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Egypt: Covid-19 Cover for New Repressive Powers

Human Rights Watch - Thursday, May 7, 2020

(Beirut) – The Egyptian Parliament on April 22, 2020 swiftly approved government-proposed amendments to the 1958 Emergency Law which will give additional sweeping powers to President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and security agencies, Human Rights Watch said today. President al-Sisi should return the amendments unsigned to Parliament, which should revise the many abusive articles in the law. 

The government said that the amendments concern public health emergencies such as the Covid-19 outbreak. However, only 5 of the 18 proposed amendments are clearly tied to public health developments. Making them part of the Emergency Law means that the authorities can enforce the measures whenever a state of emergency is declared, regardless of whether there is a public health emergency.

“President al-Sisi’s government is using the pandemic to expand, not reform, Egypt’s abusive Emergency Law,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egyptian authorities should address real public health concerns without putting in place additional tools of repression.”

The government said that the Covid-19 outbreak revealed a “vacuum” in national laws that needed to be addressed. On April 21, Parliament’s Legislative Committee approved the proposed amendments with virtually no changes. The next day, Parliament passed them in a show of hands. President al-Sisi has 30 days to accept and sign or return the draft law once he receives it.

Egypt has been under a nationwide state of emergency since April 2017. The Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958) gives security forces sweeping powers to detain indefinitely and interrogate suspects with little or no judicial review. The law also authorizes mass surveillance and censorship, seizure of property, and forcible evictions, all without judicial supervision. Under international law, certain rights such as the right to a fair trial and judicial review of detention cannot be curtailed even in times of emergencies.

Human Rights Watch reviewed the proposed amendments published in pro-government newspapers after parliament’s approval. They would give the president, without requiring him to reference any public health emergency, overbroad power to shut schools, universities, courts, government facilities, and public and private businesses completely or partially.

One amendment would allow him, even in the absence of any public health purpose, to restrict “public gatherings, protests, rallies, festivities, and any other form of gathering, including private gatherings.” Others would allow him to restrict anyone from owning, transporting, selling, purchasing, or exporting any goods or services. The amendments also allow him to control prices of goods and services and to “determine methods of collecting monetary and in-kind donations … and rules of their dispensing and spending.”

Article 3 of the Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958), under which the proposed amendments would be added, authorizes the president to implement such sweeping measures to “preserve security and public order.” Article 3 also allows the president to order these measures verbally but requires him issue them in writing within eight days.

Egypt has lived under the state of emergency for most of the past 40 years, since 1981, with only a few months of interruption, mainly between 2012 and 2017. Successive governments have ignored calls to reform the law and used it to crush peaceful dissent as authorities labeled peaceful opposition gatherings or protests as national security threats.

In the last two months, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly has issued a series of decrees imposing measures to curb the Covid-19 virus spread, such as shutting down air travel, schools and universities, several businesses, and parks and beaches. Based on a Human Rights Watch review of most of these decrees, it appears that the nationwide nighttime curfew in place since the last week of March was the main measure based on the Emergency Law. If the proposed amendments are signed into law, all of these decrees would fall under the sweeping powers of the Emergency Law.

Under international law, measures restricting basic rights during an emergency should be necessary, set out in law, limited in time and place to what is strictly necessary, proportionate, and provide for effective remedies for any violations of rights, such as an independent, transparent appeal mechanism. The wording of these amendments does not meet such requirements, Human Rights Watch said, and Egypt’s Emergency Law does not provide any appeal mechanism.

Anyone violating measures imposed during a state of emergency can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Trials in such cases are before Emergency State Security Courts, with judges chosen by the president and no right of appeal. The government historically has used these courts to primarily to prosecute political dissidents, including peaceful ones. The government reinstated these courts in 2017 when the state of emergency was declared.

The amendments also risk broadening the jurisdiction of military courts to prosecute civilians by giving military prosecutors the power to investigate incidents when the army officers are tasked with law enforcement or when the president so orders.

Under Article 154 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution, the president, with parliamentary approval, can declare a state of emergency for up to three months, with three-month extensions if approved by two-thirds of parliament. The current 596-member parliament, tightly controlled by intelligence agencies and dominated by the al-Sisi’s supporters, has acted largely as a rubber-stamp for his policies with virtually no opposition.

Some proposed amendments include positive provisions, such as allowing the president to postpone taxes and utility payments as well as to provide economic support for affected sectors.

“Some of these measures could be needed in public health emergencies, but they should not be open to abuse as part of an unreformed emergency law,” Stork said. “Resorting to ‘national security and public order’ as a justification reflects the security mentality that governs Sisi’s Egypt.”

Philippines: Put Network Back on Air

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 6, 2020
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Employees light candles outside the headquarters of broadcast network ABS-CBN corp. on May 5, 2020, after the network was ordered to halt operations after its congressional franchise expired, in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines.

© 2020 AP Photo/Aaron Favila (Manila) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte should rescind an order to shut down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcast television and radio network, Human Rights Watch said today. The House of Representatives, whose inaction on bills to renew the broadcaster’s license led to the closure, should promptly renew the franchise.

On May 5, 2020, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), a government regulatory agency under the office of the president, issued a “cease and desist” order against ABS-CBN after the network’s congressional franchise expired the previous day. This came after the government’s chief lawyer, Solicitor General Jose Calida, warned the commission against granting ABS-CBN a provisional extension to operate as some members of Congress had requested. Duterte had said in December 2019 that he would not allow the license renewal: “I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”

“The Philippine government shutdown of ABS-CBN reeks of a political vendetta by President Duterte, who has repeatedly threatened the network for criticizing his abusive ‘war on drugs,’” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should stop ducking responsibility and reverse Duterte’s latest attempt to muzzle the press, especially when the public needs timely and accurate information more than ever.”

ABS-CBN stated that it will challenge the shutdown order in court. Although the ruling does not affect its other platforms, such as cable and online, its popular free TV and radio services stopped airing since the evening of May 5.

While the ABS-CBN 25-year congressional franchise expired on May 4, as early as 2014, members of congress already filed bills seeking its renewal. When Duterte became president in 2016, he started complaining about ABS-CBN, accusing the network of being biased against him and criticizing it for failing to air his 2016 presidential campaign advertisements. The network denied the bias charge but apologized to Duterte for its failure to air the ads and explained why.

The shutdown is only the second time ABS-CBN has gone off the air. Founded in June 1946, the network has grown into the most widely viewed broadcaster in the Philippines. Two days after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, he ordered the military to shut down the network. After the “People Power” uprising in 1986 ousted Marcos, President Corazon Aquino returned ABS-CBN to its former owners.

ABS-CBN’s coverage of the “drug war,” in which the police and their agents have extrajudicially executed thousands of alleged drug users and dealers since Duterte took office, has won praise in the Philippines and abroad.

The shutdown of ABS-CBN is the first time the Duterte government has forced a news organization to stop operating. However, it runs parallel to other attempts by the government to intimidate media outlets critical of the administration. The authorities have arrested Maria Ressa, the editor and founder of the news website Rappler, several times on baseless charges. Rappler has done groundbreaking reporting on the “war on drugs,” prompting attacks by the government and its followers on social media.

The Philippines’ license renewal process allows congress to put inappropriate pressure on broadcast networks, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors government compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines is a party, has stated that governments “must avoid imposing onerous licensing conditions … on the broadcast media. The criteria for the application of such conditions and license fees should be reasonable and objective, clear, transparent, nondiscriminatory, and otherwise in compliance with the Covenant.”

“The Duterte administration is using a back-door method against ABS-CBN as the president’s latest way to suppress freedom of the press,” Robertson said. “Those concerned about public health messaging and the Covid-19 crisis in the Philippines should call on legislators to right this wrong, get ABS-CBN back on the air, and protect media freedom throughout the country.”

Belarus’s Parade Plans Defy Public Health Recommendations

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 6, 2020
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Servicemen of Belarus Ministry of Defence wearing protective gear spray disinfectant on each other after disinfecting a hospital in Minsk, Tuesday, May 5, 2020. Despite the WHO's call for Belarus to ban public events, President Alexander Lukashenko says the country will go ahead with a parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. 

 

© AP Photo/Sergei Grits

This Sunday, in Minsk, Belarus authorities will hold a large parade – a jarring sight, considering much of the world is in various stages of Covid-19 lockdowns. The parade will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazis in World War II, during which Belarus endured catastrophic losses. But as authorities have not articulated plans or instructions for protective measures including social distancing among marchers or onlookers, this puts everyone’s health at risk. Some reports suggest university students are being offered various incentives to attend.

By contrast, the Kremlin, which strives to make the victory over Fascism a cornerstone of Russian national identity, postponed its Victory Day parade, as did most other governments in the region that usually hold such parades. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that countries in general “seriously consider postponing or reducing mass gatherings” and conduct risk assessments beforehand.

Belarus, which hasn’t ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, has one of Europe’s fastest-growing Covid-19 rates. Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic president, has made headlines saying that hard work on a tractor, drinking vodka, and visiting the banya would keep coronavirus away, dismissing lockdowns as “psychosis”. He’s also made false claims about the virus’s toll. Meanwhile, Belarus authorities, which have a poor record on press and other civic freedoms, have sought to intimidate into silence some health workers who spoke out about the desperate situation in some hospitals and journalists who criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Belarus has cited the economic and social costs as reason not to close businesses, schools, and the like. Nor has it asked churches that worshippers not be physically present when services take place. The government has instead focused on other containment measures, including self-isolation regimes for people who test positive for coronavirus and who have returned from abroad. It also requires workplaces to undergo regular disinfection and keep workers 1.5 meters apart, mandates shops to have protective equipment for staff, bans most work trips, and limits work-related public gatherings. It’s unclear, however, whether these rules are enforced.

Last week, the WHO attributed Belarus’s rising rate of infection to the “lack of adequate social distancing measures” and urged the government to take a range of measures, including closing nonessential businesses and moving to distance learning.

The Belarusian government has an obligation to protect the right to health, including public health. It could cancel mass events or carry them out under appropriate social distancing. Additionally, the country’s authorities should publicly and unequivocally promote social distancing and show how seriously its leaders take keeping people healthy and alive.

Jordan: Free Speech Threats Under Covid-19 Response

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 6, 2020
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Jordanian police personnel guard at a checkpoint during the second day of a nationwide curfew, amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Amman, Jordan.  

© 2020 Reuters

(Amman) – Jordanian authorities have arrested media workers and others and issued a vaguely worded emergency decree that could chill online discussion about Jordan’s Covid-19 response, Human Rights Watch said today.

Under the April 15, 2020 decree, sharing news that would “cause panic” about the pandemic in media or online can carry a penalty of up to three years in prison. Since the declaration of an emergency on March 17, Jordanian authorities have detained two prominent media executives, a foreign journalist, and a former member of parliament, apparently in response to public criticism, as well as three people for allegedly spreading “fake news.”

“The Jordanian government has acted decisively to protect its citizens and residents from Covid-19, but recent measures have created the impression that it won’t tolerate criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should protect Jordanians’ ability to discuss Covid-19 online and share news and concerns without fear of arrest.”

The state of emergency, initiated when King Abdullah II issued a royal decree activating Defense Law No. 13 of 1992, grants the prime minister sweeping powers to curtail basic rights, but Prime Minister Omar Razzaz pledged to carry it out to the “narrowest extent” and stated that it would not impinge political rights, freedom of expression, or private property. Any steps to curtail free expression on the grounds of protecting public health must be necessary and proportionate to the threat posed by the speech, Human Rights Watch said.

Paragraph 2.2 of Defense Order No. 8, issued on April 15 under Jordan’s state of emergency, prohibits “publishing, re-publishing, or circulating any news about the epidemic in order to terrify people or cause panic among them via media, telephone, or social media.” The order specifies penalties of up to 3 years in prison, a fine of 3,000 Jordanian Dinars (US$4,230), or both.

Prior to the new order, Jordanian media outlets had reported several arrests, one for “spreading rumors” about Covid-19 in the Sweileh area of Amman, another for “spreading rumors about the government’s intention of declaring a full lockdown,” and another for claiming there was a Covid-19 death in the city of Zarqa. The police announced on April 15 that they were pursuing someone who alleged that there was “disobedience” by prisoners in Amman’s Marka Prison.

On April 10, Roya TV, a popular local media outlet, confirmed the arrests of its general manager, Fares Sayegh, and news director, Mohammad al-Khalidi. Roya TV’s statement said that the arrests were due to a “news report that was aired on Roya News social media pages.” Roya TV confirmed on April 12 that Sayegh and al-Khalidi were released on bail. It is unclear whether they will face charges. Local activists and commentators suggested that the arrests could be related to a widely circulated April 8 video clip in which Jordanian day laborers expressed their Covid-19 concerns.

On April 14, the authorities detained Salim Akash, 40, a Jordan-based Bangladeshi journalist. A family member told Human Rights Watch that three men in civilian clothes arrested Akash in front of his house but refused to identify themselves. The family member said on April 17, Akash called from al-Salt Prison saying that he was going to court for “violating a serious law,” which he did not identify. In early April, Akash shared a TV report on his Facebook profile that featured his reporting on the hardships many Bangladeshi workers are facing in Jordan during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Jordanian authorities also arrested Salim al-Batayneh, 63, a former parliament member, on April 7, and his relative Mo’tasem al-Batayneh. Two family members told Human Rights Watch that the family did not learn their whereabouts until April 10, when a member of the governmental National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) informed them the men were in al-Salt Prison on suspicion of “undermining the political regime,” a terrorism offense under the jurisdiction of the quasi-military State Security Court. Human Rights Watch has documented Jordanian authorities’ abuse of this charge to limit peaceful political activity and criticism.

The family members said they did not know the specific reasons for the arrest. One said “we contacted different security bodies including the Public Security Directorate, General Intelligence Department, and the local governorate … all denied holding him.” The family member said that al-Batayneh is a writer who has criticized the Jordanian government in public for many years but did not know if his arrest was related to any specific criticism.

Following the NCHR call on April 10, family members said, Salim al-Batayneh made a brief call, saying only that he was taking his medication and drinking fluids. He said that he was “with people” but provided no further details. On April 12, al-Batayneh called another family member from al-Salt Prison asking them to hire a lawyer.

A family member of Mo’tasem al-Batayneh, 48, a retired high-ranking police officer, described his arrest. The family member said he was traveling with Mo’tasem at 1:20 p.m. when 4 unmarked vehicles surrounded their car and 10 men in civilian clothes emerged, pointed guns at them, and arrested al-Batayneh.

“We called 911 on the same day but they told us we have to wait for 24 hours,” the family member said. “When we called the next day, they did not tell us where he is, and they shut the line.” Family members said he called on April 12 and confirmed that he is in al-Salt Prison, saying that his case is related to Salim’s. Both were transferred to Qafqafa Prison on April 26.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted “in times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.” But the measures must be only those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has said that the situation would require state parties to “provide careful justification not only for their decision to proclaim a state of emergency but also for any specific measures based on such a proclamation.”

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate, and may not put in jeopardy the right itself.

On March 20, the prime minister imposed a mandatory curfew from 6 p.m. until 10 a.m., with exceptions for those holding valid permits. Between March 17 and April 14, the authorities said they apprehended 10,874 people who violated the curfew and seized 6,814 vehicles. Under Defense Order No. 3, people who violate the curfew are subject to a fine between 100 Jordanian Dinars ($141) and 500 Dinars ($705), while seized vehicles are confiscated for 30 days in addition to a fine.

“Jordan is confronting unprecedented challenges as it deals with Covid-19, but the crisis should not be used as a pretext to limit free expression,” Page said.

New Co-Chair of Human Rights Watch Board

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 6, 2020

(New York) – Neil Rimer, a Human Rights Watch board member since 2009, is joining Amy Rao as co-chair of the organization’s international board of directors. Rao, a tech entrepreneur, took on this role in October 2019, succeeding former co-chairs Hassan Elmasry and Robert Kissane. 

Rimer steps into this leadership role as Human Rights Watch tackles the considerable human rights issues around the coronavirus pandemic and related global economic downturn. At the same time, Human Rights Watch continues its efforts to address the challenges posed by authoritarian populist leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose government threatens human rights worldwide, the climate crisis, wartime atrocities, and the record 65 million people displaced from their homes. 

Rimer, who was born in Montreal, co-founded the venture capital firm Index Ventures. He has three children and lives with his wife in Geneva. He is particularly concerned by the human rights threats and opportunities of technological advances, including the use of sensors, artificial intelligence, and big data. 

“Human Rights Watch seeks to ensure that tools from the technological revolution are deployed appropriately to confront the coronavirus crisis – or confront those who use those tools in an abusive manner, as the Chinese government is doing,” Rimer said. “We are showing governments that to advance public health effectively, digital surveillance tools need to guard against discrimination, overreach, and invasions of our privacy.” 

Rao and Rimer said a priority for Human Rights Watch will be to ensure the organization's ongoing efforts to investigate and expose human rights abuses are not hindered by the economic slowdown engendered by the current pandemic.

“We are thrilled to welcome Neil to lead our board alongside Amy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Their thoughtful dynamism brings the skills and energy that Human Rights Watch needs to remain effective in meeting the considerable challenges facing us today.”

Ethiopia: Free Speech at Risk Amid Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 6, 2020
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Ethiopian men read newspapers  at a cafe during a declared state of emergency in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Oct. 10, 2016. 

© AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene

(Nairobi) – The Ethiopian government has been using Covid-19 restrictions and a recently declared state of emergency as a pretext to restrict free speech.

In the last month, the authorities have detained a lawyer, Elizabeth Kebede, and charged a journalist, Yayesew Shimelis, for comments on social media about the government’s response to the coronavirus. A new state of emergency declared on April 8, 2020 gives the government sweeping powers to respond to the pandemic, heightening concerns of further arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of journalists and government critics.

“While misinformation about the pandemic can be a concern, it’s no excuse to limit free speech,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should drop charges against Yayesew Shimelis, release Elizabeth Kebede, and stop detaining people for peacefully expressing their views.”

After confirming the first positive Covid-19 case on March 13, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced an initial series ofdirectives to stem the spread of the virus, which also urged “media institutions to deliver accurate information to the public.”

On March 26, Yayesew, a journalist and producer of a political program on Tigray TV, a regional government-owned station, alleged on his personal Facebook page and on a YouTube channel he administers that the government ordered the preparation of 200,000 graves in anticipation of deaths from the virus. Government officials immediately condemned his remarks as “false.”

The following day, Oromia police, along with two members of Ethiopia’s intelligence and security agency, arrested Yayesew at his family’s home in Legetafo, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, and took him to the Addis Ababa Police Commission, where he was questioned about his political views and reporting. The authorities also seized his laptop, cellphone, and notebooks. It’s unclear whether they obtained a judicial warrant, as required for searches.

Addis Ababa police alleged that Yayesew spread “false news” but held him for nearly three weeks without bringing formal charges. On April 15, a federal judge granted him bail, finding that investigators lacked sufficient evidence to proceed with the investigation. Federal police investigators then intervened in the case, appealing the court’s decision and accusing Yayesew of violating the revised anti-terrorism law. On April 20, a federal judge granted Yayesew bail a second time, again finding that investigators lacked enough evidence to charge him with terrorism offenses.

Federal police finally released Yayesew on April 23. But, according to court documents Human Rights Watch reviewed, prosecutors have now formally charged him under the country’s new hate speech and disinformation law, citing as evidence postings and private messages obtained from Yayesew’s personal Facebook account by Ethiopia’s Information Network and Security Agency (INSA).

The new law, which took effect on March 23, contains an overbroad definition of disinformation that provides authorities with excessive discretion to declare unpopular or controversial opinions “false.” The law also arbitrarily imposes harsher penalties for social media users who have more than 5,000 followers, as Yayesew does.

On April 4, Addis Ababa police detained Kebede, a volunteer lawyer with the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association (EWLA), one of the country’s leading women’s rights groups, and transferred her to the custody of Harari regional authorities. EWLA lawyers told Human Rights Watch that officials have not charged her with any offense but accuse her of disseminating false news in Facebook posts that officials claim could “instigate violence.”

One of the posts named individuals who reportedly were infected with coronavirus, said that Harari regional officials had met with the alleged patients, and said that those that had contact with them should be quarantined. She identified people’s ethnicity and then deleted this information in a subsequent post. Such posts raise serious privacy concerns, and individuals with Covid-19, or any medical condition, have a right to privacy. Revealing private medical information can result in stigma and discrimination, and potentially worse consequences, against those identified and individuals with whom they are associated. Nonetheless, such actionsby private individuals should not be addressed through the criminal justice system.

Over the past decade, Human Rights Watch has documented the Ethiopian government’s repeated use of broad and ill-conceived laws, including a now-amended 2009 anti-terrorism proclamation and 2008 mass media law, to crack down on free speech and peaceful dissent. The authorities have arbitrarily arrested, detained, and prosecuted scores of journalists, political opposition members, and activists under that law. The newly enacted hate speech and disinformation law similarly risks being used as a tool of repression, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international human rights law, restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy. Any measures taken to protect the population during a pandemic that limit rights and freedoms must be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. To allow for social distancing in detention facilities, authorities should make concerted efforts toreduce detainee populations, including by releasing suspects accused of non-violent offenses, such as those held for expressing critical or dissenting views.

Prime Minister Abiy declared a five-month state of emergency on April 8, heightening concerns about its impact on various rights, including freedom of expression and association. Anyone found violating emergency restrictions faces up to 3 years in prison or fines of up to 200,000 Birr (US$6,149).

On April 11, the attorney general’s office released an initial set of restrictions under the state of emergency. A further set of rules published on April 20 limits gatherings of more than four people, suspends suspects’ right to appear before a judge within 48 hours, and broadly restricts the media from reporting Covid-19 news in a way that could “cause terror and undue distress among the public.”

The state of emergency’s provisions restricting media reporting, much like the hate speech and disinformation law, contain vague, undefined language that make it difficult for journalists, activists, and anyone posting on social media to know what speech or reporting would violate the law and increases the risk of misuse by authorities, Human Rights Watch said.

Since the emergency bill was passed, Ethiopia’s federal police commissioner has warned the public that the police would act against anyone violating the emergency measures, including individuals and media bodies spreading “fake news.”

On April 25, the police in Addis Ababa briefly held Eskinder Nega, a former journalist and current chairperson of the political opposition party Balderas for True Democracy, for speaking with people whose homes were reportedly demolished by security forces. Police accused him of violating the state of emergency prohibition on gatherings of more than four people. Eskinder was held for nearly 12 hours at a police station in Kolfe-Keranio, a sub-city in the capital, Addis Ababa, then released. Police alsoconfiscated his phone during questioning.

Ethiopia’s previous two states of emergency, one from October 2016 to August 2017, brought mass detentions and politically motivated arrests and expanded surveillance and numerous restrictions on movement and communication. The 2018 emergency declaration also contained provisions that criminalized the spread of information.

To safeguard against abuse, emergency measures must be subject to independent oversight and regular review, Human Rights Watch said. An inquiry board parliament established to oversee the state of emergency is one such mechanism. Meaningful oversight can also come from a range of groups, including Ethiopian human rights institutions and civil society organizations, which should have an opportunity to raise concerns about how emergency measures are managed and enforced, including when they end.

“Ethiopian authorities should not repeat the mistakes of past states of emergency,” Bader said. “Over the next five months, Parliament and the public should monitor the application of these exceptional powers and ensure that they aren’t abused or remain in effect after the public health crisis ends.”

Hungary Kicks Patients Out of Hospitals to Prepare for Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Wednesday, May 6, 2020
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A nurse in protective gear works at the Szent Laszlo Hospital in Budapest, Hungary, during the Covid-19 pandemic, April 27, 2020. 

© 2020 Balogh Zoltán/MTI via AP

Like other governments, the Hungarian government anticipated that Covid-19 patients would quickly outnumber available beds in hospitals, and on April 7, ordered that hospitals free up 60 percent of their beds by discharging non-Covid-19 patients as necessary.

The order aimed to free up 36,000 beds, though the exact number of patients affected is unknown because the government has not shared that information. What we do know is that many patients were kicked out but we also don’t know how many of them – some of whom have cancer or other chronic or terminal illnesses and require constant care – ended up in alternative care facilities or were sent home to be cared for by family members.

Athina Nemeth, a hospice and volunteer home care worker in Budapest, told Human Rights Watch that she had cared for 10 patients who were sent home from hospitals abruptly, with no arrangements for care or treatment. She said patients’ families were only notified the day before or on the same day of their loved ones being discharged. One was sent home with an open stomach wound, another with a stoma bag. Other patients lacked diapers or oxygen. Nine of her patients have since died. Athina was able to secure placement in a private rehabilitation clinic for another patient discharged following an amputation. Independent media outlets have reported similar stories.

As of May 3, there were 2,998 recorded cases of Covid-19 in Hungary, with 1,008 infected people in hospital and 340 deaths. We don’t know how many thousands of hospital beds might be empty, while other seriously ill people suffer at home with families unable to care for them properly.

Measures to protect public health should be proportionate and necessary, and the response to medical demands of a pandemic should not deprive people of other essential health care. The Hungarian government should ensure the April 7 order does not create another human rights crisis, including by denying particularly vulnerable patients access to adequate medical care. They should ensure adequate numbers of beds in alternative care facilities and support the home care system with necessary funding. The authorities should also respond to concerns from professionals, patients, and their relatives with full transparency on the fate of patients removed from the care they were receiving.

Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugees in Risky Covid-19 Quarantine

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 5, 2020

(New York) – Bangladesh authorities have quarantined 29 Rohingya refugees without adequate access to aid on an unstable silt island in the Bay of Bengal, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities said that they are holding the refugees, who had been adrift at sea for over two months, on Bhasan Char to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak in the camps.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the media on May 2, 2020, that the new arrivals were ethnic Rohingya who fled Myanmar to try to reach Malaysia. However, Human Rights Watch interviews with families found that at least seven of those detained are registered refugees from the camps in Bangladesh. Momen said that all future arrivals will be transferred to Bhasan Char, which experts have warned may not be fit for habitation and contains no access to humanitarian services provided by the United Nations or aid agencies.

“Bangladesh faces the tremendous challenge of assisting Rohingya boat people while preventing the spread of Covid-19, but sending them to a dangerously flood-prone island without adequate health care is hardly the solution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Any quarantines need to ensure aid agency access and safety from storms, and a prompt return to their families on the mainland.”

Several trawlers, each packed with several hundred Rohingya, set out for Malaysia in March, but at least two were intercepted and turned away with a fresh supply of food and water. On April 15, the Bangladesh coast guard received one boat with nearly 400 people, who said that as many as 100 may have died on board before the rescue. At least two other boats remain stranded at sea with an estimated 700 refugees.

Early in the morning of May 2, at least 50 Rohingya from one of the trawlers were transferred to smaller boats by smugglers after families paid ransom, and landed on the Bangladesh coast. Many of the Rohingya were able to disappear into the camps, but the authorities captured 29.

Additional Rohingya refugees are soon expected to arrive in Bangladesh. Families told Human Rights Watch that they had paid the smugglers between 35,000 and 60,000 taka (US$400 to $700) on top of the amounts they paid for the initial journey, to ensure that their relatives returned safely ashore.

A Rohingya refugee from the Kutupalong camp said that after he paid the smugglers, his two daughters were brought from the trawler to the Bangladesh coast on May 2, but both now have been sent to Bhasan Char. “I’m worried about my daughters who have been taken to that island,” he said. “They informed me that they’re afraid they may not be able to return. It’s really painful.” He said that the Bangladesh authorities did not contact him before sending them to Bhasan Char: “My daughter told me that some government officer in Bhasan Char said, ‘your parents will be brought here to Bhasan Char.’ We did not care how much we had to pay to get our daughters back, but now there is uncertainty about whether they will return from Bhasan Char, or whether we will also be forced to relocate there by Bangladesh authorities.”

Another refugee said that the smugglers brought his sister back 54 days after she left the camp, but when he went to meet her at the police station, he was told she “had already been sent to Bhasan Char.”

Bangladesh authorities claim they do not want to “pollute” the Rohingya camps during the pandemic, but failed to provide the refugees with access to UN and other international agencies before sending them to Bhasan Char. A representative from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, told Human Rights Watch that they are prepared “to ensure the safe quarantine of any refugees arriving by boat to Cox’s Bazar,” near where the refugee camps are located.

Cox’s Bazar has facilities that include testing and quarantine centers established by agreement with the Bangladesh government. In April humanitarian agencies helped to organize the quarantine of about 400 refugees rescued from a boat. After completing the quarantine and testing negative for Covid-19, they returned to their families.

Bangladesh should not quarantine refugees at Bhasan Char until they coordinate with the UN and other agencies to ensure that proper medical and food assistance are provided, Human Rights Watch said. Once the quarantine period is over, they should immediately be taken back to reunite with their families in the Cox’s Bazar camps.

Over 900,000 Rohingya refugees are living in refugee camps in southern Bangladesh after fleeing mass atrocities in neighboring Myanmar. Myanmar authorities have not created conditions for the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of Rohingya refugees despite entreaties from the UN and governments around the world.

Bangladesh says it cannot accept any more Rohingya refugees. Foreign Minister Momen said that the navy and coast guard are on alert to prevent any additional boats with Rohingya from entering Bangladesh. Such pronouncements contravene Bangladesh’s international legal obligations to respond to boats in distress, coordinate rescue operations, and not push back asylum seekers whose lives are at risk at sea.

Countries should ensure that there are adequate search and rescue services in their coastal waters to respond to boats in distress. Regional governments should ensure effective and coordinated search and rescue zones to save lives when they learn of boats in distress. There are heightened concerns for refugees stranded at sea ahead of a strong cyclone that is currently forming in Bay of Bengal.

“Myanmar’s culpability for the plight of the Rohingya does not give Bangladesh free rein to send people to an island where their lives could be in danger,” Adams said. “Support from international donors can help Bangladesh protect the refugee population from the pandemic while upholding the rights and safety of newly arriving boat people.”
 

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People stand by the banks of Bhasan Char, or floating island, in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, December 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Saleh Noman

 

US Southern States Ease Covid-19 Restrictions, Risking Black Lives

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 5, 2020
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A worker walks in to the Paris Healthcare Center in Paris, Texas, April 29, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Plans by governors in several southern states in the United States to ease Covid-19 related restrictions and stay-at-home orders are forcing workers to make an impossible choice: earn a living or put their health at risk. Health officials and experts have already warned that lifting the orders too soon may result in increased mortality rates and the possibility of an even deadlier second wave of the virus. Now, a coalition of Black activists, experts, and policymakers is calling attention to the harm these policies will have, especially on Black workers.

The coalition recently launched a petition urging several southern governors to take immediate steps to prioritize the health and safety of workers over profits, including adopting safety plans and allocating resources for personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers, before the orders are lifted.

At least nine states in the south – where the majority of Black people live in the US – have not yet met the conditions public health experts say are needed before they can safely open, but the governors are moving ahead anyway, to the peril of workers’ health.

Black people, especially women, are overrepresented in low-wage jobs that necessitate contact with other people. Those who decide not to return to work due to inadequate protections for their health risk losing their unemployment benefits and any means to make an income.

Already, the available data shows Black people are dying at higher rates from the virus. The disproportionate impact Covid-19 has on the health of Black people has brought attention to systemic racism and structural inequalities in the United States, where they are more likely to have lower incomes, to suffer poor health, including diabetes and hypertension, and now to die from Covid-19.

The coalition is also calling for Medicaid expansion in each state. This would increase healthcare coverage for more low-income adults in southern states. It could also help stem the closure of rural hospitals, safeguarding necessary medical care for communities that have high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes, including many in the south’s Black Belt region.

Policies to open up economies should not force workers to choose between working to survive or jeopardizing their safety. Black people in the south want to work, but they shouldn’t have to die to do so. 

US Southern States Ease Covid-19 Restrictions, Risking Black Lives

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 5, 2020
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A worker walks in to the Paris Healthcare Center in Paris, Texas, April 29, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Plans by governors in several southern states in the United States to ease Covid-19 related restrictions and stay-at-home orders are forcing workers to make an impossible choice: earn a living or put their health at risk. Health officials and experts have already warned that lifting the orders too soon may result in increased mortality rates and the possibility of an even deadlier second wave of the virus. Now, a coalition of Black activists, experts, and policymakers is calling attention to the harm these policies will have, especially on Black workers.

The coalition recently launched a petition urging several southern governors to take immediate steps to prioritize the health and safety of workers over profits, including adopting safety plans and allocating resources for personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers, before the orders are lifted.

At least nine states in the south – where the majority of Black people live in the US – have not yet met the conditions public health experts say are needed before they can safely open, but the governors are moving ahead anyway, to the peril of workers’ health.

Black people, especially women, are overrepresented in low-wage jobs that necessitate contact with other people. Those who decide not to return to work due to inadequate protections for their health risk losing their unemployment benefits and any means to make an income.

Already, the available data shows Black people are dying at higher rates from the virus. The disproportionate impact Covid-19 has on the health of Black people has brought attention to systemic racism and structural inequalities in the United States, where they are more likely to have lower incomes, to suffer poor health, including diabetes and hypertension, and now to die from Covid-19.

The coalition is also calling for Medicaid expansion in each state. This would increase healthcare coverage for more low-income adults in southern states. It could also help stem the closure of rural hospitals, safeguarding necessary medical care for communities that have high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes, including many in the south’s Black Belt region.

Policies to open up economies should not force workers to choose between working to survive or jeopardizing their safety. Black people in the south want to work, but they shouldn’t have to die to do so. 

Angola’s Prisons Ill-Equipped to Curb Covid-19 Spread

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 5, 2020
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Angolan police patrol streets as people move about during the country's Covid-19 lockdown, Luanda, Angola, March 2020.

© 2020 AFP

Angolan authorities have released nearly 1900 people in pretrial detention to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic to the nation’s prisons. While the release of detainees will reduce prison overcrowding, it is not enough to avoid a health disaster.

In April, Interior Minister Eugénio César Laborinho visited prisons across the country to assess their capability to handle Covid-19 cases. He expressed concerns over the prisons’ inadequate capacity to quarantine newly arrived inmates.

Nevertheless, Angola’s police continue to detain and place hundreds of people in custody for low-level crimes, leading to a daily influx of new detainees. If not appropriately quarantined and monitored for Covid-19, these new arrivals could contribute to an outbreak in the prison system that prison authorities are ill-equipped to treat.

On May 1, police released data showing that almost 300 people had been detained in 24 hours for violating state of emergency rules that Angola’s parliament has extended to May 10.

Almost half of Angola’s prison population are detainees awaiting trial, according to data released by the Angolan authorities last year. Many are being held for low-level offenses or have been kept in prison on fabricated charges such as for exercising their right to peaceful protest.

Angola has recorded 35 cases of Covid-19, with 2 deaths. So far there have been no confirmed cases in prisons. To protect those who remain behind bars, the Angolan government should quickly ensure that the over 25,000 prisoners across the country are given sufficient clean water, hygiene products, protective equipment, including facial masks, and medical care.

Furthermore, the government needs to take bolder steps and release more pretrial detainees to prevent a major Covid-19 crisis in the overcrowded prisons. The government should consider alternatives to jail time and avoid detaining people for nonviolent or minor offenses, including those who violate the state of emergency law.

US: State Department Should Affirm Rights for All

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 5, 2020
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, unveils the creation of Commission on "Unalienable" Rights, headed by Mary Ann Glendon, left, a Harvard Law School professor and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, during an announcement at the US State Department in Washington, July 8, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The United States State Department should reject any attempt by its Commission on Unalienable Rights to rewrite international law by rejecting internationally recognized rights for all, Human Rights Watch said today.

Related Content

In a submission to the Commission on Unalienable Rights, Human Rights Watch raised concerns that the commission’s report may attempt to downgrade the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and the rights of women and girls, including access to reproductive health services. The 40-page submission reviews the potentially dire consequences when governments do not give full backing to the human rights of LGBT people and of women and girls.

Human Rights Watch called on the commission to ensure that its report upholds the universality of human rights, and on the State Department to reject the report if it does not.

“The US government cannot unilaterally rewrite international human rights law,” said Andrea Prasow, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “To maintain any credibility on human rights, the commission should recognize the necessity of upholding all rights equally, without giving some rights less value than others. If the report does not reflect that basic premise, the State Department should reject it outright.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo established the commission in June 2019, tasking it with advising on the promotion of human rights in US foreign policy. His announcement and subsequent appointments to the commission sparked concerns that it could be used to undermine reproductive freedom or the rights of LGBT people.

In April 2020, Pompeo appeared to question the legitimacy of the international principles of nondiscrimination and equality before the law, saying, “things that we all know as Christian believers aren’t part of the inherent dignity of a human being became rights…”

Human Rights Watch has documented many examples of the human rights violations against LGBT people around the world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the dozens of countries that prohibit same-sex sexual activity, LGBT people face violations of the right to privacy and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. In many other countries where LGBT advocacy is restricted, they face violations of their freedoms of assembly, association, and expression.

In some countries, LGBT people face torture or other ill-treatment, for instance when the authorities employ forced anal examinations in criminal investigations. In these and other instances, LGBT people are not seeking special, separate, or new rights, but seeking to be protected by the same human rights that apply to everyone.

The human right to health includes access to reproductive health care, such as contraception, and other comprehensive health services. In particular, because denial of access to safe, legal abortion puts the health and lives of women and girls at risk, international standards call for countries to ensure that regulation of abortion does not lead women and girls to resort to unsafe abortion. Governments should at a minimum decriminalize abortion and ensure that abortion is safe, legal, and accessible when the pregnancy threatens life or health or would cause substantial pain or suffering. 

In his announcement of the commission in June 2019, Secretary Pompeo suggested that it should reexamine internationally recognized human rights amid what he referred to as a proliferation of human rights claims. The official notice of the creation of the commission calls on it to make recommendations on international human rights matters “where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” 

“When the US was founded, many understood ‘rights’ to belong only to white men who owned property,” Prasow said. “Just as the Constitution was amended and reinterpreted to abolish slavery and ensure that women have the right to vote, international law has evolved too, and a series of treaties – many signed by the US – make clear that human rights apply to everyone, equally.”   

China: Covid-19 Discrimination Against Africans

Human Rights Watch - Tuesday, May 5, 2020
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An African restaurant is closed off along with other businesses in Guangzhou's Sanyuanli area, where a neighborhood is in lockdown after several people tested positive for the novel coronavirus disease, in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, April 13, 2020. 

© 2020 REUTERS/David Kirton

(New York) – The Chinese government should end the discriminatory treatment of Africans related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also protect Africans and people of African descent throughout China from discrimination in employment, housing, and other realms.

In early April 2020, Chinese authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong province, which has China’s largest African community, began a campaign to forcibly test Africans for the coronavirus, and ordered them to self-isolate or to quarantine in designated hotels. Landlords then evicted African residents, forcing many to sleep on the street, and hotels, shops, and restaurants refused African customers. Other foreign groups have generally not been subjected to similar treatment.

“Chinese authorities claim ‘zero tolerance’ for discrimination, but what they are doing to Africans in Guangzhou is a textbook case of just that,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing should immediately investigate and hold accountable all officials and others responsible for discriminatory treatment.”

On April 12, Guangdong authorities announced that all foreigners in the province must accept “Covid-19 prevention and containment measures” including “testing, sampling and quarantine.” In practice, the authorities just targeted Africans for forced testing and quarantine. They visited homes of African residents, testing them on the spot or instructing them to take a test at a hospital. Some were ordered to self-isolate at home with surveillance cameras or alarms installed outside of their apartments.

There was no evident scientific basis for the policy. Most imported cases of Covid-19 to the province were Chinese nationals returning from abroad. Many Africans had already tested negative for coronavirus, had no recent travel history, or had not been in contact with known Covid-19 patients.

Elsewhere in China, some Africans reported police and local officials had harassed them, and hospitals and restaurants turned them away.

The Chinese government denied discriminating against Africans in Guangzhou, saying that it “reject[s] differential treatment” and has “zero tolerance for discrimination.” Chinese state media also ran stories seeking to refute criticism that Chinese authorities had mistreated African nationals and blamed “Western media” for “provok[ing] the problems between China and African countries.”

Official figures show that about 14,000 African nationals live in Guangzhou, but researchers estimate thousands more are there without documentation. Because of virus-related mistreatment, many Africans in China have urged their governments to call on the Chinese government to cease all forms of discrimination against Africans, and some want their governments to evacuate them from China. The Kenyan government announced it would fly out Kenyans stranded in China on May 1.

Reports of discrimination against Africans in China sparked outrage among African communities around the world, Human Rights Watch said. Several African governments, including Nigeria, Uganda, and Ghana, summoned Chinese ambassadors in their countries to protest. Ambassadors from several African countries in China wrote to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calling for the Chinese government to cease “forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatment meted out to Africans.”

More than 300 human rights groups and nearly 1,800 activists in Africa sent an open letter to the African Union calling for “immediate remedial action” over the “xenophobic, racist and inhumane treatment of Africans in China.”

In the past two decades, China has become Africa’s most important economic partner. China’s investment in Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative, the country’s trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure stretching across some 70 countries, has boosted Africa’s economy, but also lent the Chinese government considerable influence on the continent. African governments have rarely criticized Chinese authorities for mistreatment of Africans in China, or for human rights violations against people across China.

Africans in China have long experienced racial discrimination. Police frequently target Africans, often linked on Chinese social media with violent crimes and overstaying their visas, for immigration enforcement. Some job advertisements specifically exclude “heiren,” or blacks, or set a lower salary for African applicants. Some Africans report being paid less than their white colleagues for the same job. Many also said they have experienced of being turned away by taxis, restaurants, or shops. In 2018, a sketch aired during the annual Lunar New Year Gala on state TV featured a Chinese actress in blackface saying things such as “China has done so much for Africa,” and “I love Chinese people! I love China!” A Chinese laundry detergent brand advertisement showed a black man being pushed into a washing machine, getting “cleaned,” and emerging as a lighter skinned Asian.

“African governments together should unequivocally call on the Chinese government to cease all discrimination against Africans in China, and carry out prompt and transparent investigations to hold to account all those responsible for discriminatory practices,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “African governments should also press China to enforce measures to prevent discrimination in the future.”

 

Details and Accounts of Abuses in Guangzhou

Enforced Testing, Quarantine in Guangzhou
On April 2, the state news agency Xinhua reported a Nigerian man with Covid-19 attacked a Chinese nurse who tried to stop him from leaving an isolation ward in a hospital in Guangzhou. The report went viral on Chinese social media, and an online backlash against Africans ensued. On April 7, Guangzhou authorities said five Nigerians living in the city had tested positive for the coronavirus.

On April 20, Guangzhou authorities took David E. (pseudonym), a businessman from Niger, for a coronavirus test and ordered him to self-isolate at home for 14 days, although he had not left Guangzhou since the outbreak nor had any contact with known infected persons. “I have no problem with getting tested,” David told Human Rights Watch. “It is to save lives. But what they are doing is discriminatory. Why is it only us Africans? Why are we Africans treated like we are the virus?”

On the night of April 9, authorities appeared at the home of Micomyiza Jean-Claude from Burundi and took him to a hotel to quarantine for 14 days. Micomyiza said: “I have to pay for the hotel room, 300 yuan (US$50) a night, plus food and beverage. I want to follow the laws, but there is no need for me to continue to stay at the hotel because I have tested negative twice already.”

Upon being released from forced quarantine, Micomyiza was ordered by the police to take two more tests.

James K. (pseudonym), a Kenyan medical student, said that, despite completing a 14-day mandatory quarantine in his dormitory, he was not allowed to go outside of the university campus. He said: “Authorities told us only Africans are to be tested and quarantined. It made no sense. Now after the quarantine, I still can’t go outside the school gate. Why? It’s absurd.”

 

Forcible Evictions, Refused Services
Informed sources told Human Rights Watch that Guangzhou authorities orally instructed landlords and hotels to evict or turn away Africans, resulting in many effectively becoming homeless. Images and videos showing rows of Africans sleeping on the streets with their luggage next to them have been widely circulated online.

Restaurants, shops, and public facilities in Guangzhou have also barred Africans from entering. In a video filmed at a McDonald’s, a sign stated that black people were not allowed to enter the restaurant. McDonald’s later apologized. In another video, workers at a shopping center told a black woman that she could not enter but allowed the white woman next to her to enter.

David said one of his friends on April 19 was refused entry to his apartment by building security after he completed 14 days of quarantine in a hotel: “You can’t go back to your apartment, you can’t stay in a hotel. What the Guangzhou authorities are saying is: ‘We don’t need you anymore. Just go back to your home country.’”

Michael N. (pseudonym), a black Canadian, said he was denied entry to the subway system for two weeks starting on April 10:

The metro station worker told us, “As of this morning, we’ve been told not to let any black people onto the subway.” Then four or five security guards showed up and questioned me. The subway refused me just because of the color of my skin. They don’t care about any documents, or what my health app said.

Micomyiza said despite three tests that showed negative results, he still faced blatant racism:

Taxi drivers sometimes don’t allow Africans in, the public bus drivers often ask Africans to sit in the back seats because Chinese passengers may be frightened by Africans, and when we walk outside some Chinese people shout at us, run away from us, and others close their noses even when they wear masks. These are horrible racist behaviors, but the Chinese government still denies these facts.

James, the Kenyan medical student, said he had experienced discrimination “on a daily basis” in the six years he has lived in Guangzhou, well before the coronavirus pandemic: “Several times, people turned around when they saw me. As a medical student, I was doing an internship. When I approached patients, the patients didn’t even want me to touch them. You can’t even try to come close to them.”

He said the past and current experiences with discrimination made him want to leave China: “I am waiting for the border to open, then I’m leaving China, immediately.”

On March 29, Kyeyune Derrick, a Ugandan national, and his pregnant wife went to a hospital in Dongguan, Guangdong province, for a pregnancy checkup. They were denied entry at the gate. After the video of the incident went viral, authorities visited their home and took them to another hospital for an exam, but later repeatedly pressured them to make videos thanking the Chinese government and calling the refusal of medical service merely a “misunderstanding” due to “language difficulty.” Kyeyune told Human Right Watch: “I feel unsafe, betrayed and used. … Calling that a misunderstanding is a psychological torture to us.”

 

International Legal Standards

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which China ratified in 1981, obligates governments to “undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law.”

The United Nations expert committee that monitors state compliance with the ICERD has specifically called on governments to “[f]ully implement legislation and other measures already in place to ensure that people of African descent are not discriminated against.” Furthermore, government should “[r]eview, adopt and implement national strategies and programmes with a view to improving the situation of people of African descent and protecting them against discrimination by State agencies and public officials, as well as by any persons, group or organization.”

 

Africans in China Urge Stronger African Government Response

African residents in Guangzhou told Human Rights Watch that Chinese authorities started to lift restrictions on Africans in late April, but they believed the discrimination and racism would persist after the pandemic. Michael said:

You can’t just tell people one day that the blacks have the virus, and the second day that black people are not that bad. You can’t expect people to suddenly embrace that. Literally, people are running away from me on the street. It is so absurd. You have to laugh.

Micomyiza said:

Even after the isolation, people will shout and bully us, and call us “virus.” Life will be different even after the pandemic.… I am very tired of being humiliated every day and African leaders keep quiet on racism going on in Guangzhou because they don’t want to spoil business they are doing together. The leaders give more value to business and close their eyes on humanity.

John F. (pseudonym), a Cameroonian national living in Wuhan, said the school where he taught had not paid him since the coronavirus outbreak but that he knew at least two white teachers at the school who continued to receive their monthly salary: “African teachers feel discriminated against. We don’t know what to do, we don’t know where to go to, we have no money, nobody wants to talk about it. We want African governments to take up the issues with the Chinese government.”

David, the businessman from Niger, said lack of action from African governments had left Africans in China vulnerable: “Our leaders don’t care about us. If the Chinese treat us like animals, we can’t be angry, because even our country leaders don’t care about us.”

 

Dozens Killed, Injured in Venezuela Prison Uprising

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 4, 2020
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Prisoners stand on the roof of the "Reten de Cabimas" detention center to demand prison guards let their families, below, enter with food on visitor day in Cabimas, Venezuela, November 17, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

The events in which at least 47 people died and 75 were injured on May 1st in Venezuela’s Los Llanos prison in Guanare, Portuguesa state are an alarming reminder of the awful prison conditions that Venezuela has historically failed to address.

Corruption, weak security, deteriorating infrastructure, overcrowding, insufficient staffing, and poorly trained guards keep armed gangs in effective control over prison populations in Venezuela. The United Nations has reported that prison infrastructure is infested with rats and insects, and detainees do not always have access to natural light, food, or water. Excessive use of pretrial detention – pretrial detainees make up 63 percent of the national prison population – contributes to overcrowding, which is now putting many detainees at risk of Covid-19 infection.  

The Los Llanos prison, which has capacity for 750 people and currently holds 2,500, is no exception.

Venezuela’s minister of prisons, Iris Varela, says the government is investigating claims that the head of a prison gang forced other detainees to attack the prison’s security posts. The prisoners were killed as they trespassed into an area controlled by the Bolivarian National Guard, she said. The prison director and a Bolivarian National Guard lieutenant were injured.

But the nongovernmental group Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP) reported that the killings happened after prisoners protested the guards not providing them with food their families brought to them, which is how prisoners usually get fed. Venezuela is experiencing increasing levels of malnutrition, including among people in prison.

As of May 4, Venezuelan authorities had not provided a final account of how many people died or the status of investigations to establish exactly what happened during the uprising. Only 26 families have received the bodies of their loved ones, according to OVP. Many families cannot travel to the morgue given gas shortages, Covid-19-related restrictions on movement, and the high costs it entails.

Venezuelan authorities have a duty of care for people in prisons, which are under their control. They should ensure detainees are treated with dignity, use force proportionately as a last resort and lethal force only when strictly necessary to protect against death or serious injury. Those responsible for abuses should be brought to justice.

In Venezuela, where authorities behave as if they can act with impunity given the lack of judicial independence in the country, justice for these victims – and others who died in prisons in recent years – is very hard to imagine. That makes it all the more important that civil society and international bodies charged with investigating human rights violations committed in Venezuela continue documenting the facts, pursuing the truth, and pressing for justice – without that, those responsible for these deaths will never be held accountable.

Ecuador’s Constitutional Court Upholds Rights During Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 4, 2020
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Families wearing masks wait outside their homes in the neighborhood of Cristo del Consuelo for food handouts from the local government in Guayaquil, Ecuador, April 14, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo/Angel de Jesus

Ecuador’s Constitutional Court has issued an important decision upholding the fundamental right to an effective remedy for human rights violations amidst the country’s current state of emergency. The April 28 ruling comes after a series of inconsistent decisions by the Judiciary Council, charged with regulating the judiciary, made it harder to protect fundamental rights.

Declaring a state of emergency, which governments may proclaim to protect public health during a pandemic such as Covid-19, permits the suspension of certain rights under international human rights law. But even in a state of emergency, there are some rights that can never be suspended; these include the obligation to provide an effective remedy, including through the courts, for human rights violations.

Covid-19 is no exception. Even though governments may modify judicial procedures in response to the emergency, they must give everyone a way of seeking justice for rights violations.

Clarity on these fundamental principles had been missing in Ecuador until now.

On March 16, President Lenín Moreno issued an executive decree declaring a state of emergency to address Covid-19. The Judiciary Council later closed most of its offices, except those dealing with “flagrant” matters related to criminal justice, domestic violence, traffic, and juvenile offenders. The courts still working in these areas would also review habeas corpus requests on behalf of detained persons.

On April 15, the Pichincha provincial office of the Judiciary Council, which covers Ecuador’s capital, Quito, issued a memorandum providing that the only challenges to violations of rights that people could file were habeas corpus petitions. Human rights organizations filed two complaints challenging the constitutionality of the resolution; they remain pending.

Two days later, the director of the Pichincha office revoked the original memorandum and the council issued another resolution creating procedures to hear claims in six provinces, but it didn’t refer to the memorandum nor did it mention Ecuador’s other 18 provinces.

Lawyers have reported that judges have been inconsistent when receiving and processing court challenges to rights violations provided for in Ecuadorean law, including habeas corpus.

In its April 28 decision, the Constitutional Court ordered the Judiciary Council to adopt clear and timely measures to guarantee Ecuadoreans’ access to justice. The Judiciary Council should urgently clarify that even during the current state of emergency, Ecuadorians will not be restricted in their fundamental right to access justice in cases of human rights violations.

This is not just rhetoric; it’s necessary to ensure Ecuador complies with its international human rights obligations and effectively protects its people in times of emergency. 

Turkmenistan Government’s Deafening Silence After Hurricane

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 4, 2020
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Hurricane damage to a residential building in Turkmenabad, Lebap province, Turkmenistan, May 2020.

© 2020 Turkmen News

Last week a hurricane tore through eastern Turkmenistan’s Lebap and Mary provinces. It was one of the country’s worst natural disasters in almost 10 years. But as residents struggle to bury their dead and repair homes, state and state-affiliated, privately-owned media have maintained a deafening silence.

Turkmenistan has no media freedoms – state media dominates, and the authorities block most independent and Western outlets. Authorities also try to intimidate people from reporting on unsettling or controversial news by jailing them on bogus charges, using proxies to assault them, and threatening their extended families.

Authorities have tried to prevent residents from sharing visuals documenting the hurricane’s destruction. Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens, a Prague-based group, spoke with a woman who security service held for 2 days, together with 29 others, accusing them of sending videos “abroad.” The same group also received reports that security services held another 19 women for the same reason in Turkmenabad, Lebap’s capital, releasing them May 3. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights said police are watching for people in cars filming the damage on their cell phones.

Turkmen authorities’ censorship and efforts to prevent information on the harms sustained from becoming public makes it difficult to accurately assess the damage and casualties. Radio Liberty said it confirmed 30 deaths. Turkmen news spoke with a medical official who estimated 300 dead in Turkmenabad. It seems most buildings in the city have been damaged. Smaller towns have been badly damaged by the winds and flooding. Videos are circulating of roofless homes and severe damage inside.

For years, Lebap province has had chronic shortages of food, with staples sold at state-subsidized prices, and scattered reports indicate this problem has deteriorated. This could worsen food insecurity for people living in poverty.

Utilities were restored in parts of Turkmenabad and some, but not all, towns. Conscripts are clearing debris. The authorities might make construction materials available at discounted prices, and one source reported local authorities are rushing residents to repair their homes.

Some reports indicate the authorities may withhold civil servant’ wages for one month to pay for disaster relief.

Turkmenistan’s priorities should never include hunting down people filming news in their region, but particularly now in the wake of a disaster, the priority should be making effective and comprehensive efforts to bring aid to all who need it.

Pakistan: Investigate ‘Disappearance’ of Activist

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 4, 2020
(New York) – Pakistani authorities have not seriously investigated the enforced disappearance of a political activist and human rights defender, Idris Khattak, who has been missing nearly six months, Human Rights Watch said today.

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Idris Khattak. 

© Twitter/ @IdrisKhattak

Khattak, 56, has not been seen since November 13, 2019, when unidentified armed men intercepted his car near Swabi, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Khattak’s family filed a habeas corpus petition in the Peshawar High Court, which ordered the government to report on Khattak’s whereabouts, but the authorities have repeatedly stalled proceedings.

“The Pakistani government should urgently investigate and report on the whereabouts of the activist Idris Khattak, who has been missing for nearly six months,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Pakistan has an international legal obligation to investigate enforced disappearances, prosecute those responsible, and bring an end to the pain suffered by the families of the disappeared.”

Khattak is a political activist and secretary general of the National Party’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial office. He is also a human rights researcher on Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

His daughter recently said in a statement: “We've been told nothing of his whereabouts or the reason why he was taken. We feel hopeless to [know] when he will return back to us. We miss him every single day.”

Pakistan’s security forces have long been implicated in enforced disappearances, carried out with impunity. The Pakistani Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances reported in December 2019 that 2,141 individual cases remain unresolved. However, the government has yet to provide answers to families, charge or release people held in illegal secret detention centers, or hold those responsible to account.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had been a vocal critic of enforced disappearances while in the political opposition, and, after taking office, approved a draft law criminalizing the practice. However, the draft law has not been presented before parliament for approval. In November 2018, the federal minister for human rights, Dr. Shireen Mazari, who had condemned the practice as violating Pakistan’s constitution, advised the prime minister to sign the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance.

The continuing failure of Pakistani authorities at the national and provincial level to exert the political will to address the issue of enforced disappearances has contributed to the inability of law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system to make headway in tackling the problem. The authorities need to send a strong message to the security forces and to adopt and put into effect concrete measures to end enforced disappearances.

An enforced disappearance occurs when state officials or their agents deprive a person of liberty and then refuse to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or conceal the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person. Enforced disappearances are a continuing offense. They increase the risk of torture and extrajudicial execution and are traumatizing for victims’ families. The prohibition not only requires a government to prevent them, but also entails a duty to investigate allegations of enforced disappearance, provide information on the fate or whereabouts of those disappeared, and prosecute those responsible.

“Enforced disappearances are an egregious crime that will persist in Pakistan unless the government gets serious about investigating them and bringing those responsible to justice,” Adams said. “Now that he is prime minister, Imran Khan needs to ensure that Pakistan takes measures to end the cruel practice.”

 

Protect Kenya’s Journalists Reporting on Covid-19

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 4, 2020
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Ferry passengers flee from police firing tear gas, at the ferry in Mombasa, Kenya Friday, March 27, 2020.

© 2020 AP Photo

Kenyan media didn’t have much to celebrate on World Press Freedom Day.

Kenyan police and senior state officials have continued to intimidate, threaten, and physically attack journalists reporting on sensitive issues, and authorities have done little to end the abuses.

Since March, Kenya has instituted a range of measures to curb the spread of the virus, including a dusk-to-dawn curfew. But police have used excessive violence to enforce it, which has apparently included attacks on journalists.

On March 27, Kenya’s first day of curfew, police in Mombasa allegedly assaulted Peter Wainana, a journalist with one of Kenya’s leading television stations, NTV, long before curfew time. Wainaina was reporting on how police used excessive force against people queuing to board a ferry back home from work ahead of the curfew.

On March 29, police reportedly attacked George Muriithi, a cameraperson for a local television station, Weru, while he filmed police officers and government administrators using violence to enforce social distancing rules on traders in Mintuguu market, Meru County.

On the same day, police arrested three journalists – John Wanyama and Charles Kerecha of Citizen TV, and Mukoya Aywah, an independent journalist – reportedly for violating the curfew in Uasin Gishu and Kiambu counties, despite a government exemption for media from curfew restrictions. The journalists had been asking the public and the police about the curfew implementation.

There have been numerous similar reports of police harassment of journalists across Kenya during the pandemic. ARTICLE 19, a nongovernmental organization that promotes free expression, says that 22 journalists have been attacked since Kenya announced its first Covid-19 case on March 13.

Unfortunately, these problems aren’t new.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19 documented how journalists reporting on sensitive issues in Kenya are obstructed by authorities, including through threats, harassment, and physical assault. And even though journalists make formal complaints, police have rarely investigated the attacks or threats.

Kenya dropped from 96 to 103 in this year’s World Press Freedom Index rankings, and in January 2020 alone, Kenyan media reported at least four incidents of police brutality against journalists in Nairobi, Nakuru, and Mombasa.

Yet access to timely, accurate information and open public debate are crucial for addressing this  public health crisis. Kenya should be protecting journalists, not attacking them.

European Commission Promises to Champion Corporate Accountability

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 4, 2020
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Garment factory workers wear face masks as they end their work shift, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 20, 2020.

(c) 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

The European Union is a step closer to developing regulations for holding companies accountable for their actions. On April 28, European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, pledged support for binding rules requiring companies to conduct human rights due diligence in their global supply chains, which could help protect millions of workers around the world.

The EU needs “real and mandatory regulations” that govern “human rights, social issues, and environmental issues,” Reynders said while presenting the EU’s study on due diligence for supply chains. He outlined a vision for “sustainable corporate governance” and explained that authorities at both EU and national government levels could oversee implementation.

The European Coalition for Corporate Justice and others, including Human Rights Watch, have long championed effective regulations.

Human Rights Watch has exposed environmental and human rights harms in global supply chains in the garment, construction, agriculture, and mining sectors. Deforestation, landgrabs, and poorly regulated mining have contributed to the climate crisis, forced resettlement, child labor, ill-health, and other serious abuses, in countries such as Brazil, Malawi, and Ghana. In others, like Uganda, Indonesia, and Brazil, mining and deforestation have displaced and decimated the livelihoods and identities of indigenous peoples.

Many companies are producing their wares in countries where labor rights regulatory frameworks are weak. In the garment industry, global brands and retailers have often benefited from poor wage and social protection systems in garment-exporting countries, and fueled labor abuses with unfair commercial practices. The Covid-19 crisis has sharpened attention to such problems, and the calamitous impact of that business model is being felt most by poor women workers who are part of the supply chains of these brands.

As the commission prepares to kick-off public consultations following Reynders’ pledge, it should develop its questionnaires for the process with inputs from key stakeholders, including human rights and environmental groups, trade unions, and grassroots organizations that have been at the forefront of holding corporations accountable. Setting a strong agenda that includes sanctions for companies and enforcement mechanisms, coupled with effective public consultations, will form the most solid foundation for the proposed EU regulations.

The time is ripe for the EU to learn from past lessons and finally enforce companies’ legal responsibility for rights abuses in their global supply chains. 

Fears of Covid-19 Outbreak in Nigeria’s Kano State

Human Rights Watch - Monday, May 4, 2020
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Rows of beds inside a Covid-19 coronavirus isolation center at the Sani Abacha stadium in Kano, Nigeria, April 7, 2020.

© 2020 Minu Abubakar/AFP via Getty Images

Recent reports of hundreds more deaths than usual across communities in Nigeria’s Kano State have raised fears that a major Covid-19 outbreak is underway. Official data from Kano State Ministry of Health reports 219 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 5 deaths as of April 30, but residents fear that the outbreak may have caused far more devastation. Authorities should act quickly to ensure accurate public health information is available and accessible to all.

Like most parts of Nigeria healthcare infrastructure in Kano is poor and if not quickly contained, an outbreak among the estimated population of 13.4 million may result in significant deaths.

State authorities have acknowledged the unusually high number of deaths, and while they initially denied they were related to coronavirus they are now conducting “verbal” autopsies.

An independent survey conducted by staff at Kano’s Yusuf Maitama Sule University, which examined the symptoms and demographic profile of patients, strongly suggests Covid-19. Researchers have called on the authorities to conduct postmortems and scale up Covid-19 testing to determine how far the virus has spread.

Access to testing has so far been limited. Amid reports of the rising death toll, Kano’s only testing center was shut down on April 22 for five days due to fears of contamination.

Given the state’s poor health infrastructure, access to timely, accurate, and accessible information is key to curbing transmission of the virus.

A doctor in a Kano state general hospital said public awareness was poor: “There is a lot of misinformation and ignorance about Covid-19 in Kano. Some people do not even believe it is real and this has to change.”

His comments were echoed by the chair of the Nigerian Medical Association in Kano who said that health messaging has mainly been through social media and television – which many people don’t have access to.

Considering Kano’s low literacy rate, the authorities should ensure that public health information is accessible to all and available in relevant languages. They should also act swiftly to identify, isolate, and treat Covid-19 cases as well as trace contacts, in order to curb the virus’ spread.

At this time of crisis, the government should work with trusted community-based groups, religious leaders, and community radio stations to protect citizens by equipping them with the right information.   

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