s rights activism.

“Saudi women have won a long-awaited victory to travel abroad and apply for passports without a male guardian’s permission,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “However, the authorities should ensure that male guardians are not able to use court orders to sidestep this advance, and the authorities should update the online platform Absher so that women can apply for passports as easily as men can.”

The Council of Ministers’ decision on July 31, published in the official gazette on August 1, amended the Travel Documents Law, the Civil Status Law, and the Labor Law. The amendments to the Travel Documents Law changed the references to obtaining a passport to gender-neutral, effectively removing discriminatory restrictions on women.

On August 18, the interior minister issued amendments to the implementing regulations of the Travel Documents Law that previously required male guardian permission for women and girls and for men and boys under age 21 to obtain a passport. Now, only those under 21, both male and female, will require guardian permission for a passport, removing the requirement that women over 21 need such permission.

The amendments deleted article 28, which stated that Saudi women’s travel abroad must be in accordance with “applicable instructions.” This article formed the legal basis for requiring a male guardian’s permission for a woman to travel abroad, including those over 21. Another amended article uses gender-neutral language to require male guardian permission for travel abroad by those under age 21. There are exceptions for those under age 21 who are married, have a government scholarship to study abroad, or are employees participating in official missions abroad.

However, in practice, women under 21 may be more likely to face situations in which their guardians may not approve their travel than men under 21.

In addition, mothers who have primary custody of their children can now also apply for passports and provide travel permission for their children.

Under international human rights law, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights ratified by Saudi Arabia, everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own. Any restrictions can only be individual, for a legitimate reason, and proportionate – as, for instance, during a criminal investigation.

On August 20, al-Yaum, a Saudi media outlet, reported that a thousand women traveled abroad without permission on August 19 through border crossings in the Eastern Province, which includes crossings to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar (currently closed), and Oman.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented how the online and mobile app Absher has been used to control women’s movement. Human Rights Watch spoke to individuals who confirmed that as of August 21, the app had not been updated to allow women to apply for passports online and that it still allowed male guardians to approve or reject female relatives’ travel.  However, the Passports Department has stated via Twitter that women over 21 can apply for or renew passports in person at their offices and that they will update the Absher platform.

The Council of Ministers’ July decision made several advances in other areas relating to women’s rights. While the changes are important, Saudi women still must obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married or be released from prison. In addition, as there is no anti-discrimination law – the government has no duty to actively uproot discrimination in practice, such as women’s shelters requiring a male guardian’s approval for a woman to leave, or hospitals requiring male guardian approval for surgery relating to reproductive health care, including lifesaving abortions. While labor law reforms mean that employers can no longer discriminate against women in employment, authorities have not announced any steps to enforce that requirement.

Despite reforms to the civil status law, women continue to face discrimination in relation to marriage, family, divorce, and decisions relating to children (e.g. child custody). Men can still file cases against daughters, wives, or female relatives under their guardianship for “disobedience,” which can lead to forcible return to their male guardians’ home or imprisonment.

“These combined changes are among the most sweeping reforms of women’s rights that Saudi Arabia has made and the first significant break with the country’s male guardianship system, which has allowed men to control Saudi women’s lives from birth to death,” Begum said. “Now the Saudi authorities should uproot all remaining discrimination against women in both law and practice.”

In addition, at least five women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, and Nassima al-Sadah, remain in detention while many other women who have been released face judicial decisions that could send them back to prison. Al-Hathloul has been in detention for more than a year, and she and other women activists have said they have been tortured and sexually harassed in detention. Many of their “offenses” relate to peaceful human rights work, including promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to the male guardianship system.

“The charade should no longer go on that the Saudi authorities can grant reforms on the one hand and on the other imprison the women who fought for them,” Begum said. “Saudi authorities need to release these women immediately and have all charges against them dropped.”

Georgia: Worker Rights, Safety at Risk

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 22, 2019

August 22, 2019 Video Video: Miners at Risk for Death and Injury in Georgia

The safety of workers in Georgia’s mines is at serious risk due to insufficient government regulation and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy.

(Tbilisi) – The safety of workers in Georgia’s mines is at serious risk due to insufficient government regulation and resulting mining practices that prioritize production quotas and put workers’ safety in jeopardy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 60-page report “‘No Year without Deaths’: A Decade of Deregulation Puts Georgian Miners at Risk” documents how weak labor protections and limited government oversight have allowed mining practices that undermine safety to flourish. Georgian labor law does not sufficiently regulate working hours, rest time, weekly breaks, and night work, and does not provide for government oversight of all labor conditions.

“Thousands of workers will be at heightened risk until Georgia regulates working hours and creates a system to inspect the broad impact of working conditions,” said Corina Ajder, Finberg fellow at Human Rights Watch. “It is entirely in Georgia’s power to protect workers and improve conditions for their health and safety.” Expand

A worker stands inside one of the manganese tunnels. Chiatura City, Georgia.

© 2014 Daro Sulakauri

Manganese, a mineral used in steel production, is among Georgia’s top exports. The largest manganese producer, Georgian Manganese (GM), operates 11 mines and a processing plant, employing about 3,500 workers. Workers at GM mines told Human Rights Watch that because they work 12-hour shifts underground, including at night, for 15 straight days, they are often exhausted, and they have faced penalties for failure to make quotas.

Miners said that in a rush to meet quotas or without sufficient rest, workers had suffered deep cuts, were buried under rocks as roofs collapsed, lost limbs, suffered concussions, or narrowly avoided serious accidents.

During shifts, the company requires miners to live in a dormitory, in part to maximize production. GM maintains that the arrangement ensures that miners get the rest they need in living conditions that enhance safety. But this requirement unfairly interferes with their freedom of movement and their family and home lives.

“On the 9th or 10th night of work, everyone is exhausted, and a lot of workers fall asleep,” Merab, a manganese worker, said. He was injured on his 14th consecutive night underground. “Someone was sitting next to me and fell asleep and accidentally turned on a piece of equipment. I was cut, and my ribs were showing.” August 22, 2019 Report “No Year without Deaths”

A Decade of Deregulation Puts Georgian Miners at Risk

Coal miners for Saknakhshiri LLC also cited working conditions that heighten risks to safety and labor rights. Miners said that a compensation system based on performance, or quantity of coal extracted, imposed production targets that could not be reached safely, encouraging workers to omit time-consuming safety measures.

Human Rights Watch cited other practices at odds with workers’ rights. These include long hours, inadequate breaks, and no weekly rest days, non-payment of overtime hours, failure to provide copies of written contracts, and unfair wage deductions.

Years of deregulation have left Georgian workers without adequate protection, Human Rights Watch found. In an effort to attract foreign investment, Georgia in 2006 abolished its Labor Inspectorate and dramatically reduced worker protections in the labor code. One study found that deaths at work soared by 74 percent, most of them in mining and construction. Since 2013, when a new government took power, Georgia has gradually introduced more labor protections, including establishing a labor inspectorate with a limited mandate in 2015.

In 2018, Georgia was shaken when 10 miners died in 2 accidents within months in Tkibuli, in western Georgia. Following calls from nongovernmental groups, in February 2019, parliament gave more powers to the Labor Inspectorate to address health and safety in the workplace. Even after these amendments, which go into effect in September, the Inspectorate has a limited mandate. It cannot address the broader impact of long working hours, production pressures, and difficult working conditions, for example.

Mining’s contribution to the Georgian economy and employment opportunities do not offset the serious labor rights concerns in the industry, Human Rights Watch said.

In responding to the findings, Georgian Manganese said that the “human and social rights of our employees, their health and safety have always been of utmost importance for our company.” It acknowledged that “we may have some shortcomings in our work” and said it was “ready to tackle them accordingly.” Saknakhshiri LLC said it had established a dedicated safety department in 2017 and that “labor safety has been always a priority in the company.”

Human Rights Watch is aware of ongoing efforts to address remaining gaps in the law, including with regard to overtime, days off, holidays, and minimum wages, and to strengthen the Labor Inspectorate. But no draft law has yet been introduced in parliament, and there is no clear timeline for these urgently needed reforms.

The Georgian government has made commitments in agreements with the United States and the European Union (EU) to strengthen its labor laws and oversight and enforcement systems. Georgia benefits from preferential tariffs on exports to the US, including manganese, provided that it respects and enforces internationally recognized labor rights. Manganese producers, including those employing miners Human Rights Watch interviewed, benefit directly.

Under the Association Agreement with the EU, Georgia pledged to bring its labor legislation in line with EU laws and take steps toward establishing a full Labor Inspectorate before 2020.

International human rights standards guarantee everyone the right to just and safe working conditions, reasonable limitations on work hours, fair pay, freedom of movement, and respect for and protection of family and private life. International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, many of which Georgia has not yet ratified, detail standards with respect to acceptable working conditions, as well as proper oversight and enforcement.

Georgia’s international partners, including the EU, and the US State Department have criticized Georgia’s labor inspectorate system. In April, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights said, after a visit to Georgia, that it was concerned that the regulatory framework remains inadequate since it “will not cover the whole spectrum of labor rights.”

The Georgian government should move ahead to reform its labor law to protect workers against long hours and pressures that put them at risk. The government should put in place a full-fledged, independent, and adequately staffed Labor Inspectorate with a mandate to inspect all working conditions in line with international standards.

Mining companies in Georgia should respect workers’ rights and the safety of their employees, and work with employees and their representatives to carry out reforms that will improve safety. Georgia’s trading partners, including the EU and the US, should insist on full respect for labor rights.

“Georgia’s gradual approach to re-regulation ignores the everyday risks miners are taking without adequate protection for their rights,” Ajder said. “The government should move quickly to correct the errors of the past.”

Emerging Voices: Denationalization, International Justice, and the Principle of Good Faith

Opinio Juris - Thursday, August 22, 2019
[Michael W.R. Adams is a J.S.D. candidate at Columbia Law School.] Increasingly, states across Europe and in the Commonwealth of Nations have adopted laws permitting the ‘denationalization’, or stripping of citizenship, from so-called ‘foreign fighters’ in the interests of national security. Denationalization has antecedents going back to the states of the ancient world. States have historically employed denationalization as a...

Venezuela: UN Should Set Commission of Inquiry

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 22, 2019


Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, June 24, 2019.

© 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council should establish a commission of inquiry during its September 2019 session to investigate serious human rights violations in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch said today in a joint document prepared by 11 Venezuelan and international human rights organizations. The groups have been monitoring and documenting Venezuela’s spiraling human rights and humanitarian emergency for years.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, is scheduled to present an oral update on the human rights situation in Venezuela before the UN Human Rights Council on September 10. This presentation, which follows a damning report published by her office in July, is the final step mandated by the council resolution on Venezuela, its first, adopted in September 2018.

“The victims of the dire human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela deserve a thorough and authoritative response from the Human Rights Council to address their right to truth, justice, and reparations,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Human Rights Council has the opportunity and responsibility to create a mechanism to investigate grave violations in Venezuela and to identify those responsible and, where possible, the chain of command.”

The report by Bachelet’s office documented abuses that are consistent with previous findings by her office and Venezuelan and international human rights organizations, and highlighted the need for accountability. The abuses include arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial executions, and violations to the rights to food and health. A commission of inquiry is needed to identify those responsible and break the cycle of impunity.

The UN Human Rights Council should give a commission of inquiry a strong, clearly defined mandate to investigate reports of violations of international human rights law in Venezuela, including, but not limited to, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention, discrimination, enforced disappearances, as well as violations of freedom of expression, the right to life, and the rights to health and food, the groups said. It should be provided with adequate resources to investigate and report back to the UN Human Rights Council on these violations within a specific period and be mandated to share its findings with the UN secretary-general and relevant UN bodies, including the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

The UN Human Rights Council is particularly well suited to allow for countries or a group of countries, including on a regional level, to take the lead in mobilizing support to address the human rights crisis. The Lima Group, which currently consists of 10 Latin American countries and Canada, has been leading efforts in Geneva to scrutinize the human rights situation in Venezuela, and could take the lead in establishing a commission of inquiry.

A commission would not be a substitute for criminal investigations into specific crimes. But the information gathered may be relevant for authorities considering criminal proceedings, including the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who opened a preliminary examination into the situation in Venezuela in February 2018.

If a commission of inquiry is created, Venezuelan authorities should cooperate with it fully, including by giving it access to the country and by responding to requests for relevant documents and interviews with officials. However, a refusal by the government of Venezuela to engage with a commission should not prevent commissioners from carrying out their work. Commissions of inquiry for North Korea, Myanmar, and Syria have successfully produced reports extensively documenting human rights violations and international crimes, despite the refusal of those governments to cooperate.

The joint document was prepared by Acción Solidaria, Amnesty International, Centro Derechos Humanos – Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, CEPAZ, Civilis Derechos Humanos, COFAVIC, Espacio Público, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and PROVEA.

For a question and answer on a commission of inquiry on Venezuela, please visit:

US: New Rules Allow Indefinite Detention of Children

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan departs after speaking about upcoming changes to the Flores ruling at a news conference at the Reagan Building in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik   (Washington, DC, August 21, 2019) – A Trump administration final regulation announced today could result in severe harm to migrant children who may be held in immigration detention indefinitely in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. The rule seeks to replace the longstanding Flores court settlement that imposed detention standards and time limits.   “The detention of children can lead to trauma, suicidal feelings, and exposure to dangerously inadequate medical care,” said Clara Long, acting deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “No amount of time in detention is safe for children and prolonged detention is particularly harmful.”   The core principle and requirement of the Flores Agreement is that migrant children taken into detention should be released as “expeditiously” as possible. The new rule provides instead for the indefinite detention of children with their parents in federal immigration facilities pending resolution of their immigration proceedings. In doing so, it seeks to reverse a ruling under the Flores settlement that children not be held for more than 20 days in facilities not licensed for childcare.   During a press conference Wednesday morning, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said average stays in 2014 and 2015 for families in detention leading up to that ruling was 50 days.   But many families were held for longer than that during 2014 and 2015, according to Human Rights Watch research from the time. Their prolonged detention took a severe psychological toll on them. Other studies of detained immigrant children have also found high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, and psychologists agree that “even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children.”   “The US government claims family detention is needed to ensure families show up to court,” Long said. “But the government has done nothing to expand community-based case management programs that led the vast majority of people released from immigration detention to show up to court. The government should be dramatically scaling up those programs, not looking for ways to ramp up the abusive detention of children.”   Human Rights Watch submitted comments on the Flores regulation when they were proposed last fall, recommending that the administration withdraw the rule and instead dedicate their efforts to advancing policies that safeguard the health, safety, and best interests of children and their families, not least through robust, good-faith compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement.   Legal advocates have already filed a notice that they will challenge the rule in court. If not stopped by a judge, the new rule will take effect in 60 days.

Who Will Pay to Clean Up US Coal Ash Pollution?

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River following one of the worst coal-ash spills in US history into the river in Danville, Virginia, February 5, 2014.

© 2014 AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

A proposed new rule by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could mean that coal ash pollution – a byproduct of burning coal for electricity – won’t be properly cleaned up and that even if it is, the public will foot the bill.

The EPA is required to assess whether industries need to set aside money for potential pollution cleanup. It is now proposing not to impose financial requirements on the electrical power industry, despite the enormous cost of cleaning up decades of coal ash pollution.

Human Rights Watch submitted a comment today opposing the agency’s proposal.

Coal ash, which contains a slew of toxic metals such as arsenic and lead, is one of the largest industrial waste streams in the United States. Prior to an EPA regulation in 2015, most US states let utilities dispose of coal ash in unlined pits that allow these metals to leach into groundwater. The pollution poses a significant health risk for the 115 million US citizens who rely on groundwater sources for drinking.

The extent of coal ash contamination was first revealed in March 2018, when a new federal regulation required power plants to test groundwater near coal ash ponds and publish the results. According to the advocacy group EarthJustice, 91 percent of the units reporting data had found groundwater contamination, many at levels far exceeding federal safety standards.

US law requires the EPA to assess the chance of an industry’s cleanup costs being passed onto the public, and if this seems likely, to require companies to set aside cleanup funds. But the agency’s assessment of the electric industry significantly underestimated the financial risks.

First, it only looked at cases where pollution was generated after 2015, when coal ash sites became regulated. For example, North Carolina ordered Duke Energy to clean up all its coal ash pollution in the state after 39,000 tons of toxic waste from coal ash contaminated the Dan River in 2014. The company estimates this will cost US$10 billion, and is now seeking to pass some of the cost on to consumers by hiking electricity prices.

Second, it didn’t adequately consider the financial precariousness of the coal-powered industry, as competition from natural gas has led dozens of these plants to recently shut down, with many more slated for closure.

If utilities that rely on coal aren’t forced to set aside funds, there are serious concerns they won’t have the resources to pay clean-up costs. The public will then be on the hook for the bill, or face continued health risks from the pollution.

Either way, the public loses.

Silencing of Activist Shows Kazakhstan’s Contempt for Rights

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Serikzhan Bilash, a prominent activist who has campaigned for the release of ethnic Kazakhs in China, poses for a photograph, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, August 17, 2019.

When Serikzhan Bilash, a well-known rights activist in Kazakhstan, was freed from jail after a hearing late on August 16, 2019, he was very clear about the terms of his release: Cease all activism against China.

“It was that or seven years in jail. I had no choice,” said Bilash, who has exposed human rights violations against Turkic Muslim minorities, including ethnic Kazakhs in China’s Xinjiang region.

The harsh terms imposed by the Almaty court show how willing Kazakhstan is to repress the rights of courageous activists like Bilash. Under the conditions of his release he had to concede guilt to bogus incitement charges, give up peaceful activism, pay a $300 fine, and cannot leave Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, for three months.

The fact that Kazakhstan, under its new president Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, is forcing an internationally respected activist to limit his own freedom of expression, speaks volumes of the authorities’ disrespect for justice and rule of law. It also demonstrates Kazakhstan’s readiness to sacrifice human rights to maintain good relations with its neighbour, China.

Bilash’s own lawyer Aiman Umarova refused to sign the plea bargain, insisting on her client’s innocence. “I refuse to put my name to any deal that was signed under pressure,” she said.

Bilash’s experiences before and after his arrest in March also cast light on Kazakhstan’s approach. After authorities refused to register Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights, Bilash’s campaign group on Xinjiang, in February, they fined him almost $700 for acting in the name of an unregistered group. He was later placed under house arrest for more than five months in the capital Nur-Sultan, far from his family in Almaty. And at his trial last Friday his lawyer was initially denied access to him during the hearing.

It’s good news that Bilash is free and can rejoin his family. But it’s tragic that if he again tries to speak up for those facing abuses in ‘political re-education’ camps in Xinjiang, he would be jailed. The conditions on his release should be dropped immediately. And Kazakhstan should think beyond its ties with China to its obligations to respect and comply with international human rights law.

Emerging Voices: Now is (not yet) the Winter of our Discontent–The Unfulfilled Promise of Economic and Social Rights in the Fight Against Economic Inequality

Opinio Juris - Wednesday, August 21, 2019
[Caroline Omari Lichuma is a PhD Candidate at the Georg-August Universität Faculty of Law (at the Chair of Public and International Law) and a Lecturer from Riara Law School in Nairobi, Kenya.] Material inequality or (extreme) economic inequality has been touted as one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Wealth is hemorrhaging upwards rather than trickling down. In a world...

Emerging Voices: What Colombia’s FARC Peace Deal Teaches the ICC About Its Complementarity System.

Opinio Juris - Wednesday, August 21, 2019
[Camila Teran is a lawyer with a LLB in Law and a LLM in International Criminal Law, both from the University of Sussex.] The ICC’s current crisis bears witness to the contentious relationship between the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC (OTP) and States. The OTP’s progress is further frustrated by the small window triggering the admissibility phase that would allow...

Who Is Afraid of the Crime of Aggression?

Opinio Juris - Wednesday, August 21, 2019
I have uploaded a new article on the crime of aggression to SSRN. Here is the abstract: Immediately after the historic adoption of the aggression amendments on 14 December 2017, a number of participants in the negotiations expressed their belief that activating the crime of aggression would help deter states from engaging in the illegal use of force. Unfortunately, the...

Yemen: Coalition Warships Attack Fishing Boats

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, August 21, 2019


Fishermen rest on their boats in Hodeida, Yemen before going out to sea, September 2018. Since 2018, Saudi-led coalition naval forces have attacked fishing boats in the Red Sea, killing at least 47 Yemeni fishermen.

© 2018 Hani Mohammed/AP Photo

(Beirut) – Saudi-led coalition naval forces have carried out at least five deadly attacks on Yemeni fishing boats since 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. Coalition warships and helicopters have been involved in attacks that killed at least 47 Yemeni fishermen, including 7 children, and the detention of more than 100 others, some of whom were tortured in custody in Saudi Arabia.

The coalition attacks on fishermen and fishing boats appear to be deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian objects in violation of the laws of war. Coalition officials who ordered or carried out the attacks or tortured detainees are most likely responsible for war crimes.

“Coalition naval forces repeatedly attacked Yemeni fishing boats and Yemeni fishermen without any apparent determination that they were valid military targets,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Gunning down fishermen waving white cloths or leaving shipwrecked crew members to drown are war crimes.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors, witnesses, and knowledgeable sources about seven fishing boat attacks: six in 2018 and one in 2016. Civilians died in five of them. After they gathered there, coalition forces opened fire with light weapons, killing or wounding several men and boys. Warships and helicopters were involved in the attacks from short distances away, so the civilian nature of the fishing boats should have been clear. The fishermen waved white cloths, raised their hands, or otherwise showed they posed no threat. In three attacks, coalition forces did not attempt to rescue men adrift at sea, and many drowned.

A fisherman described the attack on his boat: “The helicopter was close, about three meters up. They said [over a megaphone] ‘go forward,’ and four or five [fishermen] went forward, and the rest were near the [boat’s] stern. I was in the middle. Then they hit us with the big gun with bullets.” Seven fishermen died.

The coalition also detained, apparently without charge, at least 115 fishermen, including 3 children, in Saudi Arabia for between 40 days and more than two-and-a-half years. Seven former detainees said that Saudi authorities tortured and ill-treated apprehended fishermen and boat crew members and denied them contact with their families, legal counsel, and Yemeni government representatives.

The attacks and detentions severely affected remote fishing communities that lost the primary earners for dozens of families. They have also deterred other fishermen from going to sea. “Before the war, fishing was good,” said the wife of a fisherman. “But we heard that eight men from the neighborhood next to us were killed … so [my husband] stopped going.”

The San Remo Manual on Armed Conflict at Sea, which is widely viewed as reflecting customary laws of war at sea, requires attacking forces to do everything feasible to limit attacks to military targets. Vessels are presumed to be civilian unless they are carrying military equipment or presenting an immediate threat to the attacking vessel. “Small coastal fishing vessels” are specifically exempt from attacks. These vessels must submit to identification and inspection when required, and follow orders, including orders to stop or move out of the way. The laws of war also place a duty on parties to the conflict, whenever circumstances permit but particularly after an engagement, to take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded and shipwrecked.

The Saudi-led coalition has consistently failed to investigate alleged war crimes and other unlawful attacks, including the attacks on fishing boats, Human Rights Watch said. No coalition personnel are known to have been disciplined or prosecuted for attacking Yemeni fishing boats.

The coalition body that reviews alleged laws of war violations by coalition forces, the Joint Incident Assessments Team (JIAT), has investigated fewer than 10 alleged attacks on civilians at sea, none of which appear to correspond with the attacks Human Rights Watch investigated. The JIAT did not find coalition wrongdoing in any of these cases or recommend payments to victims.

The fishermen and their relatives interviewed said that the JIAT had never contacted them. Saudi authorities gave monetary and equipment “assistance” to families of fishermen killed in only one case that Human Rights Watch investigated, and money to released crew members in another.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the coalition on June 21 about the incidents investigated, but has received no reply.

Houthi forces, who control much of northern Yemen and are the target of the coalition forces, have unlawfully attacked commercial traffic in the Red Sea. In its 2018 final report, the UN Panel of Experts noted Houthi attacks on a crude oil tanker, a bulk cargo carrier, and a World Food Program charter vessel. Houthi forces launched attacks with anti-ship cruise missiles, remote-conrolled boats filled with explosives, and skiffs carrying armed men. Houthi forces launched attacks with anti-ship cruise missles, remote-controlled boats filled with explosives, and skiffs carrying armed men. Houthi forces have also announced their use of sea mines, which pose a grave risk to civilian vessels.

The UN Panel of Experts should investigate the attacks at sea and other attacks on civilians and recommend that the UN Security Council impose sanctions on officers and commanders responsible for violations of the laws of war. 

Countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, and France should immediately cease all sales and transfers of weapons, including warships and helicopters, to Saudi Arabia, and should carefully review sales to coalition members given the possibility they could be used in committing violations, Human Rights Watch said.

“The naval attacks on Yemeni fishing boats make it clear that the Saudi-led coalition is not only killing civilians through countless illegal airstrikes, but also while conducting operations at sea,” Motaparthy said. “How much more proof do countries continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia need to stop all sales, including of warships, or risk becoming complicit in war crimes.”

Attacks on Fishing Boats

Human Rights Watch documented five coalition naval attacks on Yemeni fishing boats in the Red Sea in 2018 that left 47 fishermen dead and 14 injured. In three of the attacks, coalition forces left the scene without trying to help fishermen who were wounded or adrift at sea. The coalition also detained without charge more than 100 fishermen in Saudi detention centers between 40 days and more than two-and-a-half years. Human Rights Watch documented an additional incident from 2016.

Witnesses to attacks and former detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch are identified by pseudonyms because of fear of reprisals against them or their families. Human Rights Watch also reviewed media reports on the attacks, documents from Yemeni coast guard and local fishing authorities, and a Saudi deportation request confirming the transfer of Yemeni citizens.

The incidents investigated are not a complete accounting of coalition attacks on Yemeni fishermen. The Civilian Impact Monitoring Project, which monitors civilian casualties in Yemen’s armed conflict, reported at least 12 coalition attacks on fishing boats that killed or injured fishermen between January 2018 and January 2019, including 9 reported as airstrikes. Two match incidents that Human Rights Watch documented. Given the isolated nature of maritime incidents and poor communication networks on Yemen’s western coast, the number of attacks may be much higher.

All of the attacks documented appear to be violations of the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Yemen. In every incident, coalition forces appeared to deliberately attack fishing boats and fishermen that could clearly be identified as civilian. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of these boats posed a military threat to the coalition forces. Warships left the scene while fishermen were floating in the sea. The prolonged detention of fisherman and boat crews and torture and ill-treatment in custody also violated the laws of war and international human rights standards.

Commanders who willfully ordered or carried out unlawful attacks, failed without justification to rescue shipwrecked fishermen, or mistreated detainees are responsible for war crimes. Commanders responsible for the attacking units may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.

Eritrean Coast, September 15, 2018: 18 killed, 1 injured

On September 15, 2018, coalition naval forces off the coast of Eritrea attacked the fishing boat Faris carrying 19 fishermen, apparently killing 14 men and 4 children. One man, Nafea Khadem Zayd Hurbi, survived but died in a motorbike accident about a month after the New York Times published an article that included his account. Human Rights Watch interviewed a person who knew the fishermen killed, a local human rights activist, and two fishing community members who said they had spoken to Hurbi about the attack.

Based on Hurbi’s account to community members and the New York Times, a naval ship approached the fishing boat at about 6 p.m. A man on the ship using a megaphone ordered the fishermen to move to their boat’s bow. After they gathered there, coalition forces opened fire with light weapons, killing or wounding several men and boys.The naval ship then left the area without assisting the wounded, Hurbi reportedly said. He told the New York Times that he floated in the water for four days, clinging to an ice box, before being rescued by a passing boat. He received treatment at a coalition military hospital in al-Khawkha, on Yemen’s west coast.

After news of the incident spread on social media, coalition representatives at the al-Khawkha military base gave 100,000 Saudi riyals (US$26,600) to the families of the 18 fishermen for each of their relatives that was killed, plus a boat and outboard engine, but did not admit to any wrongdoing. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team did not list the incident in any of its public reporting.

Eritrean Coast, August 21, 2018: 7 killed, 4 injured, 12 detained

On August 21, 2018, at about 3 p.m., Saudi naval and air forces attacked a fishing boat carrying 19 fishermen off the coast of Eritrea. Seven fishermen died in the attack and Saudi forces detained the remaining 12, 3 of whom had burns and another who was severely wounded. The fishing boat had left the Yemeni port of Qatabah about a week earlier with permission from the Eritrean government to fish in Eritrean waters.

Three survivors, interviewed separately, said they saw a gray and black helicopter with a Saudi flag painted on the side approach their boat. The men waved a white cloth and raised their hands to indicate they were unarmed. A man using the helicopter’s loudspeaker ordered them to move toward the boat’s bow. Some of the men did. but a gunman in the helicopter opened fire with an automatic weapon.

One fisherman, “Bassam,” described the attack:

At that point, a coalition warship approached the fishing boat. It fired a munition that struck the boat’s stern and caused an explosion, setting the boat on fire, the witnesses said. The 12 surviving fishermen jumped into the water, clinging to empty tanks to stay afloat. A rubber dinghy with several armed men approached the survivors.

Two witnesses said that the officers nearly executed one of the badly injured fishermen. “They yelled, ‘He is wounded. Kill him! Kill him!” said “Shihab.” The wounded man shouted, “I am Muslim like you!” and started reciting the shahaada [prayer said before death]. At that point, the officers dragged him onto their boat.

After bringing the surviving fisherman aboard the naval ship, also marked with a Saudi flag, officers beat the fishing boat’s captain, one witness said.

The badly wounded fisherman was transported by helicopter to a military hospital for treatment and the 11 others were taken by ship and vehicle to a medical clinic in Saudi Arabia, and then to a detention facility near the Jizan port, in the country’s southwest. Three of them were burned severely, two witnesses said, but it was six days before they saw a doctor.

“The soldiers [in the detention facility] would cover their faces because of the smell [of the burns],” said “Hossam.” “[After] five to six days, they brought us pills and ointment and gauze.” Prison authorities did not transfer the burn victims to a hospital for treatment.

The men faced mistreatment during interrogation that amounted to torture. “Bassam” said:

They blindfolded and handcuffed us and hit us with a cable … [I] lost consciousness every night for 15 days. Every one of us was investigated and hit … there was blood…. We were interrogated for a few hours. I would go by myself. I felt from the beating and the voices that three or four people were hitting me in different ways and in different places – on my leg, and my chest, and my waist and bottom.They also hung me from a pipe from my arm and leg, and then they dropped me. They said, “You are Houthis.… [C]onfess you are Houthi and we will stop doing this.” So I put my thumb print on a piece of paper [but] didn’t read it. 

Three months later, Saudi authorities transferred eight of the detainees to a deportation detention center, where they spent nine days. Guards then put them on a bus to the al-Wadia checkpoint at the Yemen border. They said they were given 5,000 Saudi Riyals (US$1,333), which guards told them was “from King Salman,” and warned them not to speak about what happened to them after returning to Yemen. Once they crossed the border, Yemeni authorities gave the men money to return home, and they made their way back to Khawkha. Another detainee was released 29 days later. The situation of the three remaining detainees, including the boat’s captain, remains unknown.

Zuqer Island, mid-August 2018: 15 killed in 2 attacks, 6 injured

In mid-August 2018, coalition naval forces attacked two fishing boats on the same day near Zuqer Island off the coast of Yemen, in seas controlled by the Yemeni government. Human Rights Watch spoke with two survivors of one attack, one of whom witnessed the other attack.

One fishing boat had set off from Khawkha port with a crew of nine men and five boys. “Ramzi,” a crew member, said they received permission to fish from the political security office in al-Khawkha, which coordinated these requests with the Yemeni coast guard and coalition forces.

On the fifth day at sea, between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., when they were fishing near Zuqer Island, a coalition warship approached the boat, “Ramzi” said. The warship began shooting over the fishing boat, while the men onboard shouted that they were fishermen and waved at the warship to stop firing. The warship then fired at the boat, killing and injuring some of the crew.

Another fisherman, “Yousef,” gave a similar account. “I tried to hide in the boat but then I jumped,” he said. “I was injured in the head – one bullet penetrated the boat and nicked my head. I saw Ibrahim Abdo Saeed dying in front of me.”

The attack started a fire on the fishing boat, causing the surviving crew members to jump into the water. Ramzi saw the current carry two fishermen away, one a 13-year-old boy, though he later learned that they survived. Some died immediately and many others were wounded, he said. Ramzi managed to connect a cluster of jerry cans with rope, which he and four others, one of them a 13 or 14-year-old boy, used to stay afloat.

Ramzi said he saw a helicopter on the warship take off and fly toward another fishing boat about two nautical miles away, manned by fishermen whom he knew. He later learned that this boat was also attacked, and 4 of the 10 crew members died.

Ramzi and the others holding onto the bound jerry cans drifted for four days without food or water. On the fifth morning, at about 3 a.m., he said, the others began to drown, and by 5 a.m., Ramzi was the sole survivor.

Later that morning, an Eritrean boat passing by rescued him, and took him to Eritrea, where he stayed for four days before finding passage back to Yemen on another fishing vessel.

Yousef said he stayed alive by holding onto a jerry can together with a 13-year-old boy for a day and a night before they were rescued by a passing boat. “We were new to fishing and didn’t know how to swim well,” he said.

Khawkha, August 1, 2018: 7 killed, 2 injured

On August 1, 2018, at about 5:30 a.m., three fishing boats set off from the Yemeni port of Khawkha. Human Rights Watch did not speak with any of the men aboard the vessels but interviewed “Amr,” whose relatives were killed in the incident, and who had a detailed account from two survivors. The account he provided is consistent with the New York Times reporting on the incident.

Amr said that one of the boats, with a crew of 9 men, together with the other 2 boats traveled approximately 22 nautical miles from Khawkha. The crew had received travel permission from the fishing institute of the Yemeni Coast Guard, which operates under coalition control, he said.

At about 10 or 11 a.m., a helicopter suddenly flew toward the boats and hovered for a few minutes overhead. The helicopter left but soon afterward, a munition apparently struck the stern of the boat, setting it ablaze.

Amr said the two survivors described hearing a warplane overhead, then a whistling sound before the munition exploded, suggesting that this attack might have been an airstrike.

The two said they remained in the water until 4 p.m., when another Yemeni boat passing by rescued them and took them back to Khawkha.

“The people whom we lost had kids and families,” Amr said. “[Now] all of them are on the brink of starvation.”

Al-Swabe’a Islands, mid-March 2018: 1 injured, 91 detained

In mid-March 2018, a group of six fishing boats set out from the Hodeida port, with a seventh boat joining them seven days later. The 7 boats with 91 men were fishing in a loose cluster near al-Swabe’a Islands, a small archipelago about 45 nautical miles from Hodeida. Human Rights Watch interviewed the captain of one of the boats. A Houthi-affiliated news channel aired interviews with four men from the group, who said that coalition forces had arrested them and detained them in Jizan, subjecting them to beatings and other treatment they described as torture.

The boat captain, “Saeed,” said that shortly before noon he saw a large, gray warship coming toward them. Warning shots struck the water near the boats, then more shots flew over their heads, he said. Someone on the ship ordered the boats by loudspeaker to move closer to each other, and for the fishermen to raise their hands.

At that point, a rubber dinghy came toward the boats from the warship, carrying five or six armed men in uniform, Saeed said. The men boarded the fishing boats, separated the captains from the other crew members, and began searching the boats. Three armed men searched Saeed’s boat, he said, and checked the crew’s documents. He overheard one officer radio the warship and say, “They are fishermen … they are clear.” The man on the other end replied, “Bring the captains.” The coalition forces blindfolded the captains of the seven boats, including Saeed, and cuffed their arms and legs, then took them to the warship.

On board the warship, officers removed the leg cuffs and blindfolds and gave the men water but berated them for supporting the Houthis. “You are working with the Houthis, you are Houthis, you are terrorists,” Saeed recalled they said.

Officers on the ship ordered the seven boats to follow their vessel. They sailed for three days, then arrived at Jizan port in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities held them there at a detention facility, splitting the group between two cells. Saeed said that he and other detainees were beaten during interrogations. He was interrogated twice and others up to five times, he said.

Saeed said that none of the group had access to legal counsel, and none of them spoke to a representative of the Yemeni government. One fisherman, injured in his leg by a gunshot, received medical treatment at a nearby hospital for ten days. After he was transferred to the detention facility, guards took the injured man to the hospital for treatment every five days, Saeed said. After about 40 days, all 91 men were released.

Difnen Island, mid-October 2016: 12 detained

Around October 16, 2016, about 70 fishermen on a small boat and two large dhows, or sambuk, were fishing off the coast of Eritrea near Difnen Island. Six people interviewed separately, including fishermen who witnessed the arrests and relatives of detainees, said that coalition naval forces had stopped the boats. Over the course of the day, coalition forces detained 12 people – 9 men and 3 children – and held them for between 17 months and more than two-and-a-half years. Eight fishermen remain in detention. A local activist who investigated the case and conducted additional interviews corroborated the details that witnesses and family members provided to Human Rights Watch.

At about 8 a.m., a boat carrying eight armed uniformed military personnel approached one of the boats, said “Omar,” a crew member. Omar said the men were Saudi based on their uniform and accent. The forces accused the fishermen of being armed and of being Houthis, he said. The men replied that they were fishermen with permission to fish from both Yemeni and Eritrean government authorities.

The military personnel ordered the captain on one of the sambuks to sail in a particular direction, with the armed patrol boat alongside it, until about 4 p.m., Omar said.

“We arrived next to a large gray warship … with a helicopter on board,” Omar said. He saw other fishing boats in the water nearby, also apparently in coalition custody. The boats stayed next to the warship for three days while authorities detained and interrogated several crew members: two of the captains, seven other men, and three boys ages 15 and under. On the third day, the Saudi authorities ordered the fishermen to return to Hodeida with their boats, but without the 2 sambuk captains and 10 other crew members from the various boats.

Saudi authorities have returned four of the detainees to Yemen. Several people familiar with the detainees’ experience said that the group had spent 17 days in a detention facility in Jizan, where they were temporarily separated from the boat captains, who were placed in solitary confinement. When the captains were reunited with the rest of the group, bruises were evident on their bodies.

The entire group of 12 was then transferred to Abu Arish prison, where they were held for about 52 days. Then they were transferred to Khamis Mashit prison. In early 2018, authorities released the three boys and returned them to the Marib governorate, where they stayed in a local detention facility for an additional month. Another man was released in late May 2019. The rest remain missing, last seen in Saudi custody. Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of four of the missing fishermen to confirm their continued detention.

Arbitrary Detention, Torture, and Mistreatment in Saudi Custody

Saudi forces detained without apparent legal basis at least 115 fishermen and crew members for 40 days to more than two-and-a-half years in detention centers and prisons in Saudi Arabia. Some detainees reported torture and other ill-treatment in custody. None were known to have been brought before a judicial authority. None had access to their family, lawyers, or Yemeni government representatives.

Two former detainees said that Saudi security personnel beat them with cables and wooden sticks, in one case causing unconsciousness, and hung them in the air while tied by an arm and a leg. The men described seeing other detainees who appear to have been tortured, including a fellow fisherman held in Jizan:

He was in a very difficult condition. He was crawling and … couldn't stand. His whole back was bleeding from the beating, [and] his whole mattress was covered with blood. He wasn't talking at all. Even when I talked to him, he didn't answer me.

Three other former detainees said that they were held in solitary confinement for periods ranging from a few days to three weeks, and said that they observed other crew members also held in solitary confinement. They said Saudi authorities did not provide adequate medical care to those who were injured or ill. The authorities also did not separate child detainees from adults as international law requires.

Detainees’ families said they did not know where their relatives were until others from their area were released. At least 10 fishermen last seen in Saudi detention facilities in these cases remain missing.

The Saudi government should immediately release all Yemeni fishermen and civilian boat crews detained without any lawful basis. Those detained should have access to a representative of their government and legal counsel, and contact with their families.


The UN Panel of Experts should review the roles and actions of naval captains of coalition warships operating in the Red Sea during the period of the above incidents. Investigations should also review the role of naval commanders, including Adm. Fahd bin Abdullah Al-Ghafili al-Mahfouz al-Ajmi, current commander of the Saudi Royal Navy.

Human Rights Watch compiled this list of 47 fishermen and crew members killed in the incidents it documented:

September 15, 2018:

  1. Amr Yahya Radwan
  2. Mansour Yahya Radwan
  3. Ayash Saeed Dunini
  4. Ahmed Saeed Dunini
  5. Yahya Soliman Dunini
  6. Ibrahim Soliman Dunini
  7. Abdulla Muhammad Mussa
  8. Saeed Muhammad Mussa
  9. Abdul-Malik Thabit Murad
  10. Anis Talib Hadhrami
  11. Shaker Ali Yahya Nahari
  12. Abdo Ali Bukiri
  13. Hussain Muhammad Munubi
  14. Fajri Ahmed Hassan
  15. Abdo Ahmed Mahlbi
  16. Muhammad Khadem Harbi
  17. Abdulla Ali Hafez
  18. Yasser Wahb-Allah Bazaz

August 21, 2018:

  1. Salman Ahmad Abdo Muhammad Hassani
  2. Ahmed Ghalib Salem Foufli
  3. Ahmed Abdo Dabaj Qulia’b
  4. Mahmmoud Thabit Salman Ahmdi
  5. Muhammad Saleh Ali Hassani
  6. Muhammad Abdo Muhammad Hassani
  7. Magdi Abdo Ali Hassani

Mid-August 2018: 2 attacks

  1. Ahmed bin Ahmed Thabit
  2. Abdul-Rahman Abdo
  3. Ahmad Ibrahim Qassim
  4. Esam Ali Saleh Atyia
  5. Bashir Ghalib Qassim
  6. Murshid Rashid Thabit
  7. Ibrahim Abdo Saeed
  8. Muhammad Ahmad Abdu-Hamid
  9. Ali Ghalib Abdli
  10. Saeed Salman Muhammad Alili
  11. Emad Ibrahim Ahmad


  1. Najib Ibrahim Muhammad Afda
  2. Ali Suliman Ibrahim
  3. Abbas Muhammad Afda
  4. Nasser Yousef Afda

August 1, 2018:

  1. Murtadha Zayd Murshid Zaid Bujiri
  2. Mahyoub Saeed Saleh Bujiri
  3. Abdulla Ibrahim Ahmed Bujiri
  4. Adnan Bagash Ibrahim Ahmed Bujiri
  5. Hameed Saif Saleh Bujiri
  6. Muhammad Abdulla Hizam Afdah
  7. Hayel Abdulla Afdah


Myanmar/Bangladesh: Halt Rohingya Returns

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Rohingya refugees at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, January 1, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo

(New York) – The Myanmar and Bangladesh governments should suspend plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees until returns are safe, voluntary, and dignified, Human Rights Watch said today. With new repatriations set to start on August 22, 2019, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps protested that they will face the same violence and oppression in Myanmar that they fled.

Myanmar authorities have verified 3,454 people for an initial round of returns from a list of 22,000 submitted by Bangladesh authorities. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and Bangladesh authorities said they are seeking to confirm that these refugees wish to return.

“Myanmar has yet to address the systematic persecution and violence against the Rohingya, so refugees have every reason to fear for their safety if they return,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “Bangladesh has been generous with the Rohingya – though conditions in the camps have been difficult – but no refugee should feel compelled to return to a place that isn’t safe.”

After the UN began the consultation process, many Rohingya refugees told Human Rights Watch that while they wished to go home to Myanmar eventually, current conditions made their return unsafe. Many of the refugees on the initial lists refused to attend the consultations.

Bangladesh should not join this dangerous rush to send refugees back to conditions that they may be forced to flee again. Meenakshi Ganguly

South Asia Director

“We know that thousands of Rohingya back in Myanmar are still in detention camps,” one refugee told Human Rights Watch, referring to an estimated 125,000 Rohingya who have been confined to open-air camps in central Rakhine State since 2012. “If those people are released and return to their villages, then we will know it is safe to return and will go back home.”

A refugee from camp 26 who was on the list with six family members said, “We do not want to go back to Myanmar where so many of our loved ones did not even get a funeral, and ended up in mass graves after they were killed.”

A woman living in camp 24 said: “This is the second time I have fled here in Bangladesh. My husband was killed by the [Myanmar] military.… I don’t want to go back because I don’t want to my grandchildren to face the same risk that I did.”

The refugees held protests after the repatriation plan was announced demanding that those responsible for atrocities be held to account. They also called on the Myanmar government to guarantee full citizenship rights and return land and properties to the refugees, including compensation for homes and businesses that the military burned.

More than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. They joined about 200,000 refugees who had fled previous waves of violence and persecution. A UN-backed fact-finding mission found “sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials in the Tatmadaw [armed forces] on charges of genocide.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar previously attempted repatriation in November 2018, initiated without consulting UNHCR or the Rohingya. Refugees on the list for return went into hiding and refused to leave, fearing for their lives. In July 2019, Myanmar officials arrived at the sprawling refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar to discuss repatriation, but denied Rohingya citizenship claims and instead promoted a digitized National Verification Card (NVC) process.

A refugee from camp 27 said, “The Myanmar delegation visited last month and made many assurances, but we would be foolish to return now because then they will never fulfill our rights.”


A police officer stands guard outside repatriation camps built for Rohingya refugees expected to return from Bangladesh, in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, January 24, 2018.

© 2018 AP Photo

Bangladesh authorities said they are preparing for repatriation. “Repatriation may start any moment,” Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said recently. “In the next few weeks we shall encourage the Rohingyas to go back.” Ko Ko Naing, director general of Myanmar’s Disaster Management Department, said that reception centers had been set up at Nga Khu Ya and Taung Pyo Letwe in Rakhine State to receive 300 people a day, and that the refugees would initially be placed at a temporary camp in Hla Poe Kaung before they are sent back to their villages. The “reception centers” and “transit camp” are surrounded by barbed-wire perimeter fences and security outposts, similar to the physical confinement structures in the central Rakhine camps.

UN officials said they have not had enough time to survey the refugees who have been cleared for repatriation to find out whether they want to return to Myanmar. UNHCR as well as Bangladesh authorities have asserted that any returns will be voluntary.

A refugee who was called by Bangladesh camp authorities to meet with UNHCR said she told the refugee agency that she and her family do not want to return to Myanmar yet. Holding a leaflet with a list of demands, she said:

They [Myanmar authorities] always abuse us in different ways. Why would we go back to that country to endure the same cycle of abuse. If we are recognized as Rohingya, given citizenship, our lands, and assurance of freedom of movement, then no one will need to send us back. We will go ourselves.

Some Hindu refugees said that they would like to return to Myanmar, but their names were not on the initial list. Shishu Pal Shil, the Hindu camp majhi (leader), told Human Rights Watch: “When we came to know about the repatriation of the Rohingya Muslims, I asked when our name will come in the list. He said possibly in the next round. We are always ready to go back to Myanmar.”

Conditions in Rakhine State are not conducive for voluntary, safe, or dignified repatriation of Rohingya. The remaining Rohingya population in Rakhine State is confined to camps and villages with no basic freedoms, subject to ongoing state persecution and violence. The Myanmar government has taken no action to improve conditions or address the root causes of the crisis, including systematic persecution and violence, statelessness, and military impunity for grave violations.

Since November 2018, fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army armed group in Rakhine State has displaced at least 27,000 people. Since June, internet services have been shut down in eight townships in Rakhine State and one township in neighboring Chin State where there is fighting between the Arakan Army forces and Myanmar military.

Although Bangladesh is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, it is bound under customary international law not to forcibly return refugees to a place where they would face persecution, torture, other ill-treatment, or death. Any repatriation plan should follow international standards and be developed with consultation and informed consent from Rohingya refugees, with objective, up-to-date, and accurate information about conditions in areas of return, including security conditions, assistance, and protection to reintegrate.

“Many Rohingya have said that they would like to return to Myanmar so long as they don’t suffer the same abuse, indignities, and atrocities they have endured in the past,” Ganguly said. “Bangladesh should not join this dangerous rush to send refugees back to conditions that they may be forced to flee again.”

In Sri Lanka, Victor’s Justice Means No Justice at All

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, August 20, 2019

General Shavendra Silva is seen at the Ampara Air Force camp in eastern Sri Lanka August 24, 2009. 

© 2009 Reuters/Stringer/Files

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed a general whose forces have been credibly accused of war crimes as the commander of the national army. The move would seem to confirm the fears of those like Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who, back in March, supported the United Nations Human Rights Council’s extension of its 2015 resolution on Sri Lanka.

The extension, which Sirisena and other top officials openly opposed, seeks justice and accountability for violations committed during the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. “The sad reality is, then, that there are those who oppose any measure to achieve accountability and reconciliation, because they don't want justice,” said Mangala Samaraweera. “They want victor's justice.”

The appointment of Major General Shavendra Silva as army commander suggests he was right. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka documented laws of war violations committed by the Silva-led 58th Division in the conflict that could amount to war crimes.

Silva’s own website described himself as a “hero” for his role in the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But in 2012, while he was Sri Lanka's deputy ambassador to the UN, he was removed from the UN Special Advisory Group on Peace Keeping Operations due to the allegations against him. Silva has also been accused of human rights violations during security operations in southern Sri Lanka against the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) armed group in the late 1980s.

The UN human rights investigation recommended that Sri Lanka engage in vetting “to remove alleged perpetrators” from the military. But instead of investigating Silva, the government has rewarded him with promotions. Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, stated that she was “deeply troubled” by the appointment.

For the relatives of victims of abuses committed by Silva’s 58th Division – who have long held vigils seeking justice and answers – this appointment negates all the government’s pledges toward accountability, reconciliation, and reform. Even so, the government still has international commitments. It should immediately set up a justice tribunal with international participation – or the UN Human Rights Council should step in and do so instead.

Muddying the Waters Still Further: A Response to Steven Kay and Joshua Kern

Opinio Juris - Tuesday, August 20, 2019
[Victor Kattan is a Senior Research Fellow of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore where he heads the Transsystemic Law Cluster. He is also an Associate Fellow of NUS Law. ] Steven Kay QC and Joshua Kern’s rebuttal to my critique of their Article 15 Communication to the Office of the Prosecutor (“OTP”) of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) (see here and here) is...

A Victory for Media Freedom and another Blow Dealt to Criminal Defamation and Sedition Laws by the East African Court of Justice

Opinio Juris - Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Tetevi Davi is future pupil barrister at 25 Bedford Row in London and a Nicolas Bratza, Tancred and Hardwicke Scholar of Lincoln’s Inn. He writes regularly on international human rights law, international criminal law and transitional justice, primarily with a focus on Africa. He is a rapporteur for Oxford International Organizations where his research focuses on African treaties. Introduction On...

Turkey: 3 Kurdish Mayors Removed from Office

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The elected mayors from the main southeastern municipalities removed by Turkey’s interior ministry on August 19, 2019; from left to right: Mardin mayor Ahmet Türk; Diyarbakır mayor Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı; Van mayor Bedia Özgökçe Ertan.

© 2019 private

(London) – The Turkish Interior Ministry’s removal of three democratically elected mayors in the major municipalities of the Kurdish southeast and eastern regions blatantly violates the rights of voters and suspends local democracy, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Interior Ministry on August 19, 2019, removed the mayor of Diyarbakır, Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı; the mayor of Mardin, Ahmet Türk; and the mayor of Van, Bedia Özgökçe Ertan, accusing them of supporting terrorism. All three mayors are from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The three mayors should be allowed to resume their posts immediately.

“President Erdogan’s government has effectively cancelled the results of the March local elections in the three main cities of the Kurdish southeast and east by removing voters’ chosen mayors, all valid candidates, and taking over these municipalities,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Smearing the mayors by alleging vague links with terrorism to deprive the Kurdish population of their chosen representatives endangers everyone in Turkey who is committed to democratic elections, human rights, and the rule of law.”

The Interior Ministry justified substituting government-appointed provincial governors in each municipality because the mayors face investigations and legal proceedings under terrorism laws for their speeches and non-violent political activities. None have received a final conviction.

Abusive prosecutions and investigations for overly broad and vague terrorism offenses are widely used in Turkey to silence and arbitrarily detain government critics, journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Court of Human Rights has harshly criticized Turkey for its actions in pursuing baseless terrorism charges against elected members of parliament. In one example, the unlawful detention of Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair and HDP member of parliament, the court found in 2018 that his detention “pursued the predominant ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate, which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society.”

The three mayors won their seats in the March 31 local election, with Mızraklı winning 63 percent of the vote, Türk 56 percent, and Özgökçe Ertan 53 percent. It is the second time that elected mayors in the southeastern part of the country have been removed from office and replaced with Ankara appointees.

In September 2016, the Law on Municipalities was changed under a state of emergency decree to facilitate the removal of mayors accused of terrorism links and their substitution with provincial governors. Ninety-four mayors from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) were subsequently removed, and many were held in prolonged pretrial detention. Turk, a veteran Kurdish politician, was previously stripped of office as elected mayor of the Mardin greater municipality under that decree and arrested in November 2016. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a speech in February, in advance of the March elections, in which he stated that mayors found to be linked with terrorism could be removed once again.

These moves by Erdoğan’s government against democratically elected officials violate Turkey’s obligations under international and regional human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. The moves violate the right to political participation, the right to free elections, and the right to freedom of expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Cameroon: Detainees Tortured

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Satellite image showing the location of the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’État à la défense, SED) in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

© DigitalGlobe-Maxar Technologies 2019; Sources: EUSI, Google Earth

(Nairobi) – Cameroonian authorities held over 100 detainees incommunicado and tortured many of them in a detention facility in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, from July 23 to August 4, 2019.

The detainees were transferred to the facility, the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’État à la défense, SED), the morning after inmates in Yaoundé’s Central Prison rioted on July 22 in protest at overcrowding, dire living conditions, and delays in their cases getting to trial. Many were in detention on suspicion of being involved with or supporting armed separatist groups operating in English-speaking regions of Cameroon. Since late 2016, a cycle of civil protests there, followed by government repression, has escalated to hostilities between government forces and armed separatist groups, resulting in over 2,000 deaths. Others included members and supporters of the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC).

“These credible accounts of torture and abuse out of the State Defense Secretariat are sadly not the first, but only the most recent,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The security forces’ apparent belief that they are free to torture and otherwise abuse detainees is a direct consequence of the Cameroonian government turning a blind eye to reports about the abuse – but the world is watching.”

In a news release dated August 2, Communication Minister René Emmanuel Sadi confirmed that 224 prisoners were transferred from the Central Prison to police and gendarmerie units in Yaoundé for questioning but did not specify which facilities.

Human Rights Watch has established that at least 100 of the prisoners were taken to the SED. The whereabouts of the majority was unknown for almost two weeks. When an individual’s detention is followed either by a refusal to acknowledge the detention or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts, this constitutes an enforced disappearance, an egregious human rights violation, Human Rights Watch said. On August 3, the day after official acknowledgement of the men’s whereabouts, some lawyers were finally able to meet with some of their clients at the SED.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 detainees held at the SED, all of whom said they were tortured and held incommunicado during their time there, and heard credible accounts that scores more were also tortured. Human Rights Watch also spoke with family members of detainees and six lawyers who provided information about their clients and detention conditions.

A 29-year-old detainee from Kumba, South-West Region, said: “We were treated like animals; we were beaten twice a day with wooden clubs and machetes. The hygienic conditions were dreadful.”

On August 4, all prisoners who had been transferred to the SED were moved back to the Central Prison. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that on August 6 at least 80 of the detainees who were returned to the Central Prison were charged before a Yaoundé court of first instance with “rebellion, attempted prison break, destruction of property and theft.”

Some lawyers were not permitted in the courtroom, so their clients had no representation while they were being charged. Lawyers who were able to see their clients beforehand told Human Rights Watch that their clients said they had been tortured at the SED. Some showed signs of torture, the lawyers said.

A lawyer representing eight opposition party prisoners, who were among those who reported torture, said: “I spoke to my clients on August 6 outside the courtroom. I saw horrors. They all had scars on their bodies due to the torture suffered at the SED, and injuries on their heads. They told me that they had been severely beaten at the SED at least twice, in their cells, by gendarmes and other guards using wooden clubs. They also told me that they were interrogated at gunpoint.”

Under human rights law, all forms of inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees is strictly prohibited, and Cameroonian law provides that detainees shall not be subject to any physical or mental constraints, or to torture, and that their counsel and families should be able to visit them at any time.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented the widespread use of torture and incommunicado detention at the SED, mainly of detainees suspected of ties to armed separatist groups. The prison has been used to hold people incommunicado and as a place of torture since at least 2014. Torture is pervasive across the country, in both official and unofficial detention centers.

In December 2017, the United Nations Committee Against Torture said that the government of Cameroon should ensure prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into all allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and incommunicado detention, and appropriately prosecute and punish abusers. The government has taken no action to implement the recommendation.

On August 15, Human Rights Watch sent a letter with its findings to Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, secretary general at the presidency, requesting a response to questions but the government did not respond.

“Cameroonian law enforcement authorities seem happy to torture without an afterthought for the repercussions,” Mudge said. “These types of reports will become more commonplace until Cameroon’s international partners stand up and press the government to take action.”

July 22 Prison Riot and Transfer to SED

According to media reports, the July 22 protests in Central Prison turned into riots as the prisoners took over parts of the prison. Human Rights Watch reviewed videos and pictures showing buildings on fire and shots fired as security forces tried to reassert control. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm whether live ammunition was used, but other reports indicate it was.

Human Rights Watch heard credible reports that, as authorities attempted to re-establish order, they beat detainees, in particular those they suspected of being responsible for the riot.

Lawyers for MRC members and supporters said their clients believed that they were targeted for beatings, including the MRC vice president, Mamadou Mota, who has been in prison since June 1. Mota was arrested for leading protests calling for the release of the MRC president, Maurice Kamto, who had been arrested on January 30. Both Mota and Kamto are currently facing trial before the Military Court in Yaoundé.

Mota’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that a prison guard and a gendarme beat him at the Central Prison, breaking his arm, and that he was then taken to the Security Directorate facility where he was held in solitary confinement for 12 days. He was allowed to see his lawyers four days after he arrived. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, Mota is the only detainee – among those transferred from the Central Prison to other facilities – allowed to meet with his lawyers before August 3.

After the riot was quelled, approximately 100 detainees were transferred to the SED.

A 30-year-old detainee from the North-West Region told Human Rights Watch:

At about 1:30 a.m. on July 23, the guards of the Central Prison removed us all; they said that all “Ambazonians” [Anglophones] should go. I was taken to the SED with only my shirt. I was alongside dozens of other Anglophones. We were seriously beaten up. We were brought to the underground cells with no sunlight.

Incommunicado Detention

All 14 detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they were held at the SED for 12 days before being allowed to briefly speak with lawyers on August 3.

Five relatives of detainees said that they did not know where their loved ones were until August 3, and that when they had approached the SED during the previous 10 days to inquire about the detainees, they were denied access and refused any official acknowledgement that they were being held there.

The wife of an anglophone detainee who was arrested in Bamenda, South-West Region, in late 2016 and who had been held in Yaoundé’s Central Prison said:

I had not heard from him since July 23. The lawyer told me he finally saw him at the SED, but I didn’t speak to him. I was very worried, because he had already been tortured at the SED before. When I went to Kondengui [Central Prison] the day of the riot, I was denied access. I went to the SED and a guard told me that many of those transferred from the Central Prison were held in the SED. However, he would not let me in.

A lawyer for three men who were missing from July 22 to August 3 said that he was not given any information by the prison authorities and was denied access to the SED: “I went to the SED on July 24 and 25. I could not get in. The guards told me I couldn’t enter and didn’t provide any other information.”

A 41-year-old detainee from Ndu, North-West Region, said:

In the SED, nobody had access to family members. I think my family thought that I was dead. Some lawyers came the day before we were brought back to Kondengui [Central Prison]. But for 12 days, we were held in secret, with no access to the outside world. If you asked to see anyone, you would be badly beaten.

A 25-year-old man from the South-West Region said:

We did not see anyone except for the guards who would only beat and insult us for two weeks. We had no access to the outside and couldn’t call anyone; we couldn’t see our lawyers and families. It was like being in a nightmare.


All 14 detainees interviewed said that they were tortured at the SED. They said that they were beaten with various objects, including wooden sticks, planks, electric cables, machetes, and guns.

A 37-year-old man from Bamenda said gendarmes attempted to suffocate him: “The gendarmes put a piece of cloth on my nose and beat me. I was tortured like this, beaten badly several times on my legs and back.”

A lawyer representing anglophone detainees who was permitted to see his clients on August 3 said:

What I saw was unbearable. The good news was that they were not dead, but some of them were in horrible physical and psychological conditions. One had a laceration in the head and was given seven stiches with no anesthesia. Another had also several lacerations on the head and was given 12 stiches, again with no anesthesia. I saw injured detainees. We met with 80 of them after having tried to see them for 12 days. Our clients told us that they were forced at gunpoint to wear T-shirts and clothes provided by the guards at the SED, just to meet with us, because when they had been brought in and while they stayed there, they were kept naked or half-naked.

A 32-year-old anglophone detainee from Bamenda, North-West Region, said:

I was beaten, taken out of Kondengui half-naked. I was brought to the SED with other detainees, mostly Anglophones. I was held in a small cell underground with around 20 other people. The guards beat us with sticks and electric cables. I was beaten like a snake. The food and hygiene were simply deplorable.

A 26-year-old detainee from Manyu division, South-West Region, said:

The beatings started in Kondengui and continued at the SED. We were treated very badly and beaten up at least twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, with electric cables, clubs, and machetes. We slept on wet floors for two weeks. We had no access to any medical service.

As previously documented by Human Rights Watch, detention conditions at SED are appalling, with poor hygiene and sanitation and lack of appropriate medical care. Detainees also reported overcrowding, inadequate and insufficient food, and no access to fresh air.