Posts Tagged ‘HRW’

Ground breaking conviction of Syrian torturer in Germany

January 17, 2022
Group of framed portraits
Photos of Syrians who have been detained or disappeared set up by Families for Freedom, as part of a protest in front of the court in Koblenz, July 2, 2020. © 2020 Alexander Suttor

The conviction of a former Syrian intelligence officer for crimes against humanity by a German court is a ground-breaking step toward justice for serious crimes in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The judgment is a meaningful moment for civilians who survived torture and sexual abuse in Syria’s prisons.  

On January 13, 2022, a German court delivered its judgment in the trial of Anwar R., a former member of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, one of the country’s four main intelligence agencies commonly referred to collectively as the mukhabarat. Anwar R. is the most senior former Syrian government official to be convicted for serious crimes in Syria.  

German prosecutors accused Anwar R. of overseeing the torture of detainees in his capacity as head of the investigations section at the General Intelligence Directorate’s al-Khatib detention facility in Damascus, also known as “Branch 251.” 

The judges found Anwar R. guilty of committing crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life in prison. Following the verdict in the case, Anwar R. has one week to appeal.  

More than 10 years after the violations were committed in Syria, the German court’s verdict is a long-awaited beacon of hope that justice can and will in the end prevail,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Other countries should follow Germany’s lead, and actively bolster efforts to prosecute serious crimes in Syria.”  

Human Rights Watch issued a question and answer document and a feature article on the trial and how it is situated in the larger context of the Syrian conflict on January 6, 2022. The trial against Anwar R. and Eyad A., who was found guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in February, began in April 2020 and was the first anywhere in the world for state-sponsored torture in Syria. Eyad A.’s appeal against his conviction remains pending. 

Syrian survivors, lawyers, and activists have been central to making this trial a reality, not only pressing for justice but laying the groundwork that makes justice possible, Human Rights Watch said.  

More than 80 witnesses testified, including former detainees, former Syrian government employees, German police investigators, and experts in Syrian affairs. The testimony included well-documented accounts of torture and sexual abuse in Branch 251, descriptions of mass graves, and details of Syria’s government policy to violently crack down on peaceful protesters in 2011. Several of the witnesses were able to identify Anwar R. in the courtroom.  

One of the major challenges of this trial was witness protection. Several witnesses living in Germany and other European countries cancelled their appearance in court out of fear for their lives and safety, or that of their families. Several witnesses, some who were also victims, testified that they feared a risk to themselves and their families given their role in the trial. German authorities should ensure that witnesses and victims are sufficiently informed about their rights to protective measures, including to appear anonymously before the court. 

Tens-of-thousands of people have been detained or disappeared in Syria since 2011, the vast majority by government forces using an extensive network of detention facilities throughout the country. The Syrian government continues to detain and forcibly disappear thousands of people. 

Many of those detained have died from torture and horrific detention conditions. Comprehensive justice for these and other unchecked atrocities in Syria has been elusive. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. And in 2014, Russia and China blocked efforts at the United Nations Security Council to give the court a mandate over serious crimes in Syria. 

The trial of Anwar R. and Eyad A. is possible because Germany’s laws recognize universal jurisdiction over certain of the most serious crimes under international law. That allows for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes no matter where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims. Universal jurisdiction remains one of the few viable pathways to justice for crimes committed in Syria.  

Germany has several elements in place to allow for the successful investigation and prosecution of grave crimes in Syria. It has above all a comprehensive legal framework, well-functioning specialized war crimes units, and previous experience with prosecuting such crimes. Countries with universal jurisdiction laws should establish specialized war crimes units within law enforcement and prosecution services, and ensure that such units are adequately resourced and staffed. 

Germany’s trial against Anwar R. is a message to the Syrian authorities that no one is beyond the reach of justice,” Jarrah said. “The Koblenz case has shown that with other avenues blocked, national courts can play a critical role in combating impunity.” 

The first such reaction came immediately, see: https://www.ncr-iran.org/en/news/human-rights/after-german-conviction-of-syrian-official-focus-may-turn-to-swedish-trial-of-iranian/

https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/13/germany-conviction-state-torture-syria

https://www.fidh.org/en/region/north-africa-middle-east/syria/syria-landmark-ruling-offers-hope-to-regime-s-victims

https://www.ecchr.eu/en/case/first-criminal-trial-worldwide-on-torture-in-syria-before-a-german-court/

Egypt: Activist Patrick Zaki released following international pressure

December 22, 2021

While the recent harsh sentencing of 3 human rights defenders in Egypt made headlines [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/12/21/alaa-abdel-fattah-and-two-others-receive-heavy-prison-sentences-in-egypt/], and the Government decried foreign intervention, it may be interesting to note that not long ago the release of another human rights defender was attributed to international pressure and campaigning.

Patrick Zaki after his release on Wednesday 8 December 2021 (Screengrab/EIPR) By Areeb Ullah

Human rights activist Patrick Zaki was freed on Wednesday 8 December 2021, a day after Egypt’s Emergency State Security Misdemeanour Court ordered his provisional release. 

Zaki, a 28-year-old researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), had been studying at Italy’s Bologna University when he was taken into custody upon his return to Cairo in February 2020. Despite his release, he still faces a range of charges, including “calling for protests without permission”, “spreading false news” and “inciting violence and terrorism”. His trial will resume on 1 February 2022.

Tuesday’s hearing was the second time Zaki’s trial has been adjourned since the first session, on 14 September 2020. Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Middle East Eye that Zaki was subjected to physical torture in the days after his arrest.

Commenting on the court’s ruling for his release, Amr Magdi, Egypt researcher for HRW, described it as “rare happy news” for Patrick and his family. “Its a win with a bitter taste,” Magdi told MEE on Tuesday, pointing out that Zaki is technically still on trial as he has not been acquitted.

Zaki had been an outspoken campaigner for the truth about the 2016 murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni in Egypt. Zaki’s arrest sparked a solidarity campaign in Italy, with politicians and activists urging Egyptian authorities to release him.  Italian human rights campaigners have expressed concerns that Zaki could be at risk of torture and ill-treatment in Egypt’s notorious prisons, drawing parallels with the torture of Regeni.  Regeni’s family has also expressed solidarity with the detained activist.

In April, the Italian senate voted to approve a proposal by two lawmakers urging the government to grant Zaki Italian citizenship. Meanwhile, more than 50 Italian cities have announced the granting of “honorary citizenship” to Zaki. This was done, EIPR said, in order to show their appreciation for him as a human rights defender and to demand his immediate release in a campaign called 100 Cities with Patrick, launched by a group of human rights activists in Italy.

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/egypt-patrick-zaki-released-italy-solidarity-regeni

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20220105-egypt-releases-3-prominent-political-prisoners-what-about-the-65000-others/

Alaa Abdel Fattah, and two others receive heavy prison sentences in Egypt

December 21, 2021

Egypt on Monday 20 December 2021 sentenced Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leading figure in the 2011 revolution, to five years in jail, with two others receiving four years, his sister Mona Seif and a judicial source said. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/08/06/re-issued-passionate-plea-for-help-in-open-letter-by-mona-seif-from-egypt-about-targeting-of-her-family/]

A computer programmer, blogger and high-profile activist who mobilized youths in the uprising that unseated autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Abdel Fattah had been in pre-trial detention since September 2019.

Abdel Fattah, his lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer and blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim were convicted of “broadcasting false news” in their trial in Cairo.

A judicial source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the verdict and sentencing to AFP.

Rulings in the court cannot be appealed. They require final approval by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Washington, which has already frozen 10 percent of its aid to Egypt over repeated rights violations, said it was “disappointed” by the sentence. “Journalists, human rights defenders, and others seeking to peacefully exercise their freedom of expression should be able to do so without facing criminal penalties, intimidation, harassment, or any other form of reprisal,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

The Committee to Protect Journalists decried Monday’s ruling as “unacceptable”.

The verdict “demonstrates the lengths to which authorities are willing to go to punish these journalists for their work”, said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator. “Both journalists have already spent several years in prison on bogus charges, and authorities must release them immediately and unconditionally,” Mansour added.

Human Rights Watch on Sunday slammed “the government’s rush to use emergency courts… after holding people illegally for years in pretrial detention”. The New York-based rights watchdog then said that if Abdel Fattah and the other activists were to be sentenced, this would confirm “that fierce repression of peaceful critics remains the order of the day in Egypt”.

Abdel Fattah has spent most of the past decade in jail at Tora, one of the country’s most notorious prisons, after previous convictions. His mother, mathematics professor Laila Soueif, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece published on Saturday that “the outside world, once so inspired by the Egyptian revolutionaries, is looking away. His crime is that, like millions of young people in Egypt and far beyond, he believed another world was possible. And he dared to try to make it happen.

Prolific writer Abdel Fattah’s critically acclaimed essay collection “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated” was published in October.“At its fundamental core, his writing is attached to justice,” Soueif told AFP in October when the book was released.

Ahead of the trial session, Egypt’s foreign ministry lambasted the German government on Saturday for a statement calling for a “fair trial” and the release of the three dissidents. Cairo described the German foreign ministry’s call as “a blatant and unjustified meddling in Egyptian internal affairs”.

Rights groups say Egypt is holding some 60,000 political prisoners, many facing brutal conditions and overcrowded cells. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/01/27/egypt-decade-after-arab-spring-amnesty-and-un-express-concern-over-detention/

In a 2019 interview with the show 60 Minutes on US broadcaster CBS, Sisi said there were no political prisoners in Egypt. And – of course – the official reaction to interventions was: Egypt’s foreign ministry stressed on Monday that it was absolutely not appropriate to comment on or in any way refer to an independent judicial process.

https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2021/12/20/Egypt-prison-sentences-three-activists-2011-uprising/9611640051667/

NGOs demand EU to impose sanctions on NSO Group

December 7, 2021

Dozens of rights groups are urging the European Union to impose sanctions on the Israeli NSO Group to ban the company’s Pegasus surveillance technology. The letter sent to the EU was signed by 86 rights groups and independent experts, including Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International, among others. A consortium of media revealed that this powerful spyware was used extensively by several governments to spy on lawyers, journalists, political opponents and human rights activists.

Several victims of illegal surveillance have been identified in Hungary, where the government initially denied being a client of NSO Group, before admitting to having purchased the software. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/11/10/palestinian-ngos-dubbed-terrorist-were-hacked-with-pegasus-spyware/

Several victims of illegal surveillance have been identified in Hungary, where the government initially denied being a client of NSO Group, before admitting to having purchased the software. See also:

There is overwhelming evidence that Pegasus spyware has been repeatedly used by abusive governments to clamp down on peaceful human rights defenders, activists and perceived critics,” Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The EU should immediately sanction NSO Group and ban any use of its technologies.”

The EU’s global human rights sanctions would allow the EU to adopt “ “targeted sanctions against entities deemed responsible for violations or abuses that are “of serious concern as regards the objectives of the common foreign and security policy”, including violations or abuses of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, or of freedom of opinion and expression,” the letter read.

According to Human Rights Watch, these rights have been “repeatedly violated using NSO technology,” and, as highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, “the use of spyware by abusive governments can also facilitate extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, or enforced disappearance of persons.” See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/10/04/big-coalition-urges-un-to-denounce-abuses-facilitated-by-spyware-technologies/

NSO Group was blacklisted by the US State Department at the beginning of November, and slapped with a sanction that drastically limited the business relationships the US company had with US customers or suppliers, according to the French newspaper Le Monde. “The EU should unequivocally close its doors to business with NSO Group,” Brown said.

“Targeted sanctions are necessary to that end, and to add to growing international pressure against the company and the out-of-control spyware industry.”

In Europe, several investigations are ongoing, but no sanctions have been formally imposed on the company. In addition to Hungary, several other countries are, or have been, customers of NSO Group – although this does not mean that all these countries have made illegal use of Pegasus.

In addition to Germany, several EU countries have purchased access to the software, according to Le Monde.

See also: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/tech-news/.premium.HIGHLIGHT.MAGAZINE-citizen-lab-vs-nso-the-institute-taking-down-israel-s-mercenary-spyware-firms-1.10536773

https://slate.com/technology/2021/12/apple-lawsuit-nso-group-q-cyber-pegasus.html

https://www.euronews.com/next/2021/12/03/pegasus-spyware-ngos-urge-the-eu-to-sanction-israeli-group-nso

And the latest: https://marketresearchtelecast.com/spyware-sale-at-nso-group-the-end-of-pegasus/226205/

as well as

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/concern-activist-s-phone-infected-with-spyware-during-dublin-conference-1.4778962

Greece’s mistaken deterrence: migrants and aid workers facing heavy prison sentences

November 17, 2021
An abandoned life jacket in the Aegean Sea in 2016 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/L.Pitarakis
An abandoned life jacket in the Aegean Sea in 2016 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/L.Pitarakis

A post by Marion MacGregor published on 15 November 2021in ‘Infomigrants’ brings out an awful truth which I have to face up to even though Greece is my adopted country. In the face of Turkey ‘weaponsing’ migrants, it is trying its hands at deterrence in the hope that it will diminish the pressure of inflows

Greece and other European countries are increasingly using the threat of criminal proceedings against aid workers and those migrants who ended up being marked as migrant smugglers.

Hanad Abdi Mohammad is in prison, he says, because of something he was forced to do. The Somali is serving an impossibly long sentence of 142 years (!) after he was convicted last December for driving an inflatable dinghy carrying migrants to Greece. He says that he didn’t have a choice, because the smuggler hit him in the face and threatened him with a gun before abandoning the boat in rough seas. As 28-year-old Mohammad told journalists and members of the European Parliament who visited the prison last week, he “didn’t think saving people is a crime.”

In the same prison on the Greek island of Chios two men from Afghanistan, Amir Zaheri and Akif Rasouli, both in their 20s, are also serving sentences of 50 years for similar criminal offences. The men’s convictions and staggering prison terms show how far Greece is ready to go in order to stop migrants in their tracks.

On the day the smuggler abandoned them at sea between Turkey and Greece, Mohammad and nearly three dozen other migrants were only concerned about their lives. Mohammad says that he called the Turkish coast guard repeatedly, begging to be rescued. But when it arrived, the Turkish patrol boat circled the migrants’ dinghy sending water into the boat and gradually pushing it toward Greece. In the chaos, two women fell overboard and drowned, AP reports.

The survivors were finally rescued by the Greek coast guard, and Mohammad helped others onto the rescue boat. He admitted to having driven the boat after the smuggler left. It didn’t cross his mind that would lead to him being prosecuted as a smuggler.

It’s not possible that someone who comes to claim asylum in Greece is threatened with such heavy sentences simply because they were forced, by circumstances or pressure, to take over handling a boat,” one of the lawyers representing the three imprisoned in Chios, Alexandros Georgoulis, told AP. Greek authorities, he said, “are essentially baptizing the smuggled as the smuggler.”

From file: Sara Mardini and Seán Binder | Screenshot from Amnesty International Ireland
From file: Sara Mardini and Seán Binder | Screenshot from Amnesty International Ireland

Greek authorities have also accused aid workers and volunteers helping migrants in Greece of serious crimes. In one widely publicized case, the Syrian human rights worker Sara Mardini, a refugee herself, and an Irish volunteer Sean Binder were arrested and detained for months in 2018 on suspicion of espionage, money laundering, human trafficking and other offenses. Due to face trial on the island of Lesbos alongside 22 other civil society activists later this week, Binder says he is “terrified.”

I’ve had a taste of life in prison on Chios. It was all scabies and bed bugs with 17 of us packed in a cell,” Binder told The Guardian. “The police holding cells were even worse, the most awful place on earth; squalid, windowless rooms full of asylum seekers just there because authorities had nowhere else to put them.”

Giorgos Kosmopoulos, a campaigner with an Amnesty International group which plans to monitor the trial in Greece, says that this is not only happening there. “Human rights defenders across Europe are being criminalized … for helping refugees and migrants,” he told The Guardian. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/09/mary-lawlor-condemns-criminalization-of-those-saving-lives-in-the-mediterranean/

AP reports that, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece have initiated 58 investigations and legal proceedings since 2016 against private entities involved in search and rescue.

I think it’s important to challenge these in the courts, to not at all sit back and accept that we should be cast as smugglers or spies because I offered CPR, (or) more often than not just a smile, to someone in distress,” Binder told the news agency. “It is preposterous that we should be cast as criminals. I don’t accept it….It doesn’t matter who you are, you don’t deserve to drown in the sea.

Binder told The Guardian that he has not bought a return ticket to the UK, where he has been studying. He and Mardini face a maximum eight-year sentence, convertible into a fine. They are still under investigation for offences which could carry 25-year sentences if they are convicted.

In my view, the problem can only be tackled in a European context [see e.g. https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/legal-migration-and-integration_en%5D but it seems most member states cling to outdated notion of sovereignty.

Not directly related but possibly relevant is recent legislation in Greece, adopted on November 11, 2021, that makes it a criminal offence to spread “fake news.” Human Rights Watch said that the Greek government should immediately move to revoke the provision, which is incompatible with freedom of expression and media freedom. “In Greece, you now risk jail for speaking out on important issues of public interest, if the government claims it’s false,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The criminal sanctions risk making journalists and virtually anyone else afraid to report on or to debate important issues such as the handling of Covid-19 or migration or government economic policy.

While the trial began Thursday, it was almost immediately suspended. The court’s decision to adjourn, said 27-year-old Binder, a diver and German national, “is further proof of the absurdity of this case.”

https://www.commondreams.org/news/2021/11/18/drop-charges-greece-delays-trial-humanitarians-who-aided-refugees-sea

https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/36487/greece-migrants-and-aid-workers-facing-decades-in-prison

https://www.independent.ie/regionals/kerryman/news/kerry-aid-worker-faces-trial-in-greece-41058865.html

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/17/greece-alleged-fake-news-made-crime

https://reliefweb.int/report/greece/greece-guilty-verdict-migrant-rights-defenders-could-mean-more-deaths-sea-un-expert

https://www.ansamed.info/ansamed/en/news/sections/politics/2021/11/19/trial-of-aid-workers-in-greece-is-adjourned-amid-protests_5de29280-fde8-4c77-b7c2-ef878c497157.html

It had to happen: Russian Authorities Move to Shut Down Memorial

November 12, 2021
On the night before the infamous “foreign agents” law came into force back in 2012, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, “Foreign Agent! ♥ USA” on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. 
On the night before the infamous “foreign agents” law came into force back in 2012, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, “Foreign Agent! ♥ USA” on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial.  © 2012 Yulia Klimova/Memorial

On 12 November 2021Tanya Lokshina, Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division Human RightsWatch, reported that the Russian authorities have moved to shut down Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most prominent rights organization, an outrageous assault on the jugular of Russia’s civil society.

Memorial, which defends human rights, works to commemorate victims of Soviet repression, and provides a platform for open debate, has two key entities: Memorial Human Rights Center and International Memorial Society.[ the winners of not less than 7 human rights awards, see : https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/BD12D9CE-37AA-7A35-9A32-F37A0EA8C407]

On November 11, International Memorial received a letter from Russia’s Supreme Court stating that the Prosecutor General’s Office had filed a law suit seeking their liquidation over repeated violations of the country’s legislation on “foreign agents.”

A court date to hear the prosecutor’s case is set for November 25. According to Memorial, the alleged violations pertain to repeated fines against the organization for failure to mark some of its materials — including event announcements and social media posts — with the toxic and false “foreign agent” label, one of the pernicious requirements of the “foreign agents” law.

On November 12, Memorial Human Rights Center received information from the Moscow City Court that the Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office filed a similar suit against them and a court hearing was pending.  

For nearly a decade, Russian authorities have used the repressive legislation on “foreign agents” to restrict space for civic activity and penalize critics, including human rights groups. Last year parliament adopted new laws harshening the “foreign agent” law and expanding it in ways that could apply to just about any public critic or activist. The amendments were but a fraction of a slew of repressive laws adopted in the past year aimed at shutting down criticism and debate. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/foreign-agent-law/

The number of groups and individuals authorities have designated as “foreign agents” has soared in recent months. This week the Justice Ministry included on the foreign agent registry the Russian LGBT Network, one of Russia’s leading lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights groups, which had worked to evacuate dozens of LGBT people from Chechnya. The ministry also listed Ivan Pavlov, a leading human rights lawyer, and four of his colleagues, as “foreign agent-foreign media.” See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/11/10/ngo-lgbt-network-and-5-human-rights-lawyers-branded-foreign-agents-in-russia/

Even against this backdrop, to shut down Memorial, one of Russia’s human rights giants, is a new Rubicon crossed in the government’s campaign to stifle independent voices.

This move against Memorial is a political act of retaliation against human rights defenders. Russian authorities should withdraw the suits against Memorial immediately, and heed a long-standing call to repeal the legislation on “foreign agents” and end their crackdown on independent groups and activists.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/11/12/russian-authorities-move-shut-down-human-rights-giant#

https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/11/17/memory-and-memorial-will-prevail-a75588

Crackdown on Human Rights Lawyers in Belarus continues

October 27, 2021
Gennady Fedunych (left) and Natalia Matskevich (right) at the trial in Minsk, Belarus.
Gennady Fedunych (left) and Natalia Matskevich (right) at the trial in Minsk, Belarus. © Human Rights Center Viasna 2018

Anastasiia Zlobina, Assistant Researcher for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch reports that on 25 October 2021, the Minsk Bar Association disbarred prominent Belarusian defense lawyer Natalia Matskevich, the latest in a wide-raging and politically motivated crackdown on lawyers.

Matskevich is one of four lawyers who represented Viktar Babaryka, former presidential contender arrested on politically motivated charges in June 2020 in the run-up to the August 9 election. In July 2021, Supreme Court sentenced Babaryka to 14 years in prison for “grand bribery” and “laundering of illicit funds.”

On October 20, the Justice Ministry suspended the license of Evgeni Pylchenka, a lawyer who also represented Babaryka, pending the outcome of a disciplinary case against him. Matskevich’s disbarment and Pylchenka’s suspension came soon after they had filed an appeal in Babaryka’s case. Their colleagues said these sanctions were “absurd” and based on “ridiculous” allegations, including “some [supposedly] incorrectly worded questions to witnesses during trial.” 

In July, days after Babaryka’s verdict, authorities stripped his then-lawyer Dmitry Layevsky of his attorney’s license, citing “inappropriate comments about the work of his colleagues.” Prior to his disbarment, Layevsky had faced pressure from the authorities and the Minsk Bar Association.

In October 2020, the Justice Ministry terminated the license of Aliaksandr Pylchenka, another prominent member of Babaryka’s defense team, over supposed “incompetent comments to mass media”

According to Layevsky, Matskevich and Evgeny Pylchenka became “irreplaceable” in Babaryka’s case due to their detailed knowledge of the voluminous case as well as Babaryka’s trust in them.

Since August 2020, Belarusian authorities have been turning up the pressure on lawyers for publicly speaking out about human rights violations and in defense of clients in politically motivated cases. In addition to the obstruction of their work, lawyers have faced personal harassment such as threats, arbitrary detention, raids, revoked licenses, and administrative and criminal charges.

The Belarusian National Bar Association and its regional bars have continuously failed to protect their members.

At least 27 lawyers have already been banned or suspended in reprisal for speaking out against the recent wave of repressions in Belarus. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/09/10/two-lawyers-from-belarus-share-lawyers-for-lawyers-award-2021/

In November, new restrictive amendments will enter into force, further increasing the Ministry of Justice’s authority over, and eviscerating the independence of, Belarusian lawyers. The arbitrary suspension and disbarment of Belarusian lawyers doesn’t just rob them of their ability to practice their profession, but undermines their clients’ right to legal counsel, and sends a chilling message of intimidation to their colleagues.

On October 26, the Belarusian human rights community issued a joint statement on their recognising another 12 persons as political prisoners, HRC Viasna reported. As of October 26, there are 833 political prisoners in Belarus on this list.

The updated list includes:

  • Syarhei Prus and Dzmitry Bondarau, who were sentenced under Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code to 5 years in a penal colony for creating and posting online a video calling for illegal actions against riot police officers of the Mahilioŭ regional department of internal affairs;
  • Dzmitry Sonchyk, who was sentenced under Art. 364 and Art. 369 of the Criminal Code to 5 years of imprisonment in a penal colony for insults and threats to police officers in comments in a Telegram channel in 2020 and 2021;
  • Andrey Razuvayeu , who was sentenced under Article 369 and 295 of the Criminal Code to 4 years in a penal colony for insulting a government official and keeping a small amount of hunting gunpowder;
  • Iryna Melkher, Anton Melkher, Halina Dzerbysh, Syarhei Razanovich, Lyubou Razanovich, Pavel Razanovich, who have been in custody on terrorism charges since early December 2020. According to the human rights defenders, they have not participated in any investigative actions, while the investigation is not formally completed, and the state propaganda resources back in 2020 claimed that the guilt and role of all those involved in the case was ‘established and proven’;
  • former investigator Yauhen Yushkevich. The circumstances of the new accusation of terrorism give grounds to believe that his detention may be arbitrary and related to his public activities, human rights activists stress;
  • Yauhen Buynitski, who was detained on charges under Part 3 of Art. 371 of the Criminal Code for organizing illegal border crossing by citizens fleeing arbitrary politically motivated persecution by the Belarusian authorities, which could have serious consequences for them – torture, cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment and illegal imprisonment.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/26/belarusian-authorities-retaliate-against-lawyers-defending-human-rights

Assault by Israel on Palestinian human rights NGOs

October 23, 2021

As if the fight against terrorists is not already complex enough, Israel has muddied the water more by accusing six prominent Palestinian human rights groups of being terrorist organisations, saying they have undercover links to a militant movement. Not surprisingly. most of the groups document alleged human rights violations by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The six are Al-Haq, a human rights group founded in 1979, [and the winner of 5 human rights awards, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/0F74BF45-72C4-9FDD-F96D-2B87BF6C7728] Addameer, Defence for Children International – Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.

The Israeli defence ministry said they were linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular political movement with an armed wing that in the past carried out attacks against Israel. The groups “were active under the cover of civil society organisations, but in practice belong and constitute an arm of the [PFLP] leadership, the main activity of which is the liberation of Palestine and destruction of Israel”, the defence ministry said. It claimed they were “controlled by senior leaders” of the PFLP and employed its members, including some who had “participated in terror activity”. The groups serve as a “central source” of financing for the PFLP and had received “large sums of money from European countries and international organisations”, the defence ministry said.

The groups, well known for their human rights work, have indeed quite openly received funding from EU member states, the United Nations and other donors.

Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al-Haq, said the move was an attempt to stifle criticism. “They may be able to close us down. They can seize our funding. They can arrest us. But they cannot stop our firm and unshakeable belief that this occupation must be held accountable for its crimes,he told the Times of Israel.

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem called the government’s declaration “an act characteristic of totalitarian regimes, with the clear purpose of shutting down these organisations”. It added: “B’Tselem stands in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues, is proud of our joint work over the years and is steadfast to continue so.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who work closely with many of these groups, said in a joint statement:

This appalling and unjust decision is an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement. For decades, Israeli authorities have systematically sought to muzzle human rights monitoring and punish those who criticize its repressive rule over Palestinians. While staff members of our organizations have faced deportation and travel bans, Palestinian human rights defenders have always borne the brunt of the repression. This decision is an alarming escalation that threatens to shut down the work of Palestine’s most prominent civil society organizations. The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner.

How the international community responds will be a true test of its resolve to protect human rights defenders. We are proud to work with our Palestinian partners and have been doing so for decades. They represent the best of global civil society. We stand with them in challenging this outrageous decision.

The US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said his office had not been given advance warning of the designation. “We will be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for the designation,” Price said on a telephone briefing with reporters in Washington.

The move by the Israeli government represents a challenge for the many European countries that provide financing to the six organizations, European governments, .. now risk being accused of funding terrorism if they continue financing the six groups. One senior European official working in the region admitted the move was likely aimed at putting pressure on donors’ decision-making but said there needed to be an analysis of any evidence put forward by Israel, said CNN Europe.

See also the 4 November post by Just Security: https://www.justsecurity.org/78884/the-downstream-effects-of-israels-terrorist-designation-on-human-rights-defenders-in-the-us/

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/27/al-haq-named-2019-recipient-of-human-rights-and-business-award/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/22/israel-labels-palestinian-human-rights-groups-terrorist-organisations

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/22/israel-palestinian-human-rights-groups-terrorism

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/stars-sign-letter-criticising-israel-s-move-to-label-palestinian-charities-as-terror-organisations/ar-AAQNM7

See also: https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/01/06/dont-abandon-us-palestinian-rights-group-rebukes-dutch-government-halting-funding

https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/10/1103982

United Arab Emirates: Dubai Expo continues whitewashing – EU Parliament call for boycott

October 4, 2021

Expo 2020 On 1 October 2021. Human Right Watch published “UAE: Tolerance Narrative a Sham Censorship; Surveillance; Prison or Barred Entry for Critics”. It stated that the United Arab Emirates authorities are using Expo 2020 Dubai to promote a public image of openness that is at odds with the government’s efforts to prevent scrutiny of its rampant systemic human rights violations. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/09/03/uaes-new-human-rights-institute-sounds-like-a-joke/

Expo 2020 is a prominent global cultural event built on the free exchange of ideas. Domestic critics are routinely arrested and, since at least 2015, UAE authorities have ignored or denied requests for access to the country by United Nations experts, human rights researchers, and critical academics and journalists. The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government. “Dozens of UAE peaceful domestic critics have been arrested, railroaded in blatantly unfair trials, and condemned to many years in prison simply for trying to express their ideas on governance and human rights,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Expo 2020 is yet another opportunity for the UAE to falsely present itself on the world stage as open, tolerant, and rights-respecting while shutting down the space for politics, public discourse, and activism.” Expo 2020 is being held from October 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, with the theme, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.”

This event, as with other expensive entertainment, cultural, sports, and educational events before it, is designed to promote a public relations image of the UAE as an open, progressive, and tolerant country while its abusive authorities forcefully bar all peaceful criticism and dissent, Human Rights Watch said.

…. Major international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also faced increased restrictions on their ability to visit and engage with government officials on human rights issues. Staff of both organizations were refused access to prisons and high-profile trials, and eventually admission to the country. UAE authorities have rarely responded to either organization’s requests for information or meetings.

The UAE has embarked on a decades-long effort to whitewash its reputation on the international stage. These efforts were made explicit in the government’s 2017 Soft Power Strategy, which includes cultivating “cultural and media diplomacy” as a central pillar and has a stated objective “to establish [the UAE’s] reputation as a modern and tolerant country that welcomes all people from across the world.” Expo 2020 is the latest in a long list of investments in ambitious cultural and educational projects that seek to further that goal, Human Rights watch said. Others include the acquisition of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University outposts, establishing Dubai as a luxury tourism destination, and hosting global cultural events such as the 2019 Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi and the upcoming World Expo in Dubai.  

While leading international academic and cultural institutions first established a presence in the UAE with the promise to serve the public good by promoting “ideas, discourse, and critical thinking,” they have since remained silent in the face of increasing repression of basic rights. … Some of those whose communications and devices were targeted by the government surveillance and who are residents of the UAE, were subsequently arrested and abused in detention.Among them is the prominent Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. [See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A] A UAE court sentenced Mansoor to 10 years in prison in May 2018 following a grossly unfair trial, partly based on private email exchanges and WhatsApp conversations. A 2016 Citizen Lab report demonstrated five other cases where arrests or convictions of users followed malware attacks against their Twitter accounts from 2012 to 2015. This repressive environment, coupled with the authorities’ use of advanced spyware to target anyone deemed a threat to the country, has led citizens, residents, and even journalists, academics, businessmen, and others who frequent the UAE to warily restrict their public criticism of the authorities. As one journalist said about their office based in Dubai, “The head of office is shit scared of the authorities … There is a practice of holding back stories if they can’t get official comment – which they often can’t. They don’t go hard on the UAE.” Governments and businesses have a human rights responsibility to avoid contributing to UAE authorities’ efforts to whitewash its abuses. As countries prepare to showcase their pavilions at the Dubai EXPO, they should help prevent the UAE’s whitewashing attempts by either advocating for the UAE to unconditionally release all those unjustly detained for exercising their right to free expression and to regularly open up the country, including its jails and its courts, to scrutiny by independent researchers and monitors, or not participate in the EXPO, Human Rights Watch said. “With widespread arrests, intimidation, surveillance, and retaliation that citizens and residents face for speaking out, Expo participants and other countries should raise concerns about rights abuses in the UAE,” ..The HRW report contains a lot more detail about the media repression.

The European Parliament has called on the United Arab Emirates to immediately release three prominent human rights defenders and urged EU member states to boycott next month’s Dubai Expo in order to “signal their disapproval” of rights violations. In a resolution adopted on Thursday, the parliament demanded the “unconditional release” of Ahmed Mansoor, Mohammed al-Roken, and Nasser bin Ghaith, as well as all other Emirati political activists and dissidents. Mansoor was arrested in 2017 on charges of publishing false information and rumours, and using social media to “damage the country’s reputation”.

According to letters that were published online in July, the 52-year-old said he had been held in solitary confinement since his arrest, cut off from the outside world as well as fellow prisoners.

Roken, a university professor and human rights lawyer, was arrested in July 2012, and convicted in July 2013 over charges of “establishing an organisation seeking to bring about the government’s overthrow”. He was sentenced to 10-years in prison and stood trial as part of a group that became known as the “UAE 94”. Former US intelligence officials admit to hacking for UAE at hearing in Virginia. See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/7B69B1D9-E359-444A-B448-02E8B9C0750C

Meanwhile, Ghaith, an economist, and human rights defender was arrested in August 2015 and jailed in March 2017 for 10 years over tweets that criticised Egypt, a key ally of the Gulf country. Ghaith had tweeted a picture of a burnt building in Cairo on 11 August 2015, a few days before the anniversary of the killing of hundreds of protesters in Rabaa square. 

In the resolution, which passed with 383 votes in favour, 47 towards and with 259 abstentions, the parliament criticised Mansoor’s prolonged detention and urged member states to boycott the upcoming World Fair in Dubai.

“In order to signal their disapproval of the human rights violations in the UAE, [the European Parliament] invites the international companies sponsoring Expo 2020 Dubai to withdraw their sponsorship and encourages member states not to participate in the event,” the resolution said.

Dubai has poured billions of dollars into Expo 2020, hoping the exhibition will generate new business and spur its economy amid a slowdown in growth due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Thursday’s strongly-worded resolution also condemned the role the UAE played in the extradition of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. Hathloul was kidnapped in the UAE in 2018 and flown into Saudi Arabia against her will, where she faced a trial based on a loosely worded terror law often used to prosecute activists. She was released in February after almost three years in prison but is subject to a five-year travel ban and other restrictions.

On 15 September 2021 the Middle East Monitor has reported that the UAE had placed an additional 4 human rights defenders on its terror list:

Authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have placed 38 individuals and 15 companies on a terrorism list, saying they are “keen to target networks linked to the financing of terrorism.”

The updated list, issued by the Council of Ministers under Ministerial Resolution No. 83 of 2021, includes the names of four Emirati opposition figures living in exile: Ahmed Al Shaiba Al Nuaimi, Muhammad Saqr Al Zaabi, Hamad Al Shamsi and Saeed Al Tunaiji.

The UAE seeks to curb the political and legal activities of these activists who document human rights violations in the Emirates, WAM reported.

The four opposition activists are believed to be part of a small group that survived the state security apparatus’ 2012 arrest campaign of dozens of academics, lawyers, community leaders and students calling for political reform. However, they were outside the country and then tried in absentia in a case known as the “UAE94”.

The four opposition figures had announced the formation of the “Emirati League Against Normalisation” more than a year ago and issued a statement calling the normalisation agreement with the Israeli occupation a departure from the principles on which the UAE was founded.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/01/uae-tolerance-narrative-sham-0

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/uae-european-parliament-release-political-prisoners-boycott-dubai-expo

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210915-uae-puts-4-human-rights-defenders-on-terror-list/

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/uae-ahmed-mansoor-activist-former-un-official-urges-release

Belarus’s Kalesnikava Awarded Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize

September 29, 2021

On 27 September 2021 RFE/RL’s Belarus Service reported that jailed Belarusian opposition figure Maryya Kalesnikava has won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor “outstanding” civil society action in the defense of human rights amid an ongoing crackdown in Belarus on pro-democracy activists and groups by authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka. See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/beff3c8d-0e20-4e88-9efb-cdfcb4c26f40


Maryya Kalesnikava forms a heart shape to supporters from inside a defendants' cage at her trial in Minsk on September 6.
Maryya Kalesnikava forms a heart shape to supporters from inside a defendants’ cage at her trial in Minsk on September 6.

The prize was presented by PACE President Rik Daems to Maryya’s sister, Tatsyana Khomich, at a special ceremony on September 27, the opening day of the autumn plenary session of the PACE in Strasbourg. For more on this award, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/7A8B4A4A-0521-AA58-2BF0-DD1B71A25C8D

“In standing up against a regime which has chosen force and brutality against peaceful and legitimate protest, Ms. Kalesnikava showed that she is ready to risk her own safety for a cause greater than herself — she has shown true courage,” Daems said.

Accepting the prize on her sister’s behalf, Khomich said: “This award is a sign of solidarity of the entire democratic world with the people of Belarus. It is also a sign to us, Belarusians, that the international community supports us, and that we are on the right track.”

Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years respectively on September 6, after being found guilty on charges with conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group. Both pleaded not guilty, rejecting the charges.

Kalesnikava, 39, was a coordinator of the election campaign of an excluded presidential aspirant, former Belgazprombank head Viktar Babaryka. After Babaryka was arrested weeks before the August 2020 presidential election, Kalesnikava joined forces with another presidential candidate, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whom the majority of Belarusians have called the winner in the election.

After joining Tsikhanouskaya’s support group, Kalesnikava became a member of the opposition Coordination Council and turned into a prominent leader of protests demanding the resignation of Lukashenka, who was officially announced the winner of the election demonstrators say was rigged and which the West has refused to acknowledge.

Kalesnikava was snatched from the streets of Minsk in September 2020 by masked men along with two staffers. The three were driven early the next day to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.

Security officers reportedly failed to deport Kalesnikava because she ripped her passport into small pieces after they arrived in the no man’s land between Belarus and Ukraine. Her two associates entered Ukraine, but with no valid passport, Kalesnikava remained in the country and was subsequently detained.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/09/07/nominees-for-vaclav-havel-human-rights-prize-2021-announced/

In the meantime the Belarusian Justice Ministry has filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, one of the country’s oldest independent human rights groups, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 30, 2021, the Belarus Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the lawsuit. The move is part of wider effort by Belarusian authorities to silence all independent or critical voices in the country.

In a September 22 letter, five international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged the Justice Ministry to withdraw its lawsuit, calling it “inappropriate [and] inconsistent with the Belarusian government’s obligations to respect and protect the legitimate work of human rights defenders.” They also said the lawsuit “violates a number of fundamental rights, including those of freedom of expression and association and due process.”

https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus-kalesnikava-havel-prize/31480306.html

https://www.euronews.com/2021/09/28/us-europe-rights-belarus

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/09/29/belarus-authorities-target-top-human-rights-group

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