07Jul/20

Impunity for Domestic Violence Still the Norm in Kyrgyzstan

After years of monitoring violence against women in Kyrgyzstan, and seeing little done to punish abusers, we thought this time might finally be different.

It wasn’t.

It looked like an open and shut case. The horrific abuse was captured on video, at the man’s insistence. There was indisputable evidence of his crime and he did not deny abusing his wife. Police apprehended him – though only after the video’s circulation prompted public outcry, not when his wife first reported the abuse two days prior. They ultimately charged him with “cruel treatment,” which is punishable by a prison sentence.

But yesterday, in Suzak, a town in southern Kyrgyzstan, after a trial lasting two days, the man walked free.

The court convicted him and ordered him to serve two year’s probation, a non-custodial sentence which requires him to regularly check in with the police. Today’s ruling shows that in Kyrgyzstan, a man who slaps his wife, forces her to stand weighed down by tires and bricks, and repeatedly douses her with water – all on video – can count on doing so with little fear of consequences.

Domestic violence is pervasive in Kyrgyzstan, and women and girls face multiple barriers when they try to seek help or access justice. Kyrgyzstan has taken important steps in recent years to begin to tackle domestic violence, including adopting a strengthened domestic violence law in 2017 and other legislative amendments that provide better protections for victims. But “domestic violence” remains a misdemeanor rather than a criminal offense, meaning it carries lesser penalties. Even with irrefutable video evidence of brutality, police in this case originally detained the man on misdemeanor charges of domestic violence and only later upgraded the charges to “cruel treatment.”

Unless the law enforcement and justice systems in Kyrgyzstan take domestic violence complaints seriously, so that domestic abusers are brought to court and held accountable to the full extent of the law, women and girls will continue to be humiliated, beaten, forcefully abducted for marriage, and even killed – and their abusers will get away with it.

There was significant outrage in Kyrgyzstan when the video of this man hurting his wife surfaced. There should be no less outrage about Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary failing to hold him fully accountable.

06Jul/20

Myanmar: Court Martial Latest Accountability Sham

Rohingya refugees who fled the Myanmar village of Gu Dar Pyin stand on a hill in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh, January 14, 2018.
© 2018 Manish Swarup/AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s court-martial conviction of three military personnel for crimes against ethnic Rohingya reflects ongoing government efforts to evade meaningful accountability, Human Rights Watch said today. Myanmar authorities have repeatedly failed to adequately investigate and prosecute grave abuses against Rohingya in Rakhine State, including crimes against humanity.

On June 30, 2020, the Myanmar military announced that two officers and a soldier had been convicted for “weakness in following the instructions” during the “Gu Dar Pyin incident.” Rakhine State’s Gu Dar Pyin village was the site of a massacre by the military on August 27-28, 2017, part of its campaign of mass atrocities that forced more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. The military did not provide any other information, such as the names and ranks of those convicted, their role in the massacre, or their sentences.

“Myanmar’s farcical court martial is the latest attempt to feign progress on accountability in an apparent attempt to influence the United Nations and international tribunals,” said Shayna Bauchner, assistant Asia researcher. “Foreign governments should demand Myanmar open its doors to truly independent and impartial international investigators.”

The Gu Dar Pyin court martial began in November 2019 following a military investigation led by Maj. Gen. Myat Kyaw that found “grounds to believe the soldiers did not fully comply with the rules of engagement.” Closed hearings were held in Buthidaung township through April 30.

Maintaining its characteristic lack of transparency, the military has not released details about the trial or the actions being taken. Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said the military, known as the Tatmadaw, was withholding information to avoid harming military morale. “We have to consider their dignity and service,” he said. “We don’t want this [case] to affect the morale of Tatmadaw soldiers in performing their duties and their spirit of comradeship.”

Human rights groups, the media, and UN investigators extensively documented the Gu Dar Pyin massacre. Rohingya witnesses said that hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police surrounded the town and shot villagers as they tried to flee. The UN-backed Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reported that soldiers abducted women and girls from the village and gang raped them at a nearby military compound. The Associated Press identified at least five mass graves where soldiers piled the bodies, before burning their faces off with acid. An estimated 300 to 400 Rohingya were killed. Security forces burned down every structure in the village.

The Myanmar government has denied evidence of the military’s attack on Gu Dar Pyin. Instead, it claimed security forces were responding to an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an ethnic Rohingya armed group, and local villagers, during which 19 Rohingya “terrorists” died, their bodies “carefully buried.”

Authorities also announced that military investigations into the attacks in Chut Pyin and Maung Nu, other villages in Rakhine State, are ongoing.

For decades, Myanmar’s justice system has failed to address military violations of human rights and the laws of war. The military and its justice system remain outside civilian control and oversight, instead falling under the authority of the commander-in-chief. In the sole prior convictions handed down for the 2017 abuses, seven soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison for their role in killing 10 Rohingya in Inn Din village. Yet in November 2018, after serving just seven months, all were released and pardoned by the commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

This latest case underscores the Myanmar government’s longstanding efforts to conceal military crimes with hollow admissions of wrongdoing and claims of justice. Both the military and the civilian government have been unwilling to investigate widespread abuses against Rohingya in Rakhine State since 2012.

In response to international attention, the government has set up a series of commissions intended to stave off calls for action, rather than prosecute those responsible or advance justice. In January, Myanmar’s Independent Commission of Enquiry released a report that failed to hold senior military officials responsible or provide a credible basis for justice and accountability. It also upheld the military’s narrative on the Gu Dar Pyin massacre, reporting that 19 had died in counterterrorism operations.

The Myanmar government implausibly continues to claim, as it did at the UN Human Rights Council session on the Rohingya on June 30, that it “is willing and able to address the issue of accountability,” and that “the domestic justice system of a country must be respected.” If Myanmar is serious about accountability, it should grant access to Rakhine State to international investigators, including the UN Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, the new UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, and the International Criminal Court, which opened an investigation into the crime against humanity of deportation and other related crimes in November 2019.

In November, Gambia filed a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging that Myanmar’s atrocities against the Rohingya violated the Genocide Convention. During ICJ hearings in December, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi cited the Gu Dar Pyin case as evidence of the military’s “will to accountability”: “I am encouraged by the Gu Dar Pyin court martial, and I expect the Office to continue its investigations and prosecutions based on reliable evidence gathered in Rakhine and from persons who witnessed what happened there.”

In reality, these court-martial proceedings reflect the military’s unyielding impunity and the government’s protection of it, scapegoating a few soldiers rather than seriously investigating the military leadership who oversaw the atrocity crimes.

On January 23, the ICJ unanimously ordered Myanmar to prevent genocide, preserve evidence, and regularly report to the court on its implementation of the order.

“The Gu Dar Pyin convictions merely highlight that those ultimately responsible for the Myanmar military’s mass atrocities, like Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, are not being investigated and remain answerable to no one,” Bauchner said. “Concerned governments should recognize that Myanmar won’t credibly investigate itself, and should press the government to cooperate with international commissions and courts so that those responsible for grave crimes can be held to account.”

05Jul/20

Djibouti: Protect Jailed Air Force Pilot’s Rights

A woman walks through a vegetable market in Djibouti City,  May 2015. 

© 2015 AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy

(Nairobi) Djibouti’s authorities should impartially investigate alleged mistreatment of a detained former air force pilot and ensure that his due process rights are respected. The authorities have repressed peaceful protests that broke out in response to the pilot’s detention.

Fouad Youssouf Ali, a former lieutenant in Djibouti’s air force, fled to neighboring Ethiopia in late March 2020, apparently to seek asylum. Before leaving, he released a video alleging corruption by a high-ranking military official and clan-based discrimination, and called for an armed revolt against the government. In April, Ethiopia deported him to Djibouti, where he was charged with treason without a lawyer present. In June, Fouad released a video from his cell in Gabode central prison in which he alleged degrading treatment, sparking a public outcry and protest rallies calling for his release.

“Djibouti’s authorities should thoroughly investigate Fouad’s allegations of mistreatment, and ensure that his basic rights are protected,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should not use this case as a pretext to stifle public protest, particularly ahead of national elections.”

Since President Ismael Omar Guelleh came to office in 1999, the Djibouti government has repeatedly clamped down on sporadic public protests and significantly limited media freedoms, as well as freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Restrictions have intensified in the run-up to previous presidential elections. The next presidential elections are expected in 2021.

Djibouti is strategically situated in the Gulf of Aden, and hosts US, Chinese, and French military bases, among others. In a bid to gain a two-year term at the United Nations Security Council in late June, President Guelleh lauded his country’s role in the Horn region in promoting peace. Tensions with Eritrea from a three-day border conflict in 2008, including regarding the fate of Djiboutian prisoners of war, remain unresolved.

Fouad’s relatives told Human Rights Watch he intended to seek asylum in Ethiopia, but he appears to have been summarily deported and detained in isolation at Gabode without prompt access to a lawyer or family visits. Ethiopia should investigate whether authorities there respected Fouad’s right to seek asylum, Human Rights Watch said.  

On April 22, Djibouti authorities took Fouad to court, without a lawyer present, and charged him with treason, including relations with a foreign power, Eritrea; defamation of the armed forces; and incitement to hatred and public uprising. The treason charge carries a possible penalty of life in prison. Fouad’s lawyer, Zakaria Abdellahi Ali, told Human Rights Watch that Fouad had been detained for more than the 48 hours permitted under the criminal procedural code before being taken to court, and that he was not allowed to meet with Fouad  until May 13. Fouad’s relatives said they only received news of his whereabouts on April 25 and did not see him until June 7.

On June 3, Fouad released a video filmed in his isolation cell in which he describes dire detention conditions and shows that he has a serious skin condition. The video, viewed by Human Rights Watch, shows Fouad in a tiny cell, largely taken up by a latrine, and without a window. The video sparked public outcry and protests in Djibouti City, the capital, including in Balbala on the outskirts of the city, and Ali Sabieh, Djibouti’s second largest city, on June 4 and 5.

Human rights organizations have previously documented inhumane treatment of political detainees in Gabode, including the death in detention in 2017 due to ill health of Mohamed Ahmed, a political opposition member who was being held on political charges.

Fouad’s lawyer appealed to the court for Fouad to be transferred to the hospital or be provisionally released. On June 18, the appeal court rejected the request following a medical assessment by court-appointed doctors, who reportedly concluded that the medical assistance Fouad could receive in detention was adequate.

The authorities have publicly denied Fouad’s claims of ill-treatment. On June 11, the President’s Office accused Fouad of having “staged” his detention conditions. The public prosecutor, Djama Souleiman Ali, told the media that people held in isolation cells have daily access to a courtyard, and that the justice minister had ordered an investigation into the circumstances in which the video was filmed and conditions in the prison.

Fouad’s wife, Samira Djama, told Human Rights Watch that her family has faced ongoing harassment since Fouad fled the country. On March 27, the authorities detained her with two of her children, ages 13 and 16, along with 15 other family members and a neighbor. She said she was held for a week at the central police station and repeatedly questioned about her husband’s whereabouts.

The authorities said that the protests that followed release of the video were “unauthorized” and deployed security forces to disperse them. In Ali Sabieh, the media reported, security forces used live ammunition. The authorities should impartially investigate all reports of excessive and lethal force against protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

The media reported that sporadic protests calling for Fouad’s release have continued. Security forces have detained dozens of protesters, the reports said, including two Voix de Djibouti journalists: Kassim Nour Abar, detained early on June 5 at his home in Ali Sabieh, and Mohamed Ibrahim Waiss, detained on June 7 in the capital. They were held without being taken to court within the mandated 48 hours, then released.

On June 11, the President’s Office said that several people had been arrested during the demonstrations, “including several falsely claiming to be journalists.” Journalists from la Voix de Djibouti, a private outlet established by the head of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Renewal, have faced repeated intimidation and arbitrary arrests, media reports and the media outlet said.

Before presidential elections in 2011, Human Rights Watch found, the authorities banned all demonstrations and arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted peaceful protesters and opposition leaders.

In late 2015, following the announcement that President Guelleh was running for a fourth term, media and rights groups reported that dozens of opposition supporters who protested the decision were detained. On December 23, 2015, at least 19 people were reportedly killed during a public gathering for a religious festival in Balbala. That December the government passed an emergency law, allowing the Council of Ministers to disband any organization that was deemed a threat to public order.  

Djibouti is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and protects rights to counsel and a fair trial, and the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

“Djibouti’s leadership has sought to gain greater international recognition,” Bader said. “The leadership should start by promoting human rights at home, including by respecting peaceful protest, media freedom, and the rights of detainees.”

04Jul/20

Malawi: Reaffirm Human Rights, Rule of Law

Malawi’s newly elected President Lazarus Chakwera takes the oath of office in Lilongwe, Malawi, Sunday June 28, 2020.
© AP Photo/Thoko Chikondi

(Johannesburg) – Malawi’s new president, Lazarus Chakwera, should use his electoral victory as an opportunity to reset the country’s human rights record. On June 28, 2020, Chakwera was sworn in as president following a rerun vote on June 23, in which he won 58.57 percent of the vote.

The presidential rerun vote came after the country’s Supreme Court upheld the Constitutional Court’s February order nullifying the incumbent President Peter Mutharika’s narrow victory in the May 2019 elections, citing serious irregularities, and ordered fresh elections within 150 days.

“President Chakwera should place respect for human rights and rule of law at the center of his new administration,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The new president needs to put into action his own words that his victory at the polls is a victory for democracy and justice.”

Prior to the June elections, there was a spike in politically motivated violence with no arrests of those responsible, said activists monitoring abuses through the Malawi Human Rights Defenders Coalition. The activists said they had recorded an increase in electoral violence and the harassment of activists and opposition politicians.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa, Malawi Chapter (MISA Malawi), on May 31 issued a statement expressing concern that “Journalists are increasingly becoming victims of political violence as the country prepares for the fresh presidential elections.” MISA Malawi said that political party leaders and the Malawi Police Service should make a commitment to end political violence.

Chakwera said in his inauguration speech that his victory “will fulfill the dream of a new Malawi that will be for everyone.” His administration should act to ensure that the rights of all, particularly marginalized communities, are fully respected.

 Malawi faces a wide array of human rights challenges, including rising economic inequalities, poverty and recurrent food insecurity. Violence and discrimination against women and girls are commonplace, rooted in a lack of gender equality and harmful cultural norms. In Malawi, 42 percent of women are married by age 18, and 9 percent by age 15.

While the Malawi Parliament in 2017 voted to amend the constitution to make marriage before the age of 18 illegal, Malawi officials need to act to change discriminatory attitudes among both lawmakers and the public to ensure that the law is effectively enforced. Many girls and women do not know their legal rights or where they can seek assistance if they are at risk of being forced into marriage.

Since 2014, at least 150 crimes have been reported against people with albinism, including killings, abductions, grave exhumations, and threats.

Malawi’s laws prohibiting consensual same-sex relations foster a climate of fear and fuel violence and discrimination. The punitive legal environment combined with social stigma allows police abuse to go unchecked and prevents many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from reporting violence or getting medical care. The lack of clarity about the legal status of same-sex conduct leaves LGBT people vulnerable to arbitrary arrests, physical violence, and routine discrimination. The government should reaffirm the moratorium on arrests for consensual same-sex conduct issued by the Justice Minister in 2012 and move rapidly to decriminalize such conduct.

“President Chakwera should give particular attention to improving the lives of people in Malawi who have suffered inequality and discrimination,” Mavhinga said. “The prevailing goodwill from the people of Malawi and the global community should not be wasted.”