Category Archives: News


US Government Mass Surveillance Isn’t ‘Secret’

A notice of electronic surveillance is posted near a 95-by-50-foot American flag unfurled on the side of an apartment complex in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., June 14, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Today marks 11 years since the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against mass surveillance in the United States on behalf of Carolyn Jewel and other AT&T customers. When it eventually concludes, this case will determine whether people in the US ever get a judgment on the constitutionality of mass surveillance.

The case began after a technician revealed that AT&T was routing fiber optic cable communications into a secret room in its San Francisco facility controlled by the US National Security Agency (NSA), allowing the government to gather the public’s communications without court authorization.

Throughout the case’s many hearings, the US government has dodged the central contention in Jewel that its unauthorized dragnet violated rights. It argues that to confirm whether the plaintiffs were spied upon would require disclosure of “state secrets.”

Government whistleblower after whistleblower has added to the Jewel plaintiffs’ credibility, showing how likely it was that the government performed massive unauthorized data collection on ordinary people. And although the existence of mass government surveillance is hardly a secret these days, a lower court judge ruled the matter was too sensitive for adjudication. The appeals court hearing the case now is faced with the question of whether individuals can challenge illegal surveillance if the government refuses to confirm it actually spied on them.

Plaintiffs in other democratic societies with their own national security interests don’t face this dilemma. Ordinary people and civil society groups have been able to challenge the legality of mass surveillance in the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and before the European Court of Human Rights. Just this week, a South African court found mass surveillance violated the public’s rights.

As a plaintiff in a related case, Human Rights Watch has a direct stake in the Jewel litigation. We happen to be AT&T customers, and have challenged mass surveillance previously. Now, we are urging the court to remove the blinders imposed by invoking national security and consider these facts: first, human rights defenders are targets of state surveillance the world over; second, surveillance harms everyone’s interest in learning about human rights violations because it inhibits sources and activists; and finally, the US has a long record of obstructing even defendants in criminal cases from learning evidence against them may derive from questionable surveillance.

In the US, courts should not be barred from assessing potential human rights violations whenever the government cries, “National security secret!” The country’s legal system, like those of other democracies, is equipped to address real security concerns without depriving people of a remedy for abusive state practices. You can read our brief in the case here.


Cameroonian Lawyers Say ‘Enough is Enough’

Douala Court of Justice, Cameroon.

© Steve Mvondo/WikiMedia

Cameroonian lawyers are on strike this week, protesting law enforcement agencies’ interference in their work and violations of defendants’ rights.

In a communique issued on August 31, the Cameroon Bar Council explained that the lawyers decided to stage the five-day strike because of what they describe as systematic denial of access to their clients in detention facilities across the country, including the State Defense Secretariat (SED) detention facility in Yaoundé. The lawyers are also protesting authorities’ alleged refusal to acknowledge or respond to their various written requests, the prolonged and unlawful detention of their clients, and the extraction of confessions under torture. The lawyers further claim in the letter that they are “continuously being threatened, arrested and detained” while trying to do their work.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the widespread use of incommunicado detention and torture at SED, as well other violations of due process rights. A military court recently handed down a life sentence to the leaders of a separatist group following a trial in which the defendants were not able to exercise their right to effectively defend themselves.

The strike occurs about a month after inmates in Yaoundé’s Central Prison rioted in protest against abysmal living conditions and trial delays. Following the riot, Cameroonian authorities held over 100 detainees incommunicado for almost 2 weeks at SED. Many of them were tortured.

One lawyer told us, “This is our way to say no to the abuse and the denial of basic rights.”

Lawyers always have a critical role to play in protecting the rights of suspects in custody and defendants in court, and their role in protecting human rights is fundamental in the context of the current crackdown in Cameroon. They should be allowed to carry out their jobs safely, without undue interference, and freely access their clients in custody in order to protect their rights and prepare their defense. This strike should ring alarm bells over the lawyers’ inability to do so and the violations of detainees’ basic rights.

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Spate of Bangladesh ‘Crossfire’ Killings of Rohingya

Rohingya refugees gather in an open field at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine State on August 25, 2019. 

© 2019 K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images

Bangladesh police have now killed six Rohingya refugees they claim were involved in the August 22 murder of Omar Faruk, a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth organization, in Cox’s Bazar.

Several United Nations human rights experts warned the Bangladesh government that ensuring justice for Faruk’s murder should not be “reactionary, summary and ad hoc.” Forcibly disappearing or killing suspects after taking them into custody has long been a problem in Bangladesh. After the recent killings, Bangladesh authorities said that these people were killed in “crossfire” or a “gunfight.” These familiar explanations are often an euphemism for extrajudicial executions.

The killings have created a climate of intense fear in the area’s refugee camps.

There are nearly one million Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh after fleeing atrocities committed by the Myanmar military. Tensions increased after the Bangladesh governmentattempted to begin repatriation of Rohingya, which failed because refugees fearedconditions in Myanmar remained unsafe.

Faruk’s murder sparked violent attacks against Rohingya by some in the host community. One refugee living in Camp 27 told Human Rights Watch that local residents continue to “threaten to beat or kill them,” saying “‘Why don’t you [Rohingya] leave our land?’”

Instead of quelling the tensions, law enforcement officers allegedly refused to intervene and protect the refugees from these attacks. The authorities also engaged in collective punishmentcutting access to the internet and instructing carrier companies to halt the sale of SIM cards and phone connections to refugees, insisting that it was necessary to contain criminal activities. 

The Bangladesh government is navigating a precarious security environment in Cox’s Bazar, heightened by the influx of 700,000 Rohingya refugees since the Myanmar government’s ethnic cleansing campaign since late 2017. But every measure should be a proportionate response to specific risks and ensure the protection of basic rights. 

Considering the long history of rights violations by security forces in Bangladesh, authorities should send an unequivocal message that abuses will not be tolerated. People who fled massacres should not have to fear for their lives again.

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A Trial Under the Spotlight in Morocco

Her smile was striking, wide and slightly ironic. Sitting up straight on the defendants’ bench in a court in Rabat, Morocco on Monday this week, Hajar Raissouni was not letting the situation get her down.

Hajar Raissouni (Via Facebook)

Yet this 28-year-old journalist would have good reason to feel defeated. Arrested on August 31 with her fiancé, her gynecologist, and his two assistants, she has remained in prison ever since, facing two accusations – abortion and sexual relations outside marriage – which could earn her up to two years in prison. Her co-defendants could face sentences of 2 to 10 years for abortion and complicity in abortion. 

The lawyers spoke one after the other at the bar, raising multiple procedural irregularities. They also reminded the court of the position of the doctor and his patient, who strongly deny abortion, presenting detailed evidence. 

But others took a step back: they reminded the court that Morocco has ratified the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees everyone’s right to privacy. The government has no business interfering in people’s bedrooms. The criminalization of sex outside marriage is absurd and should be abolished.

As for abortion, its criminalization jeopardizes numerous fundamental human rights, including the right to life, the right to health, the right to privacy, and the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. Why? Because criminalization often leads to secret abortions which are much more dangerous and lead to medical complications and maternal deaths. An average of between 600 and 800 secret abortions take place in Morocco every day. 

This Thursday, the judge will decide whether to order the provisional release of Hajar and her co-defendants. The trial will resume on September 25. We will be there.

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