Human Rights Watch's Blog

July 16, 2019

Standing with Victims on International Justice Day

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Abdul Kareem, a Rohingya Muslim, carries his mother, Alima Khatoon, to a refugee camp after crossing from Burma into Bangladesh on Sept. 16, 2017.

© 2017 Dar Yasin/AP

Twenty-one years ago today, 120 countries adopted the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), creating a permanent international court to hold perpetrators of the world’s gravest crimes to account. The anniversary is a moment to reflect on the successes and challenges of bringing justice to victims over the past year.

With armed conflicts raging across the globe and devastating civilian populations, demand for accountability is growing. In Liberia, citizens and civil society groups are calling on President George Weah to support the creation of a war crimes court to provide justice for atrocities committed during the country’s two civil wars.

In the Central African Republic, the Special Criminal Court has finally opened investigations into abuses committed during the years-long conflict there. Several prosecutors in Europe are investigating and bringing to trial atrocity crimes cases committed in countries such as Syria and Iraq, where the ICC has no jurisdiction. Some governments are also attempting to fill this gap by creating teams of independent investigators to examine crimes in Syria and Myanmar.

At the ICC, two suspects of grave crimes in the Central African Republic, Patrice Edouard Ngaissona and Alfred Yékatom, were arrested and transferred to the court. Earlier this month, the ICC prosecutor filed a request to open an investigation into certain crimes against ethnic Rohingya arising from government atrocities in Myanmar. Last week, ICC judges convicted Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and began hearings for the confirmation of charges in the for crimes in northern Mali.

But there have also been serious setbacks for victims awaiting justice from the court. In January, ICC judges dismissed the case against former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo and the written reasons for the oral decision were only filed on July 16. In April, judges rejected the prosecutor’s request to open an investigation in Afghanistan on a problematic legal basis. In the face of evident shortcomings, the court needs to step up its performance.

The ICC is also facing unprecedented threats from the United States. In March, the Trump administration threatened visa bans on ICC staff if the court began investigating US nationals for alleged crimes in Afghanistan, and then proceeded to revoke the prosecutor’s visa in April. 

While challenges to securing accountability around the world persist, 21 years after the completion of the Rome Statute, the victims’ need for justice and an effective court are greater than ever.

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Published on July 16, 2019 21:01

Kazakhstan: Children in Institutions Isolated, Abused

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Sixteen beds fill a room with barred windows in a closed institution for children with disabilities.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

(Berlin) – Children with disabilities in state institutions in Kazakhstan are at risk of physical violence, forced sedation, and neglect, Human Rights Watch said today.

Kazakhstan should make it a priority to move children with disabilities out of closed residential institutions and provide support for children with disabilities to live with their families, or in other family settings in the community. All forms of violence in closed institutions and the use of restraints as a form of punishment, control, or retaliation, or as a measure of convenience for staff, should be prohibited.

“Hundreds of children and young adults with disabilities in Kazakhstan are locked away in closed children’s institutions, where they can face neglect and violence, and are isolated from families and society,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakhstan should call a halt to these abusive practices and urgently develop a way for children with disabilities and their families to get the services they need to protect their right to a family life.”

Between October 2017 and April 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 27 children and young adults with disabilities who had lived in closed children’s institutions, as well as parents of children with disabilities, institution staff, and disability rights experts and activists. Human Rights Watch also visited three institutions for children with disabilities.

Children and young adults who grew up in closed institutions for children with disabilities reported that staff beat them, forcibly administered sedatives to punish or control them, and forced them to take care of younger children.

According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, Kazakhstan has 19 state institutions for children with mental health conditions and developmental disabilities. More than 2,000 children live in these institutions, though many have at least one living parent.

Staff confirmed that they use psychotropic drugs to sedate children and have sent children to psychiatric hospitals for behavior such as screaming, shouting, or refusing to follow staff directions. Such drugs are usually medically prescribed to treat schizophrenia, sleep disorders, and strong pain. The sedatives put children to sleep, in some cases for up to 24 hours.

Several young adults who grew up in institutions said that staff beat them with objects such as crutches and mops, or slammed them or other children against the wall. Staff would also force children to work, for example to mop floors, or to feed, bathe, and change the diapers of younger children. In one institution, Human Rights Watch saw a young girl in physical restraints, with her arms fixed around her torso, enclosed in a pink cloth with sleeves tied behind her back, like a strait jacket.

Upon turning 18, many young adults with disabilities are automatically transferred to adult institutions and remain there. In part, this is due due to a lack of services to support young adults with disabilities to live independently.

They may face more violence in the adult institutions. One man described being repeatedly stripped naked and placed in a very cold cage-like isolation room as punishment.

Children with disabilities living in state children’s institutions receive little or no education. “We don’t have a school [education] program, but a correctional program,” one institution director said. “Children here are weak and difficult.”

In all the children’s institutions Human Rights Watch visited, children face neglect. Up to 16 children are kept in rooms together, with only a few caregivers. Some children, typically those who cannot walk or talk, are confined almost continuously to cribs or beds.

After her September 2017 visit to Kazakhstan, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas, noted that, “Living independently in the community is one of the major challenges for persons with disabilities in Kazakhstan,” and that she had received “worrisome allegations of violence, abuse and degrading treatment against persons placed in those institutions, especially girls and women with disabilities.”

An 18-year-old man who grew up in institutions said, “It’s not a life. They fed us, dressed us. I want to build my own life. I want a life! I want to live on my own, make [my own] food, go to work.”

In correspondence with Human Rights Watch, the Labor and Social Protection Ministry acknowledged that “large dormitory-like institutions lead to overcrowding… reduce the quality of services and the social adaptation of people in society, [and] lead to the loss of family ties.” The Labor and Social Protection Ministry also said that 727 children with disabilities had been returned to their families in 2018, facilitated by the development of day care centers. The ministry said that it plans to develop smaller homes, for 10 to 50 people.

However, while such homes may be smaller in scale, they would only perpetuate institutionalization in so far as residents would not have autonomy over their daily lives. Instead, the Kazakh government should invest in the development of community-based services to support independent living for people with disabilities. If small-group living arrangements are developed, they should be community-based, voluntary, ensure autonomy and individual decision-making, with support as necessary, and include programs to teach skills for living independently.

Kazakh law states that “every child has the right to live and be raised in their family, the right to know their parents, the right to their care, and the right to live with them, except when it is contrary to their interests.” As a party to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Kazakhstan should ensure that all children with disabilities can grow up in a family and be included in the community, regardless of their disability or multiple disabilities. The government is also obligated to protect children from abuse and ill-treatment and should prohibit using sedatives and physical restraints to control or punish people with disabilities.

Children should only be placed in residential institutions under the supervision of an independent judicial body, in cases of emergency, or to prevent the separation of siblings, and for a limited duration. Family reunification or placement in family-based alternative care should be the ultimate plan for the child, Human Rights Watch said.

The Kazakh government should adopt a time-bound plan to phase out the use of residential institutions for children with disabilities and prioritize accessible community-based services and support to families. The government should end abuses in closed children’s institutions and ensure rigorous monitoring of institutions pending their closure.

“All children, including those with disabilities, should be at home, with their families,” Rittmann said. “The Kazakh government should make sure that children with disabilities and their families have the support they need to live in the community, just like everyone else.”

For more information about conditions in closed institutions for children with disabilities in Kazakhstan, please see below.

Kazakhstan’s Labor and Social Protection Ministry helped facilitate access to three closed children’s institutions, in Almaty, Karaganda, and Shymkent, which Human Rights Watch visited in November and December 2018. The ministry also responded in July to a letter about conditions in such institutions. Interviews were voluntary and held in private. Human Rights Watch used pseudonyms for all the children and young adults interviewed to protect their privacy and confidentiality.

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Children confined to a "lying down" room in a closed children's institution. 

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

Institutionalization of Children with Disabilities

Children with disabilities in state care in Kazakhstan live in institutions known as Special Social Services Centers for Children. There are currently 19 special children’s centers, with a total of over 2,000 children. Most children in these centers have intellectual, psychosocial – that is, mental health – or developmental disabilities. They include children with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. Children in Kazakhstan with other types of disabilities, such as physical or sensory disabilities, may live in residential special schools, or at home with their families, or in two specialized residential institutions for children with physical disabilities.

The practice of institutionalization in Kazakhstan carries over from its Soviet past, where, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, institutions were “considered as the best public care solution” and the prevailing view was that “all those who, for different reasons, could not fit within the rules of society should be isolated.”

At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visits to special children’s centers in 2018, there were 131 children in the Almaty special children’s center; 176 children at the Shymkent special children’s center; and 175 children in Karaganda special children’s center, ages 3 to 18. The Karaganda center also has 68 young adults ages 18 and older.

While many institutionalized children have at least one living parent, parents are required by law to relinquish their parental rights to admit their children in state residential institutions. The institution director becomes the child’s legal guardian.

Treatment and Conditions

Sedatives, Forced Psychiatric Hospitalization for Control and Punishment

Several of the current or former special children’s center residents interviewed said that staff had given them sedatives, or they had seen staff give other children sedatives to control them or punish them for their behavior. Some children said that staff forced them to go to local psychiatric hospitals for behavior such as not following staff directions, which they took to be punishment. Some were forced to remain there for weeks, a month, or more.

Institution staff, as well as one parent whose child currently lives at an institution, corroborated these practices. One staff member said that a child was hospitalized after behavior such as pulling another caregiver’s hair.

Kazakh law gives psychiatrists the authority to order forced hospitalization, including for children, for monitoring or treatment. But it is not clear what, if any, basis in law exists for holding children in psychiatric hospitals for these extended periods.

The use of medications for staff convenience, to control behavior, or as punishment, is known as chemical restraint and is never acceptable. The UN special rapporteur on torture has stated that “any restraint on persons with disabilities for even a short period of time may constitute torture and ill-treatment.” Medications should only be used for therapeutic purposes and consistent with the right to the highest attainable standard of health.

Bakhyt, a 24-year-old woman who grew up in a special children’s center, said that institution staff punish children by “giving shots to make [us] sleep.” She also said that institution staff had punished her for running around in the bedroom by giving her an injection, and had sent her to the psychiatric hospital for two months. Bakhyt said that institution staff had told the attending psychiatrist that she had tried to jump out of the window, though she said she hadn’t. “They shouldn’t lie like that,” she said. “God is watching.”

Asel, 22, who grew up in the same institution, also said that staff punished children by giving them sedatives. “When they give you a shot,” she said, “then you sleep for one whole day.” Several other young people who had lived in other institutions said they too slept for long periods after staff gave them injections or pills.

Galym, now 23, was also institutionalized as a child. He said that in the special children’s center where he lived, “if you run off to go to the shop, they send you to the psychiatric hospital.” He said he was given shots twice a day which made him “slow.” He said both he and some of his caregivers asked the medical workers to stop the medication, but they refused.

Staff at all three children’s institutions said that when children become overexcited or uncontrollable, for example when they do not follow directions, the staff first summon the institution’s psychologist to talk to the child, to try and calm them. But they admitted that when that approach was not effective, they could call the doctor to give children sedatives and in more serious cases, send them to psychiatric hospitals.

One institution director said that if children “are uncontrollable, we call an ambulance, and they take the child to the psychiatric health center [hospital].” A caregiver who works with 15- to 18-year-old boys at the same institution said that staff sometimes threaten to call the psychiatric hospital ambulance to compel the boys to follow instructions. She said that staff summoned the psychiatric hospital ambulance after a boy in her group pulled the hair of one of the caregivers. “He spent a month at [the psychiatric hospital],” she said.

A medical worker at another special children’s center said that in 2017, staff called a psychiatric hospital ambulance when a 17-year-old boy tried repeatedly to run away. The boy was sent to the psychiatric hospital for over 40 days, the medical worker said.

She said that if the psychiatrist decides a child needs medication, for example, because he hits himself, they prescribe a sedative for up to two or three months, then there is a break. “We only give shots at the moment [the child] acts up,” she said.

Use of Sedatives, Isolation Cells to Punish Adults

Children who were transferred to adult institutions upon turning 18 said they faced similar abuse there.

Ivan, a 24-year-old who grew up in state care, said his time in the adult institution “was horrible”:

They [the staff] had a habit of beating us if we didn’t want to help or if we didn’t listen to them. They would also give us shots. Shots and shots of aminazine, to make us sleep. They break it open, jab it in you and that’s it. Or, they’d take a tablet, crush it up in their hand and make me drink it.

Svetlana, also 24, lived in the same adult institution. She said that institution staff “would give shots to anyone who wouldn’t listen. The shots would make people sleep a lot… People would sleep for a long time, feel very weak. You want to drink a lot, [but] your appetite falls away.”

Both also said they were put in isolation as punishment. Ivan said that one night orderlies beat him and insulted him, then they put him in an isolation room overnight:

“It was so cold. They opened the window. It was so cold. They would give me the shot and then close me in the cage. It was so cold. They took all of our clothes off. We were totally without anything… No bed, nothing, just a bare floor. I just had to lie on the floor. There was nothing. It was so cold.”

Aigerim, 30, said that in state institutions where she lived as an adult, “[If] you behave poorly, they give you shots or pills, or put you behind bars. When they punish you, they lock you up. They can keep you there until the morning. There is a metal bed, mattress. [When you’re locked up] they don’t give you food.”

Physical Restraints

Like chemical restraints, the use of physical restraints such as tying or strait jackets to control children’s behavior is unacceptable, and may amount to torture and ill-treatment, even if used only for a short time.

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A young girl whose arms were tied and affixed behind her back in a closed children's institution.

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch observed that staff in one institution had bound the arms of a girl who was about 10 years old, wrapping them around her torso and fixing them down using a piece of clothing tied behind her back, similar to a strait jacket. A staff member attending to the girl said that the management of the institution does not allow her to keep the girl tied up for more than half an hour at a time.

Another staff member in the same institution said that they sometimes use physical restraints on children if they “really act up.” In those cases, she said, they restrain the child for 20 or 30 minutes, “but we don’t tie young ones, only children 10 and above.”

In March 2018, a 7-year-old boy who lived in a children’s institution in Talgar, a town in southern Kazakhstan, died of asphyxiation after his caregiver reportedly tied him to his bed because he would not sleep and was disturbing other children in the same room. The caregiver was convicted of murder and sentenced to 13 years in prison, but no other institution staff appear to have been held accountable for the child’s death.

Physical Violence

Young adults interviewed said that some staff had beaten them in the children’s institutions where they grew up.

Mikhail, 23, said that some staff members made him mop floors at night and also beat him and his friend:

There was one caregiver who made us clean the floors and the toilet. She would swear at us. She heard us complaining [about something] and she beat us with a crutch. I had a welt [after that].

Mikhail described other violence he experienced in the children’s institution:

They beat my head against a wall. I got a concussion. Three caregivers would beat me, they drank [alcohol] and beat everyone. They didn’t feed us and swore at us. If someone [defecated] in his pants, they would beat him with a stick.

When asked if he reported the abuse to anyone, Mikhail said, “I didn’t complain because that would just make it worse.” He also did not know to whom he could complain. “You can’t just go see the director,” he said.

Aigerim, now 30, described the violence she experienced in the children’s institution where she grew up: “[Staff] beat us up in there. They beat us with a mop. You’re not supposed to beat children with a mop!” She understood that staff beat her as punishment, if “for instance, [we] didn’t listen to them.” Aigerim said that, “It felt like they didn’t consider [us] people, but dogs or animals.”

Lack of Personalized Attention, Nurturing

In each of the three special children’s centers, rooms for children were organized by age, type of disability, or both, as well as by gender. Most rooms had between eight and 16 children, and about three staff members attending to them.

Under such circumstances, even the most dedicated staff face challenges providing the individualized attention and care that each child needs. This is especially true with respect to young children or children with high support needs, where children are given little or no opportunity or support for physical, emotional, or intellectual growth.

Studies have shown that a child’s healthy development depends on their ability to form emotional attachments to a caregiver. In his reporting on children deprived of their liberty, the UN special rapporteur on torture has noted that children “require emotional companionship and attention to flourish.” Human Rights Watch found that due to the grouping of large numbers of children, children’s special centers do not provide sufficient individualized care and nurturing.

Older Children Forced to Care for Younger Children

Current and former residents in multiple children’s institutions said that they were forced to assist caregivers, carrying out such tasks as feeding, changing diapers, bathing, and dressing younger children.

When Zhanara lived in a closed children’s institution, she “had to help take care of other kids. It was hard. It was sad to see these children. One girl had a tube coming out of her stomach. It was hard.”

Nurbek, now 21, said: “In [the institution] I had to help with the children who don’t speak, who are lying down. I would help feed them, change their diapers. There were also kids in wheelchairs. Sometimes I had to carry them. I got mad because I was tired of doing this.”

Another former resident, Mikhail, 23, said: “[I was forced to] bathe and brush the teeth of other children. The staff would sit there and give us orders. Other kids also performed work. Even Serezha [not his real name] in a wheelchair was forced to work, to mop the floor.”

Three other young people described similar work. Nurgul, who lives in a special children’s center, said: “I always help out and support them. I dress [the young ones], put on their shoes, and wash them.”

Galym said that he “helped the caregivers to take care of the lying-down children. I mopped the floor, changed diapers.” For his assistance, Galym said that the caregivers sometimes gave him money or home-cooked food.

Denial of Education

Children and young adults who had lived in special children’s centers said that they received little or no education. Senior staff at the institutions Human Rights Watch visited confirmed that the vast majority of children living there did not go to school. They said some children attended “correctional” classes in the institutions. In correspondence with Human Rights Watch about education for children in closed children’s institutions, the Labor and Social Protection Ministry said that “children with psychiatric-neurological pathologies… have difficulty learning in special classes in special educational institutions” and are thus under the care of the social services system.

Lack of Play, Recreation

The children in the institutions visited lacked access to sufficient play and recreation, particularly children confined to their beds. All children in institutions follow a strict daily schedule, with defined meal and nap times, and spend the majority of their day indoors. Irina, 23, said that in the children’s institution where she had lived, “everywhere there were only bars. We were always within four walls. We never went anywhere on our own.”

Bakhyt, a 24-year-old who grew up in an institution, said, “They don’t let us walk around. I like to do things myself, but it’s not so easy. [If they’d let me] I would go to the movies. It’s interesting.”

Institution directors said that some of the center’s children leave the institutions for day outings, or particular events such as to attend a concert. It was not clear how frequently children participate in these activities, as the institutions have buses that can accommodate only 20 or 30 children, whereas more than 100 children lived in each of the institutions at the time.

Children Transferred to Adult Institutions Without Consent

By law, special children’s centers are intended for children ages 3 to 18. Staff at the Karaganda center said that 68 adults continued to live there because there was no room for them in the nearby adult institution. Young adults up to age 24 were living in the same rooms as young children.

Many of the young adults said that institution staff had arranged for their transfer to adult state residential institutions without their consent when or after they turned 18. Aigul Shakibaeva, a human rights activist and disabilities rights expert who has carried out research on the treatment of children and young adults with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, said that the vast majority of children transferred to adult institutions are deprived of their legal capacity, or the right to make decisions for themselves, without their knowledge.

A childhood spent in an institution can have serious negative consequences for the person institutionalized. Thinking back to her time in a children’s institution, Aina, now in her 30s, said, “I wish they wouldn’t give shots or pills [in the institution]. I wish everything was good and fair. Sometimes it’s hard for me [still]. I sit at home and cry.”


The Kazakh government should:

Establish a time-bound plan to end the use of closed residential institutions for children with disabilities. Children should only be placed in any residential institution under the supervision of an independent judicial body, in emergency cases or to prevent the separation of siblings, and for a limited duration. Planned family reunification or placement in family-based alternative care should be the ultimate outcome for the child;
Systematically monitor institutions, prevent and remedy human rights abuses, including violence, the use of sedatives and physical restraints for punishment, control, or for staff convenience; and other abuses;
Develop quality, accessible community-based services for people with disabilities and families of children with disabilities;
Examine ways to reallocate government funds and programming from institutions to increase support for people with disabilities to live independently in their communities and for families to raise children with disabilities at home;
Pending phasing out these institutions, ensure that children with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities living in state institutions have regular access to their families, ideally through home visits and access to inclusive education, adequate health care, rehabilitation, and play.
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Published on July 16, 2019 21:00

Congress Should Condemn Trump’s Racist Comments

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From left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, respond to remarks by President Donald Trump after his call for the four congresswomen to go back to their "broken" countries, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, DC, July 15, 2019.

©AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite


Update: The resolution rebuking the president’s racist attacks on sitting members of Congress has passed the House of Representatives with a vote of 240 to 187.

It is no coincidence that the lawmakers President Donald Trump attacked over the weekend with his racist tweets had recently been vocal critics of the inhumane conditions asylum seekers face in US custody. These conditions, which Human Rights Watch has documented extensively, violate federal statutes and international human rights law that protect asylum seekers and children.

US Representative Tom Malinowski has drafted a House resolution rebuking the president’s racist attacks on sitting members of Congress. It states that the House of Representatives “strongly condemns President Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”

The four congresswomen targeted – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib – are all US citizens and three of the four are US born. By suggesting “they go back to where they come from,” the president questioned their claim to US citizenship – their belonging.

Instead of issuing an apology, Trump denied his actions were racist and continued his onslaught.

Trump’s most recent outburst cannot be separated from his long history of racist actions and rhetorical attacks on people of color and women, nor from his administration’s abusive immigration policies.

Trump was one of the main proponents of the “birtherism” conspiracy that alleged that former President Barack Obama was not a US citizen and more recently said that Black National Football League players who kneel to protest police violence during the anthem should not be in the country. As president, he has  obtained a ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, separated migrant families at the border, detained babies and children, and returned asylum seekers to dangerous conditions in Mexico.

The racism that Trump exhibited in his tweets to the lawmakers animates his abusive immigration policies. Language matters, and the US government can only address these abuses if it pushes back against the racism at their heart. Congress should overwhelmingly approve the resolution.

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Published on July 16, 2019 15:13

Marching for Disability Rights in New York City

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Human Rights Watch staff holds posters reading "Disability Rights are Human Rights" as they march in the Disability Pride Parade in New York City. 

© 2019 Emina Cerimovic/Human Rights Watch

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch marched in the 5th annual Disability Pride Parade in New York City, alongside thousands of people with disabilities, disabled persons organizations, companies, local politicians, and others. The participants marched for inclusion, awareness, visibility, and a dignified perception of disability, and to encourage New Yorkers to view people with disabilities through a lens of pride rather than charity.

Beyond New York City, disability pride parades also occurred in in Brighton, Rome, and Calgary, demonstrating that the disability rights movement is growing.

Over 120 organizations marched in New York City representing people with physical and sensory disabilities, psychosocial disabilities, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, and more. It was a rare opportunity for New York City’s disability community to come together, as public and private spaces in the city remain largely inaccessible to many people with different types of disabilities.

New York subways are tricky terrain with few elevators. Street and subway signs are not accessible for people with visual disabilities, and too few crosswalks have audible signals. Disability Pride Parade organizers provided reasonable accommodations such as sign language interpretation, text description of maps, live transcription (CART) services, a wheelchair accessible parade route, wheelchair accessible restrooms, and more, making the parade accessible and inclusive for all participants.

People with disabilities are active members of society who regard their disability as part of their identity. Sunday’s Pride Parade brought people together to celebrate that the city was accessible and inclusive for one day. Now, New York City should improve accessibility and make this something to celebrate every day.

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Published on July 16, 2019 14:30

Nicaragua: US Should Sanction President Ortega

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Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega speaks next to first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo during the inauguration ceremony of a highway overpass in Managua, Nicaragua, Thursday, March 21, 2019. Ortega's government and opposition began negotiating Thursday how to carry out the release of hundreds of political prisoners arrested in the past year of unrest, after the government announced Wednesday it would free the prisoners within 90 days in exchange for the lifting of external sanctions. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration should impose sanctions on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and other top officials implicated in the brutal crackdown on protests that began in April 2018, Human Rights Watch said today.

On July 10, 2019, US Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, sent a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concern about ongoing abuses and impunity in Nicaragua. A brutal crackdown by the Nicaraguan National Police and heavily armed pro-government groups has left more than 300 people dead and more than 2,000 injured. The lawmakers identified nine Nicaraguan officials, including Ortega, who they say should be considered for US government sanctions.

“President Ortega and other top officials in Nicaragua feel they can get away with committing egregious abuses without facing any consequences,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Additional US sanctions are key to increasing the pressure on Ortega’s government to curb abuses and restore basic human rights guarantees in Nicaragua.”

In July and November 2018, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on five Nicaraguans implicated in corruption or the crackdown on protesters, under Executive Orders 13818 and 13851 respectively, which expand upon the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (Global Magnitsky Act). The Global Magnitsky Act allows the US president to block or revoke visas or impose property sanctions on foreign individuals or entities responsible for gross violations of human rights or who are complicit in acts of “significant corruption.”

Those placed under sanctions in 2018 included Vice President Rosario Murillo and Francisco Díaz, chief of the National Police. Díaz is believed to have exercised significant control over the force first as deputy director and in his current position.

In December, Congress adopted the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act (NICA Act), which granted the US Treasury Department the authority to impose targeted sanctions on current or former Nicaraguan officials, or people acting on behalf of the government, who are responsible for human rights abuses and corruption. The sanctions could include freezing assets held in the US, forbidding entry to the country, and revoking US visas.

The law requires the US State Department to submit a report to congressional committees on the participation of Nicaraguan senior officials in human rights abuses, corruption, and money laundering within six months, or by June 19. It had not been submitted by the date the senators sent their letter.

Senators Menendez and Cruz asked the State Department to include information on the role in human rights violations and corruption of the following individuals in its upcoming report:

President Daniel Ortega, who is supreme chief of the National Police and has sweeping powers, including to “command” the police and to dismiss police chiefs when they disobey his orders;
Retired General Aminta Granera, former National Police chief, who was the head of the force until Díaz replaced her;
General Ramon Avellán, deputy National Police chief, who acted as the highest-ranking member of the National Police in Masaya, where police and armed pro-government gangs brutally repressed protesters;
General Jaime Vanegas, the National Police inspector general, who is required under Nicaraguan law to investigate alleged rights violations by police officers and sanction those responsible;
General Luis Pérez Olivas, chief of the Directorate of Judicial Assistance (DAJ, also known as El Chipote), which is the “main place” where authorities perpetrated egregious abuses against anti-government demonstrators, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has said;
General Justo Pastor Urbina, chief of the Department of Special Operations (DOEP, by its Spanish acronym), which played a “central role” in the repression throughout the country, according to the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR);
Julio Guillermo Orozco, director general of the national penitentiary system;
Darling Morales Duarte, director of the Tipitapa “Jorge Navarro” Penitentiary, known as “La Modelo;” and
Donald Pérez Gray, director of the maximum-security area at La Modelo prison.

A Human Rights Watch report released in June, “Crackdown in Nicaragua,” found many of those detained in the context of anti-government protests had been subjected to serious abuses, in some cases amounting to torture – including electric shocks, severe beatings, asphyxiation, rape, and pulling out their fingernails. Some were reportedly denied medical care in public health centers. Detainees were also prosecuted in cases marred by serious due process violations.

Not a single police officer is known to be under investigation. President Ortega has promoted top officials who bear responsibility for the abuses, rather than holding them to account. A broad amnesty law for crimes committed in the context of anti-government protests came into force in June. There is a serious risk that the law will be used to protect officers responsible for serious abuses in the country from prosecution, Human Rights Watch said.

According to the Interior Ministry, 492 people jailed in the context of anti-government protests were released between February and June 10. But 78 percent of them were conditionally released with charges still pending against them.

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Published on July 16, 2019 06:00

Support Needed to Tackle ICC Shortcomings

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Permanent premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Netherlands. © 2018 Marina Riera Rodoreda/Human Rights Watch

(New York) – Member countries of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should renew their commitment on International Justice Day, July 17, 2019, to defend and strengthen this important justice institution, Human Right Watch said today. On July 17, 1998, 120 countries adopted the Rome Statute creating the ICC.

“Twenty-one years after its creation, the International Criminal Court is needed more than its founders ever imagined,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite the challenges the court is facing, its mandate and founding aspirations remain vitally important.”

The anniversary is occurring during the meeting of the United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York. Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16) on peace, justice, and strong institutions, is one of the goals under review at this year’s session. SDG 16 highlights the strong link between sustainable development and the rule of law. The court, as the centerpiece of the Rome Statute system’s evolving network of accountability for atrocity crimes, can contribute to reaching SDG 16 by prosecuting the world’s worst crimes, promoting the rule of law, and providing access to justice for victims.

In today’s difficult international landscape, the ICC is a fragile, yet crucial component of the rules-based global order. It is currently facing serious challenges resulting from its own missteps, as well as external threats to its independence. In the past year, the court’s performance shortcomings have become evident, underscoring the need for changes in policy and practice, Human Rights Watch said.

On January 15, ICC trial judges acquitted former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, finding that the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence for the case to proceed. While acquittal is a legitimate and necessary outcome if the prosecution’s evidence does not establish a suspect’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt, the written reasons were only filed on July 16, six months after the oral decision.

On April 12, a pretrial chamber unanimously rejected the request by the prosecutor to investigate serious crimes committed during the armed conflict in Afghanistan since May 2003. The judges found that such an investigation would not be in “the interest of justice” because “the current circumstances of the situation in Afghanistan are such as to make the prospects for a successful investigation and prosecution extremely limited.” This problematic interpretation of “interest of justice” injected political and practical considerations into a judicial decision.

These decisions and other recent developments have highlighted shortcomings at the court that also include the pace of judicial proceedings, management of victim expectations, lack of cooperation, and inadequate resources. Moreover, with preliminary examinations ongoing in 10 countries and investigations underway in 10 more, the prosecutor’s docket far outstrips the reach of current and foreseeable staff capacity.

These issues need to be addressed forthrightly rather than backing away from the court’s mission. An appropriate step toward meaningful change in the court’s policy and practice would be the creation of an independent expert group tasked with assessing a select number of issues confronting the court, Human Rights Watch said.

Other international and hybrid tribunals have undertaken similar independent expert assessments, namely the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as well as the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

At the ICC Assembly of States Parties session in late 2020, there will be significant changes in court leadership, including the election of a new prosecutor and six new judges. An independent expert assessment would provide an important basis to inform these elections while also providing a set of recommendations to guide the incoming prosecutor and judges, Human Rights Watch said.

The court is also facing serious external challenges. Hostile non-member states are seeking to obstruct ICC investigations and weaken its independence.

Under the Trump administration the US government launched an unprecedented attack against the ICC. On March 15, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that the US would impose visa bans on ICC officials involved in the court’s potential investigation of US citizens for alleged crimes in Afghanistan. He indicated the same policy may be used to deter ICC efforts to investigate nationals of allied countries, including Israelis. In early April, the US revoked the ICC prosecutor’s visa.

Given the prosecutor’s request to appeal the decision that rejected opening an investigation in Afghanistan, as well as the ongoing preliminary examination in Palestine, no one should expect changes in the US administration’s approach toward the court. It is critical for ICC member states to push back against Washington’s pressure to blunt the threat to judicial independence and any chilling effect on the court’s work, Human Rights Watch said.

“Change at the court is needed because the values underlying the Rome Statute system far exceed in importance the ICC’s performance shortcomings,” Dicker said. “Court officials, ICC member states, and civil society groups need to meet the challenges head on by strengthening ICC practice and providing much more robust state support.”

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Published on July 16, 2019 06:00

July 15, 2019

Algeria/Western Sahara: Three Dissidents Behind Bars

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Polisario soldiers under the SADR flag in Bir Lahlou, Western Sahara, in 2016.

© 2016 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

(Tunis, July 16, 2019) – The government-in-exile that administers the camps in Algeria for refugees from Western Sahara is detaining three critics while an investigating judge explores treason and other charges against them, Human Rights Watch said today.

The men are being held by forces of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which is controlled by the Polisario Front, the liberation movement that seeks self-determination for Western Sahara, most of which Morocco has occupied since 1975. The SADR governs a smaller portion of Western Sahara and also the roughly 100,000 Sahrawi refugees living in camps across the border in Algeria. Sahrawi authorities arrested the three men – Moulay Abba Bouzid and Fadel Mohamed Breica, both activists, and Mahmoud Zeidan, a journalist – between June 17 and 19, 2019. Breica also holds Spanish citizenship.

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(From left to right) Fadel Mohamed Breica, Moulay Abba Bouzid, and Mahmoud Zeidan, arrested between June 17 and 19 in Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria.

“Sahrawi authorities should show credible evidence that Bouzid, Breica, and Zeidan may be guilty of genuinely criminal acts and not just peacefully criticizing the Polisario,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If they don’t have evidence to justify criminal charges, they should release all three.”

A communique from a SADR court dated June 20 said the three men will be investigated for slander, insults, and “incitement to disobedience.” In an email received on July 15 by Human Rights Watch, Sidi Omar, the UN representative for the Polisario Front in New York, wrote, “the defendants remain in preventive custody under judicial investigation [for charges including] treason against the nation, acts of aggression against the Sahrawi State, sedition, vandalism, defamation and slander.” The charges carry sentences ranging from five years to life in prison. However, a month after arresting the men, the authorities have yet to divulge the grounds for the charges.

As of July 15, the three men were detained in Dhaibiya prison outside Rabouni camp, the headquarters of the Polisario Front government near Tindouf, Algeria.

Bobbih Abba Bouzid, Bouzid’s brother, told Human Rights Watch on July 5 that the authorities had allowed Sidi Ahmadi, a cousin of Bouzid’s, to visit him on June 23. Bouzid told Ahmadi that the authorities had allowed him to leave his cell only once and that they handcuffed and blindfolded him during multiple interrogation sessions, Bouzid’s brother said. The authorities ended the visit after five minutes when the prisoner started to tell his cousin about the questions his interrogators had asked him, the brother said. A July 2 visit by Bouzid’s lawyer ended the same way, with authorities ending the visit when Bouzid started discussing his interrogation sessions and said that interrogators had tried to force him to sign a written confession, his brother said.

Ahmadi visited Bouzid again on July 11 in Dhaibiya prison. After the visit, he circulated a communiqué on social media in which he said Bouzid signed written confessions after several Polisario security officers came into his cell and threatened to torture him.

Breica’s sister, Fatimatou Al Mahdi Breica, told Human Rights Watch that she visited him on July 11, in Dhaibiya prison. He told her he was arrested by several security agents who emerged from four military trucks, as he was walking out of a medical center in Rabouni on June 18, she said. He told her that he was interrogated on and off during nine days in an undisclosed location, always while handcuffed and blindfolded.

If security agents indeed questioned Bouzid and Breica while they were handcuffed and blindfolded, and threatened or intimidated them to sign written confessions, that would gravely compromise the requirement under international law that a confession be made voluntarily, Human Rights Watch said.

The three men are known as dissidents in the refugee camps. While they support resisting Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, they have posted numerous Facebook posts severely criticizing the Polisario’s leadership in recent months.

On May 8, Bouzid commented sarcastically about the lack of freedom of opinion and speech in Rabouni, a week after he denounced the “tyranny and dictatorship” of the Polisario’s leadership. On June 12, Zeidan criticized the “absence of dialogue” and the “lack of alternatives to repression” in the camps. On June 16, Breica wrote that the Polisario’s “corrupt leadership” was “trembling [in reaction] to what is happening to their masters in Algeria,” a reference to the wave of street protests that forced the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Said Zarwal, a Sahrawi journalist based in Sweden, told Human Rights Watch that Zeidan worked as a journalist until 2018 at RASD-TV, the Polisario’s official station.

Bouzid was active in the March 5th movement, a dissident group founded on March 5, 2011, in the wake of the Arab uprisings that year, to demand reforms in the Polisario’s governance, including an end to corruption and tribalism, and sweeping changes of leadership.

Bouzid and Breica are also members of the Sahrawi Initiative for Change, and Zeidan is a founding member of the Youth Sahrawi Forum for a Solution. Both groups, which are based in Spain, challenge the Polisario leadership and favor exploring new ways to settle the 44-year-long conflict with Morocco over the political fate of Western Sahara.

In the July 15 email he sent to Human Rights Watch, UN Polisario representative Sidi Omar wrote, “once their cases are referred to the court, the defendants will have a fair and transparent trial with all the rights and guarantees under the SADR laws.” Both the SADR, which governs the refugee camps, and Algeria, the country that hosts them and where the men are detained, have a responsibility to guarantee respect for human rights in the camps.

“Algeria cannot subcontract the protection of human rights on its territory and turn a blind eye if the Polisario violates them,” Fakih said.

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Published on July 15, 2019 21:00

Syria: Suspects’ Families Assets Seized

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A checkpoint in the Syrian city of Daraa.

© 2018 Friedemann Kohler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images


(Beirut) – The Syrian government is punishing entire families of people placed arbitrarily on a list of alleged terrorists by freezing their assets, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should end collective punishment of families, provide evidence of unlawful activity of the people targeted, and allow them to appeal their listing or unfreeze their assets.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented that Syrian authorities have used overbroad language in the counterterrorism law to criminalize providing humanitarian aid, recording human rights abuses, and engaging in peaceful dissent. Decree 63 empowers the Finance Ministry to provide permission to freeze the assets of people pending investigation of their crimes as suspected terrorists under Syria’s Counterterrorism Law of 2012, even where they have not been charged with any crime. Beyond the substantive and due process flaws within the law and the law governing the Counterterrorism Court (Law No. 22), new research by Human Rights Watch shows that the way the ministry is carrying out the provisions, including targeting families of people listed, constitutes collective punishment and violates their property rights.

“The expansive reach of Decree 63 shows how threatened the Syrian government feels by the mere expression of humanitarian activism and dissent,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria should stop using the counterterrorism law in arbitrary ways that amount to collective punishment.”

The decree also contradicts the government’s stated intent of encouraging Syrians who fled the eight-year civil war to return to Syria. By widening the scope of the decree to arbitrarily punish families of people who may be charged or prosecuted, the government is signaling to the families that they too are at risk.

Human Rights Watch spoke to four people who have been affected, the relative of another, and a former land registration employee. These cases involved former residents of Eastern Ghouta, Aleppo, and the Damascus countryside, areas that government forces had retaken from anti-government groups between 2014 and 2019. Human Rights Watch also examined documents circulating online with lists of names of hundreds of people whose assets were frozen under the counterterrorism law.

The lists include date of birth, age, and mother’s name of individuals from areas previously held by anti-government forces whose assets had been seized or frozen. The lists also name immediate families, including wives and children, and in several cases, parents. The land registration employee confirmed the authenticity of the documents, but Human Rights Watch was unable to independently verify the lists. The lists were dated from 2016 to 2018.

The people interviewed indicated they had not been notified they were included. They said they only became aware their assets had been frozen or seized when they attempted to access, register, or conduct a transaction involving their property, or when they saw their names on these lists circulated on media outlets affiliated with opposition forces.

“I was not informed of this decision,” one person said. “I found my name on one of the lists circulated by Zaman al-Wsl [one of the media outlets]. My name, and my father’s. We lost a house, a car, and a factory.”

The lists also had far-reaching impact on relatives not named. One person said he was not surprised to see his name on a list, but that the asset freeze had negative implications for family members still in government-held areas who relied on a family-owned pharmacy for income. He too found out through Zaman al-Wsl, as did his brother, who remained in the government-controlled area and was not able to access or transfer the property to himself.

“When [my brother] went to the pharmacy, he found that it had been waxed shut, and the keys were with the [local] National Security branch,” the person interviewed said. “When he went and asked for the key, they told him I was a traitor and a terrorist. He replied that he is not in touch with me, and that this is an important source of income for the family. They hit him and sent him away.”

All but one person interviewed said they were aid workers or had participated in protests but had never taken up arms. The relative of one woman whose assets had been frozen said that the woman was not politically active. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify these claims.

With the exception of the one man whose brother reached out to the security services to attempt to retrieve property, the other people said they had not approached the authorities. They were either afraid of putting family members at risk or did not know whom to approach to resolve the confiscation issues.

By penalizing people solely on the basis of their family relationship with an accused person, and not on the basis of their individual criminal responsibility, the Finance Ministry’s implementation of Decree 63 constitutes collective punishment, which is prohibited under international humanitarian and human rights law in all circumstances. The prohibition on collective punishments applies to criminal sanctions for actions for which the people concerned do not bear individual criminal responsibility, but also to “all sanctions and harassment of any sort, administrative, by police action or otherwise.”

The decree also violates due process guarantees in that the law provides no appeal and no official notification for those on the list. By allowing the government to seize individuals’ property without due process or notice, the decree also violates property rights which are protected under Article 15 of the Syrian constitution and international law.

Syria’s counterterrorism law defines terrorism as “every act that aims at creating a state of panic among the people, destabilizing public security and damaging the basic infrastructure of the country by using weapons, ammunition, explosives, flammable materials, toxic products, epidemiological or bacteriological factors or any method fulfilling the same purposes.” Human Rights Watch has documented that the phrase “any method” allows the government to label almost any act as a terrorist offense, and jail people providing humanitarian aid or participating in non-violent protests.

The law itself does not clearly outline the procedures governing terrorism prosecutions, but Law 22 of 2012, which created the Counterterrorism Court empowered to look into crimes under the Counterterrorism law, does contain procedural references. These few references to procedural standards underscore a number of fair trial concerns, including inadequate oversight and appellate procedures.

The Syrian government should provide specific reasons for including people on its list of alleged terrorists or remove them from the list and unfreeze their assets. It should also allow affected people to appeal the listing. The government should amend the counterterrorism law, and the laws and decrees subsequent to it, to remove any overbroad definitions of terrorism and incorporate due process and fair trial guarantees, including an open trial with a right to legal counsel and a full right to appeal.

“As with other legal instruments, Syria is using Decree 63 to authorize abusive and arbitrary practices that rob people of their very livelihoods,” Fakih said. “So long as its laws and practices violate people’s rights, Syria will not be safe or stable.”

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Published on July 15, 2019 21:00

Kuwait: 8 Egyptian Dissidents Unlawfully Returned

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Kuwait’s Interior Ministry released a video statement on July 12 alleging the eight Egyptians were sought for criminal offenses in Egypt.

(Beirut) – Kuwaiti authorities on July 15, 2019 unlawfully returned eight Egyptian dissidents despite the serious risk of torture and persecution they face in Egypt, Human Rights Watch said today. The deportation of the men appears to violate Kuwait’s obligations under international law.

On July 12, the Kuwaiti government announced that it had separately arrested the eight dissidents, claiming that the Egyptian authorities sought them for crimes they allegedly committed in Egypt as members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Kuwaiti authorities should end further deportations to Egypt of anyone facing mistreatment and hold accountable those responsible for the recent deportations.

“Kuwaiti authorities have put at grave risk eight men who fled mass oppression in Egypt and thought they had found refuge in Kuwait,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s horrendous that Kuwait is acting at the behest of abusive Egyptian security agencies and returning dissidents to face torture and persecution.”

KUNA, Kuwait’s official news agency, said on July 15 that the government deported “wanted” Egyptians, identifying them as Hossam Ibrahim al-Adl, Abdel Rahman Mohamed Ahmed, Abu-Bakr Atef al-Fayiomi, Abdel Rahman Ibrahim Abdel Moniem, Walid Suleiman, Najeh Awad, Faleh Hassan, and Mo’men Abu Al-Wafa. All had lived in Kuwait for several years. There is no record of any judicial review of the deportation orders or of the risks faced by these men on return to Egypt.

Kuwait’s Interior Ministry issued a statement claiming that the eight men were members of a “terrorist cell” that was part of the Muslim Brotherhood and that they had been convicted by Egyptian courts. The ministry said that it had the deportees under surveillance before their arrest. It published a video showing their names with blurred faces and claimed that they “confessed to carrying out terrorist activities … in different parts in Egypt.”

The deputy foreign minister, Khaled Al-Jarallah, said that the deportations followed “cooperation” with the Egyptian authorities and that “this cooperation will continue.” He said that “the Kuwaiti-Egyptian security coordination is very strong and makes us feel assured.”

Hossam Ibrahim al-Adl’s daughter, Menna al-Adl, told Human Rights Watch that men in civilian clothes arrested her father on July 10 at the pharmacy where he worked. Al-Adl, 57, had been living legally in Kuwait since October 2013, his daughter said. Her family provided two videos from the pharmacy’s security cameras that show the moment al-Adl was arrested.

Menna al-Adl said her father had never been arrested before, in Egypt or Kuwait. Human Rights Watch reviewed court documents that show Egyptian courts had acquitted al-Adl in three cases of alleged protests and political violence between 2014 and 2016.  She said an Egyptian court sentenced him to five years in prison in 2016 for allegedly participating in a 2016 protest even though he had not been back to Egypt since he left, in October 2013.

She also said that Kuwaiti State Security officials confirmed they had detained al-Adl but refused to allow the family to visit him. “Every lawyer we approached said he couldn’t do anything,” she said. “They said because it’s a State Security case, they can’t intervene.” Al-Adl’s family said they do not know any of the other men deported.

As a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Kuwait has a treaty obligation not to return anyone to a territory where they face a real risk of torture or ill-treatment. Under customary international law, Kuwait is also obligated to ensure that no one is forcibly sent to a place where they would risk being subjected to persecution. In addition, Kuwait violated due process rights by denying the men an opportunity to fairly contest their arrests and deportation, and by denying them access to lawyers and family members.

Egyptian authorities have not officially commented about the returned dissidents. In January and March, one Egyptian deported from Turkey and five deported from Malaysia were reported missing upon their forcible return to Egypt. The man deported from Turkey appeared weeks later in a court hearing with signs that he had been “badly tortured,” lawyers said.

Since July 2013, the Egyptian government has arbitrarily detained or prosecuted tens of thousands of dissidents on political grounds. Prosecutors have placed thousands in lengthy pretrial detention without a legal basis. Judges have also unlawfully held hundreds of detainees in pretrial detention beyond the two-year limit under Egyptian law. Many of those detained were rounded up solely for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and free expression, including membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government banned in 2013.

Egypt’s prisons are notorious for unlawful detention conditions including overcrowding and insufficient access to medical care. Torture in unofficial detention sites is rampant and unpunished. Security forces torture detainees during lengthy periods of forced disappearance to extract confessions.

“Torture in Egypt, because of its systematic, widespread nature and indications that it is state policy, may be crimes against humanity,” Whitson said.

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Published on July 15, 2019 16:20

US: New Rule Flouts Asylum Norms

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In Tijuana, migrants can no longer simply show up at the border to claim asylum in the US. They must first put their names on a list and wait in Mexico - for weeks on end.

© 2018 Jonathan Pedneault/Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The Trump administration on July 15, 2019 announced a new rule that effectively bars from asylum nearly anyone who crosses the southern US border after traveling through a third country, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The Trump administration’s new rule shows breathtaking disregard for US obligations toward asylum seekers,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “It dumps asylum seekers on other countries without any assurances that they will get a fair hearing.”

The “Third-Country Asylum Rule” establishes a new ground for ineligibility for asylum that essentially drops the word “safe” from the “safe third country” provision that already exists in US law. The existing provision, in conformity with international law and practice, allows US immigration authorities to return an asylum seeker to a third country that has a formal readmission agreement with the United States and where the asylum seeker would not be persecuted and would have access to a full and fair asylum procedure.

The United States and Canada have a safe-third-country agreement. The agreement is based on both countries having comparable asylum standards and procedures and formal guarantees that an asylum seeker transferred from one country to the other will have a fair hearing of their refugee claim.

The Trump administration’s rule ends these safeguards, Human Rights Watch said. It establishes through executive action a bar to asylum whereby anyone crossing the southern land border who transits through nearly any third country in the world will be sent back to that country. Asylum seekers are sent to this third country without any guarantees for a full and fair hearing on their asylum claims. The rule contains exceptions for asylum seekers who traveled through countries that are not parties to either the United Nations Convention against Torture or the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol (only 17 countries are party to none: Barbados, Bhutan, Brunei, Cook Islands, Grenada, India, Kiribati, Malaysia, Myanmar, Niue, North Korea, Oman, Palau, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Tonga. The rule, which is effective as of July 16, also makes exceptions for victims of “a severe form of trafficking in persons” and for people who had applied for but were denied asylum in a third country.

“The United States can efficiently and fairly conduct asylum hearings and should not be sticking this responsibility onto countries with far less capacity,” Frelick said. “This policy appears to be motivated by the administration’s disparaging view of asylum seekers rather than a genuine need.”

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Published on July 15, 2019 14:00

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