HRW Calls For Bahrain To Release Activists

HRW Calls For Bahrain To Release Activists

By Carolyn Abdenour
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

MANAMA, Bahrain – On Tuesday, 28 February, Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) called upon Bahrain to release hundreds of pro-democracy activists arrested last year and to drop all charges against them.  HRW also urged the country to void people’ convictions from civil and military courts that do not meet international fair trial standards.

Police prevent journalists from mingling with doctors and nurses during a break at a civilian criminal trial. (Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

HRW’s 94-page report, “No Justice in Bahrain: Unfair Trials in Military and Civilian Courts,” highlighted the county’s due process violations during politically motivated trials in criminal courts since 2010 and high-profile trials by special military courts in 2011. 

In March 2011, King Hamad organized special military courts during the country’s three-month “State of National Safety”, a quasi state of emergency.  Since 4 April 2011, Bahrain’s military officials tried and convicted hundreds of people charged under “national safety” grounds.  Civilian courts began accepting the trials and appeals of these people charged in the uprising on 7 October 2011.

In its report, HRW emphasized the violations through two case studies.  First, the court convicted twenty doctors of inciting to overthrow the government and trying to occupy a hospital.  Second, security forces jailed fourteen political activists for leading protests.  Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a jailed activist with Danish nationality, has conducted a hunger strike for the past two weeks. 

HRW asserted the violations of fair trial rights include denying defendants the right to present a defense and to counsel along with failing to investigate torture allegations during interrogations. These violations reflect systemic failures in the country’s criminal justice system rather than deficient practices of judges and prosecutors. 

Furthermore, HRW has documented continued exercise of ill-treatment and torture by Bahraini security officers.   In November, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (“BICI”) published that at least five people detained for engaging in peaceful protests died from torture.  The government pledged to implement recommendations by this Commission, including police and judicial procedural reforms.  However, earlier this month Amnesty International reported the government remained “far from delivering the human rights changes.”

Moreover, HRW requested France, the United Kingdom, and the United State halt military and security-related sales and assistance to the country until Bahrain address these human rights violations.

HRW’s Deputy Middle East Director Joe Stork said, “King Hamad should examine the special military courts he set up by decree before claiming there are no political prisoners in Bahrain…In case after case, people were convicted for their political beliefs, for the slogans they chanted, and for joining large peaceful rallies that the Crown Prince had publicly proclaimed were protected by Bahrain’s constitution.”

For further information, please see:

Dalje – Bahrain Trials Lack Due Processs – 28 Feb 2012

Human Rights Watch – Bahrain: Hundreds Railroaded in Unjust Trials – 28 Feb 2012

The Daily News: Egypt – HRW Calls On Bahrain To Release Democracy Activists – 28 Feb 2012

The Daily Star: Lebanon – Bahrain Should Shelve Trials Linked To Protests: Group – 28 Feb 2012

Rights Group Concerned About Burma Military Abuse

By: Jessica Ties
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar – Human Rights Watch has expressed concern that despite Burmese attention to reform and cease-fires with ethnic insurgents, abuse by the military continue.

The Burmese military has been accused of continuing abuses against civilians (Photo Courtesy of Radio Free Asia).

David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch senior researcher on Burma, recently visited Burma and learned that fighting in Kachin State has displaced approximately 70,000 people since last June.

In addition, there have also been reports of sexual violence, the use of weapons against unarmed civilians, destruction of property and forced labor.

Mathieson has also encountered rights abuses by ethnic armed groups who use child soldiers and execute Burmese prisoners of war.

Recently, the use of child soldiers has prompted the U.S. ambassador for human trafficking to demand that Burmese military officers be accountable for involvement in human trafficking.

A 2011 Human Rights Watch report alleged that the Burmese military was colluding with corrections Department officials to gain access to approximately 700 prisoners who the army used as porters who are often forced to risk their life by checking for landmines.

Mathieson further stated that “…with all the changes happening in central Burma, it’s quite alarming that the army is showing absolutely no compunction to change its behavior.”

The Burmese government has continuously denied journalists access to Kachin and other conflict zones which has made it impossible for independent reports to be made regarding the allegations of abuse said to be occurring at the hands of the military.

Under the dominance of the previously ruling military junta, individual freedom was severely restricted. Owning a computer or fax machine without being given prior permission was prohibited and internet access was severely controlled.

Since the civilian government assumed power from the military junta last year, restriction on freedom have been largely lifted and several prominent political prisoners have been released although some remain imprisoned.

Despite these initial reforms, some experts fear that they could be easily reversed considering that many of the laws that were formerly used to repress Burmese citizens have not been repealed.

Failure to repeal the repressive laws means that despite improvements made in individual freedoms, many of the ways in which these freedoms are exercised are still technically illegal and the government could decide to revert to the human rights policies that existed under the military junta.

Another positive sign of reform, however, is that President Thein sein and his administration are expected to allow the National League of Democracy leader Aung San Suu kyi to give a political broadcast. Prior to the broadcast, however, the National League of Democracy is required to produce the text of the broadcase to the censors at the Ministry of Information for their review.

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – Burma Awakes to Glasnost: A (Partly) Free Press and (Some) Freedom of Expression – 25 February 2012

Irrawaddy – HRW: Army Abuse Unabated Despite Burma Reforms – 24 February 2012

Radio Free Asia – Burma’s Military ‘As Abusive as Ever’ – 23 February 2012

Voice of America – U.S. Calls for Burma Military to Account for Human Trafficking – 12 January 2012


by Hibberd Kline
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

BEIJING, China – According to the South Korean media, nine North Korean refugees were handed over to the North Korean authorities by China last week.

South Korean activists including actor Cha In-pyo staged rallies calling for the release of North Korean refugees outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. (Photo courtesy of Voice of America).

The nine are part of a group of more than thirty North Korean refugees who have been rounded up by the Chinese authorities this month in separate locations in the city of Shenyang. The refugees are reportedly being held in the northern Chinese city of Changchun, where they await processing and deportation to North Korea.

According to human rights group Amnesty International, some of the refugees are believed to have successfully contacted a South Korean organization devoted to helping North Korean refugees escape to South Korea.

Amnesty called upon the Chinese government not to forcibly repatriate the refugees earlier this month. The group’s Asia-Pacific Director, Sam Zarifi declared that China must allow “…North Koreans to seek asylum in China and other countries and provide them with access to the United Nations refugee agency or other relevant refugee channels.”

Additional activist groups and members of the South Korean government have since echoed the group’s pleas.

Seoul’s traditional stance regarding North Korean refugees in China has been less confrontational. However, following the failure of low-level talks on the fate of the refugees to achieve favorable results, the South Korean Foreign Ministry announced that it would seek international help on the issue at a meeting of the the United Nations Council on Human Rights in Geneva later this week.

According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, China believes that the issue of North Korean refugees is not suitable for discussion at the United Nations and should be handled pursuant to domestic Chinese laws.

South Korean politicians have also weighed-in on the issue. According to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, “When it comes to the North Korean defectors, it is right for the Chinese Government to handle them in line with international rules as long as they are not criminals.”

The South Korean Parliament also recently adopted a resolution demanding that China discontinue the repatriation of refugees. One lawmaker, Park-Sun young, even went so far as to begin a hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy on Tuesday in order to draw attention to the refugees’ cause.

Human rights activists, relatives of the detained refugees and South Korean celebrities also staged protests outside the Chinese embassy to demand that China forgoe repatriating the refugees.

For its part, China has often expressed an apparent desire to play a positive role in the Korean Peninsula. China has sent aid to North Korea and has repeatedly encouraged all parties to return to the stalled six-party talks over the future of North Korea’s nuclear program. However, China appears to remain unflinching on the issue of refugees.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded last Tuesday to pressure from South Korea by repeating its long-standing policy of treating the refugees as “illegal economic immigrants.” China has close ties with the North Korean regime and systematically captures and forcibly repatriates refugees who cross over into Chinese territory.

The typical journey for refugees fleeing North Korea is long and perilous. Refugees generally cross the border into China on foot, then hide themselves inside China before securing transportation to a third country. The lucky refugees eventually make their way to South Korea. However, human rights activists and North Korean refugees say that repatriated North Koreans are often tortured, sent to remote prison camps, or publicly executed.

Following the death of North Korea’s “dear leader” Kim Jong-il and the rapid assent of his son Kim Jong-un to power, activists in the South have relayed reports of harsher punishments for those who get caught trying to flee the country. Some refugees have suggested that punishment may extend to three generations of an escapee’s family.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans are thought to be currently hiding in China. Estimates put the total number of North Korean refugees who have escaped to South Korea since 1950 at more than 20,000.

China is a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention (UNHCR), but has been accused by human rights groups of failing to live up to its obligations under the convention.

For more information, please see:

BBC News– China ‘Sent Back Nine North Korean Refugees’ — 24 February 2012

Bangkok Post — China Returns Nine Refugees to North Korea — 24 February 2012

Korea Herald — Nine North Korean Defectors Repatriated to Their Homeland — 23 February 2012

BBC News — Seoul Urges China on North Korea Refugees — 22 February 2012

New York Times — China Should Not Repatriate North Korean Refugees, Seoul Says — 22 February 2012

Voice of America — China Rejects Pleas Not to Repatriate North Koreans — 21 February 2012

Amnesty International — Amnesty International Urges China to Avoid Forced Repatriation of North Korean Defectors — 14 February 2012

Trial of Pro-Democracy NGO Workers in Egypt is Adjourned

By Adom M. Cooper
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

CAIRO, Egypt–The first day of a controversial trial of 43 non-governmental organization workers accused of working illegally and pressing American and Israeli interests in Egypt has adjourned in Cairo. Mohammed Shoukry, the chief judge, stated on Sunday 26 February 2012 that the court would reconvene for the next hearing on 26 April 2012. The court session adjourned after being suspended “until order is restored” due to a brawl between civil claimants and the judge.

Some of the NGO workers wait in a holding cell at the courthouse in Cairo. (Photo Courtesy of NYT)

The defendants include 19 Americans and 16 Egyptians. Only seven of the US citizens reportedly remain in the country, where they are not permitted to leave. The others include Serbians, Lebanese, Germans, a Norwegian, a Jordanian, and a Palestinian. Only 13 Egyptians and one German defendants actually appeared at the hearing.

A prosecutor at the hearing read the charges against the defendants, alleging that their “acceptance of illicit funds had detracted from the sovereignty of the Egyptian state.” All 14 defendants who were present denied that they had committed the crimes they were charged with. Upon the case’s adjournment, human rights lawyer Hafez Abou Seida told Egyptian State television reporters that the circumstances surrounding the trial do not necessitate allowing civil claimants as plaintiffs in the case. Abou Seida also stated that the defendants’ representatives should begin submitting evidence of innocence by the upcoming hearing on 26 April 2012.

The charging of US citizens has brought relations between Egypt and the United States to their lowest points in almost three decades. US politicians stated they may cut off Egypt’s $1.3M in annual military aid if the US citizens are tried in the case, although none of them appeared at the hearing. Les Campbell, the regional director of one of the accused US organizations, stated tat his group’s foreign employees did not receive official summons from the court. Thus, they saw no reason to present themselves.

On the other hand, Egyptian officials have stated that the trial has absolutely nothing to do with the government and is in the hands of the judiciary. They have blamed the continued unrest in their country on foreign interference and attribute much of it to the organizations from which the workers in this case are charged.

Ashraf El-Ashmawi and Sameh Abu Zeid, two judges also handling the case, stated the charges could lead to up to five-year prison sentences. El-Ashmawi shared these words with Al-Jazeera.

“These organizations conducted unlicensed and illegal activities without the knowledge of the Egyptian government. Documents confiscated during the raids on the NGO offices confirm illegal foreign funding.”

Seven of the Americans remain in Egypt and have been residing on the grounds of the US embassy in Cairo since the charges were filed and they were barred from leaving the country. Outside of the courtroom on Sunday 26 February 2012, approximately 100 protesters called for the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric imprisoned in the US following the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, in exchange for the US defendants.

The main US organizations involved in the trial are the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute.

The activists were charged with the illegal use of foreign funds to stimulate and fester unrest and operating in the country without a license. But the investigation against these workers fits into a much larger framework. There is a campaign within Egypt’s leaders against foreign influence since the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime last year, considered by many as the first real victory for the Arab Spring.

Rights groups have sharply criticized the existence of the investigation into the groups and the charges, stated that they are part of an orchestrated effort by Egyptian authorities to silence all those critical of the current military rulers. Since the ouster of Mubarak, the civilians in Egypt are ready to begin a new era of change and prosperity. They are putting pressure on the country’s military rules over their stewardship of the economy and the transition to a civilian government. The head of the ruling military council, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantwai, ordered on Sunday 26 February 2012 that parliament convene on 3 March to elect a committee to draw up a new constitution.

Since Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt has run through over 50 percent of its foreign reserves and is currently seeking a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, as well as additional help from the World Bank and other foreign donors. The Egyptian people are left wondering how and when this desired loan will be used to address their needs and desires, the same needs and desires that removed Mubarak from power and placed the military in control.

One of the defendants, Islam Shafiq, shared these words with the AFP. He works as a financial manager with the US-based International Center for Journalists.

“Of course this trial is politicized. We proved during the investigation that we didn’t do anything.”


For more information, please see: 

Ahram – Egypt’s NGO Trial Adjourned for 26 April in First Session – 26 February 2012

Al-Jazeera – Egypt NGO Workers Trial Adjourned – 26 February 2012

Bloomberg – Egypt Court Adjourns Trial of Pro-Democracy NGO Workers Until April 26 – 26 February 2012

CNN – Trial Is Adjourned After Americans Fail To Appear in Cairo Court – 26 February 2012

The Guardian – Egypt Opens Trial of 43 Pro-Democracy Workers – 26 February 2012

NYT – Trial of U.S. Nonprofit Workers in Egypt Is Abruptly Put Off – 26 February 2012


Amid Chaos and Violence, Syria Holds Vote For New Constitution For Its Citizens

By Adom M. Cooper
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria–As the crackdown against civilians continued across the nation, the Syrian government called its citizens to the polls on Sunday 26 February 2012 to vote on a new constitution. Although the new text of the constitution ends the legal basis for the five-decade stranglehold o power for the ruling Baath party, it still leaves the executive powers in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad. This is a tremendous problem for the situation and had already been criticized by the opposition.

Voters in Damascus submit their votes on Sunday 26 February. (Photo Courtesy of Reuters)

The opposition stated that the changes offered were entirely cosmetic and that only the removal of al-Assad from power will bring the desired changes. After 11 months of crackdowns, human rights groups have reported that more than 7,600 individuals have lost their lives, with more deaths occurring every day.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on Saturday 25 February 2012, 98 individuals were killed and 72 of them were civilians.

On Sunday 26 February 2012, the polls opened at 7:00AM local time (5:00 GMT). Reports from the around Syria stated that more than 14 million people over the age of 18 eligible to vote appeared at the 13,835 polling stations.

Louay Safi, a leading member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group, said that the new constitution would be fruitless in bringing about the desired change because it is being promulgated and offered by the current government. The same government that continues to violate its own laws in its ongoing efforts to crush the uprising.

“The major problem is that the government is violating the current constitution. What we fear is if the regime stays intact, the new constitution will be meaningless. So the real step to have a new constitution is to have a new or transitional government.”

In the capital of Damascus, opposition activists claimed that they would try to hold protests near polling stations and even burn copies of the new constitution. One activist named Omar shared these words with Al-Jazeera on Sunday February 26 2012.

“No one is going to vote. This was a constitution made to Bashar’s tastes and meanwhile we are getting shelled and killed. More than 40 people were killed today and you want us to vote in a referendum? No one is going to vote.”

Another activist, Waleed Fares, shared these words from the Khalidiyah district of Homs.

“What should we be voting for, whether to die by bombardment or bullets? This is the only choice we have.”

On the reverse angle, Adel Safar, the country’s prime minister, stated on Sunday 26 February 2012 that the opposition’s call for a boycott displayed a lack of interest in a substantive dialogue for change.

“If there was a genuine desire for reform, there would have been movement from all groups, especially the opposition to start dialogue immediately with the government to achieve the reforms and implement them on the ground.”

While the voting was underway, the violence did not take a break to visit the polls. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces shelled residential areas in Bab Amr for the 26th day in a row, claiming at least nine lives. The group stated that rebel soldiers had also killed at least four government troops in the city.

Al-Baath, the ruling party’s newspaper, stated in an editorial this week that the new constitution “does not represent a loss for the party and just keeps up with political and social evolution.” The new text does eliminate all references to Syrias as a social state. But Article 60 maintains the mandate that half of the deputies must be “workers and farmers.”

Al-Assad would remain in power under the new constitution, keeping several important responsibilities such as naming the prime minister and the ability to veto legislation. Another provision in the new constitution that has drawn negative attention in Article 3, which states that the president should be a Muslim and that “Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.”

Sunni Muslims makeup 75 percent of Syria’s population of 22 million, while the Alawite community accounts for another 12 percent. President al-Assad comes from the Alawite community and this further exacerbates his refusal to relinquish his power.

Article 88 of the new constitution also states that the president can be in office for two seven-year terms. But subsequent Article 155 states that these conditions would only take effect after the next election for the head of state, which is set for 2014. This would allow al-Assad to theoretically stay in power for another 16 years. This is unacceptable for the Syrian people and quite frankly, would be a nightmare for all of them.

Syrian specialist Thomas Pierret said stated that regardless of the proposed and debated changes, the type of government and political system in Syria does not matter in a country “dominated by the intelligence service.”

“Nothing indicates that this would change under the current regime.”


For more information, please see:

Ahram – Syria Puts New Constitution To Vote In Thick of Unrest – 26 February 2012

Al-Jazeera – Syria Holds Vote On New Constitution – 26 February 2012

BBC – Syria Votes On New Constitution Referendum Amid Unrest – 26 February 2012

CNN – Syria Says Referendum Results Coming Monday; Vote Punctuated By New Violence – 26 February 2012

The Guardian – Syria Votes On New Constitution As Shelling Of Homs Continues – 26 February 2012

NYT – Syria Offers A New Charter As Battles In Cities Continue – 26 February 2012

Reuters – Syria Referedum Goes Ahead Amid Military Onslaught – 26 February 2012