Russia: Authorities Targeting Free Speech at a University

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Tens of thousands of people rallied in central Moscow Russia, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, for the third consecutive weekend to protest the exclusion of opposition and independent candidates from the Russian capital’s city council ballot.
© 2019 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

(Moscow) – Prosecutors have ordered a university in Moscow to submit detailed information on students and faculty who participated in mass protests and had contacts with foreign groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The order is part of an inspection of the university by a local prosecutor’s office.

The inspection comes a year after mass protests in Moscow attracted thousands of students and other younger people. It seems aimed at intimidating students and faculty, limiting free speech and academic freedom, and falsely portraying critics and protesters as linked to foreign influence.

“Demanding information on politically active students and lecturers appears to be yet another attempt by Russian authorities to stifle activism and academic freedom” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This kind of inspection cannot but send a chilling signal to people in academia who have dissenting views that they could be driven out for political activism.”

On October 16, a trade union of higher education workers published an instruction issued by the rector of the university, the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, directing its officials to gather information required by the prosecutor’s office for the inspection. Attached to the instruction is a letter from the prosecutor’s office, dated October 4, notifying the rector about the inspection, listing the required information, and setting an October 18 deadline for responding.

The local prosecutor’s notification states that inspections of academic institutions’ compliance with Russian law are conducted at the request of the Moscow City Prosecutor Office. The BBC reported that the Academy declined to comment on the instruction and that at least one other university had said that it had not received such a request.

The first part of the inspection notice requests generic information about state accreditation, licenses, and general compliance with the Law on Education and the labor law.

The language in the second part of the notice, and the types of data it requires, make clear that one aim of the inspection is to uncover “destructive” foreign influence on Russia’s younger generation. It singles out the need to report on, among other things, “pro-American groups of influence that can be used by international NGOs trying to achieve their destructive goals,” the “falsification of global and Russian history to achieve the geopolitical interests of ani-Russian forces,” and the “destruction of Russian traditional spiritual and moral values.”

The notification requires the Academy to provide a list of all of its international projects or programs funded from abroad and to explain how they comply with Russian law, joint programs with foreign nongovernmental groups, and any activities within the university by groups deemed “undesirable” in Russia or threatening state security and “the foundations of Russia’s constitutional order.” The latter includes training election observers, monitoring elections, “ideological propaganda” such as promoting “American and European democratic and liberal values,” and meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs by, for example, monitoring government practices, publishing findings, and proposing recommendations for improvements.

For years, Russian authorities have used the pretext of protecting the state from foreign influence to demonize, intimidate, and shut down nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists who criticize or seek change in government policies.

The Kremlin’s efforts to marginalize critics crystallized with the 2012 “foreign agents” law, requiring Russian organizations that accept foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” a term that is widely understood in Russia to mean spy or traitor. Challenges from at least 66 groups against this law are pending before the European Court of Human Rights. The 2015 law on “undesirable” foreign organizations” banned the activities of foreign or international NGOs deemed to be undermining state security, national defense, or the constitutional order and set out administrative and criminal penalties for Russian citizens who cooperate with them.

The prosecutor’s office also required the Academy to submit information about students who participate in unauthorized mass protests, about protest organizers, whether protesters were paid, and whether they had previously taken part in international exchange programs. It demanded data on events that develop “civil protest skills,” such as organizing mass public gatherings or legal defense in case of detention during a protest.

In summer 2019, numerous unauthorized but peaceful protests took place in Moscow, triggered by the exclusion of independent candidates from the city legislature’s elections. The authorities responded with force and harassment through abuse of the legal system, prosecuting dozens of people.

Many students from Moscow universities joined the protests, and some faced administrative and criminal charges. Some universities threatened to expel student protesters. An official with the Higher School of Economics, one of Russia’s leading universities, initially supported students’ right to peacefully protest during summer 2019. But in January 2020, the university introduced restrictions on students’ political activism on campus in an effort to distance itself from such activities.

Although the notice states that the inspection is based on Russian laws on education, the purpose is to require universities to monitor the peaceful and lawful activism of faculty and students with dissenting views, which goes beyond the main goals of an educational organization, Human Rights Watch said.

“The prosecutor’s order frames peaceful activism as something that is destructive and that should be monitored and rooted out,” Williamson said. “This is a blatant violation of the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and assembly and fosters an atmosphere that jeopardizes academic freedom. The authorities should ensure that students and faculty can openly express their opinions without fear of reprisal.”

US: Heat Emergency Plans Missing Pregnancy, Racial Justice

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© RuslanDashinsky/Getty Images

(Washington, DC) – Many plans by local, state, and federal authorities in the United States to respond to heat extremes and climate change miss the threat that extreme heat poses to pregnancy, particularly for low-income and Black and brown people, Human Rights Watch and partners said today. Authorities should promote racial and reproductive justice and address stark racial disparities in health outcomes.

“We reviewed more than 100 heat and climate change adaptation plans or associated documents but found only a couple of references to pregnancy,” said Skye Wheeler, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Pregnant people, and especially Black and brown people, need to be at the table as we tackle the multiple harms to health from increasing heat.”

A Better Balance, the Black Women’s Health Imperative, Human Rights Watch, the National Birth Equity Collaborative, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice-Florida released today a fact sheet, “Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States.” Reproductive Justice is a global movement created by Black women’s rights activists in the US. It seeks to ensure the human right to legal and equitable access to comprehensive, high quality reproductive health services, and a healthy and safe environment for all women during pregnancy and while raising children.

Fact Sheet: Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States

Fact Sheet: Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States

Human Rights Watch reviewed 105 official heat safety web pages, climate action plans, heat plans, heat advisories, disaster plans, and sustainability initiatives for 18 large US cities, including the 15 most populous, with a total of 32 million people. As of August 2020, only two of these documents, from Chicago and Philadelphia, explicitly addressed the danger heat poses during pregnancy. Since the review was conducted, Human Rights Watch has seen that New York City has also included this group in a list of vulnerable populations. Concerns about the dangers of heat for pets were found 37 times.

A Buzzfeed article from August also found that out of 25 US cities, only Chicago and Philadelphia mentioned pregnancy in public heat guidelines.

Heat-related illnesses range from heat rashes and cramps to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which is a medical emergency and can be fatal or cause permanent disability. Every year, more people die in the US from heat than from any other weather-related cause, and the number of heat-related deaths is increasing. Heat stress threatens health during pregnancy and fetal health exposure to high temperatures results in higher rates of premature birth as well as other adverse birth outcomes.

Because of systemic racism, Black women and other women of color in the US face dramatically worse pregnancy health and birth outcomes than white women. Some studies suggest that Black pregnant women may be especially vulnerable to the emerging threat of heat. Women of color and low-income women may also face more hours of dangerous heat, because they work in hot conditions – for example about one-fifth of US farmworkers are women – or because they live in parts of cities with less green space and higher average temperatures.

The 2020 summer was hotter than usual, a trend that is expected to continue, although some parts of the US have had bigger heat increases than others in the past decades. Predictions for extreme increases in heat by the end of the century can only be mitigated by rapid action to cut carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Regardless, temperatures are set to rise significantly in much of the US because of increased carbon, already present because of past emissions.

City studies of local dangers of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, flooding, or heat waves, and local climate change action plans did often note, correctly, that the impact of climate change varies greatly between individuals and communities. Many said that older people, people with pre-existing conditions such as heart and respiratory disease, as well as athletes and children, are especially vulnerable to illness and death from extreme heat.

Some plans or warnings cited outdoor workers as an at-risk group. There is no federal heat standard protecting US workers from extreme heat, although laws protecting access to cooling or water, shade, and rest in at least some circumstances are in place in California, Minnesota, and Washington states. An incomplete but increasing number of states provide accommodations for pregnant workers such as additional water breaks. In September 2020, the US House of Representatives passed a federal bill, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, that would provide explicit protections nationally, though it remains pending in the Senate.

Some climate change or heat plans reviewed discussed how low-income communities, communities with less access to air conditioning, or communities of color are more likely to be hit harder by heat or other extreme weather. Most did not include recommendations to address racial inequities and racism as part of the response to the climate crisis, although some did. Scholars, climate activists, and public health officials have cited these inequities and said that local plans addressing climate change should be as inclusive as possible.

A 2020 study estimated that there may have been 12,000 heat-related deaths a year during the last decade in the contiguous US and warned that the number could increase to 110,000 a year under high-emission “business-as-usual” scenarios by the year 2100. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not published complete data on heat-related deaths over the last decade; from 1999 to 2010 it recorded around 618 heat-related deaths every year. But because the recorded cause of death is often another health event, such as a heart attack, this is an underestimation.

Many studies show that heat exposure is linked to premature birth and others also link exposure to heat to low birth weight, birth defects, and stillbirth. Several reviews of studies warn that more needs to be done to address these findings, especially given predictions of hotter days and nights as well as acute heat wave periods. Premature birth is a leading cause of infant death and linked to higher rates of lifelong intellectual and physical health problems. Premature birth can also create a heavy financial and emotional toll on families.

The rates of premature births in the US grew for a fifth year in a row in 2019. The CDC says that Black women’s pregnancies end in premature birth 50 percent more often than those of white women. Low birth weight is also twice as common among babies born to Black women, and stillbirth is more than twice as common for Black women as for white women. The March of Dimes, which fights premature birth in the US, provides analysis that shows that Hispanic and Native American women also have worse birth outcomes than white women.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has explicitly called for including pregnancy when “prioritiz(ing) the most vulnerable” to climate change. The US government should increase funding for efforts addressing the impact of climate change on human health. Cities, states, and Native American tribes should also ensure that their programming to prepare for climate impacts on human health includes pregnancy health and addresses reproductive injustice because of racism and poverty.

The US Congress should pass federal heat protection for all workers, for example through passing the Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, and the Senate should pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act so that pregnant workers have an explicit right to accommodations, including to prevent heat-related illnesses during pregnancy. States should ensure that workers have and know about workplace protections for pregnancy already in place, including accommodations.

“The effects of climate change and extreme heat on pregnant people are a matter of racial, gender, and economic justice and cannot be ignored,” said Sarah Brafman, senior policy counsel and director of the DC office at A Better Balance. “One key step our lawmakers need to take is to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to ensure that pregnant people – especially low-income women and women of color who are too often exposed to higher rates of extreme heat – are able to seek accommodations so they don’t have to choose between their paycheck and their health by continuing to work in dangerously hot environments.”

Climate change impacts on health should be included in medical education. Doctors, midwives, and community birth workers can provide information about the importance of hydration and keeping cool during pregnancy. Doctors should ask pregnant patients about their work and exposure to heat and, where appropriate, provide letters to employers to help workers access reasonable workplace accommodations.

Cities and other US jurisdictions should revise their plans and websites before the next heating season to include pregnancy and to address the special needs in communities of color, Human Rights Watch and its partner groups said.

“Black women experience higher rates of premature birth and negative birth outcomes, which affect their and their children’s chances for a healthy life,” said Kelly Davis, Chief Equity Officer at the National Birth Equity Collaborative. “Climate change impacts, including heat, remains a challenge for Black people, along with other marginalized and minority groups, for achieving healthy pregnancies and supportive parenting environments. The movement to combat climate change must include addressing structural racism and gender oppression in service of birth equity.”

For more information on the health impacts of increasing heat and reproductive justice, please see below.


No Federal Action Plan on Climate Change, Health Impact
The National Climate Assessment, written by the US Global Change Research Program, a body mandated by the US Congress to summarize current and future impacts of climate change on the US, has, together with many scientists and advocates, warned over the past 20 years of extensive negative health impacts from climate change, including increases in heat-related illness and deaths.

The US has struggled with increasing numbers of extreme weather events over the past decade including heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires and massive flooding that have devastated communities and, between 2007 and 2017 alone, cost the US government $350 billion. Weather-related disasters have cost the US over $46 billion so far in 2020 alone.

Despite this, the US government has no federal plan to address the climate crisis or its detrimental impact on human health. Under the administration of President Donald Trump the United States has reversed course on reducing carbon emissions. Trump canceled his predecessor’s climate action plan and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

But President Barack Obama’s plan was also not ambitious enough in reducing emissions and contained little on the health impact of climate change. Funding for the federal flagship climate change and health program “Building Resilience Against Climate Effects” (BRACE), allows for little more than providing advice and modest grants for a total of 18 tribes and states to address some climate impacts. The program received about $10 million for 2019.

Pregnancy Information in Government Heat Plans
Many cities, counties, and states in the US have begun to independently plan for and take action on climate change. Heat awareness efforts have understandably largely focused on reducing mortality and heat-related illnesses. This approach risks authorities missing the hidden costs of heat such as adverse birth outcomes, increases in violence during periods of hotter weather, mental health impacts, and reductions in productivity and educational achievements.

BRACE and academic experts on the relationship of heat to health have urged authorities to assess how heat affects different populations and to recognize that some are much more vulnerable than others. One guiding document by BRACE provides a strong emphasis and substantial supporting research on the importance of including racial inequities in addressing heat illness and other impacts.

Although information on the added vulnerability to heat illness during pregnancy and the link between heat and adverse birth outcomes have been available for years, only two cities included in the Human Rights Watch analysis included this in their planning or analysis. The Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications recommends that during pregnancy people should “avoid extreme heat, stay well hydrated and follow advice of their medical providers.” Philadelphia’s page on heat safety includes pregnant women as a vulnerable population. Since the review was conducted, Human Rights Watch has seen that New York City has also included this group, noting on one webpage: “[p]regnant people are sensitive to heat. An increase in body temperature may bring on labor, preterm birth or lower birth weight. Those who are pregnant should stay in a cool place, drink fluids and take it easy when it’s hot.”

The CDC and the EPA have acknowledged pregnant people as an at-risk population in their “Extreme Heat Guidebook.” The National Climate Assessment 4 (2018) included studies on heat and preterm birth and included pregnant people as an at-risk group. The US Global Change Research Program also noted that climate-related exposures “may lead to adverse pregnancy and newborn health outcomes, including spontaneous abortion, low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds), preterm birth (birth before 37 weeks of pregnancy), [and] increased neonatal death.”

State-level climate change planning documents from North Carolina, New York, and Oregon have noted that pregnancy presents additional vulnerability as well as the link to preterm birth and other adverse birth outcomes.

Although the impact of heat on pregnancy health may be acknowledged elsewhere, front-facing heat public education webpages for the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency do not include pregnant people as an at-risk group. Communication efforts should include pregnancy vulnerabilities, including through a reproductive and racial justice lens.

Heat and Pregnancy Health
For hormonal and other reasons, such as their increased size and smaller skin-to-volume ratio, during pregnancy people are less able to regulate their body temperature and are more vulnerable to heat stress. The additional vulnerability to heat has been noted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, a government research and education agency) says:

If your job causes your body temperature to become higher than 39°C (102.2°F), you may suffer from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, or dehydration, which are not good for either you or your developing baby. If you are pregnant, you are more likely to get heat exhaustion or heat stroke sooner than a nonpregnant worker. This is because your body must work harder to cool down both your body and your unborn baby. If you are pregnant, you are also more likely to become dehydrated. This also means you won’t be able to cool yourself as well by sweating. … Exposure to excess heat at work could increase your chances of having baby with a birth defect or other reproductive problems.

A 2020 review paper of academic peer-reviewed studies in the US found that “five out of five studies on heat and preterm birth found an effect, and three out of three studies on heat and low birth weight found an effect.” Increased risk of preterm birth because of high temperature exposures “range(d) … from 8.6 percent to 21.0 percent.” Two reports “found an association of racial/ethnic disparity and heat exposure with an increasing risk of preterm birth; higher risk was found among black mothers.” Another study on pregnancy health and heat found that pregnant Black women had more hospitalizations due to heat exposure during their pregnancy than other women.

One 2017 review of 28 peer-reviewed papers on heat and adverse birth outcomes found: “There is evidence that temperature extremes adversely impact birth outcomes, including, but not limited to: changes in length of gestation, birth weight, stillbirth, and neonatal stress in unusually hot temperature exposures.” Findings from another review of 15 studies, also published in 2017, “confirm the crucial importance of the adverse health effects of climate change especially in the perinatal period.”

Heat has other impacts on pregnancy health. Another important effect is that warming temperatures increase the formation of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory illness in pregnant women and can lead to low birth weight or preterm birth. Forest fires, like those in California in recent years, also worsen air quality and release large amounts of fine particulate matter, PM 2.5, a toxic pollutant in smoke that is linked to poor pregnancy outcomes.

Heat and Inequity
Activists and scholars examining racial and environmental justice in the US are increasingly recognizing the negative health effects of heat exposure, and have noted, in a CDC report for example, that “many pathways that modify vulnerability to extreme heat vary by race and ethnicity.”

A study published in 2020 found that areas formerly subjected to redlining – a racist housing policy banned in 1968 that made Black and other minority neighborhoods less valuable, leading to further marginalization – in 108 urban areas across the US are still mostly – 94 percent – hotter than non-redlined areas, by as much as 7 degrees Celsius. An investigation by the National Public Radio service found a strong correlation between poverty, often in communities of color, and heat in cities.

One study of 234,042 adult deaths during warm periods between 2000 and 2011 in New York City found that “deaths during heat waves were more likely to occur in black individuals than other race/ethnicity.” A study of Portland, Oregon, found “groups with limited adaptive capacity, including those in poverty and non-white populations, are at higher risk for heat exposure” noting that “climate change is catalyst for injustice.”

Air conditioning protects against heat, but is unequally distributed. In one study, for example, prevalence of central air conditioning among Black households was less than half that among white households in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh, and deaths among Black people were more strongly associated with hot temperatures. Energy burdens – the proportion of family income spent on energy bills – are higher for minority groups in the US and when money is tight families may not be able to use air conditioning.

As temperatures increase, heat exposure is also increasingly an issue of concern to labor unions and others working to protect the rights and health of outdoor workers – for example construction workers, farmworkers and airport workers, and people working in hot indoor sites such as some warehouses. The nongovernmental organization Public Citizen estimated that in July 2017, over 1.1 million outdoor workers labored in dangerous heat each working day, including 265,000 agriculture workers. A study in Florida found that pregnant farmworkers found it difficult to access health services that included information about occupational health, including exposure to heat.

While government health agencies advise workers to take “plenty of breaks” in cool or air-conditioned areas, this may not be possible for pregnant farmworkers, and especially women who need to earn money before their baby is born and have no paid parental leave.

A national heat standard, which would protect outdoor workers by mandating water, rest, shade, and other protections, has long been needed. NIOSH issued criteria for a heat standard in 1972 and then updated it in 1986 and 2016.

However, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, which is responsible for work safety and rules and regulations, has never issued a heat standard. It has only the vague and hard-to-enforce general duty clause (of the Occupational Safety and Health Act) to punish employers for forcing people to work in health-threatening heat. Pregnancy accommodations, such as to be able to take more frequent water and cooling breaks, should be better protected, as envisaged in the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, Human Rights Watch and partners said.

Fact Sheet: Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States

Fact Sheet: Increasing Temperatures because of the Climate Change Crisis is a Reproductive Justice Issue in the United States

Azerbaijan: Cluster Munitions Used in Nagorno-Karabakh

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A shop containing toilets, tiles and other housewares burns in Stepanakert on the night of October 3, 2020 after the city is shelled. 
© 2020 Union of Informed Citizens.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly used widely banned cluster munitions in residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch said today. During an on-site investigation in Nagorno-Karabakh in October 2020, Human Rights Watch documented four incidents in which Azerbaijan used cluster munitions.

Fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the de-facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh dramatically escalated on September 27, 2020. Two humanitarian ceasefires brokered by members of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe have failed to halt the fighting. According to authorities from all parties, scores of civilians have been killed or injured in attacks in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan.

“The continued use of cluster munitions – particularly in populated areas – shows flagrant disregard for the safety of civilians,” said Stephen Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition. “Cluster munitions should never be used by anyone under any circumstances, much less in cities, due to the foreseeable and unacceptable harm to civilians.”

In the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Human Rights Watch is investigating whether all sides of the conflict adhere to international humanitarian law, which requires armed forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military objects and civilian objects, at all times. As such, indiscriminate attacks are prohibited, including attacks which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific legitimate military target. Human Rights Watch has made repeated requests to the Azerbaijani government for access to conduct on-site investigations, but access has not yet been granted.

Human Rights Watch examined remnants of the rockets, impacts, and remnants of submunitions that exploded, as well as dud submunitions that failed to function at several locations in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s administrative center, which is called Khankendi in Azerbaijan. Human Rights Watch also examined photographs taken in the town of Hadrut of a rocket, impacts, and remnants of submunitions that exploded, and a dud submunition that failed to explode. Human Rights Watch also spoke to six people who witnessed the attacks. Azerbaijani officials have accused the Armenian side of using cluster munitions in this conflict, but Human Rights Watch has not independently verified those claims.

Residents of Stepanakert told Human Rights Watch that attacks using cluster munitions began on the morning of September 27 in a residential area no more than 200 meters from the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.  

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© 2020 Planet Labs

A 69-year-old woman who was in her apartment on the fourth floor of a building next to where Human Rights Watch observed scores of the distinctive impacts of the M095 submunitions said the building began to shake around 7:15 a.m.: “The children started to scream and everyone was panicking when the bombs started coming down. We opened the windows and saw that the cars were burning. We saw that they had small pink things that were making them burn, so we ran down to the basement.”

She said that a number of submunitions did not explode and that people in the neighborhood covered them with sand from the children’s playground until emergency responders came the next day to secure and remove them. She said glass broken from the blasts injured a number of people in the neighborhood. Another resident told Human Rights Watch that dozens of vehicles were damaged.

On October 12, Human Rights Watch visited the site and, in addition to the distinctive impacts of the submunitions, Human Rights Watch observed several damaged and burned vehicles and numerous broken windows in nearby apartments and a shop located in the courtyard. However, the exact damage to the area done by the submunitions is unknown because another subsequent attack was carried out with a different munition in roughly the same location.

At least one more LAR-160 cluster munition rocket was fired roughly into the same area several hundred meters away. Human Rights Watch observed the remnants of a LAR-160 rocket, scores of the distinctive impacts of the M095 submunitions, the remnants of the pink-colored stabilization ribbons, and submunition fragments. Numerous buildings, private business, and markets had varying degrees of damage from the attack.

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The distinctive, ring-shaped, pre-formed fragments of an Israeli-made M095 submunition near a shop in Stepanakert. 
© 2020 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch spoke to one worker for a nongovernmental group who observed a fire in a shop following an attack in this second neighborhood when he visited the site at approximately 11:20 p.m. on October 3. Human Rights Watch also reviewed a photograph taken by this witness that, according to the photograph’s metadata, was captured on October 3 at 11:20 p.m. 

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Body of a LAR-160 series Israeli-made rocket in a residential neighborhood in Stepanakert.
© 2020 Human Rights Watch

A video uploaded on the Telegram channel “Re:public of Artsakh” on October 4, captured another cluster munition rocket attack on Hakob Hakobyan Street in Stepanakert. Human Rights Watch spoke to two people who live on Hakob Hakobyan Street and witnessed the attack. One 55-year-old resident said that she was in her fourth-floor apartment during the attack. She said that some of the explosions occurred on the roof and ruptured the water pipes on the top of the building, causing water to run down from the upper floors. As a consequence, the water was shut off to the building.

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The distinctive pattern of a M095 dual-purpose submunition impact on the ground along with its pink-colored ribbon in Stepanakert near Karabakh Telecom’s main building. 
© 2020 Human Rights Watch.

Rescue services were able to clear the submunitions from the top of the building after several days and access to water was restored but there has been no electricity in the building since the attack. An individual familiar with the electrical grid told Human Rights Watch that they were working to restore electricity in the area but could only provide electricity to basements and shelters for the time being.

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Damage to a private vehicle near Karabakh Telecom from an Israeli-made dual-purpose M095 submunition that produces a jet of molten metal intended to destroy vehicles and materiel. 
© 2020 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch was not able to identify any military equipment or bases in the three neighborhoods where the attacks took place. Even if there had been, given the indiscriminate effects of cluster munitions, their use in a residential civilian setting is not permitted under the laws of war.

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Workers attempt to repair damaged electrical lines in Stepanakert near the Karabakh Telecom building which is surrounding by residential buildings. 
© 2020 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch also examined 35 photographs and one video shared directly with Human Rights Watch from the town of Hadrut of a LAR-160 rocket and its fuse, impacts, and remnants of M095 submunitions that exploded, and dud submunitions that failed to explode in and around a home. According to the metadata of the media, they were recorded on October 3. Human Rights Watch verified the location of the video and photographs as taken in the town of Hadrut. On October 4, a video was uploaded on YouTube by the Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that showed the same house and remnants.

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Remnant of an Israeli-made LAR-160 series rocket that struck a house in a residential area in the town of Hadrut.  
© 2020 Union of Informed Citizens

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A M136 R fuze associated with the Israeli-made LAR-160 series rocket found in a residential area in the town of Hadrut. 
© 2020 Union of Informed Citizens.

Cluster munitions have been banned because of their widespread indiscriminate effect and long-lasting danger to civilians. Cluster munitions typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of small bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Cluster submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines.

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Two unexploded Israeli-made M095 submunitions, one of which is armed, in a residential area in the town of Hadrut following an attack on the city. 
© 2020 Union of Informed Citizens

The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions comprehensively prohibits cluster munitions and requires their clearance as well as assistance to victims. Armenia and Azerbaijan are not among the treaty’s 110 states parties. Both say that they cannot accede to the treaty until the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved. Both should take the necessary steps to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

Regardless of specific treaty obligations, all parties to the conflict are bound by the Geneva Conventions and customary international law and must abide by the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, which requires armed forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military objects and civilian objects, at all times. It is also forbidden to carry out indiscriminate attacks or attacks that cause excessive civilian damage to the anticipated concrete military advantage.

“The repeated use of cluster munitions by Azerbaijan should cease immediately as their continued use serves to heighten the danger for civilians for years to come,” Goose said.

Additional information about cluster munitions attacks in Nagorno-Karabakh

Human Rights Watch identified the remnants of Israeli-produced LAR-160 series cluster munition rockets and unexploded M095 dual-purpose submunitions in Stepanakert and Hadrut. Each rocket carries 104 submunitions and each submunition is equipped with a self-destruct mechanism. Azerbaijan received these surface-to-surface rockets and launchers from Israel in 2008–2009. Neither Armenia, nor Nagorno-Karabakh de-facto authorities, are known to stockpile cluster munitions but they possess multi-barrel rocket launchers capable of delivering these weapons.

Human Rights Watch identified the Israeli-produced M095 dual-purpose submunition in each location. When this submunition detonates on impact, it produces lethal pre-formed metal fragments and a jet of molten metal intended to destroy vehicles and materiel. Human Rights Watch observed hundreds of the distinctive impacts of M095 submunitions as well as remnants of the pink-colored nylon stabilization ribbons in three neighborhoods in Stepanakert.

On October 13, Human Rights Watch visited the site where the witness saw and photographed the burning shop at 11:20 p.m. on October 3 and observed the same scorched building visible in the photograph and at least three pink stabilization ribbons a few meters away from the building as well as numerous distinctive impacts consistent with M095 submunitions. Human Rights Watch found remnants of a LAR-160 rocket 10 meters from the building and observed impacts to the roof of the building that were consistent with kinetic damage. According to available satellite imagery, the attack took place between September 27 and October 8. On October 8, the imagery shows damage to the building that is consistent with fire.

In the attack on Hakob Hakobyan Street, the distinctive auditory signature of at least three separate rockets dispersing payloads of submunitions, and their subsequent detonations can be heard in the video of the attack, believed to have been filmed by a vehicle’s dashcam. On October 12, Human Rights Watch visited the site where the video was taken and counted over 100 individual impacts on the same street. Human Rights Watch also observed scores of submunition impacts on immediately adjacent streets and on rooftops of office and residential buildings on several adjacent streets within a 100-meter radius. In a separate visit on October 13, Human Rights Watch found the remnants of a LAR-160 series rocket less than 100 meters from the location the video of the attack was taken. Human Rights Watch observed damage to power lines, children’s playgrounds, vehicles, businesses, homes, the main post office, and the Karabakh Telecom building.


Foreigners Living with HIV in Jordan Face an Impossible Choice

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Silhouettes are cast on a Jordanian national flag in Amman, Jordan, November 30, 2016. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon

In Jordan, medical professionals and health facilities are mandated to report an individual’s HIV status to the government. Foreign nationals found to be HIV-positive are summarily deported regardless of the consequences to their health and safety and banned for life from returning.

Earlier this year, an Iraqi gay man living with HIV fled to Jordan to escape persecution he faced at home for being gay, yet he could not access HIV treatment without being immediately deported. When his health rapidly deteriorated, he could not seek medical attention for fear of being deported. Whatever decision he made would threaten his life. 

Jordan also obliges nationals to undergo HIV testing when seeking employment in the public sector and for non-nationals obtaining work permits, and denies them jobs if they are HIV-positive. It also requires testing for non-nationals renewing residency permits. For LGBT people living with HIV, the stigma and discrimination by medical professionals and employers often bars them from accessing basic rights, without any legal recourse.

Abdallah Hanatleh, executive director of “Sawaed,” an Amman-based organization that facilitates access to HIV treatment, told Human Rights Watch that his organization documents dozens of deportations based on HIV status annually.

Jordan is not alone in this abusive practice. Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also deport people found to be HIV-positive without any provision for continuity of care. Worse yet, in Jordan, as in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, HIV-positive foreign nationals in the criminal justice system are denied adequate access to treatment in prison. “They are placed in solitary confinement, further isolating and stigmatizing them,” Hanatleh said.

International law prohibits deportations based solely on HIV status. Jordan should explicitly ban discrimination based on HIV status and stop deporting HIV-positive individuals under the principle of non-refoulement. This principle applies to asylum seekers and refugees, and for people with HIV, it means that governments are prohibited from returning them — depending on how advanced the disease — to places where they do not have adequate access to medical care and social support, or where they risk being subjected to persecution or degrading treatment on account of their HIV status.

Jordan should not mandate reporting of HIV status and employers should not be requiring HIV testing in the first place. People living with HIV should never be forced to forego lifesaving treatment in order to avoid deportation to danger.

Turkey: 2nd Politically Motivated Trial for Rights Defender

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Osman Kavala
© 2017 Private

(Istanbul) – A new bogus indictment against human rights defender and businessman, Osman Kavala, and US academic, Henri Barkey, for allegedly spying and attempting to overthrow Turkey’s constitutional order is politically motivated and bereft of legal credibility, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said today. The indictment, alleging the two were involved in the July 15, 2016, attempted military coup, demonstrates Turkey’s blatant refusal to abide by a European Court of Human Rights judgment, finalized in May 2020, which ordered Kavala’s release, and not only prolongs ongoing violations of his rights but gives rise to new ones.

An Istanbul court on October 8 accepted the indictment and has scheduled a first trial hearing against Kavala, who was been in Istanbul’s Silivri Prison since November 2017, and Barkey, who lives in the US, for December 18.

“The new case against Osman Kavala and Henri Barkey demonstrates the Turkish authorities’ flagrant misuse of the courts for political ends and their fundamental disregard for the basic principles of criminal justice,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Defying the European Court of Human Rights order to release Kavala has confirmed the Court’s conclusion that Turkey is using detention and prosecution to silence a human rights defender.”

The 64-page prosecutor’s indictment, dated September 28, accuses Kavala and Barkey of “securing for purposes of political or military espionage information that should be kept confidential for reasons relating to the security or domestic or foreign policy interests of the state” (under Turkish Penal Code article 328), punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and “attempting through force and violence to overthrow the constitutional order of the Republic of Turkey or introduce a different order or prevent this order” (article 309), punishable with life in prison without parole.

The indictment recycles unsubstantiated accusations, which previously circulated in the pro-government Turkish media, that Kavala and Barkey were involved in espionage and in the 2016 attempted military coup. The indictment provides no credible evidence linking them with any criminal activities. (Further details about the content of the indictment are provided below.)

In a December 2019 judgment, which became final on May 11, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the evidence on which Kavala was detained for the Gezi protests and the 2016 coup attempt was insufficient and agreed that Kavala’s detention and the charges against him “pursued an ulterior purpose, namely to silence him as a human rights defender.” On September 3, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, acting in its supervisory capacity for the implementation of European Court judgments, issued a decision ordering the Turkish government to ensure Kavala’s release, pointing to “a strong presumption that his current detention is a continuation of the violations found by the Court.”

On September 29, pro-government media reported that the Istanbul prosecutor’s office had prepared the new indictment against Kavala and Barkey. On the same day, Turkey’s Constitutional Court postponed its review of Kavala’s application regarding the legality of his continuing detention, which had been scheduled for that day.

On October 1, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers issued a second decision calling on Turkey to ensure Kavala’s immediate release, expressing “deep concern that the applicant has still not been released” and announcing that an interim resolution would be issued at the Committee of Ministers’ December 1-3 session if Kavala had not yet been released.

“Turkey is bound by the ruling from European Court to free Kavala immediately, and the ruling covers his detention under the latest case against him,” said Roisin Pillay, director of the ICJ Europe and Central Asia Programme. “The new indictment presents no new grounds to justify his detention, and it is imperative that Turkey ends the persecution campaign against him by releasing him and dropping all charges.”

Indictment against Osman Kavala and Henri Barkey

A repetitive and rambling document, the indictment makes a series of wild assertions about the defendants and offers opinions on their activities but presents no evidence on which to ground a criminal prosecution. The indictment is devoid of details of any information the two obtained that could have constituted spying, as well as where, when, and for what purpose they obtained it, and how they were involved in the coup attempt. The prosecutor cites witness statements, police reports, data from cell phone base receiver stations, wiretap records, travel records, and open-source data as evidence but in fact the information purportedly provided by these sources carries no probative weight as evidence of the alleged offenses.

For example, the prosecutor provides no evidence that Kavala and Barkey ever met directly beyond an encounter in a restaurant on July 18, 2016, which both say was a brief exchange of greetings since each was having dinner separately with different people. In the absence of any evidence of meetings, the prosecutor relies on cell phone signal records from the same base receiver stations that indicate on twelve different dates over three years that Kavala and Barkey were present, along with thousands of other people, in central Istanbul locations at the same time. The implausible explanation of why there is no actual evidence of meetings or direct communication is that “Henri Jak Barkey knew about and implemented intelligence tactics and methods and they were especially careful on this matter.”   

The prosecutor lists details of travel by the defendants and other people mentioned at different times to different places but presents no evidence that they knew about each other’s movements or that their travel demonstrates that they acted in coordination for a criminal purpose. The prosecutor repeatedly asserts that such information is significant without demonstrating what its significance might be and how it could be relevant to an investigation into espionage or the July 15 coup attempt.

Throughout the entire indictment, the prosecutor fails to provide any causal relation between the information provided and the crimes with which Kavala and Barkey are charged. Long sections of the text describing the Gezi protests and a chronology of incidents that occurred before and during the July 15 coup attempt in which neither defendant is mentioned, fail to demonstrate the relevance of this information to the case against the two but do corroborate that the Turkish authorities are pursuing a second bogus prosecution on the same evidence that was deemed irrelevant and insufficient to establish reasonable grounds for the earlier prosecution.

Most of the information about Kavala focuses on his alleged involvement in the Gezi Park protests, substantially repeating assertions and details of his meetings that constituted the evidence during his first trial and on which Istanbul Assize Court no. 30 acquitted him. An appeal by the prosecutor against that acquittal is underway. In the new indictment, the prosecutor disregards the fact that the same material formed the basis of the earlier trial and asserts that Kavala’s alleged involvement in the Gezi protests demonstrates his further involvement in the 2016 coup attempt. The prosecutor fails to present any information about Kavala’s activities that are relevant to the coup attempt and concludes that Kavala was Barkey’s “[right] arm and local collaborator.”

The prosecutor’s indictment also focuses on a civic group, Anadolu Kültür A.S., which Kavala founded and runs, describing its activities as “divisive” and discriminatory for focusing on minority groups in Turkey. The prosecutor’s assertions about Anadolu Kültür lack any obvious relevance to either the espionage or coup charges Kavala faces. It is unclear why the indictment includes commentary about the organization’s activities, which predominantly relate to arts as a means of dialogue across the political spectrum.

The main accusation against Barkey in the indictment is that he organized a conference about Iran in a hotel on Istanbul’s Büyükada island at the time of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt as cover for his involvement in the coup. The prosecutor also focuses on Barkey’s regular travel to Turkey over years, including in the year of the Gezi Park protests, to suggest that he was engaged in nefarious activities. Presenting no detail of these activities or of the alleged espionage and coup plotting, the prosecutor admits the lack of evidence with the conclusion that “certainly because intelligence organizations’ activities are conducted secretly it must be taken into consideration that it has not been possible to establish all the suspect’s espionage activities against Turkey” (p. 40). 

Undaunted by the lack the evidence of espionage, the prosecutor focuses on the Iran conference, those invited, and how they followed news of the coup from their Büyükada hotel. The prosecutor attributes particular significance to the alleged discovery at the hotel of a small souvenir bell bearing the word “Pennsylvania” – Pennsylvania is the home of the US historic symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell. A photograph of the said bell is included twice in the indictment, with the prosecutor making a wholly unfounded conclusion that Barkey left it there and that “It is clear that it was, in essence, giving a message relating to the coup attempt,” because it carried the word Pennsylvania, the US state where the Sunni cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish government accuses of masterminding the July 15 coup attempt, is a resident. There is no explanation of what that message was, to whom it was directed, and for what purpose.

The indictment also offers opinions about state security and espionage and claims that the intelligence services use international nongovernment organizations, without presenting specific facts that make such assertions relevant to a criminal case against Kavala and Barkey. Such statements seem to be included simply to support a thesis that the defendants’ connections with foreigners demonstrate their guilt in the absence of specific facts that might prove actual criminal activity.

On October 16, Turkey’s Official Gazette published a presidential decree announcing that Hasan Yılmaz, the Istanbul deputy chief prosecutor whose name appears as the author of the indictment against Kavala and Barkey, had been promoted to deputy justice minister. As deputy justice minister, Yılmaz also became an ex officio member of the 13-person Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the body responsible for administering the appointment and disciplinary matters of judges and prosecutors. Yılmaz’s promotion to high office days after lending his name to the latest indictment of Kavala, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has targeted in at least three public speeches, not only sends a strong message that Turkey’s presidency supports the indictment, but gives credibility to concerns, shared by Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists, that it was prepared under the instruction of Turkey’s presidency with Yılmaz rewarded for complying with executive orders.

East Africa: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

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Screen grab from the film “Imported for my Body.”
© BBC 2019

(Nairobi) – The Nairobi edition of the Human Rights Watch film festival celebrates its 9th season this year with its first digital expansion to audiences in seven countries in eastern Africa, showing free films November 9-13, 2020. The films and panel discussions will be accessible online to audiences in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic and uprisings this year against police brutality and the systemic abuses of minorities, activists in the East Africa regions are pushing back against abusive government responses to the pandemic, and the use of security forces to crack down on critics. The festival aims to continue conversations about movements against repression and exclusion and demands to governments to be treated with dignity.

This year, the festival is co-presented with Filmaid.

“As we document human rights violations in the region, we are working with activists in Africa who are building support and leading change even during this pandemic,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These documentaries follow people who are inspiring communities to resist repression and stand up for their rights. We are excited to expand the festival to audiences around East Africa.”

The lineup of the festival follows.

On the President’s Orders, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil
No Box for Me: An Intersex Story, Floriane Devigne
Maxima, Claudia Sparrow
Imported for My Body, Nyasha Kadandara and Pete Murimi
Gather, Sanjay Rawal, co-presented with FILMAID

Tickets to the film festival are limited. The online panel discussions following each film will feature Human Rights Watch experts, filmmakers, and activists, who will be live-captioned in English.

To secure a free ticket for this film festival and to register for the online discussions, please visit:

For additional details about the films, please see below.

Opening Night: 

Live Q&A November 9, 8:30 p.m. EAT 
On the President’s Orders: by James Jones and Olivier Sarbil, 2019, 72m 
In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a “war on drugs” in the Philippines, setting off a wave of violence and murder targeting thousands of suspected drug dealers and users. With unprecedented, intimate access both to police officials implicated in the killings and the families destroyed as the result of Duterte’s deadly campaign, On the President’s Orders is a shocking and revelatory investigation into the extrajudicial murders that continue to this day.
Fully subtitled in English.
Register for the Q&A here:
African digital festival premiere

Live Q&A November 10, 8:30 p.m. EAT 
No Box for Me. An Intersex Story by Floriane Devigne, 2018, 58m
Deborah, 25, and M, 27, are living in bodies that Western medicine – and often society – deems taboo to discuss publicly. Like an estimated 1.7 percent of people, they were born with variations in their sex characteristics that were different from classical understandings of male or female. This beautifully crafted, poetic documentary joins brave young people as they seek to reappropriate their bodies and explore their identities, revealing both the limits of binary visions of sex and gender, and the irreversible physical and psychological impact of nonconsensual surgery on intersex infants.
Fully subtitled in English.
Register for the Q&A here:
African digital festival premiere 

Live Q&A November 11, 8:30 p.m. EAT 
Maxima: by Claudia Sparrow, 2019, 88m
Maxima tells the story of the 2016 environmental Goldman Prize winner Máxima Acuña and her family, who own a small, remote plot in the Peruvian Highlands and rely solely on the environment for their livelihood. But their land sits directly in the path of a multi-billion-dollar project run by one of the world’s largest gold-mining corporations. Faced with intimidation, violence, and criminal prosecution, Máxima wages a tireless fight for justice. Máxima sings of her love of the land in the face of widespread oppression of Indigenous people, and relentless attempts to destroy environmental resources that the world relies on.
Partially subtitled in English.
Register for the Q&A here:
African digital festival premiere 

Live Q&A November 12, 8:30 p.m. EAT 
Imported for My Body: by Nyasha Kadandara and Peter Murimi, 2019, 52m 

Imported for My Body is an investigation featuring Grace, a Kenyan woman who is one of many women trafficked to India from East and West Africa as part of a large sex-trafficking network. After responding to an advert for dancers abroad, Grace arrives in New Delhi, where her passport is confiscated, and she must pay a grossly inflated fee for her travel. She is then forced to earn her freedom by doing sex work. Grace goes undercover, wearing secret cameras to capture unprecedented footage exposing an underground ring entrapping women. 
Partially subtitled in English.
Register for the Q&A here:
Digital festival premiere 

Closing Night:

Live Q&A November 13, 8.30 pm EAT 
Gather: by Sanjay Rawal, 2020, 74m 
Gather celebrates the fruits of the indigenous food sovereignty movement, profiling innovative changemakers in Native American communities across North America reclaiming their identities after centuries of physical and cultural genocide. On the Apache reservation, a chef embarks on an ambitious project to reclaim his community’s ancient ingredients. In South Dakota, a gifted Lakota high school student, raised on a buffalo ranch, is using science to prove her community’s native wisdom about environmental sustainability. Gather beautifully shows how reclaiming and recovering ancient foodways provides a form of resistance and survival, collectively bringing back health and self-determination to their people.
Register for the Q&A here:
African digital festival premiere 
Co-presented with FILMAID

Iran: Prisoners Who Reported Abuse Charged

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A campaign poster showing environmental activists, Taher Ghadirian, Niloufar Bayani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Houman Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Sepideh Kashani, Morad Tahbaz and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh. 

© 2018 #anyhopefornature Campaign

(Beirut) – Iranian judiciary authorities are prosecuting human rights defenders for reporting abuse in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Since September 2020, the authorities have brought charges against two imprisoned activists who had published letters alleging mistreatment.

On October 18, Emtedad online news channel reported that in the previous week, authorities had charged Niloufar Bayani, an environmental conservationist serving a 10-year sentence after an unfair trial, with “publishing false information.” In a separate case, the Human Rights Activists Agency (HRANA) reported that on October 11, the authorities charged an imprisoned student activist, Parisa Rafiee, with “propaganda against the state” after she published a letter about her detention conditions.

“Punishing people reporting mistreatment in Iranian detention facilities shows a warped sense of justice,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The judiciary’s recent rhetoric on ‘transparency’ rings especially hollow if prosecutors silence alleged torture victims rather than impartially investigating their claims.”

In February, the BBC Persian website published a detailed account of the alleged mistreatment of Bayani by prison authorities based on her letters, including “1,200 hours of interrogations,” “long hours of interrogation while standing,” “threatening with a hallucinogenic injection,” and “sexual insults.”

On February 24, Iran’s presidential cabinet tasked Alireza Avayi, the justice minister, to investigate the allegations of torture and report back. More than nine months later, there has been no information about such an investigation.

In January 2018, the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization arrested Bayani and seven of her colleagues, all members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a local conservation nonprofit group, on accusations of “using environmental projects as a cover for espionage.” On February 10, 2018, family members of Kavous Seyed Emami, one of those arrested, reported that he had died in detention under suspicious circumstances.

The environmentalists’ trial began in January 2019 but was halted multiple times. The defendants were not allowed to have access to a lawyer of their choice. Bayani had interrupted a trial session in February, saying that the defendants had been under psychological torture and were coerced into making false confessions.

On February 18, 2020, Gholamhossein Esmaili, Iran’s judiciary spokesman, confirmed at a news conference that a court of appeal had upheld sentences ranging from 6 to 10 years against seven of the group’s members for “cooperating with the hostile state of the US.” Esmaili said the court also upheld a 4-year sentence for Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, another member of the group, for “assembly and collusion to act against national security.” Authorities released Kouhpayeh in March.

The court upheld the 10-year sentences for Niloufar Bayani and Morad Tahbaz, two of the seven, and ordered them to return allegedly “illicit income.” The court ordered Bayani to return US$360,000 in “illicit funds;” authorities calculated this amount by multiplying Bayani’s last annual salary from the United Nations Environment Programme, where she worked prior to joining the wildlife group, by the six years she worked at the UN, a source told Human Rights Watch.

Over the past two years, several senior Iranian government officials have indicated that they did not find any evidence to suggest that the detained activists are spies. 

HRANA reported that the authorities arrested Rafiee, a student activist at the University of Tehran, on February 25, 2018 and released her on bail after 23 days. On August 26, 2018, Saeed Khalili, Rafiee’s lawyer, told the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) that branch 26 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced her to seven years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “disturbing public order.”

The lawyer said the charges were brought for activities such as participating in peaceful demonstrations on campus after dormitory curfew hours. In November 2019, Rafiee’s sentence was reduced to one year after a clemency order by Ayatollah Khamenei.

In a letter published on May 9, 2019, Rafiee wrote that she had been kept in solitary confinement for 21 days without knowing her location. She also wrote that her interrogator sent her for a virginity test, which she refused. But she said she was not allowed to file a complaint about this degrading treatment.

On June 7, 2020, the authorities arrested and transferred Rafiee to prison to serve her sentence. On August 19, HRANA reported that the prosecutor’s office at Evin prison had opened a new case against Rafiee, charging her with propaganda against the state because of the letter.

On October 15, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raeesi, the head of Iran’s judiciary, published a “document on judicial security” as part of the judiciary’s obligations under the country’s sixth development plan. Among other things, the document emphasizes several key human rights issues, including the prohibition on torture and arbitrary arrests and the right of access to a lawyer. The document also commits the judiciary to publishing final court opinions while respecting privacy rights.

“If the judiciary actually wants to curb ongoing abuse, it can start by quashing abusive charges against human rights defenders who are already unfairly behind bars, investigate their torture allegations, and hold those responsible to account,” Sepehri Far said.

Afghanistan: Vice President Threatens Those Reporting Civilian Deaths

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Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh at an inauguration ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 9, 2020. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File

(New York) – Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh has ordered the arrest of the individual who reported civilian casualties from an Afghan government airstrike on October 22, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The Afghan air force struck a mosque school in Takhar province, killing at least 12 children and wounding 18 other civilians, news agencies reported.

Afghan government forces were apparently targeting Taliban fighters when they hit the school at the mosque in Baharak district, Takhar. In response to early reports of the incident, Saleh denied on Twitter that any civilians had been killed, and said that “the person responsible for spread of this venomous & fake news was arrested immediately.” The identity of the person and whether that person was arrested is unclear. On Facebook he threatened legal action against those “who make false allegations.”

The Afghan government ordered an investigation into the incident. However, findings from investigations into other incidents of civilian casualties have not been made public and no one has been held accountable.

“Vice President Amrullah Saleh is trying to silence those who reported a potentially unlawful airstrike that killed civilians, including many children,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director. “The government should immediately release anyone detained under Saleh’s order and carry out a thorough and impartial investigation of the airstrike.”

In recent weeks, Afghan government forces have sustained many casualties during intense fighting in Takhar province. The uptick in fighting comes amid rising numbers of Taliban attacks and little progress on the Afghan peace talks in Doha.

The laws of war permit attacks only against military objectives, which include enemy fighters, weapons and equipment. Warring parties are prohibited from deliberately attacking civilians, except those directly participating in hostilities. For a specific attack on a military objective to be lawful, it must discriminate between combatants and civilians, and the expected loss of civilian life and property must be proportionate to the anticipated military gain from the attack. Attacks that target civilians, that are indiscriminate, or that cause disproportionate civilian loss are unlawful.

It is not clear if Taliban forces were in the vicinity of the mosque. Mosques and schools are civilian objects not subject to attack unless being used for military purposes. Any Taliban fighters present would be required to take all feasible precautions to remove civilians from the vicinity.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that women and children comprised 65 percent of the civilian casualties from airstrikes by the Afghan air force for the first half of 2020. The Afghan government has a poor record of investigating such incidents.

“The Afghan government is obligated to investigate possible laws-of-war violations by their forces,” Gossman said. “The free expression rights of those reporting on alleged violations should be respected.”

Cambodia: Hun Sen and His Abusive Generals

(New York) – Cambodia’s increasingly dictatorial, one-party rule is underpinned by generals in the security forces who are responsible for serious and systematic human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today as it issued the Khmer-language version of its 284-page report, “Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen: A Long History of Rights Abuses by Hun Sen’s Generals.” Human Rights Watch also released a video showing some of the unexplained wealth of these generals and their family members.

Since the release of the English-language report in 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have continued to benefit from the unquestioning support of senior officials in the army, gendarmerie, and police to effectively eliminate all political opponents and dissolve the main opposition party, rendering the July 2018 national elections meaningless. Cambodia now has more than 50 political prisoners and dozens of others facing charges.

The report spotlights 12 senior security officers who form the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime. Since 2018, three of the 12 have been promoted and one has died.

Each of these officers owes his high-ranking and lucrative position to political and personal connections with Hun Sen dating back two decades or more. Each has demonstrated a willingness to commit rights abuses on behalf of Hun Sen. Instead of serving the public, these officials have acted to protect the rule of Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 35 years. Throughout their careers, they have served in government positions paying modest official salaries, yet they have amassed large amounts of unexplained wealth.

“Over the years, Hun Sen has created and developed a core of security force officers who have ruthlessly and violently carried out his orders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The importance of Cambodia’s generals has become even more apparent with the massive crackdown in the past two years against journalists, political opponents, and anti-government protesters.”

Human Rights Watch has long documented Hun Sen’s egregious human rights record. Over more than three decades, hundreds of opposition figures, journalists, trade union leaders, and others have been killed in politically motivated attacks. Although in many cases those responsible for the killings have been known members of the security services, in not one case has there been a credible investigation or prosecution, let alone a conviction. In some cases, triggermen or fall guys have been prosecuted, while their superiors go untouched. Security forces have also arbitrarily arrested, beaten, harassed, and intimidated many other critics of the government, including human rights workers, labor activists, land rights activists, and bloggers and others expressing their views online.

Hun Sen has orchestrated his repressive rule by promoting people based on loyalty to him instead of the military, gendarmerie, and police institutions they formally serve.

The report details the responsibility of 12 senior security force officers for human rights abuses in Cambodia from the late 1970s until the present. Below are the positions each held in 2018 and any changes since then:

Gen. Pol Saroeun, Supreme Commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF):
In September 2018, he was replaced as RCAF Supreme Commander by General Vong Pisen. He is now a Senior Minister for Special Missions.
Gen. Kun Kim, Deputy Supreme Commander of RCAF and Chief of the RCAF Mixed General Staff:
In September 2018, he was replaced as RCAF Deputy Supreme Commander and Chief of the RCAF Mixed General Staff by General Ith Sarat. He is now a Senior Minister for Special Missions, First Vice-Chairperson of the National Committee for Disaster Management, and Secretary-General of the Cambodian Veterans Association.
Gen. Sao Sokha, Deputy Supreme Commander of RCAF and Commander of the Royal Khmer Gendarmerie (GRK):
Still in post.
Gen. Neth Savoeun, Supreme Commissioner of the Cambodian National Police:
Still in post.
Lt. Gen. Chea Man, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 4:
Died on October 23, 2018 and has been replaced by Lt. Gen. Peou Heng.
Lt. Gen. Bun Seng, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 5:
On March 1, 2019, he was promoted to Secretary of State at the Ministry of National Defense and was replaced in Region 5 by Lt. Gen. Ek Sam-aun.
Lt. Gen. Choeun Sovantha, Deputy Commander of the Army and Commander of Military Region 2:
Still in post.
Lt. Gen. Chap Pheakdey, Deputy Chief of the RCAF Joint General Staff and Commander of Special Forces Paratrooper Brigade 911:
Still in post.
Lt. Gen. Rat Sreang, Deputy Commander of the country-wide Gendarmerie and Commander of the Phnom Penh Gendarmerie:
Still in post.
Gen. Sok Phal, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Supreme Director for Immigration:
In September 2018, he was promoted to Secretary of State at the Ministry of Interior and was replaced as Supreme Director for Immigration by Gen. Kirth Chantharith.
Gen. Mok Chito, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Secretary-General of the National Anti-Drugs Authority:
Still in post.
Gen. Chuon Sovan, Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Commissioner of the Phnom Penh Municipality Police:
In September 2018, he was named Vice Chairperson of the National Anti-Drugs Authority and was replaced as Deputy Supreme Commissioner of National Police and Commissioner of the Phnom Penh Municipality Police by Lt. Gen. Sar Thet. 

Although these officials have a legal responsibility to represent the state instead of a political party – and to carry out their duties in an impartial and neutral manner – all have acted in an openly and highly partisan manner. Each is a member of the CPP Central Committee, the party’s highest policymaking body. Members of the Central Committee are required to carry out all party policies. This conflicts with international human rights standards, which protect the rights of members of security forces to be members of a political party, vote, and privately express their opinions. However, officials should not be politically partisan in carrying out their professional duties or favor one political party over others.

June 27, 2018

Cambodia’s Dirty Dozen

Like Hun Sen, several of these senior officials were members of the Khmer Rouge regime, which between April 1975 and January 1979 was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.2 to 2.8 million Cambodians.

Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s prime minister since 1985. Since 2015, he has been chairman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has been in power since 1979. He is now among the world’s five longest-serving autocrats. In public, he talks about himself in the third person and has tried to create a cult of personality, including naming hundreds of schools (many donor-financed) after himself. His official title in Khmer is “Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen,” which literally translates to “princely exalted supreme great commander of gloriously victorious troops.” He has called himself the “five-gold-star general to infinity.”

“No dictator reaches or stays at the top without the support of other ruthless people,” Adams said. “Underneath Hun Sen are a core group of generals who abuse and intimidate Cambodians with the same contempt towards pluralism and democracy that Hun Sen has exhibited throughout his 35 years in power. Like their boss, they need to be called out and held accountable for their many crimes.”

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal Rolls Back Reproductive Rights

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Protestors prepare to take part in a car demonstration organized by Women’s Strike against imposing further restrictions on abortion law in Poland. Krakow, Poland on October 19th, 2020. 
© 2020 Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via AP

(Berlin) – The Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling to invalidate the constitutionality of access to abortion on the ground of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” will further harm women and girls and violates their human rights, Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Human Rights Watch said today.

Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Human Rights Watch sent independent expert monitors to observe the hearing of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal and to analyze the decision.

“Today’s judgement puts the health and lives of women in Poland at great risk and violates Poland’s obligations under international human rights treaties to refrain from retrogressive measures that roll back women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health care,” said Leah Hoctor, regional director for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Poland must act now to bring its law into line with other European Union member states and legalize abortion on a woman’s request or broad social grounds, and guarantee women’s full and effective access to care in situations where women’s physical or mental health is at risk.”

“This judgement is the result of a coordinated systematic wave of attacks on women’s human rights by Polish lawmakers, and represents their latest attempt to ban abortion in Poland,” said Esther Major, senior research adviser at Amnesty International. “Legal prohibitions on abortion do not prevent abortion or reduce the rates of abortion; they serve only to damage women’s health by pushing abortions underground or forcing women to travel to foreign countries to access abortion care they need and to which they have a right. Although all women may be affected by this cruel judgement, marginalized groups of women who cannot afford to travel will disproportionately suffer the consequences of the judges’ actions today.”

“Instead of safeguarding and protecting people’s rights, Poland’s Constitutional Court has contributed to violating them,” said Hillary Margolis, senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “The European Commission and EU member states should urgently address breaches of rule of law and their impact on fundamental rights in Poland. Ensuring women’s human rights, including their reproductive rights, is essential to upholding EU values. Poland’s flagrant disregard for these values is dangerous not only for women and girls in Poland, but throughout Europe. Women in Poland have sustained attacks against their rights again and again and will not stop fighting for their right to abortion care. We stand with them every step of the way.”

Poland has one of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. It is one of only two of twenty-seven EU member states that do not allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds. Under Polish law, abortion is only permitted to safeguard the life or health of women, or where the pregnancy results from rape. Prior to today’s ruling it was also legal in situations of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life.” Even in situations in which abortion is legal, multiple barriers combine to severely limit access to care in practice.

The ruling Law and Justice party has repeatedly moved to further curb sexual and reproductive health and rights, including through a bill that would have enacted a total abortion ban. Such attempts have been met by mass public protests and condemnation by international human rights bodies and European institutions.

Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice government has undermined the Constitutional Tribunal’s independence and its effectiveness as a check on the executive. The Council of Europe’s legal advisory body, the Venice Commission, and the European Commission have censured the Polish government’s interference with the Tribunal. In its September 2020 rule of law report, the Commission noted that “concerns over the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal” remain unresolved. In 2017, the European Commission launched proceedings against Poland under Article 7(1) TEU in 2017 due to breaches of rule of law, including concerns related to the lack of an independent and legitimate constitutional review.

Chinese Authorities Aim to ‘Liberate’ Tibetan Believers

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Hedong Village in Xumai Township, Tibet Autonomous Region, launches the “Four Stresses and Four Loves” teaching, September 11, 2020.
© 2020 Sunshine Tibet/WeChat

Wu Yingjie, the Chinese Communist Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, recently visited Chamdo, in the province’s east, for the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the town’s “liberation” – meaning the People’s Liberation Army’s defeat of the Tibetan army there in October 1950. In a speech summarizing Beijing’s current Tibet policy, Wu notably called for eradicating all influence of the Dalai Lama from Tibetan Buddhism inside Tibet “so that the believing masses distinguish religious devotion from everyday life, distinguish religious devotion from separatist sabotage, distinguish religious devotion from the 14th Dalai, and distinguish religious devotion from enjoying their present happy life.”

Under the Communist Party’s latest religion policies for Tibet, administered by official work teams stationed in monasteries, Buddhist monks and nuns are required to live up to “four standards.” Besides genuine proficiency in the Buddhist teachings, they must also be “politically reliable,” ready to “serve the masses,” and be “dependable during critical moments,” meaning potential outbreaks of dissent. Wu’s “four distinguishes,” however, apply to the Tibetan population at large, whom Party jargon calls “the believing masses.”

Criticism of religion is a current theme of compulsory political education in villages, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. The message is that Tibetans should value “the happy life they now enjoy,” rather than focusing on preparation for the next life, as prescribed by religion. This is referred to as “guiding people to take a rational view of religion,” especially the “wastefulness” of offerings and ceremonies, and the reminder that it is the Party and President Xi Jinping whom ordinary Tibetans have to thank for their “happy lives,” not the lamas.

Wu’s “four distinguishes” mean not just that ordinary Tibetan believers must reject their spiritual leader, but even that their religious beliefs must not affect their everyday lives or influence their social behavior. The Party maintains that its “freedom of religious belief” policy will never change, but these requirements stretch its credibility to the limit. What the authorities call “accommodating religion to socialist society” involves an increasing subordination of religious freedom to the shrill demands of a government that, 70 years after “liberation,” still sees the attitudes and beliefs of ordinary Tibetans more than ever as a threat to its dominance.

People with Disabilities’ Voices Should be Heard in US Elections

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A woman departs the Beethoven Elementary School after participating in early voting in Chicago, October 15, 2020. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Approximately 38.3 million people with disabilities, nearly the equivalent of the entire population of California, are eligible to vote in the upcoming United States elections. This includes 5.4 million Black and 4.1 million Latinx voters with disabilities. Yet the obstacles they face in voting may mean that their voices will not be heard.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws require polling places for US federal elections to be accessible to all voters. That includes physical accessibility, accessibility in communications, and reasonable modifications to accommodate individual requirements. Polling stations are also required to have an accessible system for casting ballots that ensures a private and independent vote. But many polling sites don’t meet these standards. A report on polling stations after the 2016 elections found that nearly 60 percent had at least one accessibility barrier, an improvement over 73 percent in 2008, but still far from where the country should be 30 years since the ADA’s passage.  

The Covid-19 pandemic brings new difficulties. During spring primaries, election officials reduced the number of polling places, requiring people to travel further to reach them. Accessible public transportation remains limited. Long lines can impede the vote for those unable to wait outdoors or in line for long periods, and those who are at heightened risk for severe illness from Covid-19.

The expansion of mail-in and online voting has increased opportunities for many people with disabilities to vote. For example, Virginia allows people who are blind or with low vision to utilize electronic ballots compatible with screen reader assistive technology. But the ballot still needs to be printed and mailed, a challenge or impossibility for some. During Arizona’s spring primaries, we learned that Maricopa County election officials provided an electronic voting tablet to voters with disabilities or with risk factors for Covid-19. They then used an online portal to help people navigate through electronic voting.

Yet in states without electronic options, some voters may have to forgo their right to a private vote, or not vote at all if they can’t write by hand or sign a mail-in ballot, or can’t easily read a standard ballot due to a vision, intellectual, or other disability.

In an election with many voting concerns, states should invest in ensuring people with disabilities’ voices are heard and that their votes are counted.

Rohingya: Donors Should Require Including Education

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Rohingya refugee students demonstrate against being expelled from Bangladeshi secondary schools in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, February 6, 2019.

© 2019 Private 

(New York) – Governments participating in the October 22, 2020 fundraising conference for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis should insist that Myanmar and Bangladesh ensure Rohingya children’s right to education, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the conference hosts. The majority of Rohingya children both in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and in refugee camps in Bangladesh are barred from formal education.

“This entire generation of Rohingya children is being deprived of education and there is no end in sight to the status quo of gross discrimination in both Myanmar and Bangladesh,” said Bill Van Esveld, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Donor governments should demand a paradigm shift to fulfill this basic human right of quality education, with the full involvement of the Rohingya community.”

The US, UK, EU, and the UN refugee agency are hosting the donors’ conference with the aim of closing the $500 million funding gap in a humanitarian needs plan budgeted at $1 billion. Most of those resources will be committed to support the Rohingya in Bangladesh.

Education programs have been further restricted or shut down entirely in Rohingya detention camps in Myanmar and in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh due to Covid-19 related closures, with limited distance learning alternatives. But even if existing programs were fully funded and reopened, the vast majority of Rohingya children would still be denied access to formal, accredited education or secondary school, Human Rights Watch said.

Donor governments should demand the Myanmar authorities lift barriers to Rohingya children’s access to education inside the camps and villages in Rakhine State, and press Myanmar to accredit formal education in the Myanmar curriculum for refugee children in Bangladesh.

Donor governments should insist that Bangladesh urgently lift restrictions on Rohingya refugee children’s ability to enroll in formal, accredited education, and to complete secondary education. Bangladesh does not allow Rohingya children to study the Bangladesh curriculum but has greenlit a “pilot” project to teach the Myanmar curriculum. Bangladesh and humanitarian groups working with Rohingya refugees should urgently develop plans to scale up the Myanmar curriculum to all children, and implement the core humanitarian principle that refugee communities play a leading role in education programming.


In Myanmar, about 600,000 Rohingya remain in Rakhine State, confined by the Myanmar government in camps and villages under conditions that amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid, persecution, and severe deprivation of liberty.

About 65,000 Rohingya children are detained in camps, where they are mainly provided, at best, with only basic instruction in “temporary learning centers.” Access to secondary education is limited to a single government school with 600 students, only two teachers, and four volunteer instructors. Rohingya students were expelled and barred from the last accessible university, in Sittwe, in 2012.

“In Myanmar’s Rakhine state, children and their parents are effectively locked down in villages and detention camps to which humanitarian access is severely restricted, and for most children, access to education is an unfulfilled dream,” Van Esveld said. “The international community should pressure the Myanmar government to give these Rohingya children a real future, not indefinite confinement.” 


In Bangladesh, none of the nearly 400,000 school-age Rohingya refugee children currently have access to certified, formal primary or secondary education, or to university or college. Bangladesh government policy also bars formal education, including in refugee camps and at public and private schools, to Rohingya refugees who entered in the 1990s or before, and to their children born in Bangladesh.

Since mid-2019, Bangladesh authorities have allowed humanitarian groups to provide younger children with a “learning competency framework approach,” but this is not formal or accredited and includes only a few years of lessons.

In January, Bangladesh approved a “pilot” program to allow 10,000 children to study the formal Myanmar curriculum, with the assumption that they would eventually return to Myanmar. This is a potentially significant positive first step, but there is no public information as to whether Myanmar will accredit this education or Bangladesh will certify the students’ progress, or when the program will be scaled up to reach the other 390,000 Rohingya children.

On August 24, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen announced that Bangladesh will “ensure access [to education for] Rohingya children according to [the] Myanmar curriculum” and that a “Myanmar Curriculum Pilot” had been adopted under the Joint Response Plan. Donors should ensure that their education aid supports access for all Rohingya refugee children to formal education.

There are virtually no training or vocational programs available in Bangladesh for Rohingya youth who have aged out of available education programs. Bangladesh authorities are building barbed-wire fencing around the refugee camps, citing concerns about the potential deterioration of the security situation, but for Rohingya youth who fall into the age range most at risk of criminal exploitation, the authorities have essentially blocked any education that would provide them with the skills to contribute to their community.

“Affording Rohingya refugee children the right to education will be critical to enable them to build productive lives and eventually return home to Myanmar,” Van Esveld said. “Bangladesh should expand its ‘pilot program’ to reach all Rohingya children with formal, certified education.”

While conditions in the refugee camps remain dire, Bangladesh has spent substantial resources to develop de facto detention facilities on a remote island, Bhasan Char, where it plans to transfer 100,000 Rohingya from the camps. Despite promises, the government has not allowed the UN to assess the habitability of the island and determine whether the refugees’ rights will be protected. Authorities are currently holding more than 300 Rohingya on the island, including at least 33 children who are denied any education whatsoever, ignoring their pleas to be reunited with their families back in the refugee camps.

Donors should not provide any funding for Bangladesh’s activities on Bhasan Char unless UN humanitarian experts are provided unfettered access to the island at times of their choosing and conclude that the island is safe for voluntary relocation. Bangladesh has refused to allow independent UN experts to conduct an independent research assessment of the island. Rohingya refugees currently held at Bhasan Char should be allowed immediately to rejoin their families in Cox’s Bazar.

“The denial of education to Rohingya children is a key aspect of their persecution in Myanmar, and it is undermining their futures even in exile,” Van Esveld said. “Donor governments need to ensure that their support to Myanmar and Bangladesh helps to end these massive human rights abuses and that Rohingya children get the education they need.” 

Egypt: 49 Executions In 10 Days

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A satellite photograph of Scorpion Prison taken in September 2016. Inmates suffer abuses in secret and are denied most access to the outside world. Satellite imagery.

© 2016 DigitalGlobe – NextView

(Beirut) –Egyptian authorities executed 15 men convicted for alleged involvement in three cases of political violence as well as 2 women and 32 men convicted in criminal cases between October 3 and 13, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately halt executions, and re-try those sentenced to death in grossly unfair trials.

Thirteen of the 15 men charged with political violence had been held in Cairo’s Scorpion Prison. Their executions follow a suspicious incident inside Scorpion’s death row ward on September 23 in which Interior Ministry forces killed four prisoners after those prisoners killed four security personnel. Authorities alleged the prisoners were trying to escape.

“Egypt’s mass executions of scores of people in a matter of days is outrageous,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The systematic absence of fair trials in Egypt, especially in political cases, makes every death sentence a violation of the right to life.”

The government typically does not announce executions, or even inform the prisoner’s family. On October 13, the pro-government Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper published the names of eight prisoners executed in the Maximum-Security Prison in Minya governorate, south of Cairo, including a woman. On October 6, pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said authorities in Cairo Isti’naf Prison carried out 11 executions, including a woman, convicted in criminal cases. Al-Watan reported on October 3 that authorities executed eight prisoners and on October 8 another seven in Alexandria, in murder and rape cases.

The independent Al-Shehab Center for Human Rights published on October 7 the names of 15 people it said authorities had executed on October 3. Ten had been convicted in the South Giza Case 3455 of 2014, known as the Ajnad Masr (Soldiers of Egypt) case; three in the North Giza Case 4804 of 2013, known as the Kerdasa case; and two in the East Alexandria Case 6300 of 2013, known as the Alexandria Library case.

The Kerdasa and Alexandria Library cases stem from violent events coinciding with the August 14, 2013 violent dispersal of the largely peaceful Rab’a sit-in protesting the army’s removal of President Mohamed Morsy, a day in which security forces probably killed over 1,000 protesters.

The Kerdasa case involved violent protests and an armed attack by a mob on the Kerdasa police station, killing its warden and 12 other Interior Ministry officers and soldiers, and mutilating an officer’s body. A terrorism court sentenced 183 out of 188 defendants in a grossly unfair mass trial. The Cassation Court, Egypt’s highest appeal court, overturned the ruling in February 2016 and ordered a retrial before a different terrorism court, which in July 2017 sentenced 20 to death, 80 to life in prison, acquitted 21, and sentenced the rest to long prison terms. The Cassation Court upheld these sentences in September 2018. Seventeen of the 20 sentenced to death remained on death row. Nine leading Egyptian human rights organizations said in a 2018 statement that authorities ignored basic fair trial guarantees, including access to legal counsel and the need to establish individual criminal responsibility.

In the Alexandria Library case, authorities charged 71 people following violent protests near the library and killings of 16 people, including an officer and two soldiers, in different incidents. In September 2015, a criminal court in Alexandria sentenced three defendants to death, one of them in absentia, and the rest to prison. The Cassation Court upheld the death sentences in July 2017 and acquitted four defendants. Human Rights Watch reviewed 66 pages of the case file comprising the indictment and the evidence, mainly unsubstantiated allegations by security officers with scant material evidence that two executed, Yasser Shokr and Yasser al-Abasiery, were responsible for the killings.

In the Ajnad Masr case, authorities charged about 45 defendants of involvement in armed attacks by Ajnad Masr, an extremist armed group, which claimed responsibility for several attacks in 2014 and 2015. In December 2017, a Giza terrorism court sentenced 13 to death, others to prison terms, and acquitted 5. In May 2019, the Cassation Court upheld the sentences. Three people from this case remain on death row.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has become one of the top 10 countries for executions and death sentences. Those arrested for alleged political violence frequently face a host of abuses including enforced disappearances, torture to extract confessions, and no access to lawyers. In an examination of 28 death sentence cases since 2016, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights found that authorities had forcibly disappeared 198 people, and 212 said they had been tortured. The majority of those sentenced to death were convicted in military or terrorism court trials that do not meet fair trial standards.

Authorities routinely add dozens, sometimes hundreds, of defendants to a case without justification. Mass trials, which became the norm after 2013 in political cases, do not allow sufficient time to present a defense or to establish individual criminal responsibility.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. In 2017, Human Rights Watch said that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and other officials should issue a moratorium on the death penalty in view of the sharp rise in the number of death sentences and the failure to pass a comprehensive transitional justice law.

The 13 executed in the Ajnad Masr and Kerdasa cases on October 3, 2020 were being held in Scorpion Prison, where the suspicious killings had occurred.

On September 23, pro-government news media, citing unnamed security sources, reported that Interior Ministry forces had killed four death row inmates as they tried to escape the Scorpion prison, killing three officers and injuring another officer and a soldier, who died the next day. Defense and Interior Ministry officials, including Interior Minister General Mahmoud Tawfik, visited the prison a few hours later, but the government released no official statement. Media reported the names of the inmates killed, including three whose death sentences the Cassation Court upheld in July.

Lawyers, families of inmates, and former prisoners cast doubt on the “prison escape” story on social media. Authorities had imposed a blanket ban on visits to Scorpion since May 2018 and deprived prisoners of exercise and medical care. The death row ward where the incident happened housed an estimated 25 inmates, a lawyer told Human Rights Watch. The lawyer, who spoke with relatives of two inmates, said that the four inmates killed “took by surprise” the officers who had come to routinely inspect their cell and “slaughtered” them using sharp tools. The lawyer said inmates have the capability to improvise sharp objects.

Following the killings, the four inmates cheered loudly, the lawyer said, adding that inmates in other cells heard them and saw blood in the corridor. Shortly afterward security forces came and gunshots were heard. The lawyer said that inmates in other cells believe the reinforced security personnel quickly took control and killed the four prisoners.

The independent rights group We Record published a similar account based on information from five witnesses. An activist with the group told Human Rights Watch that a person who saw the bodies of the four inmates said they had numerous gunshots to the head and chest.

Scorpion Prison, officially Maximum Security Prison 992, is highly secure, one of seven prisons inside Cairo’s Tora Prison Complex and where authorities have placed many senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suspects, and other high-profile prisoners. Even if an individual managed to get outside Scorpion’s heavily armed high walls, he would have to pass several kilometers inside the Tora Complex to reach the outer gates.

The lawyer in touch with families and the activist, both outside Egypt, told Human Rights Watch that they feared the executions on October 3 were in retaliation for the killing of the officers, and could have eliminated witnesses.

Egypt has had a pattern of judicial and suspicious extrajudicial killings following attacks on security forces or civilians in recent years, Human Rights Watch said. Several officials including President al-Sisi have spoken of “revenge” rather than law enforcement to justify executions.

Following the incident, the Prison Administration Authority conducted a nationwide prison inspection campaign, which prisoners call tagreeda, (stripping), seizing most of the prisoners’ possessions, including purchased blankets and clothes, as well as hygiene tools, radios, and mattresses. A prisoner and families of inmates in three other prisons in the Tora Prison Complex told Human Rights Watch they have had such “inspections” since the incident.

One prisoner and another’s relative said that prisoners in Tora Istiqbal Prison have undertaken a hunger strike. The independent Mada Masr site reported that hundreds had joined since October 9 to protest the intensive searches and confiscations.

“The pattern of Egyptian authorities executing death row inmates following attacks on security forces makes halting executions even more urgent,” Stork said.

Lebanon: Flawed Domestic Blast Investigation

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Aftermath of the explosion in Beirut’s port that devastated the city, killing almost 200 people, injuring more than 6,000, and leaving 300,000 people without shelter.
© 2020 Marwan Naamani / AP Images

(Beirut) –A domestic investigation into the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020 has failed to yield any credible results more than two months later, Human Rights Watch said today. Political interference coupled with long-standing failings of the judicial system have made a credible and impartial domestic investigation seemingly impossible.

The International Support Group for Lebanon, meeting next week, should urge Lebanese authorities to invite the United Nations to conduct an independent inquiry to determine the causes of and responsibility for the explosion.

“Everyone in Beirut has had their life turned upside down by the catastrophic explosion that devastated half the city, and they deserve justice for the disaster inflicted on them,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Only an independent, international investigation will uncover the truth about the blast. The International Support Group for Lebanon should not play along with the Lebanese authorities’ pretense that they are able to conduct their own credible investigation.”

On August 10, the Lebanese government referred the Beirut explosion to the Judicial Council, a special court with no appeals process. The judge leading the investigation was appointed in an opaque process shrouded in allegations of political interference, raising serious concerns about the independence of the process.

While foreign investigators – including about 50 French forensic police officers and gendarmes and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation – have participated in the ongoing domestic investigations at the invitation of the Lebanese authorities, their involvement does not cure the fundamental flaws with the current approach. These foreign experts’ role and their ability to speak publicly about their findings or to criticize attempts to undermine their work are unclear. France and the United States should clarify their role and mandate, and make public any attempts to obstruct justice, Human Rights Watch said.

As of October 13, local media reported that 25 people had been arrested in relation to the case and 30 had been charged. Lebanese authorities have failed to detail the evidence and charges against these individuals, and it is not clear whether they were afforded due process. Not a single minister, former or sitting, has been charged.

In August, 30 UN experts publicly laid out benchmarks for a credible inquiry, noting that it should be “protected from undue influence,” “integrate a gender lens,” “grant victims and their relatives effective access to the investigative process,” and “be given a strong and broad mandate to effectively probe any systemic failures of the Lebanese authorities.” But the domestic investigation into the Beirut blast has failed to meet either international standards for due process or the benchmarks the UN experts identified. Instead, the investigation has centered around administrative port and customs officials, raising concerns that political officials credibly implicated in the blast will escape accountability.

“The responsibility for the Beirut explosion extends far beyond port and customs officials,” Majzoub said. “Any investigation that claims to be impartial would look into the corruption and mismanagement permeating the entire political system, which created the conditions that made the Beirut blast possible.”

Following the explosion, officials traded blame over who was responsible. Court records and official correspondence leaked to the media indicate that many high-level officials, including the president, security officials, and members of the judiciary, were aware of the dangerous stockpile of ammonium nitrate at the port but failed to take action. Reuters quoted an unnamed official source saying that initial investigations “indicate years of inaction and negligence” over the storage of the highly explosive ammonium nitrate.

The domestic investigation’s lack of independence and transparency has led to a widespread loss of public faith in the process, prompting many victims and their families to call for an international investigation. Human Rights Watch, as well as other human rights groups including Amnesty International, have said there should be an international inquiry. Lebanese officials have rejected these calls, and President Michel Aoun described any such investigation as a “waste of time.”

There have been two fires in the Beirut port since the explosion, on September 8 and September 10, prompting many allegations of tampering with the crime scene. The head of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Khalaf, told AFP that he was alarmed by the fires, calling them “unacceptable” and added that “preserving the (blast) crime scene was the first thing we asked” of the investigation.

In 2018, the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the “political pressure reportedly exerted on the Lebanese judiciary, particularly in the appointment of key prosecutors and investigating magistrates, and about allegations that politicians use their influence to protect supporters from prosecution.” These structural weaknesses in the Lebanese system remain obstacles to delivering justice in the current context.

“The Lebanese authorities’ failings over the past two months have shown that an international investigation is the only avenue for the people of Lebanon to get the answers and the justice that they deserve for the Beirut explosion,” Majzoub said. “But it has also underscored the importance and urgency of addressing the structural weaknesses preventing Lebanon’s judiciary from independently and impartially delivering justice.”

Problems with the current investigation

On August 4, a huge explosion at the Beirut seaport devastated the city, killing almost 200 people, injuring more than 6,000, and leaving 300,000 people without shelter. The explosion affected Lebanon’s food supply, as Lebanon imports 85 percent of its food, and the port previously handled 70 percent of the country’s imports. The explosion affected 163 public and private schools and left half of Beirut’s healthcare centers unable to operate.

President Aoun and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the explosion was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse in the Beirut port for over six years without appropriate safety precautions. The circumstances that led to the detonation of the material are not yet clear.

President Aoun promised a transparent investigation into the causes of the explosion. However, the investigation conducted by domestic authorities has been neither transparent nor independent and fails to meet international fair standards.

Administrative Investigation Committee

On August 5, the cabinet set up an “administrative investigation committee” headed by Diab and consisting of the ministers of defense, justice, and interior, as well as the army commander and heads of the three security agencies, and tasked it with submitting the results of its investigation to the cabinet within five days. This committee has not made any public statements, and it seems to have stopped work after the resignation of Prime Minister Diab’s government on August 11.

By tasking the very same ministries and institutions that should be under investigation to lead the investigation, the cabinet engaged in a ludicrous perversion of the principles of independence and impartiality, Human Rights Watch said. Both the Lebanese Judges’ Association and the head of the Beirut Bar Association criticized the formation of the committee

Public Prosecutor’s Investigation

Separately, on August 5, the country’s top public prosecutor, Ghassan Oueidat, requested an Internal Security Forces (ISF) investigation into the ammonium nitrate and asked the ISF to provide him with the names of those responsible for overseeing its storage and security. On August 10, Oueidat announced that, following an investigation under his supervision, along with the military prosecutor, Fadi Akiki, 19 suspects had been detained. He did not announce their names or the charges against them. It was not clear whether they were afforded due process.

Judicial Council and Investigator

On August 10, Queidat, the public prosecutor, recommended that the Cabinet refer the case to the Judicial Council, which the Cabinet did on the same day. Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm, in turn, appointed Judge Fadi Sawan to serve as a judicial investigator.

The appointment of the judicial investigator was an opaque process mired in allegations of political interference. The Higher Judicial Council rejected two judges the justice minister initially proposed, but refused to explain the decision, stating that their deliberations are confidential.

The judiciary has provided very little information to the public about Judge Sawan’s investigation. Almost all information about the status of the case has come through media leaks, some of which have been inaccurate.

As of October 13, local media reported that 25 people had been arrested in relation to the case, 30 had been charged, and Judge Sawan had heard the testimony of 47 witnesses. The evidence and charges against those arrested have not been made public. However, more than two months into the investigation, not a single minister, former or sitting, has been questioned as a suspect. The judicial investigator has listened to testimony of current and former ministers as “witnesses” in cases against port and other administrative employees.

The Judicial Council is operating on the presumption that it does not have the jurisdiction to prosecute sitting or former presidents and ministers. It argues that, due to legal immunity for public officials, only the “Supreme Council for Trying Presidents and Ministers,” a body consisting of seven parliament members elected by parliament and eight judges appointed by the judiciary, can do so. But the council has not yet been created.

The Lebanese Judges’ Association disputed this reading of the law, contending that the crime of killing or causing the death of citizens is not subject to immunity, as it is not directly related to the exercise of duties in office. The Judges’ Association further stated that prosecution by the “Supreme Council” was virtually impossible due to the “existing political corruption and sectarian divisions in the country, as well as the record of the parliament that is devoid of any prosecutions.”

The Judicial Council is a special court whose decisions are not subject to appeal, violating fundamental fair trial safeguards. Referrals to the court are made on a discretionary basis via a Cabinet decree, on the recommendation of the justice minister, relating to cases that are considered especially serious. The justice minister appoints the head of the Judicial Council and the judicial investigator, after approval by the Higher Judicial Council (HJC).

The HJC, the body responsible for recommending the appointment of judges to specific courts, however, lacks independence, and has been a vehicle for political interference in the judiciary. Eight of its ten members are appointed by the executive branch, and the council lacks financial independence, as funds are allocated to it annually through the Justice Ministry’s budget. The Lebanese Judges’ Association has been an outspoken critic of the lack of the judiciary’s independence and has been leading an effort for reform.

Lebanon should adjust the Code of Criminal Procedure so that its provisions comply with the principles of a fair trial, and pass the law to provide for the independence of the judiciary that has been languishing in parliament for years, Human Rights Watch said.

The Judicial Council has failed to take action against allegations that evidence has been tampered with, further decreasing confidence in the investigation’s credibility. Journalists from the local TV station Al Jadeed presented evidence that officials removed documents from the public works ministry – which oversees the port – on August 9.

US, Australia Hit New Lows on Refugee Resettlement

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Abdisellam Hassen Ahmed, a Somali refugee who had been stuck in limbo after President Donald Trump temporarily banned refugee entries, walks with his wife Nimo Hashi, and his 2-year-old daughter, Taslim, who he met for the first time after arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport, February 10, 2017.
© 2017 AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

Two countries that historically have led the world in refugee resettlement, the United States and Australia, have dramatically lowered their annual admissions ceilings at a time when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified 1,445,383 of the world’s 26 million refugees as being in need of resettlement.  

The 11,814 refugees admitted to the US in fiscal year 2020, between October 1, 2019 and September 30, is the lowest annual admissions number on record and an 86 percent drop from the nearly 85,000 admitted in FY 2016. In Australia, the government’s 2020-21 budget shows a 5,000-place cut in refugee admissions.

The two countries have also taken inhumane measures to block the entry of people seeking asylum. Cutting resettlement places may compel desperate people to seek riskier migration alternatives.

Refugee resettlement is a tool of protection for refugees who can’t find safety in their region, including those at risk of being forcibly returned to their home countries. It provides solutions for refugees unable to repatriate or integrate locally, such as members of marginalized groups who are discriminated against and abused in both host country and country of origin. Resettlement is also an instrument for international responsibility sharing and solidarity that provides support to countries on the front lines of conflict that host the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees.

UNHCR has identified nearly 600,000 Syrians needing to be resettled, more than 40 percent of the worldwide total. Yet in the fiscal year just ended, the US admitted just 481 Syrians, a 96 percent drop from FY 2016.

Recently, I talked with “Farid,” a Syrian refugee from Idlib who has been living in Lebanon. Too afraid to return to war-torn Idlib, and with an increasingly intolerable situation in Lebanon, Farid saw no safe and legal paths for refuge, so boarded an inflatable boat to seek asylum in Cyprus. His boat ran out of fuel and he drifted at sea for six days, near death. Farid was finally spotted by a fishing boat and rescued by the Lebanese navy. He told me he would get on another boat and try again as soon as he could.  

UNHCR should be able to help resettle Farid and others like him. But with resettlement offers as low as they are in countries like the US and Australia, that option is virtually closed. Resettlement will never be the solution for the majority of the world’s refugees, but it should at least be available as a life-saving tool for those most vulnerable.

Canada: Climate Crisis Toll on First Nations’ Food Supply

Climate change is taking a growing toll on First Nations in Canada, depleting food sources and affecting health.
Canada is contributing to the climate crisis, which acutely affects Indigenous peoples who live off the land.
Canada should urgently scale up its efforts to reduce emissions, and provide financial and technical support to First Nations dealing with the effects.

(Ottawa) – Climate change is taking a growing toll on First Nations in Canada, depleting food sources and affecting health, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Canadian government is not adequately supporting First Nations’ efforts to adapt to the mounting crisis and is failing to do its part to reduce the global greenhouse gas emissions that are driving it. 

The 120-page report, “‘My Fear is Losing Everything’: The Climate Crisis and First Nations’ Right to Food in Canada,” documents how climate change is reducing First Nations’ traditional food sources, driving up the cost of imported alternatives, and contributing to a growing problem of food insecurity and related negative health impacts. Canada is warming at more than twice the global rate, and northern Canada at about three times the global rate. Despite its relatively small population, Canada is still a top 10 greenhouse gas emitter, with per capita emissions 3 to 4 times the global average. 

October 21, 2020

“My Fear is Losing Everything”

“Climate change is pushing increasingly dangerous levels of food poverty in First Nations,” said Katharina Rall, senior environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By flouting its emissions-reduction commitments, Canada is contributing to the global climate crisis that, within its borders, is being felt most acutely by Indigenous people who live off the land.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 120 people, including residents, chiefs, and council members in First Nations in Yukon, northwestern British Columbia, and northern Ontario, as well as medical providers, educators, and environment and health experts, including Indigenous mental health counsellors and staff of Indigenous representative organizations. Human Rights Watch also reviewed academic research and peer-reviewed scientific studies documenting and projecting the impact of climate change in the areas studied, and contacted federal, provincial, and territorial government officials about the issues.

In the three geographic locations studied, residents reported drastic reductions in the quantity of food they are able to harvest, and increased difficulty and danger associated with harvesting food from the land. These changes are being driven in significant part by climate change impacts on wildlife habitat, including changing ice and permafrost conditions, more and increasingly intense wildfires, warming water temperatures, changes in precipitation and water levels, and unpredictable weather.

Interview: Climate Crisis Hurts Harvest for First Nations

Life is getting harder for First Nations in some of the most remote stretches of Canada. Senior environment researcher Katharina Rall visited communities to learn how the climate crisis is impacting food, health, and land like never before, and how they are fighting back.


Households must supplement their traditional diet with more purchased food. But grocery stores are often remote and the prices for nutritious foods prohibitive. As a result, people said, they tend to eat more affordable but less nutritious foods, compounding existing health conditions resulting from historic marginalization and poor access to health care in rural and remote Indigenous communities. Children, older people, and people with chronic diseases are particularly affected. Some children go to school hungry, and some older people cut down on their food. People with chronic diseases often cannot afford to follow medically recommended diets. Access to adequate and sufficient food corresponding to cultural traditions is an essential component of the human rights to food and health.

Across the country, First Nations are working to address the impact of the climate crisis. Some maintain strong traditional food sharing networks, while others have created monitoring systems for climate change impacts on their environment. Yet, all these efforts require resources and capacity, which many communities lack, and the federal and provincial governments are not doing enough to support them, Human Rights Watch found.

Federal climate change policies have largely ignored the real impact of climate change on First Nations. While climate change is already exacerbating historic inequalities experienced by First Nations, most existing policies fail to monitor – let alone address – current human rights impacts in these settings.

Subsidies, health resources, and other resources needed to respond are often not available, insufficient, or do not reach those who need them most. The federal government’s Nutrition North program subsidizes transporting nutritious foods from registered southern retailers, but healthy store-bought food options remain financially out of reach for many in remote and northern communities.

Canada is also not doing its part to advance global efforts to address climate change. Canada has not set adequately ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets consistent with the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement, and the government is not even on track to meet its own targets.

The federal government acknowledged that food security is a critical issue and that more work is needed to cut emissions and meet First Nations food security needs. But it has not clarified how it will curb emissions or concretely address climate-exacerbated food insecurity.

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Weenusk First Nation member, Mike Wabano, sets up camp for caribou hunting on a frozen river near Peawanuck, December 14, 2019. As a result of warming temperatures, ice and snow cover is often thinner and more unstable. 
© 2019 Daron Donahue

Provincial and territorial government responses varied. The Yukon territorial government has committed to monitoring and tracking food insecurity and acknowledged the need to address the unique impact on Indigenous peoples. Ontario’s government, by contrast, has cancelled numerous climate adaptation and mitigation programs that benefited First Nations.

British Columbia has collaborated with First Nations to develop a climate adaptation strategy but did not respond to requests for further information on the details of this strategy, due to be released this year. Neither Yukon, Ontario, nor British Columbia have made any significant progress in reducing their emissions.

“If Canada does not urgently scale up its efforts to reduce emissions, it will continue to fuel the global climate crisis that is already having an outsized impact on First Nations,” Rall said. “The government should also urgently provide financial and technical support to First Nations already facing the devastating impacts of climate change.”


Selected Community Accounts

“Climate change is really affecting First Nations right now. There is no food for animals to eat. The animals won’t be there for us to hunt.”



 – Chief Madeek, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, Skeena River watershed, British Columbia


“I am concerned about the caribou. Already now there is less caribou [nearby]…. They might have changed the route because of the wildfires.”

 – Elizabeth Kyikavichik, childcare worker, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Yukon


“My biggest fear of climate change [is] losing everything. Losing our tradition over the weathers, over melting ice. [I]f we lose what we have now, what will we have to show our children in the future?”

 – Kyle Linklater, father, hunter, and resident of Weenusk First Nation, Ontario


“There [are] a lot of kids who do not eat on the weekends. We have programs here where kids take food home for the weekend. Lots of schools have lunch programs but they do not offer traditional food.”

 – Teacher in Smithers, Skeena River watershed, British Columbia


“First Nations peoples know what is wrong, and what is needed. Most are plagued with over-crowding, high unemployment rates, health issues such as diabetes. Any real solution to address the climate crisis and food poverty must protect First Nations’ traditional territories and traditional food sources. Canada needs to fund climate change adaptation projects so families can grow their own food and plan ahead for the future.”

 – Sam Hunter, community climate monitor, Weenusk First Nation, Ontario

Turkey: Justice for Rights Lawyer’s Killing

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Tahir Elçi, the president of Diyarbakir Bar Association and human rights lawyer, speaks to the media shortly before being shot dead in Diyarbakir, Turkey November 28, 2015 . 

© 2015 IHA agency via AP

(Istanbul) – The first hearing of a trial against three police officers charged with the fatal shooting of a Kurdish human rights lawyer, Tahir Elçi, is scheduled for October 21, 2020 in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, Human Rights Watch said today.
Elçi was a key figure in Turkey’s human rights movement for decades, and then president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association. He was shot in the head with a single bullet on a Diyarbakır street on November 28, 2015, shortly after he had gathered with colleagues to issue a statement protesting armed clashes in the old city between the security forces and the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“For five years the family and friends of Tahir Elçi have pushed for an effective investigation of his killing and for his killers to be brought to justice,” said Tom Porteous, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “Many in the human rights movement in Turkey and internationally will be focused on whether the conduct of the trial is designed to reveal the full circumstances of Elçi’s killing or instead to try to exonerate the police at all cost.”

Moments before Elçi’s shooting, two PKK militants had shot two police officers dead in a main street nearby. They escaped down the street where Elçi had addressed the media. Police officers monitoring the news conference exchanged fire with the militants, killing Elçi in the process. The militants fled the scene. While there is video footage of the exchange of fire, it doesn’t show the moment when Elçi was shot dead.

There have been huge obstacles to securing an effective investigation into Elçi’s killing. The authorities failed to collect evidence at the site. Police failed to locate the bullet that shot Elçi. The prosecutor decided at the outset not to interview police officers who had shot in Elçi’s direction as possible suspects but rather as witnesses. The authorities failed to examine the firearms the police carried. There have been extreme delays, and the prosecutor investigating the killing was replaced several times.

A Diyarbakır Bar commission of lawyers and human rights defenders, including Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Joint Platform, followed the prosecutors’ investigation and examined the available video evidence and witness statements. The Bar Association appointed Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary group investigating human rights violations based at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, to conduct its own independent analysis of the video footage and all other evidence.

The Forensic Architecture study identified one of the police officers as the one most likely to have shot Elçi because he had a clear line of fire. The study identified two other police officers as having possibly shot Elçi. The study found that the two PKK militants were not in positions from which they could have shot Elçi and were not shooting in the timeframe in which he was killed. Video evidence provides indisputable evidence that they did fatally shoot two police officers before escaping down the street where Elçi was then shot.

In the trial that begins on October 21, the Diyarbakir prosecutor accuses three police officers, Mesut Sevgi, Fuat Tan, and Sinan Tabur, of killing Elçi and charges them with “causing death by foreseeable negligence.” If convicted, they would face a possible sentence of two to nine years in prison. There are compelling reasons to argue that the charge should have been the more serious “foreseeable intentional killing” since in discharging firearms in a street with civilians present the police knowingly endangered civilian lives.

Charges against a PKK militant, Uğur Yakışır, tried in absentia, include intentional killing of the police officers Cengiz Erdur and Ahmet Çiftaslan in a nearby main street and foreseeable intentional killing of Elçi, as well as armed separatism. The other PKK militant alleged to have been involved was reportedly killed during armed clashes in March 2016.

“The Forensic Architecture study of the available evidence provides a credible argument that Tahir Elçi was killed by a bullet fired by the police,” Porteous said. “It will be very important for the Diyarbakir court to take full note of the study’s findings and carefully examine whether the prosecutor’s charges against the police are commensurate with the gravity of the crime.”

Elçi had worked since the early 1990s as a human rights lawyer, first in his hometown of Cizre, in the southeast, and later in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the region. He worked extensively to represent families of victims of egregious human rights violations by the security forces, including enforced disappearances and unlawful killings by suspected government agents.

Over many years, he played a key role in representing victims of these crimes before the European Court of Human Rights, and worked closely with international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. He himself was a victim of torture and arbitrary detention, among other abuses, facts recognized by the European Court of Human Rights before which he and his colleagues also successfully brought their own case.

As head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, in the weeks before he was killed, he led fact-finding missions into curfews and military operations against the PKK imposed on cities and towns in southeast Turkey, including Cizre, Silvan, Bismil, and Nusaybin, and documented security force human rights violations against civilians.

He was a prominent critic of government-imposed curfews in southeastern cities and security operations in which armed clashes between the police and the youth wing of the PKK have resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians. Elçi was critical of the PKK youth wing’s practice of erecting barricades and trenches in towns and advocated an immediate return to dialogue and peace negotiations.

Despite his impartial and independent stance, on October 15 the Turkish authorities opened a criminal investigation into Elçi after he stated, on a October 15 CNN Türk talk show, that the PKK was not a terrorist organization but an armed political movement which had at times committed terrorist acts. Although Elçi’s comments fell squarely within the boundaries of protected free speech, a case against him for “making terrorist propaganda” had been due to begin in April 2016.

North Korea: Horrific Pretrial Detention System

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Illustration of a North Korean pre-trial detention and investigation facility (kuryujang) based on former detainees’ testimonies told to Human Rights Watch and the illustrator’s personal experience in detention.
© 2020 Choi Seong Guk for Human Rights Watch

(Seoul) – The North Korean pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary and lacks any semblance of due process, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Former detainees described systematic torture, dangerous and unhygienic conditions, and unpaid forced labor.

The 88-page report, “‘Worth Less Than an Animal’: Abuses and Due Process Violations in Pretrial Detention in North Korea,” provides a unique and detailed description of the country’s opaque criminal justice system. It highlights North Korea’s weak legal and institutional framework, and the political nature of the courts and law enforcement agencies under the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

“North Korea’s pretrial detention and investigation system is arbitrary, violent, cruel, and degrading,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “North Koreans say they live in constant fear of being caught in a system where official procedures are usually irrelevant, guilt is presumed, and the only way out is through bribes and connections.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed eight former government officials who fled the country and 22 North Koreans – 15 women and 7 men – held in detention and interrogation facilities (kuryujang) since 2011, when the country’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, took power.

Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had no way of knowing what would happen to them once they were arrested, had no access to an independent lawyer, and had no way of appealing to the authorities about torture or violations of the criminal procedure law. Once an individual faces an official investigation there is little chance of avoiding a sentence of short-term or long-term unpaid forced labor. Some female detainees reported sexual harassment and assault, including rape.

Former detainees said they were forced to sit still on the floor for days, kneeling or with their legs crossed, fists or hands on their laps, heads down, and with their eyes directed to the floor. If a detainee moved, guards punished the person or ordered collective punishment for all detainees.

Four former government officials said that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea considers detainees to be inferior human beings, and therefore unworthy of direct eye contact with law enforcement officers. They are referred to by a number instead of their names.

“If we moved, we were punished by standing and sitting, doing push-ups, abdominals, or holding onto the metal bars,” said a former soldier who left North Korea in 2017 after being detained multiple times for smuggling and trying to escape to South Korea. He added:

Some guards made us put our face between the bars or hit our fingers through the bars with a stick or with the gun. If they were really upset, they’d come into the cell and beat us. This happened every day, if not in our cell in the others, we could hear it, it was to maintain tension.… There were times I was almost about to give up on life.… While I was there, more than 50 detainees disappeared [into the political prison camp system].

October 19, 2020

“Worth Less Than an Animal”

The people interviewed described unhealthy and unhygienic detention conditions: very little food; overcrowded cells with insufficient floor space to sleep; little opportunity to bathe; and a lack of blankets, clothes, soap, and menstrual hygiene supplies. Former detainees and police officers described detainees being covered by lice, bedbugs, and fleas. Many detainees said guards or interrogators, often after demanding bribes, unofficially allowed family members or friends to provide food or other essentials after questioning ended.

The North Korean government should end endemic torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in pretrial detention and interrogation facilities, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also improve abysmal detention and prison conditions and ensure basic standards of hygiene, health care, nutrition, clean water, clothing, floor space, light, and heat.

In 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea found that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the North Korean government constituted crimes against humanity.

“Former government officials told Human Rights Watch that mistreatment and humiliation are considered a crucial part of the North Korean criminal justice system,” Adams said. “The North Korean authorities should bring the system out of the dark ages by asking for international assistance to create a professional police force and investigative system that relies on evidence instead of torture to solve crimes.”

Selected Accounts from the Report:

A former government worker who escaped in 2018 was detained by secret police at a detention and interrogation facility in a border city with China in 2011 and 2012 because someone reported he was a spy. He told Human Rights Watch that:

They put me in a waiting cell. It was small and I was alone. They searched my body. Afterwards, the head of the city’s secret police department, the party’s political affairs head, and the investigator came in. It was very serious, but I didn’t know why. They just beat me up for 30 minutes, they kicked me with their boots, and punched me with their fist, everywhere on my body.…

The next day they moved me to the next room, which was a detention and interrogation facility cell, and my preliminary examination started. But the questioning didn’t really have any protocols or procedures. They just beat me…. The preliminary examiner hit me violently first…. I asked, “Why? Why? Why?” but I didn’t get an answer…. As the questioning went on, I found out that I had been reported as a spy. Violent beatings and hitting were constant in the beginning of [the preliminary examination] questioning for one month. They kicked me with their boots, punched me with their fist or hit me with a thick stick, all over my body. After [when they had most of my confession ready], they were gentler.

It was winter, but there was no heating. There was only one small wood heater right in front of us, next to the guard. It was so cold … and nobody knew where we were, so we couldn’t get anything from outside. It was really cold, but it was worse because there were so many bedbugs and other bugs that bit you.

A former lumberjack who escaped in 2014 and was detained by the police twice, in 2010 for smuggling and in 2014 for not going to work at a government-sanctioned workplace, said:

Every single day was horrible, so painful and unbearable [from being immobilized].… Many times, if I or others moved [in the cell], the guards would order me or all the cellmates to extend our hands through the cell bars and would step on them repeatedly with their boots or hit our hands with their leather belts. Even then we weren’t allowed to move. If we responded and they didn’t like us, they’d beat us up.

A former trader who escaped in 2017 and was detained by police twice in Suncheon, South Pyongan province, in the early 2010s for selling banned products, and in 2016 for getting into a fight with a party member with better connections than hers, said that:

All toiletries came from the homes of the detainees. After detention, the police informed the families and the investigator in charge went over and brought things like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, towels, or menstrual pads. [The guards] broke the body of the toothbrush and would only leave the head [to avoid it being used to commit suicide]. The people without family didn’t have toiletries and had to use the things of other detainees.

We were all in similar situations, so we women shared our things, but I heard that men didn’t, that the men that didn’t have relatives suffered more and were all covered by lice, but the other men didn’t care [and didn’t share]. [The first time I was detained,] family members could send [menstrual] pads. One detainee [who had no relatives] had to wash a sock and use it as a [menstrual] pad. In 2016, we could ask the police officer in charge for pads during our period and the officer would go to the store outside and buy them. We didn’t have to give money, they just bought them for us.

Sri Lanka: Forced Anal Exams in Homosexuality Prosecutions

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LGBT Rainbow Flag 

© 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

(Colombo) – Sri Lankan authorities have subjected at least seven people to forced physical examinations since 2017 in an attempt to provide proof of homosexual conduct, Human Rights Watch and EQUAL GROUND said today. The exams, which include forced anal examinations and a forced vaginal examination, are a form of sexual violence as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that can rise to torture.

The Sri Lankan government should end abusive physical examinations and stop prosecuting people for consensual same-sex conduct, Human Rights Watch and EQUAL GROUND said.

“No one should be arrested, let alone subjected to torture and sexual violence, because of their perceived sexual orientation,” said Neela Ghoshal, associate LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lanka’s Justice Ministry should immediately bar judicial medical officers from conducting forced anal examinations, which flagrantly violate medical ethics as well as basic rights.”

A lawyer told Human Rights Watch and EQUAL GROUND that he along with other counsel represented six defendants in the last 12 months accused of male homosexual conduct. In all cases prosecutors submitted reports of anal exams in court as evidence of past anal penetration. He said the accused alleged having been subjected to other abuses, including being whipped with wires. The court ordered three of the men to undergo HIV tests without their consent, the results of which were made public in court.

Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code prohibit “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and “gross indecency between persons” commonly understood in Sri Lanka to criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults, including in private spaces. Human Rights Watch has documented that other laws, including a vaguely worded Vagrancy Law and a penal code provision banning “cheating by personation,” are also used to target transgender and gender non-conforming people for arrest. In the last few years, Sri Lankan police have raided hotels and other locations to arrest people for offences including consensual same-sex conduct. A police performance report indicates that in 2018 police brought charges against nine men for “homosexuality,” arrested in five such raids.

Police have carried out many such arrests with violence. Among the 61 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people interviewed for a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, 16 had experienced physical or sexual assault, including rape, by the police.

Forced anal exams, which have the purported objective of finding “proof” of homosexual conduct, often involve doctors or other medical personnel inserting their fingers, and sometimes other objects, into the anus of the accused in an attempt to determine whether the person has engaged in receptive anal intercourse. Anal examinations, first devised by a French doctor in the 1800s, are rooted in discredited theories that anal penetration is evident by the tone of the anal sphincter or the shape of the anus.

The tests lack any scientific basis and violate medical ethics. The Independent Forensic Experts Group (IFEG), composed of forensic medicine specialists from around the world, has condemned forced anal examinations, stating that “The examination has no value in detecting abnormalities in anal sphincter tone that can be reliably attributed to consensual anal intercourse.”

The World Health Organization has denounced the exams as a form of violence and torture. The World Medical Association has called on all medical professionals to stop conducting the exams, saying that it is “deeply disturbed by the complicity of medical personnel in these non-voluntary and unscientific examinations, including the preparation of medical reports that are used in trials to convict men and transgender women of consensual same-sex conduct.” The judicial medical officers who carried out the exams in Sri Lanka are fully qualified medical doctors, employed by the Justice Ministry, and are bound by standards of medical ethics.

In one of the cases of anal examinations in Sri Lanka, according to the lawyer, one defendant said that after the police badly whipped him, he was sent to a judicial medical officer to have the anal exam. The defendant did not know he could refuse. In another case, the lawyer said, a man was given the option not to undergo an anal exam, but was told that rejecting it could be used against him. Free and informed consent cannot be provided under conditions of duress, Human Rights Watch and EQUAL GROUND said.

The lawyer also said that in 2019, police forced a transgender man to undergo a so-called “virginity test” in which a judicial medical officer inserted two fingers inside the man’s vagina. The police attempted to prosecute the man for same-sex conduct, but a magistrate dismissed the case, recognizing the trans man’s gender recognition certificate and his marriage to a cisgender woman as valid. Virginity testing is a form of gender-based violence. In November 2014, the World Health Organization stated unambiguously that, “There is no place for virginity (or ‘two-finger’) testing; it has no scientific validity.”

Sri Lanka has ratified core international human rights treaties that obligate the government to protect people’s rights not to experience violence, discrimination, torture, and other ill-treatment. Sri Lanka’s constitution at article 11 and its Convention Against Torture Act recognize the absolute prohibition of torture. Furthermore, fundamental rights recognized by the Sri Lankan Constitution includes nondiscrimination under article 12(2) which states that “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, and place of birth or any one of such grounds.”

In 2014, the government stated at the UN Human Rights Council that discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people was unconstitutional and that LGBTI people were protected under the Right to Equality provisions of Sri Lanka’s Constitution. The government, through its Attorney General, further stated that sections 365 and 365A of the penal code were not used to target LGBTI Sri Lankans and that to enforce the law in a discriminatory manner against LGBTI persons was unconstitutional. In 2017, the government reiterated its 2014 position and accepted recommendations from Council members to end discrimination against LGBTI people. The government made a “voluntary pledge” to “[e]nsure and strengthen respect for fundamental rights of all persons, including those from the LGBTIQ community, and address concerns raised in that regard.”

“The recent evidence of violence and harassment against the LGBTIQ community by law enforcement here is gravely concerning,” said Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, executive director of EQUAL GROUND. “Sri Lanka must respect its commitment to the UN to protect the fundamental rights of LGBTIQ people, including by ending arbitrary arrests and by banning torture and other mistreatment by the authorities.”


Saudi Arabia: Alleged Child Offenders Face Death Sentences

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Men hold placards bearing portraits of a prominent Shia Muslim cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution sparked demonstrations in 2016 by the country’s minority Shia citizens against systematic governmental discrimination. Some of the alleged child offenders currently on trial were accused of attending similar protests.  
© 2016 STR/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against eight Saudi men charged with protest-related crimes, some of which they allegedly committed as children, Human Rights Watch said today. The ongoing cases demonstrate critical gaps in a 2018 criminal justice reform curbing the death penalty for child offenders, leaving the eight men at risk of capital punishment.

Human Rights Watch obtained and analyzed the charge sheets for two group trials that included the eight men in 2019. Some of the crimes listed were allegedly committed while the men were between ages 14 and 17. One of the men, now 18, is charged for a nonviolent crime he allegedly committed at age 9. All eight men have been in pretrial detention for up to two years.

“Saudi spin doctors are marketing judicial reforms as progress while prosecutors appear to blatantly ignore them and carry on as usual,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Saudi Arabia is serious about reforming its criminal justice system, it should start by banning the death penalty against alleged child offenders in all cases.”

The Public Prosecution, which reports directly to the king, accused the detained men of several charges that do not resemble recognizable crimes, including “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” and “seeking to incite discord and division.” All of the men are from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s Shia minority live.

In 2018, around a year before prosecutors referred the cases to court, Saudi Arabia introduced the Juvenile Law, which sets a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison for anyone who committed a crime before they turned 18 and was convicted under the Islamic law principle of ta’zir. Ta’zir offenses do not have set penalties under Islamic law, and judges have wide discretion to determine punishments in individual cases.

However, this provision does not apply to qisas, or retributive justice offenses – usually for murder – or hudud, serious crimes defined under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the eight men under hudud, which would leave them ineligible for pardons if sentenced to death. The Saudi prosecution also demands that if the judge does not impose the death penalty on the basis of hudud, he should do so on under ta’zir, in blatant disregard of the Juvenile Law.

Saudi authorities arrested the men between April 2017 and January 2018. One group – Ahmad al-Faraj, Ali al-Batti, Mohammed al-Nimr, Ali al-Faraj, and Mohammed al-Faraj – have only had two trial hearings since first being presented to court in September 2019, partly due to Covid-19 restrictions. Human Rights Watch could not determine how many hearings the second group – Ali al-Mabyook, Sajjad al-Yasin, and Yousef al-Manasif – has had nor the month they were first presented to court in 2019. The next court hearings for both groups remain unclear.

Saudi activists in communication with sources close to al-Nimr and al-Faraj told Human Rights Watch that authorities tortured them during their initial detention and interrogation and that both were denied access to legal counsel.

The crimes listed in the men’s charge sheets, which for seven of the eight men included attacking police officers or patrols with Molotov cocktails or firearms, are almost entirely based on the men’s confessions, and give no details of any injuries to police officers.

Al-Faraj, now 18, was arrested at age 15 and is the youngest of the eight. The charges against him, none for violent crimes, include participating in demonstrations and funeral processions, one of which he confessed to attending when he was 9. Other charges include chanting slogans against the state, concealing men wanted by police, and monitoring and sharing the movements of armored security vehicles via WhatsApp with men wanted by the police.

Human Rights Watch has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases. In April 2019, Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution of 37 men, 33 of them from the country’s Shia minority community. One, Abd al-Kareem al-Hawaj, was a child at the time of his alleged offenses and arrest; another, Salman Al Quraish, was a child at the time of some of his alleged offenses.

In June 2019, Saudi prosecutors sought the death penalty against an 18-year-old, Murtaja Qureiris, who allegedly committed some of his offenses when he was just 10 or 11 and was arrested at 13. Later that month, following international pressure, he was spared the death penalty and instead sentenced to 12 years in prison.

On April 8, 2020, the Saudi authorities briefly posted an execution announcement to the Saudi Press Agency website for a man convicted of murder allegedly committed when he was a child, but the announcement was removed later that day. The Saudi authorities have not publicly confirmed whether they executed him.

International law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a state party, absolutely prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed by children. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.

In April, Saudi Arabia introduced a royal decree allowing the 2018 Juvenile Law’s provisions to be retroactively applied, meaning that justice officials can review the cases of convicted child offenders and stop punishments for those who have already served 10 years.

On August 26, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced the judiciary would review three death sentences in accordance with the recent decree. Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher were between 15 and 17 when arrested in connection with demonstrations in 2011 by the country’s minority Shia citizens against systematic governmental discrimination. They were held incommunicado and detained without charge or trial for up to 22 months, and eventually sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials.

Under the decree, the commission stated, the three detainees will be resentenced based on the Saudi Juvenile Law. They will have completed the maximum 10 years in prison under that law by 2022.

“Saudi authorities should spare Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoun, and Abdullah al-Zaher’s lives and make sure no other alleged child offender ends up on death row,” Page said.

Cuba’s Government Targets Social Media Influencers

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Screenshot from a video showing Ruhama Fernández. 
© YouTube/Ruhama Fernández

Cuba’s government has a well-documented history of harassing dissidents, journalists, and opposition party members. Now it has a new target: social media influencers.

On October 14, police arrived at the homes of four Cuban YouTubers about to participate in an online forum discussing Cuban politics. Two—Jancel Moreno and Maykel Castillo—were detained, Iliana Hernández and others had their internet cut. One, 21-year-old Ruhama Fernández, had to hide to participate in the discussion by phone.

The incident was just the latest example of the type of harassment influencers have faced.

Take the case of Fernández, who started her YouTube channel just ten months ago.

In Fernández’s videos, which are often critical of the government, she discusses current events and interviews people about their daily lives or their views on politics.

Soon after she started making videos, her friends began receiving citations from the police, she told Human Rights Watch. Officers would appear outside their homes and their parents’ workplaces. “They wanted to know who I was, where I lived, if I had a boyfriend.”

People began stopping her brother on the street—sometimes police, but often people dressed as civilians. “They tell him I should stop doing what I’m doing, or I might disappear.”

In April, she received her first police citation. At the station an officer told her she should stop posting videos, or else they could prosecute her for “counter-revolutionary” activities.

In July, authorities forced her internet provider to cut the connection at her home. Fernández received internet access through an informal network run by one of her neighbors—a common practice in Cuba where internet access is extremely limited. The neighbor said that police threatened to shut down the entire connection if she continued supplying Fernández.

In August, authorities denied Fernández a passport to travel to the United States to visit her parents. An Interior Ministry official told her she could not leave the country for “reasons of public interest,” a justification measure frequently invoked to bar dissidents from traveling.  

In September, after being questioned a second time by police, she posted a video detailing her experience. Days later, she received a call from an unknown number threatening to “finish” her off if she left her house.

Like others, Fernández says she is undeterred. “Now that I’ve told the truth, there’s no turning back.”

Cameroon: Opposition Leaders, Supporters Detained

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Demonstrators stopped by gendarmes and police in Bafang, West Cameroon, on September 22, 2020.
© 2020 Private

(Nairobi) – Cameroonian security forces fired tear gas and water cannons and arrested hundreds of people, mainly opposition party members and supporters, to disperse peaceful protests across the country on September 22, 2020. Many peaceful protesters were beaten and mistreated while being arrested and in detention. Cameroon’s authorities should immediately release all those held for their political views or for exercising their right to peacefully assemble.

The African Union (AU), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Cameroon’s other regional and international partners should publicly denounce the crackdown on Cameroon’s political opposition and other dissenters. These groups should press the Cameroon government to hold to account those responsible for violations of the rights to assembly, to liberty, and to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment.

“African and regional bodies should call out Cameroon’s government for its repression and rampant abuses,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As the end of the AU’s 2020 theme, ‘Silencing the gun,’ approaches, it’s crucial for these institutions to send strong messages to President Paul Biya’s administration that flagrant violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties are unacceptable.” 

According to the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC), over 500 people were arrested on September 22, only 155 of whom have been released. Lawyers for the party say that 21 were taken before a civilian court on various charges, including rebellion and participating in an illegal demonstration; 107 have been taken before a military court on various charges including terrorism and insurrection; 63 others continue to be held without charge, while the situation of others still in custody is unclear. In a statement on October 14, Cameroon’s communications minister said that 294 people were arrested on September 22, of whom 176 have been released.

Human Rights Watch, between September 22 and October 10, interviewed ten leaders and members of the opposition party MRC, five lawyers, three journalists and four relatives of men who were arrested and beaten by the police on September 22. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs and video footage showing the September 22 demonstrations and the security force response.

In early September, Cameroon authorities banned demonstrations across the country after the MRC encouraged people to take to the streets over the government’s decision to call regional elections in December. The party has said the government should revise the electoral law and resolve the crisis in the Anglophone regions – where violence has been acute since late 2016, as separatists seek independence for the country’s minority Anglophone regions – before holding these elections.

The territorial administration minister then announced that anyone organizing or leading demonstrations would be arrested, claiming that protests would endanger lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. The communications minister warned political parties on September 15 that protests could be considered “insurrection” and that illegal demonstrations would be punished under the anti-terror law.

The wife of a 32-year-old MRC member who was arrested in Yaoundé, the capital, on September 22 told Human Rights Watch: “I went to the central police station where my husband is being held. His eyes were red and swollen. He told me that the police beat him up when they arrested him.” A party member who visited his 36-year-old friend at the Yaoundé central police station after his arrest, said: “Policemen beat him so savagely that his wrist is now dislocated. He’s being held in a small dirty cell with 20 other people with no light and a non-functioning toilet.”

At least eight journalists were among those arrested on September 22, and it appears that at least some were deliberately targeted. Radio France Internationale (RFI)’s correspondent in Yaoundé, Polycarpe Essomba, told Human Rights Watch: “I had finished covering the demonstrations, and I was in a hairdresser shop preparing my radio show when six policemen came in and pointed at me. One said: ‘That’s him whom we are looking for. That’s him who’s spoiling Cameroon’s image abroad.’ They put me in their truck and forced me to lay down. Then they kicked me, and one hit me with a truncheon.” The reporter, who was taken to the central police station in Yaoundé, was released three hours later. The other seven journalists were also released over the course of that day and the following day.

Maurice Kamto, the MRC leader, who had been arrested in January 2019 after countrywide peaceful protests and released following a presidential decree in October 2019, has been held under de facto house arrest since September 22. Dozens of police and gendarmes surround his residence in Yaoundé, refusing to allow him to leave. On October 5, his lawyers filed a request before the Yaoundé Court of First Instance seeking to free the leader, but the court rejected the request the following day “for lack of urgency.” On October 11, Kamto’s lawyers filed a complaint against the state of Cameroon, accusing the authorities of holding the leader under house arrest illegally. The first hearing, scheduled for October 15 before the Yaoundé Court of First Instance, was postponed until October 29.

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Security forces gather outside the residence of Maurice Kamto, leader of the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC) in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, on September 28, 2020.
© 2020 Private

Two other prominent MRC leaders – its treasurer, Alain Fogue, and its spokesperson, Bibou Nissack – were also arrested, on September 21 and 22 respectively. They are being held at the State Defense Secretariat (Secrétariat d’Etat à la défense, SED) without charge. While their lawyers and family members can visit them, their lawyers say they cannot talk to their clients privately and that visits are only allowed for less than 10 minutes. Nissack is being held in solitary confinement and is not permitted to have reading material.

On October 1, following the announcement of a protest, policemen and gendarmes surrounded the headquarters of the opposition party Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) in Yaoundé and the residence of its president, Edith Kahbang Walla, known as Kah Walla. “Police initially informed me that I was under house arrest, but then backed down when I demanded to see the court judgment authorizing such an arrest,” Kah Walla said in an October 9 statement.

The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by Cameroon’s constitution and international human rights law. Arbitrary arrests, mistreatment in detention, and unnecessary use of force to disperse protesters violate those guarantees and Cameroon’s international obligations. Protesters should instead be protected by the authorities.

While the authorities used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to ban the demonstrations, detaining hundreds of people in cramped conditions poses serious risks to public health and could be considered a right-to-health violation. Human Rights Watch has urged governments around the world, including Cameroon, to reduce their jail and prison populations, given the heightened risk of Covid-19 for detainees and staff. For the same reason, authorities should only make custodial arrests when strictly necessary. Especially given that those arrested during the September 22 protests were not engaged in violence and presented no immediate threat to commit violence, there was no justification for custodial arrests.

Cameroonian authorities have arbitrarily arrested critics of the government and political opponents on multiple occasions, and security forces have used excessive and indiscriminate force to stifle other opposition-led demonstrations. In late January, Kamto, the MRC leader, and some of his closest allies were arrested alongside another 200 party members and supporters after they held countrywide protests.

In June 2019, security forces arrested at least 350 MRC members and supporters across the country as they tried to hold demonstrations. Some, including the party vice-president, Mamadou Mota, remain in detention on politically motivated charges.

“We feel as if there’s a normalization of repression,” a Cameroonian human rights lawyer, Michelle Ndoki, told Human Rights Watch. “The international community should know that the political space for opposition groups to express themselves freely is getting smaller every day.”

On October 12, 14 United Nations independent human rights experts called on Cameroon to release Kamto and others arrested during peaceful protests, and to stop the intimidation of political activists. On October 14, the communications minister said that the UN human rights experts’ statement is “partial and biased” and “based on false information.”

“As further opposition-led demonstrations are expected across Cameroon in the coming months, the AU and the ECCAS should press President Biya to end the wave of repression and promote respect for human rights,” Allegrozzi said. “African and regional bodies should not remain silent in the face of escalating repression and should rally support from within their institutions to hold Cameroonian authorities to their human rights obligations, including by calling for the immediate charge or release of all arrested demonstrators and political opponents.”

Mauritania: Free Activists Held on Blasphemy Charges

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(Beirut) – Mauritania’s government should drop charges of blasphemy and insulting Islam against eight political activists and release the five held in pretrial detention since February 26, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The Nouakchott West Criminal Court is due to hear the case on October 20.

The prosecution accused the eight defendants of “mocking God, his messenger and the Holy Book,” and “creating, recording and publishing messages using an information system that affects the values of Islam,” according to the charge sheet, which Human Rights Watch reviewed. They could face the death penalty if convicted.

“Posting a photo or text on social media, even something others might see as insulting religion, should not be a crime,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These charges should have never been brought in the first place, let alone been used to jail five people for eight months.”

The accusations for three of the men included collaboration with two foreign nationals who had been deported from Mauritania for allegedly proselytizing for Christianity.

The five defendants in detention since February 26 are Ahmed Mohamed Moctar, 38, Othman Mohamed Lahbib, 25, Mohamed Abdelrahman Mohamed, 58, Mohamed Ould Hida, 41, and Mohamed Fal Ishaq, 41. One other defendant was provisionally released and two are abroad.

Mauritanian authorities in February summoned the eight men for questioning after they attended a meeting organized by the newly founded group Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State (AREM). The group calls for reforming Mauritania’s public administration and health systems and rejects the country’s caste system.

On July 6, a specialized investigations unit dealing with terrorism and state security crimes at the General Prosecutor’s office referred the case to the Nouakchott West Criminal Court, charging the eight men with blasphemy and contempt of religion under article 306 of the Penal Code. The authorities also charged three of them with disseminating content that “undermines the values of Islam” under article 21 of the Cybercrime Law and article 20 of the Counterterrorism Law.

In July 2019, in an earlier case, authorities freed a blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who had been held in a blasphemy case for five and a half years. After a court sentenced Mkhaitir to death in December 2014, an appeals court converted the penalty to two years in prison, already served. But the authorities held him in solitary and arbitrary detention for another 21 months after that before they released him. Mkhaitir is in exile in France and heads the newly founded AREM.

Prosecutors have an arsenal of repressive legislation to punish critics for nonviolent speech, including harsh and overbroad laws on terrorism, cybercrime, apostasy, and criminal defamation used to jail human rights defenders, activists, and bloggers.

In 2018, the National Assembly passed a law on blasphemy that replaces article 306 of the Criminal Code and makes the death penalty mandatory for anyone convicted of “blasphemous speech” and “sacrilegious” acts. The law eliminates the possibility under article 306 of substituting prison terms for the death penalty for certain apostasy-related crimes if the offender promptly repents. The law also provides for a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 600,000 Ouguiyas (US$15,940) for “offending public indecency and Islamic values” and for “breaching Allah’s prohibitions” or assisting in their breach.

In December 2015, the National Assembly passed the cybercrime law, which established prison sentences and heavy fines for disseminating certain types of politically sensitive content over the internet.

Mauritania’s laws impose the death penalty for a range of offenses, including, under certain conditions, blasphemy, apostasy, adultery, and homosexuality, though a de facto moratorium on executions has been in effect since 1987. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and its irreversible and inhumane nature.

Article 19 (1) of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Mauritania in 2004, says, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference, and, everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” The Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, determined that, except in very limited circumstances, prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the covenant. It also said that “[T]he free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential.”

Article 9 (2) of the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), which Mauritania ratified in 1986, states that “[E]very individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”

“The authorities should urgently prioritize decriminalizing peaceful speech, starting with the elimination of capital punishment for blasphemy,” Goldstein said.

Thailand: Water Cannon Used Against Peaceful Activists

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Pro-democracy demonstrators face water cannons during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, October 16, 2020. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

(Bangkok) – Thai police unnecessarily used water cannon against peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok on October 16, 2020, in violation of international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities acted under state of emergency powers declared the previous day, which allows the security forces to commit abuses with impunity.

At about 6:30 p.m., police forcibly dispersed a demonstration organized by the pro-democracy People’s Movement in which thousands of people, including many students, took part. Human Rights Watch observed the police using water cannon laced with blue dye and an apparent teargas chemical to break up the protest in Bangkok’s Pathumwan shopping district. The police then charged in with batons and shields to disperse the protesters. Scores were arrested. The government has not yet provided details about people in police custody. After the crackdown, 12 protest leaders are being sought on arrest warrants.

“By sending in the police to violently disperse peaceful protesters, Thailand’s government is embarking on a wider crackdown to end the students’ protests,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Invoking the Emergency Decree gives the police the green light to commit rights abuses with impunity.”

Under the 2020 United Nations guidance on less-lethal weapons in law enforcement, “Water cannon should only be used in situations of serious public disorder where there is a significant likelihood of loss of life, serious injury or the widespread destruction of property.” In addition, water cannon should “not target a jet of water at an individual or group of persons at short range owing to the risk of causing permanent blindness or secondary injuries if persons are propelled energetically by the water jet.”

Police arrested a Prachatai journalist, Kitti Pantapak, as he broadcast the police’s dispersal operation on Facebook Live. Kitti identified himself as a reporter and wore a press armband issued by the Thai Journalists Association. He faces possible charges under the Emergency Decree, which prohibits publishing and broadcasting information that threatens national security.

International news reporting on Thailand, such as by the BBC World Service, has been blocked on the country’s main cable TV network, True Visions. Thai authorities also pressed satellite service providers to block the broadcast of Voice TV, a station widely known for its critical coverage of the government.

The Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation empowers Thai authorities to impose broad censorship in violation of the right to free expression and media freedom. On October 16, the police issued several warnings against news reports and social media commentary critical of the monarchy, the government, and political situation in the country. Livestreaming pro-democracy protests was declared illegal, as well as posting selfies at a protest site.

The decree also grants the authorities broad powers to arrest people without charge and detain them in informal detention sites, such as military camps. Officials carrying out the duties under the decree have legal immunity. The decree does not require access to legal counsel or visits by family members. Discussions about political issues in the parliament have also been suspended. Any public gathering of five or more people is now banned in Bangkok.

The crackdown occurred a day after Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on October 15, asserting that escalating protests by pro-democracy groups contravened the law and the constitution, threatened the monarchy institution, caused disturbances, harmed national security and public safety, and undermined measures to curtail Covid-19. Shortly after his announcement, the government sent in police to forcibly disperse protesters camped outside the Government House. The police arrested at least 22 people, including the protest leaders Arnon Nampha, Parit Chiwarak, Prasiddhi Grudharochana, and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul.

The government has shown increasing hostility toward pro-democracy protests, which started on July 18 and later spread across the country. The protesters called for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported that at least 85 protesters faced illegal assembly charges for holding peaceful protests in Bangkok and other provinces. Some protest leaders have also been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, for making demands regarding reforms of the monarchy institution.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But 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, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. In addition, over the past five months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.

“Protesters in Thailand are peacefully demanding democracy, human rights, and reform,” Adams said. “Concerned governments and the United Nations should speak out publicly to demand an immediate end to political repression by the Prayuth administration.”