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South Sudan: Thousands Still Missing

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020
Click to expand Image Civilians fleeing Kajo Keji county, toward the southern border with Uganda, April 27, 2017. © 2017 Jason Patinkin Civilians fleeing Kajo Keji county, toward the southern border with Uganda, April 27, 2017. © 2017 Jason Patinkin

(Nairobi) – South Sudan should investigate the fate and whereabouts of scores of victims of enforced disappearances and those still missing from years of civil war, Human Rights Watch and Remembering the Ones We Lost said today. On August 30, the world marks the International Day of the Disappeared.

Since the conflict broke out in December 2013, the United Nations and other organizations including Human Rights Watch have documented major human rights violations including attacks on civilians and targeted killings, abductions, and detentions by the parties to the conflict. An unknown number of people are still missing.

“People have vanished in South Sudan, and are presumed detained or dead,” said Jehanne Henry, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These unresolved cases are spreading fear and terror among the public. The government needs to acknowledge that people are still missing and take concrete steps to investigate and hold those responsible to account.”

Remembering The Ones We Lost, a local initiative established in 2014, has documented 280 names of missing people since December 2013, some of whom were abducted or detained by security forces and meet the definition of enforced disappearance. These figures, based on interviews with families of victims, represent a fraction of the numbers of those missing in South Sudan. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported in 2019 that over 4,000 people were still missing since the war started and their fate or whereabouts remained unknown.

In many cases, the military and National Security Service (NSS) were implicated in the disappearances. In one example, in January 2017, Dong Samuel Luak, a prominent South Sudanese lawyer and human rights activist, and Aggrey Ezbon Idri, a member of the political opposition, were abducted from the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. More than two years later, the United Nations Panel of Experts on South Sudan issued a report finding that South Sudan’s National Security Service was  responsible for kidnapping them and that it is “highly probable” that the two were executed on January 30, 2017.

South Sudan’s government has not investigated the disappearances of the men or ensured accountability for them. Kenyan police opened an investigation, but it was never concluded.

Enforced disappearances arise when people acting on behalf of the government arrest, detain, or abduct people and then refuse to acknowledge the act or conceal the whereabouts or what happened to them. International law prohibits enforced disappearances, which violate fundamental rights to liberty and security, and to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

The International Convention on the Protection on All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (ICPPED) provides that “no one shall be subjected to enforced disappearance” and imposes an absolute ban on secret detentions. It also requires countries to end abusive practices that facilitate enforced disappearances including arbitrary incommunicado detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions. South Sudan is not a party to the treaty.

International law requires the parties to a conflict to account for people reported missing and provide their family members with any information the authorities have about what happened to them. The United Nations Security Council, in a landmark resolution in 2019, called on parties to armed conflicts globally to strengthen efforts toward uncovering what happened to those missing and giving closure to their families. While some of those reported missing may turn out to have been forcibly disappeared, others may have been abducted or detained by other people, forcefully recruited into armed groups, or fled, perished, or met other outcomes. But in South Sudan, neither the government’s army, nor armed opposition groups, have properly accounted for the missing.

The authorities have also not begun to address Sudanese government abuses during the South’s long war for independence, which ended in 2005. In one example, in the early 1990s, during a brutal crackdown by Sudan’s army on the civilian population in the Equatoria region, at least 300 civilians were executed and another 230 people including clergy, aid workers, and members of Southern security forces were arrested and never accounted for. These abuses continue to have lasting impact on families of victims today and enhance impunity. South Sudan should reckon with past abuses, including those committed by the Sudanese government and militia, and Southern rebel forces in the territory that is now South Sudan, the groups said.

The authorities should take immediate, concrete steps by ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and end the practices of unlawful and secret detentions by its security forces. They should also set up the transitional justice bodies provided for in the 2015 and 2018 peace agreements. They include a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing; a Compensation and Reparations Authority; and a hybrid court, with officials from South Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, to address abuses from the recent conflict period.

These envisioned bodies have potential to help stem the cycle of violence and bring needed redress and healing to victims of abuses committed since December 2013, but there has been no progress to establish them, despite years of pressure.

“South Sudan’s leaders have been preoccupied with power sharing rather than addressing the gravity and impact of past and ongoing conflict-related abuses,” said Daud Gideon, executive director of Remembering The Ones We Lost. “Another year should not pass without justice for the countless missing and their families, who continue to suffer in vain.”

For selected cases, please see below.

Selected Cases of Alleged Enforced Disappearances and Missing Persons

Drapaga Christopher, 23, was arrested by South Sudan’s government forces on July 12, 2016, in Kerepi, Eastern Equatoria, on suspicion of supplying food to rebel fighters in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Army-in Opposition (SPLA/IO). A family member told Remembering The Ones We Lost that he was taken to government barracks the same day and tortured, and that his whereabouts remain unknown.

Mary Selwa Michael, 26, has been missing since May 9, 2020, during a confrontation in Lainya between government forces and rebel forces from the National Salvation Front loyal to General Thomas Cirillo. Family members told Remembering The Ones we Lost that they suspect she may have been abducted but have not been able to obtain information from the authorities.

Gatchock Gatluak Nyang, 31, from the Nuer ethnic group, disappeared on December 19, 2013 in the Gumbo neighborhood of Juba, where he lived. A relative told Remembering The Ones we Lost that he had gone to a nearby shop. They suspected that he may have been arrested or killed during the crackdown by government forces against Nuer civilians in Juba during the initial days of the conflict.

Lodu Yuggu, a 2-year-old boy, was traveling with his mother by bus from Juba to Lobonok on April 21, 2017. Unidentified gunmen ambushed the bus in the bush and took away all the children under 10, his mother told Remembering The Ones we Lost.

Clement Lochio Lomornana, a journalist and photographer with Gurtong Media, and two brothers, Amin Venansio and Nailo Venansio, were arrested at their homes in Chukudum, Budi county, by South Sudan’s military on August 6, 2015, and detained in military barracks in Budi. The three were reportedly tortured in detention, the UN said.

The Venansios were allowed family visits but Lochio Lomornana was not. Lochio Lomornana and Nailo Venansio were last seen on August 15, 2015 being forced into a military vehicle. There has been no further information on their whereabouts. Media reports say that family members tried to locate the three in military barracks and other detention sites in Torit, Kapoeta, and Juba, but the authorities denied arresting them and the three are presumed dead.

Dong Samuel Luak, a renowned South Sudanese human rights lawyer and activist, and Aggrey Idri, a vocal government critic and member of the opposition, were abducted off the streets of Nairobi on January 23 and 24, 2017, respectively by people believed to be affiliated with South Sudan’s and Kenya’s security agencies. Multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the two men had been seen at the National Security Service Blue House detention facility in Juba. A 2019 report by the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan said that the men were transported to South Sudan on a commercial airline, with the support of the South Sudanese embassy in Kenya, on January 27, 2017.

Upon arrival, they were driven to the security agency’s headquarters in Juba and detained at the Blue House, then moved to the agency’s training centre in Luri. The panel concluded it was “highly probable” the two men were killed there on January 30, 2017 on orders from the commander of the National Security Service training and detention facilities in Luri, the commander of the National Security Service, Central Division and, ultimately, Lieutenant General Akol Koor Kuc, the director general of the internal security bureau. The government has neither acknowledged nor investigated the kidnapping or apparent death of the two men.

Nelson James Adieng, an airline company staff member, was arrested on May 4, 2017 by the head of security personnel in the National Security Service “protection unit” at Juba International Airport. His family has been unable to find out anything about what happened to him from the authorities. His brother told Human Rights Watch that attempts to seek information from both the police and the security agency authorities have not yielded results.

Anthony Nyero, a staff member of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Civil Affairs Division based in Torit was arrested by security agency officers on the evening of September 17, 2014, at a market in Torit. He was immediately taken to Juba and detained at the Riverside detention facility. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Nyero was transferred to the Blue House in June 2015. In January 2016, he was transferred back to the Riverside detention facility. Efforts by his family and his employer to find out what happened to him have led nowhere.

James Lual also worked for the UN mission as a security guard based in Wau. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the security agency arrested him in Wau on August 23, 2014 and took him to Juba by air the next day. Like Nyero, he was initially detained at the Riverside facility. In early 2015, he was transferred to the Blue House. In January 2016, he was transferred back to Riverside and what happened to him after that has not been revealed.

Richard Lokeya, a Canadian-South Sudanese citizen, and Dominic Lodai, a youth from Chukudum, were arrested by Ugandan security forces on August 15, 2015 on accusations of illegally crossing the border and of being rebels, and handed over to South Sudan’s military intelligence in Gulu the next day. On August 18, they were transferred to Juba and held at the White House detention site in Giyada Military barracks in Juba. Reports by media sources, said they were tortured by being pricked with needles, made to sit on a wooden chair with nails sticking out, kicked, and slapped. On August 22, they were removed from the White House and driven to an unknown location where, a witness said, they were killed. Authorities have to date not accounted for them.

Venezuela: A Police State Lashes Out Amid Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020
Click to expand Image National Guard soldiers and municipal police ride through the neighborhood of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela, on August 7, 2020, patrolling the area to make sure residents are complying with COVID-19 regulations. © AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

(Washington, DC) – Venezuelan security forces and authorities have used measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 as an excuse to crack down on dissenting voices and intensify their control over the population, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since declaring a state of emergency to combat Covid-19 in mid-March, 2020, Venezuelan authorities have arbitrarily detained and prosecuted dozens of journalists, healthcare workers, human rights lawyers, and political opponents who criticize the government of Nicolás Maduro. Many detainees are charged under an overly broad hate crimes law, before a judiciary that lacks independence. The lawyers for the accused routinely have limited access to judicial files and prosecutors, due to Covid-19 related court closures. Some detainees have been subjected to physical abuse that might amount to torture.

“The state of emergency has emboldened security forces and armed pro-government groups that already have a record of torture and extrajudicial killings to crack down even more harshly on Venezuelans,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “In Venezuela today, you can’t even share a private message criticizing the Maduro government via WhatsApp without fear of being prosecuted.”

On March 13, Maduro decreed a state of “emergency and alarm” at the national level, establishing measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, including restrictions on movement, suspension of certain activities, and mandatory use of face masks. Maduro extended the state of emergency five times, exceeding the Constitutional 60-day limit. The opposition-led National Assembly did not approve the extension, though that is required by law.

The decree authorizes security forces to carry out “inspections” whenever “they deem necessary,” if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is violating the measures established in the decree. In practice, quarantine measures have been enforced by the Armed Forces; the police, including the Bolivarian National Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana, PNB) and its Special Actions Force (Fuerza de Acción Especial, FAES), which has been implicated in extrajudicial killings; and armed pro-government gangs known as “colectivos,” which collaborated with security forces in the crackdowns of 2014 and 2017.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported in July that it had observed “discretionary implementation” of the state of emergency by the military, law enforcement, and local authorities. OHCHR has also documented how colectivos have intimidated and attacked political opponents, demonstrators, and journalists before and during the pandemic, as well as enforced lockdown measures in poor neighborhoods. Similarly, local groups documented that security forces have arbitrarily detained people for not using face masks or for gathering in groups on the streets, and that colectivos have beaten and tortured civilians for allegedly failing to comply with quarantine measures.

In a review of cases reported by Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations and media outlets, Human Rights Watch identified cases involving 162 people who were allegedly victims of harassment, detention, or prosecution between March and June. The Venezuelan nongovernmental group Foro Penal reported 257 arbitrary arrests between March and July. Human Rights Watch interviewed victims and their family members and/or lawyers in eight cases via WhatsApp between May and August. Their statements and corroborating evidence are similar to the cases reported by other groups.

Human Rights Watch research revealed that authorities have harassed, detained, and prosecuted political opponents, including several legislators, journalists who publish critical information, health workers who criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic, and human rights lawyers who provide legal support to demonstrators protesting lack of access to water, gasoline, or medicines. Security forces have also confiscated cellphones and laptops from journalists and forced them to erase photos or videos.

In some reported cases, detainees suffered abuse, including verbal and physical assault, beatings, and being handcuffed for extended periods of time. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, from March, a human rights defender detained while assisting protesters was handcuffed to a pillar inside a military installation for five hours. He was not given food or water, nor permitted to use a bathroom or call his family. A member of the Bolivarian National Guard hit him on the head and hand with a frozen water bottle, telling him he did not deserve to live.

In another case, in April, police handcuffed a lawyer, who was detained for criticizing local authorities on social media, to a metal tube about two feet off the ground in a jail yard, under the sun, for two hours. They then denied him access to the bathroom for 26 hours.

In many reported cases since the start of the state of emergency, people who shared or published information on social media questioning government officials or criticizing policies were charged with incitement to hatred or to commission of a crime. An anti-hate law approved by the pro-government Constituent Assembly in 2017 includes vague language that forbids “messages of intolerance and hatred” published through media outlets or social media. The offense carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Political opponents have, in several instances, been charged with possession of weapons or illicit association, based on what appears to have been planted evidence.

Due to the pandemic, the courts are functioning on a limited schedule. This has led to delays processing the release of detainees and providing defense lawyers with access to criminal files. It has also been used to justify arrests without judicial orders. Courts prohibited several detainees who were granted house arrest from using social media or speaking about “issues of state interest,” in violation of their right to free speech.

The arrests, arbitrary prosecutions, and abuses against detainees since the declaration of the state of emergency follow the same pattern of systematic abuse by security forces that Human Rights Watch has documented in previous crackdowns since 2014.

Under international law, certain basic human rights cannot be restricted even in times of emergency. These include the right to life, the prohibition on torture and ill-treatment, the right to a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention, and the right to judicial review of detention. Any restrictions on other rights should be provided for in the law, and they should be both necessary and proportionate to the threat posed by the pandemic.

UN human rights experts have stressed that governments should not use states of emergency in response to Covid-19 to target certain groups or provide cover to repressive actions. “Restrictions taken to respond to the virus must be motivated by legitimate public health goals and should not be used simply to quash dissent,” the UN experts said.

Selected cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch are described below.

Henderson Maldonado, 30, Human Rights Lawyer

On March 31, about 200 renal and cancer patients were waiting in line in front of Detachment 121 of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, or GNB). They were seeking tickets that would let them obtain gasoline amid fuel shortages.

Alerted by a friend that some of the patients were not getting tickets and that police had injured one of them, Henderson Maldonado, a 30-year-old lawyer and member of the nongovernmental human rights group Movimiento Vinotinto, arrived at the Detachment around 12:30 p.m., Maldonado told Human Rights Watch. He intended to monitor the situation and provide legal assistance to patients, if necessary. He spoke to a woman who was crying because her son, a cancer patient, had not been able to get the gasoline he needed to travel for treatments. Maldonado filmed her account, planning to circulate it on social media.

About an hour later, a National Guard agent approached, demanding Maldonado’s phone and identification. Maldonado managed to call Movimiento Vinotinto before agents took him into the headquarters, where about 10 agents surrounded him. When Maldonado explained he was a human rights defender working for a nongovernmental group, Colonel Franklin Meléndez began to hit him in the face, calling him a damned unpatriotic wretch and instructing agents to handcuff him to a pillar. Movimiento Vinotinto has filed a criminal complaint against Colonel Meléndez.

Maldonado said he was not given food or water, nor permitted to use a bathroom or call his family, during the five hours he remained handcuffed. An agent hit him on the head and hand with a frozen water bottle, telling him he did not deserve to live. Other agents threatened to frame Maldonado by planting copper on him. Possessing copper is a crime in Venezuela, as the government has declared the metal a “strategic” material for national industry.

Movimiento Vinotinto’s director and a representative of the National Ombudsman’s Office were allowed to visit Maldonado after 5 p.m. Maldonado said he spent the night in a filthy cell crowded with gasoline containers. Guards shone lights and banged on the door of the cell, keeping him awake.

The next day, officials shuttled him twice to the First Municipal Court of Iribarren before a 4 p.m. hearing. Charged with resisting authority and inciting criminal activity, he was released on the condition that he report back to court every 30 days.

The investigation against Maldonado has been suspended, but it could be reopened.

Iván Virgüez, 65, Human Rights Lawyer

On April 18, two local police officers in Chivacoa, Yaracuy state, stopped Iván Virgüez, a 65-year-old Venezuelan lawyer, on the street and told him to follow them to headquarters. Virgüez is the president of DantaKultura, a local human rights group. On social media, Virgüez had criticized national and local governments for their handling of the pandemic and for fuel shortages.

After showing him one of his own Facebook posts on a cell phone, a commander at the police headquarters told Virgüez he was under arrest. In the post, Virgüez had expressed concern about a decision to house Venezuelan returnees from Colombia in a quarantine center in the town of Bruzual. He had challenged Bruzual Mayor Carmen Victoria Suárez and Yaracuy Governor Julio León, both from Maduro’s party, to take the potential for the spread of Covid-19 seriously. Virgüez had also expressed concern on Facebook about fuel shortages earlier.

Police officers handcuffed him to a metal tube about two feet off the ground in the jail yard, under the sun, for two hours. Virgüez’s lawyer visited the Yaracuy police chief, but the authorities wouldn’t let him meet with Virgüez.

Officers denied Virgüez access to a bathroom. He spent the night, handcuffed, on a dirty mattress. 

Virgüez’s niece was allowed to visit the next day; by then, he had spent 26 hours handcuffed, unable to use a bathroom. She found him sickened with bladder pain. The police chief ordered his transfer to a hospital, where health professionals treated him just in time to avoid lasting harm to his bladder.

Virgüez was transferred back to the police station after his treatment, and that night police held him in a cell smaller than 20 square yards, with seven other people.

After two days in detention, Virgüez appeared in court and was charged with public disturbance, contempt, defamation of authorities, and instigation of rebellion. He remains under house arrest, allowed to leave his home only for medical reasons, and with police authorization.

Citing restrictions associated with the pandemic, the authorities have denied Virgüez’s lawyers access to his criminal file and to his prosecutor.

Darvinson Rojas, 25, Journalist

Darvinson Rojas is a 25-year-old freelance journalist and member of the Victims Monitor (Monitor de Víctimas), an organization that gathers information on extrajudicial killings and other abuses by police forces in low-income Caracas neighborhoods. When the authorities declared a national quarantine and a state of emergency in mid-March, Rojas began researching and sharing Covid-19-related information online.

On March 20, Rojas reported on Twitter that there were 47 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Miranda state, bordering the Capital District. He relayed information provided by the popular power for communication and information minister, Jorge Rodríguez; Miranda’s governor, Héctor Rodríguez; the mayor of Los Salias, one of Miranda’s 21 municipalities; and journalists’ reports.

The next night, about five officials from the Special Actions Force arrived at Rojas’ home, without showing a search warrant or judicial order. An officer told Rojas they had received an anonymous call reporting a case of Covid-19 at his address. Rojas reported the events, as they unfolded, on social media and with various people, through shared voice notes.

The officers hit Rojas’ father in the head, pushed his aunt to the floor, and threatened to confiscate the cell phones of neighbors who were recording these actions. They seized computers and cellphones, which have yet to be returned.

They took Rojas and his parents to a Special Actions Force station in the Caricuao neighborhood, releasing his parents upon arrival. They asked him for the sources of his tweets. Despite the alleged report of a Covid-19 case at his address, the officers never tested him for the virus.

After hours spent searching police stations and being denied information, relatives finally found Rojas around noon of the following day in the Caricuao station. But he was gone when they returned the day after, and the authorities did not tell them he was at a court hearing.

Rojas was charged with incitement to hatred, for publishing false information to destabilize the government. A judge authorized his conditional release, but paperwork was slow because judicial offices only open every 10 days during the pandemic. Rojas was released on April 2. A defense team from the press freedom group Espacio Público took his case on April 22, but it has not yet been granted access to the criminal file and corresponding evidence.

Rojas is awaiting formal charges, a process that might take longer than the statutory eight months given the pandemic.

Andrea Sayago, Bioanalyst

On April 3, Andrea Sayago, a bioanalyst, completed routine tests on the first patient diagnosed with Covid-19 who arrived at the Pedro Emilio Carrillo Hospital in the city of Valera, Trujillo state. To alert colleagues and the hospital to adopt all appropriate measures to avoid spreading the virus, Sayago sent a WhatsApp message to several colleagues and a picture of the exams, naming the patient. Her messages, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, were passed along on social media.

The following day, hospital directors pressured Sayago to resign – not because of concern over the patient’s right to privacy, but because her messages were said to constitute terrorism. Instead of following the existing administrative process to sanction her, the directors forced her to resign, telling her that she would otherwise be detained and prosecuted.

After her resignation, in an apparent effort to intimidate her, members of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional de Venezuela, or SEBIN) took her to their headquarters and interrogated her for several hours, then released her.

But they arrested her after Jacqueline Peñaloza de Range, the wife of Trujillo’s governor, who belongs to Maduro’s party, called for her to be punished. Peñaloza is also president of Fundasalud, a public-private partnership that manages health delivery systems. Intelligence agents took Sayago to their headquarters, where they held her for two days.

At a court hearing on April 6, Savago was charged with a public official’s misuse of privileged information and granted house arrest pending trial.

Sayago and her lawyers have not been allowed to see her case file; authorities cite pandemic measures.

Junior Pantoja, 58, Former Opposition Municipal Councilor

Junior Pantoja, a 58-year-old member of the opposition party Primero Justicia and former municipal councilor for Petare, a low-income neighborhood in Miranda state, was arrested on May 8. Pantoja manages four soup kitchens of the nongovernmental organization Alimenta la Solidaridad, feeding 200 children a day. Pantoja’s public visibility increased after the opposition leader Juan Guaidó visited one of the soup kitchens that Pantoja managed in April 2019.

During a police operation supposedly in search of gang leaders who were fighting over control of Petare’s José Félix Ribas neighborhood, officers from the Special Actions Force, National Guard, and the Scientific, Criminal, and Investigatory Police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas, or CICPC) arrested Pantoja at his house, witnesses reported. They did not show an arrest warrant.

Pantoja was charged at a hearing the following day. Agents allegedly found five rounds of ammunition in his left shirt pocket. Pantoja’s lawyers and a witness say agents planted the rounds on him during the arrest.

During 46 days of pretrial detention at the investigative police headquarters in the Caracas neighborhood of El Llanito, Pantoja, a diabetic who lost his left arm in an accident, suffered chronic anemia, anxiety, and swelling of the legs due to a kidney problem, a source who saw his medical reports said. The authorities took him to the hospital several times but denied his request for house arrest, his lawyers and family members report.

On June 24, a Caracas criminal court dismissed the case after hearing evidence and testimony from the defense, finding insufficient grounds for prosecution.

Pantoja died on August 23, after respiratory complications that aggravated his delicate health conditions.

Marco Antoima, Journalist

On June 20, Venezuelan authorities arrested a television journalist, Marco Antoima, who had been the news director of the television network Venevisión until being forced out in 2017 for what he suspected was his opposition to censorship.

On the morning of his arrest in the Caracas neighborhood of Los Palos Grandes, Antoima received a phone call from his former wife, who told him investigative police officers were at her house, looking for him.

Antoima spoke with a prosecutor and agreed to meet them at a shopping mall to discuss the case. The officers arrived with his former wife, arrested him, and drove him home, where they confiscated some of his personal belongings, including a laptop and cellphone.

After being held for two days at CICPC headquarters, Antoima was charged with incitement to hatred under the 2017 anti-hate law – allegedly for managing anonymous profiles on social media to extort and defame government supporters.

Three other journalists are under investigation on the same charges. The investigative police arrested one of them, Mimi Arriaga, on June 18. The other two, Rita Di Martino and Rafael Garrido, who live outside Venezuela, have avoided arrest.

The charges may be related to an old investigation. Ten years ago, an investigative police official questioned Antoima twice about Twitter profiles he allegedly managed, including VVperiodistas, which has since been suspended, and VVsincensura. The profiles initially exposed censorship inside Venevisión, a station that did not voice open criticism of the Venezuelan government and then evolved to general government criticism. Antoima was harassed and threatened on social media and by pro-government journalists at the time. He had not been questioned about those accounts any more in recent years. However, on June 1, a pro-government journalist, Esteban Trapiello, alleged ties between the four journalists under investigation and VVperiodistas on Twitter.

Antoima awaits trial under house arrest and is forbidden to leave the country or talk about his case. His lawyers have had limited access to his file.

Corroborating Accounts

Even before the state of emergency, security forces in Venezuela were committing serious abuses. In its July report, which covered the human rights situation in Venezuela from June 2019 to May 2020, OHCHR reported documenting 16 cases of alleged torture and ill-treatment, saying the actual number could be “significantly higher.” The cases documented include severe beatings with boards, suffocation with plastic bags and chemicals, waterboarding, electric shocks to eyelids and genitals, exposure to cold temperatures and/or constant electric light, being handcuffed for extended periods of time, and death threats. OHCHR received reports that in some cases, doctors issued false or inaccurate medical certificates not disclosing the signs of torture.

Nongovernmental organizations, human rights activists, and media outlets have reported arrests and prosecutions similar to those documented by Human Rights Watch during the pandemic. For example:

Special Actions Force agents detained Andrea Bianchi, the partner of Voluntad Popular member Rafael Rico, for several hours on March 30, the Center for Justice and Peace (CEPAZ) said. Family members said she was beaten, stripped naked, threatened with sexual abuse, and eventually released along a highway. Officers from the force had beaten her family members earlier that morning, when they went to Bianchi’s home looking for her.

Media outlets reported that National Guard officers detained Julio Molino, a 72-year-old doctor, for saying that the Núñez Tovar Hospital in Monagas state was not prepared to treat Covid-19 patients, media reported. He was detained for three days at the National Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Command (Comando Nacional Antiextorsión y Secuestro or CONAS) headquarters. He was charged on March 19 with incitement to hatred, unlawful association, and stirring up the population.

Foro Penal reported that early on April 2, at least 15 agents from the Military Counterintelligence Directorate (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar, or DGCIM) forcibly entered the home of Maury Carolina Carrero, an accountant, arresting her for alleged links to the office of the interim presidency of Juan Guidó. Agents interrogated Carrero about Luis Somaza, former councilor of a municipality in Miranda state, for whom she had worked. Her family was unable to determine her whereabouts for almost two days. She was charged with conspiracy and weapons possession.

The Peruvian media outlet 360 Grados Internacional reported the arrest on March 25 of their correspondent in Caracas, Yarnaldo Tovar, whom national police officers verbally and physically assaulted outside Caracas’s Periférico de Coche Hospital for covering Covid-19 cases and the state of the health care system.

On July 13, the media outlet Crónica Uno reported that investigative police and military counterintelligence agents had detained Nicmer Evans, a government critic who directs the media outlet Punto de Corte. Agents had also detained his lawyer, Álvaro Herrera. The court ordered the pretrial detention of Evans and charged him with incitement to hatred for comments made against Maduro and the pro-government television channel Globovisión.

Espacio Público reported that intelligence agents arrested nurse Ligia Margarita Gamboa on March 19, after she shared a WhatsApp video showing that the Periférico de Coche Hospital in Caracas had refused to treat her, even though she had Covid-19 symptoms. Gamboa was charged with terrorism.

Caracas police officers briefly detained Ariadna García and Tairy Gamboa, journalists for Crónica Uno who were covering people shopping at Catia’s market in Sucre state during the government quarantine, Espacio Público reported. Police forced them to delete the video they had recorded.

National Guard officers arrested a local television channel director, Arnaldo Sumoza, while he was covering a protest about the lack of water in Guárico state on April 14, Efecto Cocuyo reported. Sumoza was prosecuted for “disturbing public order.”

On July 23, media outlets and Espacio Público reported that National Guard officers arrested Carlos Julio Rojas, a journalist, while he was covering a protest outside the Institute for Social Security (Instituto Venezolano de Seguros Sociales, or IVSS) in Caracas. Rojas said he was held for eight hours and security forces stole his phone, which contained photos and videos of the protest.

Gabriel Arangueren, director of the Centro de Acción y Defensa por los Derechos Humanos (Cadef), was detained for several hours on April 23 for delivering masks on behalf of his organization, the nongovernmental organization Front Line Defenders reported.

Another Chance to Address Homophobic Violence in Armenia

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020
Click to expand Image Rainbow flags for sale are photographed on June 24, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

Earlier this month, Armenia’s Criminal Court of Appeal ruled there had not been a proper investigation into a violent homophobic attack two years ago against a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists.

The court ordered a re-investigation, giving Armenia’s law enforcement agencies a second chance to deliver justice in the case.

In August 2018, a crowd of about 30 men violently assaulted the activists in Shurnoukh, a village in southern Armenia. The crowd shouted homophobic slurs and threats, demanding the activists leave the village. They chased members of the group, hitting, kicking, and throwing stones at them, and shouting “Get rid of those gays!” At least six activists were injured, including one person who sustained a broken nose.

Police questioned several of the attackers. But by November 2018, the government had granted some of the assailants amnesty, and the authorities decided not to prosecute the rest.

The LGBT rights group PINK Armenia challenged the decision not to prosecute the assailants, first in a district court, which found no violation, and then to the Criminal Court of Appeals, which found that the decision was not substantiated. The court also stated that the investigation failed to address the severe psychological pain suffered by the victims.

For years, the Armenian government has failed to effectively investigate anti-LGBT violence in the country, and homophobia remains widespread. A government bill in the works that seeks to address issues of equality has faced criticism because it does not include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for protection from discrimination.

The court’s decision offers authorities the opportunity to provide justice for victims of anti-LGBT violence. Even two years later, holding perpetrators accountable for this attack would send a strong message that violence against LGBT people in Armenia will not be tolerated. It would be a step in the right direction in the fight against homophobia in the country.

Syria: Restart Efforts to Find Victims Kidnapped by ISIS

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020

(Beirut) – Local authorities in northern Syria have failed to advance efforts to find people kidnapped by ISIS more than a year after its territorial defeat in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should promptly dedicate resources to uncover what happened to the thousands of missing people.

During ISIS’s reign in Syria, the armed group committed horrific abuses against the civilian population, chief among them the kidnapping and execution of thousands of people abducted from their homes, checkpoints, and workplaces. ISIS targeted people it saw as an obstacle to its expansion or resisting its rule. The kidnappings and disappearances spread fear and confusion, removed vocal opponents, and set an example for those who might have been tempted to resist.

“Local authorities in the Syrian areas once held by ISIS need to make those kidnapped by ISIS a priority,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch, “With ISIS defeated and many suspects in custody, the authorities have the access they need to the area and to the information they need. What is needed now is the political will to find answers.”

No segment of the Syrian population was left untouched. Human Rights Watch has documented abductions of Syrian government soldiers, Kurdish activists, and journalists affiliated with the opposition. Yet no authority has provided the resources or political will necessary to uncover what happened to the missing in Syria and elsewhere, or to seriously consider and engage the pleas from families to find out what happened to their loved ones.

In February 2020, Human Rights Watch published a report in which it urged local authorities to dedicate resources to this effort, including by creating a centralized system to reach out to families of the kidnapped, access key intelligence on ISIS suspects that may provide leads, and exhume mass graves.

On April 7, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in northeast Syria announced the creation of a working group to address the issue of detainees. Despite this positive step, it has not taken any other measures to prioritize discovering what happened to those apprehended by ISIS and last heard of in the group’s custody. The Syrian Democratic Council and its military arm, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are supported by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.

Firas al-Haj Saleh, July 2013

Firas al-Haj Saleh, a public sector employee born in 1972, had been arrested twice by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces for organizing anti-government protests and lost his job after the second arrest. Al-Haj Saleh helped lead opposition to the Islamic State (ISIS) when the group rose in Raqqa city in 2013.

On July 20, 2013, a car intercepted al-Haj Saleh and a friend while they were returning to his home after a night out in Raqqa city. The car took al-Haj Saleh to an ISIS headquarters in the city, the friend told al-Haj Saleh’s wife.

His family, including his wife, Ghadeer, have not heard anything about him since. Al-Haj Saleh’s son, Ibrahim, now 8, was 2 when his father was kidnapped. In 2018, his mother told Human Rights Watch Ibrahim barely remembers his father:

With Daesh [ISIS], you cannot negotiate. No matter how much you hear about it, no matter how much you see, it’s not the same as for those who have lived with them. It’s been 4 years, 10 months, and 3 days – not a single piece of information, not a single sign.

Abdallah Khalil, May 2013

Abdullah Khalil, born in 1961, was a long-time human rights defender. When the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a coalition of armed anti-government groups, took Raqqa city from the Syrian government in 2013, Khalil returned to the city and briefly served as the head of the local civil council overseen by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a coalition of anti-government groups founded in 2012.

On May 19, 2013, Khalil was abducted while on his way to al-Meshleb village, near Raqqa, at midnight as ISIS was emerging and consolidating power in the area. Official ISIS documents obtained by Zaman al-Wsl, a Syrian news outlet affiliated with the anti-government opposition, indicate that the Islamic State was most likely behind his kidnapping.

The last that Khalil’s family heard about his whereabouts was in 2016, when a nurse who used to work at Tabqa prison under ISIS told relatives that he had seen Khalil in the prison, and that he was still alive. Since then, Khalil’s wife has not received any credible information regarding her husband, despite having raised the case with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Kurdish authorities after ISIS was defeated in Raqqa city.

Describing the impact of Khalil’s kidnapping on the family, his wife said:

There are no words to describe the moments we went through – difficult, grim moments of pain, pure pain. [Our daughters] Safa and Marwa, when they see anyone who knew their father, they feel broken. I see it in their eyes, in their look, because they do not know their father, they were 7 when he left. They only see him in pictures. But no memories. They still live hoping that their father will come back.

Adnan and Idris Kashif, July 2013

On the afternoon of July 20, 2013, Adnan Kashif, an agricultural engineer living in Raqqa city, left the house to buy toys for his children to celebrate their birthdays. By 9 p.m., he had still not returned. 

Kashif had been walking with a group of friends when a group of armed ISIS fighters intercepted them and drove off with Kashif and one of his Kurdish friends. The kidnappers told the other friends that they planned to use them in a prisoner exchange with the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), and that if they wanted more information to follow up at the governorate’s ISIS headquarters.

Thirteen days later, ISIS also took Adnan’s brother, Idris Kashif, from the streets in Raqqa city. The last Adnan’s wife heard about her husband was in 2016 when a former detainee called her on WhatsApp and told her that her husband was with him in an ISIS detention facility near a village in northeast Syria called al-Akirshi. She told Human Rights Watch:

There is no reason now for him to still be missing. We have four girls, and a son. He was our backbone. I need to know if he is dead or alive. His children need to know. Or give me an official contact I can apply to, or register him with as a missing person, so they could go look for him and find him and bring him back to me.

Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, July 2013

Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, 64, is an Italian Jesuit priest who spent three decades in Syria renovating a monastery before being expelled by the Syrian government in 2012 for condemning its treatment of protesters and other abuses. Among Syrians, Dall’Oglio was widely considered a respected activist and a prominent voice for peace and coexistence. He returned to Syria in late July 2013, crossing through Gaziantep to visit areas that were no longer held by the government.

In late July 2013, Dall’Oglio entered Raqqa city, apparently to negotiate the release of peace activists. Local activists and news reports said that at 11 a.m. on July 29, Dall’Oglio went to the Raqqa governorate building, then under ISIS control, to request more information regarding detained activists. He was not seen again.

On July 29, 2019 – the sixth anniversary of his kidnapping – the US announced up to US$5 million as a reward for anyone who could provide information about five kidnapped Syrian religious figures, including Dall’Oglio.

Muhammad Nour Matar, August 2013

Muhammad Nour Matar, 20 at the time, was last seen in Raqqa city on the night of August 13, 2013. Matar and his older brother Amer, a journalist, had been filming and documenting ISIS abuses in the city.

That night, a car bomb exploded near the old train station in Raqqa, where he was filming. Initially, his family feared he had been injured or killed. Amer Matar arrived in Raqqa the next day. The medical team at the site gave him his brother’s charred camera. There were no bodies at the site.

Matar’s family later heard from detainees released from ISIS jails that they had seen him in the governate administration building that ISIS used for interrogations, and in al-Sad prison in the town of Tabqa, which ISIS controlled.

During the military campaign to drive ISIS from Raqqa, Amer Matar began searching prisons abandoned by ISIS for any information about his brother. 

“The SDF arrested hundreds of ISIS members, and we tried to communicate [with them]; they never responded or took this seriously,” Amer Matar said.

Samar Saleh and Muhammad al-Omar, August 2013

The Syrian government detained Samar Saleh, 25 at the time, in 2012 for her activism with the anti-government student movement at Aleppo University. After her release, she managed several shelters in Aleppo schools for displaced families from the Aleppo countryside. Fearing re-arrest, she went to Cairo University to study for a master’s degree in archeology.

In 2013, she returned to northern Syria to see her family. On August 13, when she was driving back from a family visit in the car with her fiancé, Muhammad al-Omar, and her mother, a jeep stopped them in al-Atareb, Aleppo. Masked gunmen got out of the car and took Saleh and al-Omar but let Saleh’s mother go.

The next day, Saleh’s parents visited al-Dana to ask about their daughter. ISIS officials there told them it was a routine investigation, and that she would be released soon. They asked why she had gone to the United States before the conflict, and what she did for a living. The next time her parents went there, ISIS denied that they had Saleh. Since then, her family has not received any substantial information regarding Saleh or al-Omar’s whereabouts.

Members of the Imam family, August 2013

ISIS members detained Muhammad Muhammad Imam, then 34, and his brother Farouq Muhammad Imam, 29, and their cousin Nechervan Muhammad Imam, 21, from a checkpoint in Hatara, in the Raqqa governorate on August 14, 2013.

The three worked together on a farm in Raqqa governorate. They owned a tractor that they would take to work the field. On August 14, the three went to work as usual. A few hours later, one of the Imams’ colleagues returned and told the family that a local ISIS emir had taken the three men after they refused to give him their tractor. Imam Muhammad Imam, Nechervan Imam’s father, and his brother immediately went to Raqqa governorate to follow up. Officials at ISIS headquarters turned them away and told them not to create trouble.

After the SDF and US-led coalition started to retake territory in Raqqa governorate, Imam said, they visited a number of times and asked contacts at the highest levels of the SDF as well as in Syrian government-held areas about the three relatives, but learned nothing.

“We don’t want anything – we just want them to come back,” Imam said. “It’s been five years without any calls, or anything, and we are tired of asking, tired of telling the same story over again, tired of not having answers. For five years, our hearts are burning, and no one can relieve our pain.”

Ayman Shaaban Mustafa; Hussein Aly Mustafa, August 2014

ISIS fighters took cousins Ayman Mustafa, 18 at the time, and Hussein Mustafa, 23, from their home in the northern Raqqa countryside on August 2, 2014 after they helped government soldiers hide from ISIS.

Six days before, as ISIS approached the headquarters of the 17th Division, about 400 government soldiers sought refuge in the family’s cornfields. After Ayman Mustafa told his father, Shaaban Mustafa, that they were hiding there, he and Hussein Mustafa took water to the soldiers. The family let them stay until nightfall.

The morning of August 2, the two cousins were working in the fields, when ISIS took them.

Ayman Mustafa’s parents immediately went to the nearby ISIS headquarters in Hazima and asked about them. The ISIS members there told him the two had been moved to Raqqa city, to the detention center called Point 11, also known as the Black Stadium. 

The family had no further news of the cousins. Shaaban Mustafa and his family had fled from bombing during the campaign to retake the area from ISIS and been displaced from their home for over a year when Human Rights Watch interviewed them in 2018. Despite regular inquiries to the intelligence services and the Asayish, the family learned nothing more about the two cousins.

UN: Human Rights Council Should Act on Philippines

Human Rights Watch - Friday, August 28, 2020
Click to expand Image 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, June 24, 2019. © 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council should establish an independent international investigation on extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations in the Philippines, Human Rights Watch said today, joining dozens of other human rights and civil society groups worldwide in calling for an investigation. The council will convene its 45th session on September 14, 2020.

On August 27, 62 human rights and civil society groups sent a letter to UN member and observer countries at the Human Rights Council to express their “continued grave concern over ongoing extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations” in the Philippines. Over 30 groups from the Philippines signed the letter, representing much of the country’s human rights and civil society movement.

August 27, 2020 Philippines: Letter to member and observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council

“The several dozen Philippine and international groups calling for an investigation into the Philippines is a remarkable show of solidarity that members of the UN Human Rights Council should not ignore,” said Laila Matar, deputy Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “The extrajudicial killings and other severe rights abuses in the Philippines continue unabated, and the groups endorsing this letter are saying enough is enough.”

The four-page letter and its six-page annex outline the “grave concern over ongoing extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines, fueled by incitement to violence and discrimination by the highest levels of government with near-total impunity.” The groups urged the council to respond “robustly” to the recent report on the situation in the Philippines by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The groups criticized the Duterte administration for seeking to evade accountability and encouraging violent attacks against drug suspects, activists, lawyers, journalists, church leaders, trade union leaders, and Indigenous community and peasant leaders. They noted the brutal murders this month of a rights defender, Zara Alvarez, on August 17, and a peasant leader, Randall Echanis, on August 10.

Since Duterte took office in 2016, at least 8,663 people have been killed in his “war on drugs,” according to the June report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Philippines rights monitors and Human Rights Watch believe the actual number could be three times as high. Only a handful of prosecutions have made progress, and only one case implicating police has resulted in a conviction, OHCHR said.

During the interactive dialogue at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council in June, the Philippine government dismissed allegations that its forces are behind these killings and claimed that it was doing all it could to uphold and respect human rights.

In the same dialogue, Menardo Guevarra, the Philippines justice secretary, stated the government had created a panel that he claimed would review nearly 6,000 killings by police officers. Human Rights Watch believes that the surprise announcement was a ruse to discourage council member states from taking further action.

“The Duterte administration is once again pulling out all the stops to get the Philippines out of the spotlight and off the agenda of the Human Rights Council,” Matar said. “States should not buy into Manila’s misleading campaign and instead demand accountability through a strong resolution that recognizes that the human rights situation in the Philippines has not improved and ensures investigations.”

Landmark Ruling Bolsters Disability Rights in Pakistan

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 27, 2020
Click to expand Image The Supreme court building is seen in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 17, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

A recent decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court directs the federal and provincial governments to take steps to fully realize equal participation of people with disabilities. The court ruling was in response to a petition from a person with a disability denied a job as an elementary school teacher in the city of Multan. 

Pakistani law requires that 2 percent of people employed by an establishment be “disabled persons.” In the absence of reliable data, estimates of the number of people living with disabilities in Pakistan wildly vary from 3.3 million to 27 million. Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2011.

The court held that the 2 percent employment figure must be implemented at every tier of an establishment. The decision upheld the reasonable accommodation principle recognized in the Disability Rights Convention, holding that mere provision of employment is not sufficient. The Pakistani authorities also have an obligation to provide necessary and appropriate adjustments including accessible infrastructure, assistive technology, modifications to the work environment, and other forms of support so that people with disabilities, once appointed to a position, can effectively perform their job.

The Supreme Court also ordered the federal and provincial governments to discontinue the use in all official documents and correspondence of derogatory terms such as “disabled,” “physically handicapped,” and “mentally retarded,” and instead use “persons with disabilities” or “persons with different abilities.” This is to be applauded: government labels shape public perceptions.

The court’s ruling has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people across the country. Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments have a responsibility to not only implement this decision but to also reform laws and policies to ensure they are in complete conformity with the country’s international human rights obligations.

OAS Leader Undermining Rights Body

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 27, 2020

(Washington, DC) – OAS member states should strongly condemn Secretary General Luis Almagro’s unilateral rejection of the candidate the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) appointed as its executive secretary, Human Rights Watch said today.

Based on his performance, the commission had unanimously renewed the mandate of Paulo Abrao, who has served as its executive secretary since August 2016, with the new term to begin in August 2020. But on August 15, the day Abrao’s contract was set to expire, Secretary General Almagro informed the IACHR that he would abstain from “advancing in the process of appointing the executive secretary.”  

“OAS Secretary General Almagro’s decision to obstruct the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ appointment of its executive secretary breaks with 20 years of OAS practice and undermines the commission’s autonomy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It also undercuts the commission’s credibility as an independent body, endangering its critical role in protecting fundamental rights and freedoms in the Americas without political interference.” 

The commission’s executive secretary is an OAS employee. Under the commission’s statute, however, the OAS secretary general is supposed to consult with the commission in appointing the executive secretary. The secretary general can only remove the executive secretary after consulting with the commission and informing its members of the reasons. 

The commission noted that Almagro had not consulted with it before deciding not to extend Abrao’s contract. Almagro justified his decision by citing an analysis by the Secretariat for Legal Affairs of the OAS General Secretariat of his powers over the process to appoint the executive secretary, and a confidential ombudsperson’s report about management complaints made in 2019 against the Commission. The ombudsperson does not have the power to investigate individual cases. It is unclear whether any of the complaints involve Abrao.

For over 20 years, the Inter-American Commission has independently selected and appointed its executive secretary and special rapporteurs. They are selected based on their credentials and expertise and are not political appointees. In the only previous instance in which an OAS secretary general attempted to interfere with the commission’s decision to appoint an executive secretary, a special rapporteur, and another high-level official in 2004, he swiftly backtracked after a strong reaction by member governments and the human rights community in the region. 

The OAS secretary general is also bound by the OAS Charter, which established the commission as a permanent and autonomous organ of the OAS, alongside, and not under the control of, the General Secretariat.

Almagro said his decision was based on “dozens” of “serious” management complaints by OAS employees that he said the commission had failed to forward to the OAS Inspector General. The commission, however, reported that it had monitored these allegations, all of which were made in 2019, as well as the measures that had been adopted to address them, including recommendations by the OAS ombudsperson. 

On August 27, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said this situation risks undermining the “independence and proven efficacy” of the Inter-American Commission and called on the OAS to adopt urgent measures to end its dispute with the commission regarding the appointment of Abrao.

Whatever the basis for Almagro’s decision, his failure to respect the commission’s choice of its executive secretary – and even to consult with it as legally required – undermines the body’s independence, Human Rights Watch said.

“Any serious allegations of improper conduct involving the IACHR should of course be thoroughly and impartially investigated,” Vivanco said. “But using an allegedly ongoing administrative investigation as a pretext to undermine the autonomy and credibility of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights poses a serious threat to a body that has made enormous contributions to the protection of human rights in the region on issues ranging from free speech to protecting minorities and fighting impunity.” 

Thailand: More Protest Leaders Arrested

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Over 10,000 people gathered in the streets around Bangkok's Democracy Monument on August 16, 2020 calling for reform in the Thai government.  © 2020 Adryel Talamantes/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Thai authorities are increasingly arresting pro-democracy leaders in Bangkok for their role in organizing the widening protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately drop all charges and unconditionally release pro-democracy activists arbitrarily detained for participating in peaceful rallies.

On August 26, Thai police arrested Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseree and Panumas “James” Singprom of the Free Youth Movement. The police charged the activists with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, assembly with an intent to cause violence, violating the ban on public gatherings, and other criminal offenses related to their involvement in a peaceful pro-democracy protest in Bangkok on July 18. Both are prominent advocates for gender equality and LGBT rights.

“Thai authorities should stop arresting and charging activists for organizing and participating in peaceful pro-democracy rallies,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Thai government should stop believing that cracking down on protest organizers will make the pro-democracy rallies go away.”

The Bangkok Criminal Court released Tattep and Panumas on bail in the evening of August 26 after an opposition member of parliament used their position to guarantee the activists’ release, and on the condition that they would not engage in the alleged offenses for which they were arrested. Upon their release, the two activists announced that they will continue to speak at pro-democracy rallies.

The police previously arrested six pro-democracy activists on similar charges. Tattep, Panumas, and these activists are among 31 people whom the police seek to arrest for speaking onstage at the July 18 protest at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument organized by the Free Youth Movement. The protesters called for democracy, political reforms, and respect for human rights. 

Since the July 18 protest, youth-led protests by various groups have spread across Thailand. The largest protest was in Bangkok on August 16, with participants calling for the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution, respect for freedom of expression, and reforms of the institution of the monarchy to curb the current monarch’s powers. One of the activists, Arnon Nampha, a lawyer, has been arrested three times in one month on the same charges involving different protests.

In recent days Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha appears to have dropped his previous pledges to listen to dissenting voices and adopted a more hostile stance toward pro-democracy activists. “There are conflicts in our society,” the prime minister said at the gathering of government supporters on August 25. “The core of Thailand is comprised of nation, religion, and monarchy. This will never change. I will never allow that to happen. Every Thai must defend Thailand from those who want to destroy our country ... The law will never forgive them.” 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. However, Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, the government has prosecuted hundreds of activists and dissidents on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for peacefully expressing their views.

“Thailand’s human rights crisis is increasingly reverberating around the world,” Adams said, “The United Nations and concerned governments should press the Thai government to end the crackdown on pro-democracy activists and peaceful rallies, and unconditionally release those arbitrarily detained.”

Mali: Transition Authorities Should Promote Justice

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Leaders of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, including its leader Col. Assimi Goita, center, and spokesman Ismael Wague, left, and group member Malick Diaw, center-left, with a ECOWAS delegation, Aug. 22, 2020.  © 2020 AP

(Bamako) – Mali’s military junta should fully respect human rights and judicial independence and support efforts to ensure accountability for past atrocities, including those involving the security forces, Human Rights Watch said today. The transitional authorities should promptly provide a specific timeline for the return to democratic civilian rule, upholding the right of Malians to elect their leaders.

On August 18, 2020, Malian military officers deposed the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, demanding improved governance and management of Mali’s security situation. The coup followed months of protests by a broad coalition of opposition political parties, religious leaders, and activist groups protesting high unemployment, instability in Mali’s north and center, and government corruption.  

“Mali’s deteriorating human rights and security climate has not fundamentally changed because of a change in government,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The transitional leaders need to scrupulously respect human rights and the independence of the judiciary and support progress on investigating past atrocities by all sides, including the military.”

The coup leaders, calling themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), detained a dozen former government officials, including President Keita, the prime minister, and several generals, at the Kati Military Barracks or placed them under house arrest. The authorities should ensure their humane treatment, as called for by partner governments, the United Nations, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. They should also permit access to counsel and family members and bring legally recognizable charges or release those who remain in detention.

Mali has faced instability since a 2012 coup, which coincided with a takeover of the northern regions by separatist ethnic Tuareg and Al-Qaeda-linked armed groups. Since then, the security situation has continued to deteriorate, despite a 2013 French-led international military intervention, a 2015 peace agreement envisioned to reestablish government control over the north, and the presence of a UN peacekeeping force. Since 2015, attacks by armed Islamist groups have spread into central Mali, exacerbating tension between agrarian and pastoralist communities. 

Grave abuses have steadily increased since 2015. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented serious violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of human rights committed by armed Islamist groups, state security forces, and ethnic self-defense groups. Few abuses have been investigated.

“Mali’s recent history has been punctuated by massacres and other atrocities by forces that kill, burn, and loot with little fear of being brought to account,” Dufka said. “This climate of impunity fuels support for abusive militias, undermines development, and saps confidence in state institutions.”

Armed Islamist groups have killed civilians in village attacks, indiscriminately planted improvised explosive devices on major roadways, killed UN peacekeepers, and executed captured Malian soldiers. They have also killed local leaders deemed government collaborators, beat those engaged in cultural practices they had forbidden, and imposed their version of Sharia, or Islamic law, via courts that did not adhere to fair trial standards.

Since 2015, ethnic militias have killed over 600 civilians in hundreds of incidents in central and northern Mali. The violence includes 2 massacres in the village of Ogossagou – in 2019 and 2020 – which killed over 180 Peuhl civilians, and numerous lethal attacks on Dogon villages. 

The government had repeatedly pledged, but failed, to disarm and dissolve the increasingly well-armed militias responsible for these attacks. In many places, they control checkpoints, extort villagers, and have become a law unto themselves. The authorities have also been slow to respond to urgent appeals for help from villagers under imminent attack by various armed groups.

Human Rights Watch has also documented allegations that Malian security forces executed scores of suspects during counterterrorism operations, while dozens have been forcibly disappeared. The UN has documented a worrying increase in allegations of summary executions in recent months. Furthermore, the national intelligence agency has detained suspects of terrorism-related offenses in unauthorized detention facilities and without due process.

The transitional authorities should address the failure of the military to adequately protect civilians and disband murderous militias. They should hold to account commanders implicated in abuses, including for allegations of extrajudicial killings by the army in Diourra, Boulekessi, Nantaka, Maleimana, and Binedama.

There has similarly been scant progress obtaining justice for gross abuses committed by other armed groups. Judges rarely open investigations into atrocity cases, and when they do, cases advance slowly, if at all.

Hundreds of detainees are held in extended pretrial detention due to the courts’ inability to adequately process cases. Local groups said the government was reluctant to question or charge militia leaders credibly implicated in massacres, favoring short-term reconciliation efforts envisioned to mitigate communal tension.

“Mali’s transitional government has an opportunity to promote greater respect for rights, justice, and the rule of law on which stability and progress depend,” Dufka said. “Failing to do so will mean a continuation of Mali’s cycles of violence and reprisal.”

Joint Statement: Draft Law on Public Order Violates Women’s Rights

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 27, 2020

As representatives of organizations working to promote women’s rights and gender equality in Cambodia, we wish to express our deep concern regarding numerous articles within the Draft Law on Public Order (DLPO), provisions of which violate women’s human rights. We therefore also endorse and echo the call made to the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) in a Joint Civil Society Statement on August 13, 2020, to scrap the draft law.

Draft Law on Public Order Violates Women's Rights Draft Law on Public Order Violates Women's Rights

We acknowledge and commend the RGC for taking positive action to tackle gender inequality through a number of comprehensive policy initiatives, including the upcoming Third National Action Plan to prevent Violence Against Women (NAPVAW III), and the Fifth Strategic Plan for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Cambodia (Neary Rattanak V). However, we are disturbed by the DLPO’s potential to subject women to criminal sanctions for dress and behavior that allegedly violate arbitrary and discriminatory social norms related to women’s dress and conduct.

We wish to emphasize that the government cannot uphold its commitment to achieving gender equality on one hand, while demonizing and criminalizing women who they deem to be harming society by not conforming to arbitrary, conservative standards of dress and morality. Similarly, the RGC cannot tackle high rates of sexual violence and harassment without promoting women as being in control of their bodies and entitled to their own sexual autonomy, and without condemning and prosecuting perpetrators of all forms of sexual violence. Such recommendations were recently set out by the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee in their 2019 Concluding Observations, in particular paragraphs 11(e), 24(a); 25).

The proposed legislation undermines women’s capacity to enjoy their rights in two main ways:

Firstly, the DPLO restricts women’s right to freedom of expression and reinforces harmful gender stereotypes. The DLPO denies women the right to choose their own attire, alleging that “revealing” clothes have an “adverse effect” on “national tradition and dignity.”  While the law does also seek to restrict men’s clothing choices, it is evident from Cambodia’s socio-legal context, and in light of the recent threats against and arrests of Cambodian women for dressing in revealing clothes while selling products online, that this law is likely to applied against women more than men. Such acts of discriminatory prosecution constitute clear violations of women’s right to freedom of expression enshrined in article 31 and 45 of Cambodia’s Constitution and articles 2 and 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that Cambodia has ratified. The DPLO would entrench in law sexist attitudes about women’s dress and conduct and give legal authority to abusive social policing of women’s bodies and choices and a broader culture of discriminatory gender norms. In a similar vein, the DLPO is also likely to be disproportionately applied against members of the LGTBQ community, in particular against performance artists such as drag queens, contemporary dancers and fashion models.

Secondly, the DLPO discriminates against at-risk groups in society, in particular women. The DPLO disproportionately criminalizes domestic, social and economic activities mainly conducted by Cambodian women. The workforce in the informal sector is largely made up of women, including sex workers and street vendors – professions that will be subjected to prohibitions and penalties. While the DLPO does not single out women and girls in this regard,  the DLPO will de facto have more adverse and disproportionate impacts on women than men as well as their ability to enjoy a wide range of human rights as set out in international human rights law, including CEDAW and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Law on the Protection and the Promotion of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Adding to a Joint Statement signed by 79 civil society groups and released on August 13, 2020, we would like to highlight our gender-specific concerns regarding the DLPO:

Article 1 claims the law’s aim is to “ensure public order management by maintaining order, aesthetic value, sanitation, cleanliness of the environment, quietness, social stability, preservation of national tradition, and the dignity of citizens.” We are deeply concerned that the law seeks to restrict women’s freedoms on the basis of vague and subjective criteria such as “national tradition and dignity,” “aesthetic value,” “quietness,” and “social stability,” none of which are legitimate restrictions on human rights under international human rights law. 

Articles 9 and 11, regulating competence of authorities and physical appearance, are likely to disproportionately affect sex workers and entertainment workers, and workers in the informal sector, particularly street vendors. These jobs are mostly filled by women who use and solicit in public spaces to earn an income. The restrictions by the DLPO would severely restrict women’s ability to and right to work. Moreover, the law would give local authorities the power to temporarily confiscate possessions as evidence of alleged offenses if the concerned person is unable to pay a fine. These articles also place the burden of maintaining order on individual citizens rather than requiring the government to fulfill their responsibility to provide enough accessible, safe, and good quality public toilets, trash bins and sufficient staff/contractors to clean public spaces and collect trash.

Article 16 has the potential to further harm survivors of domestic violence by making it more difficult for them to seek help and potentially criminalizing them. The provision lists speaking loudly or shouting as a problem of public order, and defines “public space” so broadly that it can include private homes if noises coming from inside can be heard from the outside. This creates the risk that authorities could wrongfully categorize calls for help, or shouts against abuse, as a public order issue instead of domestic violence under the Law on the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Protection of Victims. This could also potentially harm women experiencing violence and seeking help because police could claim legal grounds to punish them for breaking the DLPO, without addressing the violence they are facing.

Article 20 bans “entering into other’s houses, buildings, public and private institutions wearing facial masks or other ways to hide his or her identity.” This provision violates the rights of women who wear niqab as part of their observation of religious beliefs, while also posing health risks during a pandemic such as Covid-19.

Article 25 not only discriminates against those with mental disabilities, but would also disproportionately impact women, who in Cambodia are usually responsible for providing primary care to persons living with disabilities, by requiring them to prevent people with mental health conditions from walking freely.

Article 29 could affect women and children who need to live on-site in the construction areas if the separate law on construction management fails to properly consider the housing needs of women and children at the construction site.

Article 36 prohibits women from wearing clothes that are “too short” or “too revealing.” This provision violates women’s freedom of expression, undermines personal autonomy, and exacerbates discrimination against women who already face gender stereotypes and entrenched societal norms. The RGC has an obligation to respect, protect and ensure every individual’s right to express their identity, and must create an environment in which every person can make such choices about their clothing free of coercion. State interpretations of religion, culture or tradition cannot justify imposing rules about dress on those who choose to dress differently, be it offline or online. Women in Cambodia have frequently been subjected to threats and imprisonment for their choice of clothing. For example, harassment and rape are often blamed on a survivor having ‘provoked’ the perpetrator through her clothing or conduct, and there is little focus on punishing perpetrators of street harassment or sexual violence against women and girls. Article 36 can be used to harmfully criminalize survivors of sexual violence instead of taking meaningful steps to prevent gender-based violence and investigate and punish perpetrators. The DLPO also can perpetuate misunderstandings about the root causes of violence against women and girls in Cambodia. Moreover, article 36 is not necessary because Cambodia’s criminal code already penalizes “public indecency” (article 249). Finally, article 36 fails to define subjective terms contained in the draft, thus opening the door to unequal enforcement and potential law enforcement corruption.

Article 37 restricts freedom of expression – both online and offline – and expands the power of authorities to control social media communications of cis- and transgender women, whom authorities have already punished for online selling based on allegations of having violated arbitrary norms of sexuality.

In concluding this statement, we urge the RGC to uphold all of its international human rights treaty obligations under international human rights law.  Article 5 of the CEDAW requires Cambodia to take all appropriate measures to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for women and men.” We call upon the RGC to implement the CEDAW Committee’s 2019 Concluding Observations, including  in particular paragraphs 11C, 24(a) and 25, which, among others, which requires the government to “systematically assess the impact of measures adopted to combat gender-based violence against women and girls, and continue to explore and adopt innovative approaches to address the root causes of such violence.” Moreover, in its Concluding Observations, Paragraph 9(b), the CEDAW Committee recommended that RGC “systematically undertake gender impact assessments when adopting or revising laws, and ensure that legislative changes help to promote and protect the rights of women.”  The current draft language of the DLPO indicates that the Cambodian government has so far failed to conduct such an assessment of the DLPO’s likely negative impact on women, and the degradation and endangerment of the rights of women, contrary to Cambodia’s obligations under the CEDAW.

We therefore call on the Cambodian government to immediately discard the DLPO. The government should instead make it an urgent priority to address the forms of gender discrimination it has identified—including gender-based violence and discrimination in education, economic, social and political participation—through legislative reforms and policy change.

This joint statement is endorsed by:

ActionAid Cambodia Advocacy and Policy Institute (API) Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT) Amnesty International (AI) Association of Domestic Workers (ADW)               Association to Support Vulnerable Women (ASVW) Banteay Srei (BS)                                                                                     Building Community Voices Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children's Rights (CCPCR) Child Rights Coalition Cambodia (CRC-Cambodia) Cambodian Youth Network Association (CYN) Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC) Cambodia Food Service Workers Federation (CFSWF) Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC)  CamASEAN Youth's Future (CamASEAN) Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR) Children and Women Development Center In Cambodia (CWDCC) Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) Fundasaun Alola Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC) Human Rights Watch (HRW) Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA) Klahaan Organisation Lady Savings Group (LSG) Legal Support for Women and  Children (LSCW) Minority Rights Organizations (MIRO) Planète Enfants & Développement (PE&D) Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK) Shan Women’s Action Network Ta'ang Women's Organization West ‘Are’Are Rokotanikeni Association Women Peace Makers   (WPM) Women for Prosperity

What China’s Foreign Minister Should Expect in Europe

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, August 27, 2020
Click to expand Image Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers' meeting on the Novel Coronavirus in Vientiane, Laos, February 20, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused the suspension of many high-profile international visits, but Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s appearance in Italy today – to be followed by visits to France, Germany, and the Netherlands – presents an opportunity for these governments to repudiate China’s growing repression.

In the months since Wang’s last international trip, the Chinese government has intensified its repressive laws, policies, and practices. In late June it imposed sweeping “national security” legislation on Hong Kong, robbing seven million people of basic human rights overnight. It then used that law to arrest key pro-democracy figures and raid the offices of a popular pro-democracy newspaper. Chinese authorities continue to persecute peaceful human rights defenders and their families. 

In Xinjiang, where an estimated one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims remain arbitrarily detained, authorities have imposed a near-total lockdown over the past few weeks, purportedly to combat the coronavirus. And the world still awaits credible answers from the government about silencing whistleblowers and citizen journalists who tried to report on Covid-19 in its early days.

Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong has prompted harsh criticism, the suspension of some bilateral agreements, sanctions, and greater recognition that the Chinese government presents a threat to human rights inside and outside the country. But a key element remains elusive: ensuring the Chinese government can no longer escape criticism from other states at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Fortunately, governments seeking to use the Human Rights Council to hold China accountable for serious human rights violations were handed a roadmap in June. Fifty current and former UN human rights experts published a searing condemnation of China’s rights record, and urged member states to pursue a special session on China, establish an independent UN mechanism focused on China, and commit to demanding China fulfill its human rights obligations.

France, Germany, and the Netherlands have all expressed concerns about the Chinese government’s rights violations, including at the Human Rights Council. But rhetoric devoid of consequential action will achieve little in stemming Beijing’s onslaught on human rights. These governments should match the courage and ambition of human rights defenders across China and these UN experts, and tell Foreign Minister Wang to expect clear demands for accountability at September’s council session.