HRW Urges Syria to Reveal the Fate of the Sidnaya Inmates

HRW Urges Syria to Reveal the Fate of the Sidnaya Inmates

By Lauren Mellinger
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria  – On January 27, Human Rights Watch released a statement reporting that the  status of inmates at Sidnaya military prison is still unknown.  The prison has been at the center of controversy since July 2008, after prison guards were accused of using lethal force in order to put down a prison riot.   

At least 1,500 inmates are imprisoned in Sidnaya, located northwest of Damascus.  Syrian authorities maintain that prison guards “quickly restored” order after the riot began, and publicly blame Sidnaya inmates convicted on charges of terrorism and religious extremism for instigating the riot.  According to Syrian human rights organizations reports, at least 25 inmates have died as a result of the prison guards use of lethal force in quelling the riots, although HRW reports indicate that ten people died in the riot, including one police officer.

In October 2008, after several attempts to obtain an update on the status of the prisoners from the Ministry of Justice failed to produce any information, 17 mothers of prisoners detained in Sidnaya publicly appealed to the Syrian government, in particular to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.  They urged the government to provide them with information on family members detained at the prison.  According to the statement released by the mothers, they were aware of “the burial of bodies in [the town of] Qatana at night,” on the order of the Syrian security services and they were concerned their relatives may have been among the dead.

Since July, the fate of the inmates has been unknown, as government authorities have prohibited any outside contact with the prisoners, “imposing a complete information blackout,” including banning the use of cell phones around the perimeter of the prison. 

On December 18, residents of the town of Sidnaya reported seeking smoke emerge from the prison and the sound of gunshots.  One resident reported to HRW that after smoke was seen emerging from the prison, Syrian authorities closed the road leading from the town to the prison in order to accommodate military trucks en route to the prison but that the road was reopened the following day.

According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director at HRW, “Syria’s long blackout on the fate of at least 1,500 detainees is nothing less than scandalous…The lack of information about Sidnaya has caused enormous anguish to the families and fueled fears and rumors…The Syrian authorities need to come clean and allow families and lawyers access to Sidnaya.” 

HRW urged the Syrian government to reveal the status of the inmates, and to begin an allow lawyers to begin an independent investigation into the fate of prisoners who were injured or killed as a result of lethal force used by prison guards in the July riot. 

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch – Syria: Reveal Inmates’ Conditions – 27 January 2009

Reuters – Reports of More Trouble at Syria Jail-Rights Group – 27 January 2009

Taiwan News – HRW: Syria Must Speak Out on Prison Riot Victims – 27 January 2009

American Samoa to Deal With Human Trafficking

By Sarah E. Treptow
Impunity Watch Reporter, Oceania

American Samoa – Director of Homeland Security, Tualamalesala Mike Sala, has been asked by lawmakers to help draft legislation that will plug loopholes leading to human trafficking in American Samoa.  The US Justice Department highlighted the Daewoosa Samoa case in which almost 200 Vietnamese and Chinese women worked as slaves at a local garment factory.  The Daewoosa Samoa case was one of the worst cases of human trafficking in recent history.
A prostitution racked was also uncovered in 2007 which was an example of illegal activity profiting from relaxed enforcement of immigration laws.  During the confirmation hearing of Mr. Sala, Representative Archie Taotasi Soliai asked him to focus on what can be done.  Mr. Soliai said, “Now as legislators we would depend on you to maybe provide some recommendations or perhaps introduce legislative action to try and prevent all these problems and plug the holes with respect to our immigration issues.”  Mr. Soliai said he believes one of the major contributing factors to human trafficking here relates to immigration issues.  Mr. Sala said he agrees with the observation.
Mr. Taotasi went on to say, “It is in the best interest of our people to collaborate and work together with you.  We depend on you to provide information for legislation to plug the holes in immigration laws which will prevent human trafficking.”  Mr. Taotasi asked Mr. Sala to submit a list of recommendations to draft proper legislation dealing with human trafficking.
Three years ago human trafficking legislation was introduced in the Senate but the bill was defeated when no action was taken.  The measure was to create local laws dealing with human trafficking.
For more information, please see:
Radio New Zealand International – Calls in American Samoa to plug loopholes that has led to human trafficking – 30 January 2009

Pakistani Newlyweds Fear Honor Killings

By Shayne R. Burnham
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

KARACHI, Pakistan –
Pervez Chachar and his wife, Humera Kambo, are the latest example of the prevalence of “honor killings” as a tradition and custom. Chachar and his wife have been living in a room at a local police station for the past four months. They fear that their families would kill them.

Chachar stated, “I know they will kill her and I have to protect her.”

When Kambo’s family first learned that she married without their permission, Kambo was abducted by her family and Chachar was beaten. They were angered that she married a man from a rival tribe.

Generally in rural Pakistani society, actions such as marriage without the permission of the family are justification for death. Other acts by daughters that are deemed shameful include supposed illicit relationships, for marrying men of their choice and for divorcing abusive husbands. Additionally, being raped also brings shame to the family.

After the killings of 5 teenagers buried alive who wanted to choose their own husbands, a Pakistani lawmaker defended the tradition.

“These are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them,” said Israr Ullah Zehri. “Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid.”

Zehri also told Parliament that traditions in the Baluch province helped to stop obscenity. Most stated that the executions were “barbaric” while others said that such matters ought to be left to the people of the province.

The United Nations has estimated that 5,000 people, the majority of which are women, are killed as a result of honor killings in South Asia and the Middle East. Many go unreported and without punishment.

In a report, Amnesty International stated, “While recognizing the importance of cultural diversity, [we] stand resolutely in defense of the universality of human rights, particularly the most fundamental rights to life and freedom from torture and ill-treatment. The role of the state is to ensure the full protection of these rights, where necessary mediating ‘tradition’ through education and the law.”

For more information, please see:

Amnesty International – Pakistan: Honour Killings of Girls and Women – 1 September 1999

Associated Press – Pakistani Lawmaker Defends Honor Killings – 30 August 2008

Reuters – Pakistani Newlyweds Live in Fear of Honor Killing – 22 January 2009

Spain to Investigate Alleged 2002 Israeli War Crimes

By Laura Zuber
Impunity Watch Senior Desk Officer, Middle East

MADRID, Spain – On January 29, a Spanish High Court judge, Fernando Andreu, announced that the court will launch an investigation of seven Israelis over an attack on July 22, 2002.  The investigation relates to the decision to drop a one ton bomb on a housing block in a raid targeting Salah Shehada, a Hamas commander.  The attack killed 14 civilians, including nine children, and injured over 150 others.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights brought the case before the Spanish courts on behalf of the families of the victims.  Main targets of the investigation are then-Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Dan Halutz, the then air force commander of the Israeli army.  Other persons of interest include: Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon, former GOC Southern Command Doron Almog, former National Security Council Head Giora Eiland and Brigadier-General (Ret.) Mike Herzog.

Not surprisingly, Ben-Eliezer strongly criticized the Spanish court’s announcement; claiming that Spanish law is siding with terrorist organizations.  “This is a ridiculous decision and, even more than ridiculous, it is outrageous,” Ben-Eliezer said. “Terror organizations are using the courts in the free world, the methods of democratic countries, to file suit against a country that is operating against terror.”

Ben-Eliezer said he does not regret his decision to bomb Gaza.  “Salah Shehadeh was a Hamas activist, an arch-murderer whose hands were stained with the blood of about 100 Israelis,” he said.  Shehadeh was the leader of Hamas’ military wing in Gaza, and Israel claims that he was responsible for attacks against hundreds of Israeli civilians.

Current Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, also criticized the Spanish court’s investigation.  Barak stated, “Anybody calling the liquidation of a terrorist a ‘crime against humanity’ is living in an upside-down world. All senior personnel in the military establishment acted appropriately, in the name of the state of Israel, through their commitment to ensure the security of Israeli citizens.”

Spanish law permits universal jurisdiction for certain crimes; such jurisdiction allows the prosecution of foreigners for such crimes as genocide, crimes against humanity and torture committed anywhere in the world.  On January 30, Israeli Foreign Ministry Tzipi Livni stated that she spoke with her Spanish counterpart.  According to Livni, “Spain has decided to change its legislation in connection with universal jurisdiction and this can prevent the abuse of the Spanish legal system.”

However, Spanish state television TVE quoted government sources as saying the possibility of a legal “adjustment or modification” would not be retroactive and would not affect the case before the courts.

For more information, please see:

Jerusalem Post – “We’ll Amend Law to Prevent Such Probes” – 31 January 2009

CNN – Top Israeli Official Blasts Spanish Court’s Probe – 30 January 2009

International Herald Tribune – Livni Says Spain to Drop Universal Legislation – 30 January 2009

Reuters – Israel Says Spain Says it Will Amend War Crimes Law – 30 January 2009

Al Bawaba – Spanish Court to Investigate Israeli Officials for Alleged ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ – 29 January 2009

Reuters – Spanish Court Investigates 2002 Israeli Gaza Attack – 29 January 2009

Thailand Blocks The Economist Magazine Again

By Pei Hu
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

BANGKOK, Thailand – The latest issue of The Economist magazine, a British owned current-affairs magazine, will not be circulating in Thailand due to its coverage on the Thai navy’s treatment of illegal migrants from Myanmar. This is the second time that The Economist was blocked in Thailand in the month of January alone.

The article, titled “A Sad Slide Backwards” criticized the Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Thai navy for the treatment of thousands of Muslim Rohingya migrants from Myanmar. The report claimed that 500 of these migrants were cast out to sea in boats without engines and with little or no food.

“Our distributor in Thailand has decided not to distribute The Economist this week due to our coverage being sensitive,” Ian Fok a Hong Kong spokesman said.

Just a week earlier, in The Economist’s January 24 issue, an article titled “The Trouble with Harry” reported on an Australian writer that was sentenced to three years in jail for defaming the Thai monarchy was not allowed to be distributed. A staff member of Asia Books confirmed that the issue would not be put onto newsstands and claimed she did know the reason. The staff member also declined to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

Thailand has one of the most stringent lese majeste laws in the world where a person can be jailed up to 15 years for insults or threats to “the king, the queen, and their heir to the throne or the Regent.”

With the rise of internet users in Thailand, many bloggers would write about the Thai monarchy.  The Thai authorities have censored more than 2,000 websites due to the growing internet coverage of the royal family.

Persecutions under the lese majeste laws have been increasingly more common. Many of the charges are used for partisan political purposes.

The Economist itself has also fell victim to lese-majeste laws in the past.  In December, an article questioning the Thai king’s role in public life was banned. In 2002, a survey about Thailand was also banned.

For more information, please see:

APF – Economist magazine curbs distribution in Thailand– 26 January 2009

BBC – Thailand Bans Economist Magazine– 26 January 2009

Reuters – Economist Magazine Blocked in Thailand Again– 30 January 2009