UNHCR asks other nations to treat Venezuelans as refugees

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BOGOTA, Colombia – In light of the continuing crisis in Venezuela, the United Nations has asked the region to treat the population as “refugees” who are unable to go home, as opposed to mere economic migrants. Meanwhile, Colombia is calling out for urgent help along its border because of the humanitarian “catastrophe.”

Venezuelan citizens cross the border into Colombia. Image Courtesy of Fernando Vergara.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, released a three-page report with new guidance for governments to address the situation of persons in need of international protection and humanitarian assistance. It is titled “Guidance Note on the Outflow of Venezuelans.” The report recommends that countries do not deport, expel or forcibly return Venezuelans in view of the current situation. Also, it asks countries to guarantee refugees residency and the right to work, even if they are residing in the country illegally or without proper identification papers.

The increase of migrants has exploded in the past few years. Since 2014, there has been a 2,000% increase in the number of Venezuelan nationals seeking asylum. While 94,000 have been able to access refugee procedures in 2017, many more have not. Most seek legal arrangements that will help them get the right to work and access to health and education as quickly as possible. Still, hundreds of thousands reside illegally in asylum countries. This has resulted in high levels of exploitation, trafficking, violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, and xenophobia.

In response to these startling numbers, UNHCR encourages states to provide Venezuelans with access to refugee procedures. It calls on governments to adopt pragmatic protection-oriented responses, including alternative stay arrangements and temporary visas. Additionally, it calls for other programs that will supply basic needs of health, education, family unity, freedom of movement, and shelter. UNHCR stresses the importance of people not being deported or forcibly returned to Venezuela.

These guidelines seem to reproach Colombia’s current methods. As an overwhelmed neighbor, Colombia has been deporting and barring Venezuelans. Last month, Colombian immigration began requiring new Venezuelan arrivals to present passports even though they have become extremely difficult for people to obtain. These methods have decreased the number of Venezuelans entering the country on a daily basis by 30%.

However, more than 600,000 Venezuelans have already entered Colombia in the past couple of years. Border towns, like Cucuta, are struggling to maintain their homes. Officials have encouraged foreign aid to be sent to Colombia since it is hosting the bulk of the migrants. Organizations such as the World Food Program are present in Colombia helping to deal with the crisis.

The director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, said “Colombia has made so much progress in the past many years with peace and the last thing it needs now is for all that success to be undone. So I will be expressing to other nations the severity of this crisis and why they must come to help the Colombian people immediately.”

Currently, UNHCR is working with governments to address the basic needs of the crisis. It developed a regional response plan that covers eight countries and the Caribbean sub-region. Specifically, the goal is to strengthen national asylum and other international protection processes to foster an effective response to this crisis.

For more information, please see:

IRIN – As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes – 13 March 2018

TRT World – UN says refugee claims by Venezuelans surging – 13 March 2018

UNHCR – As Venezuelans flee throughout Latin America, UNHCR issues new protection guidance – 13 March 2018

Miami Herald – As Venezuelans flee collapsing country, UN asks other nations to treat them as refugees – 12 March 2018

ABC News – UN official warns of humanitarian “catastrophe” in Venezuela – 12 March 2018

Five killed in Pakistan and India Border Conflict

By: Katherine Hewitt
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

NEW DELHI, India – Tensions between India and Pakistan have been increasing recently in relation to control over Kashmir. A new round of conflict began late on March 17, 2018 and continued into the next day. Both India and Pakistan were involved in heavy shelling around the Line of Control, which is the de facto border between the two nations in the Kashmir region.

As a result, several civilians on both sides were injured or killed. In the village of Devta Dhar five people were killed and two were injured on the Indian side of the border by Pakistani troops. All are members of the same family. A shell hit a civilian’s house killing the mother, father, and three sons. The two daughters were hospitalized with critical injuries.

One of the injured daughters being transported to the hospital, after her family home was shelled by Pakistani forces. Photo courtesy of Channi Anand.

At least 6 others were injured on the Indian controlled side of Kashmir. On the Pakistani controlled side Indian shells wounded 9 people, including 5 women.  Both sides claim that the other side started the firing, and they were just returning fire.

Indian officials see this as a violation of the 2003 cease-fire agreement between the two nations. An Indian military spokesperson said of the situation, “They are specifically targeting civilian areas. Army troops retaliated strongly and effectively to silence Pakistani guns.”

For more information, please see:  

Reuters – Five Indians killed in cross-border shelling by Pakistani troops – 18 March 2018

Gandhara – Five Killed In Pakistani Shelling In Disputed Kashmir – 18 March 2018

The Washington Post – India: Pakistan shelling kills 5 family members in Kashmir – 18 March 2018

Facebook Blocks Far-Right Group Britain First

ByJenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

LONDON, England – In response to mounting pressure, Facebook has banned the group Britain First, a far-right Anti-Muslim group that was promoted by President Trump on Twitter last year.

Leaders and Supporters of Britain First March in London. Photo Courtesy of Daniel Leal-Olivas.

Facebook announced on Wednesday, March 7th that it had taken down several pages associated with the group due to their repeated violations of the social media network’s community standards.

In a statement, Facebook said: “We are an open platform for all ideas, and political speech goes to the heart of free expression. But political views can and should be expressed without hate. People can express robust and controversial opinions without needing to denigrate others on the basis of who they are.”

Britain First is estimated to have about 1,000 members. To spread its belief that Islam is destroying Britain, members have used tactics such as confronting Muslims on the street and in mosques.

In November 2017, President Trump amplified the group’s hate-mongering rhetoric by retweeting several of the group’s anti-Muslim videos, a first for a modern American president.

The President’s behavior was condemned by British Prime Minister Theresa May as well as human rights groups. He cancelled a trip to Britain in January 2018.

The anti-fascist organization called HOPE Not Hate reported that the Britain First Facebook page has over 2 million likes, making it one of the most-liked political Facebook pages, second only to the royal family.

Two leaders of the group, Paul Golding and Fayda Fransen, were recently convicted of religiously aggravated harassment hate crimes and given jail sentences. The two posted videos online of them harassing Muslims at their homes in 2017.

Facebook says that this decision has not been made lightly. The platform is intended to be an open forum for ideas and beliefs. However, “there are times when legitimate political speech crosses the line and becomes hate speech,” the company said.

The group was given several warnings that its content was violating Facebook’s standards regarding hate speech. When it did not comply with the requests, the page was removed. The group may not establish a replacement page.

Matthew Collins, head of research at HOPE Not Hate, called Facebook’s decision to remove the group’s page “long overdue…We are delighted that Facebook has finally faced up to its responsibility as a publishing platform and removed this hate-preaching organization.”

“I call on social media companies to show a stronger duty of care so that they can live up to their promise to be places that connect and unify, not divide or polarize,” said Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor.

For more information, please see:

CBS News – Facebook Bans Anti-Muslim Group Retweeted by Trump – 14 March 2018

USA Today – Why Facebook Banned anti-Muslim group Britain First – 14 March 2018

The New York Times – Facebook Blocks Britain First, a Far-Right Anti-Muslim Group Promoted by Trump – 14 March 2018

The New York Times – Anti-Muslim Extremists Retweeted by Trump Are Convicted of Hate Crimes – 8 March 2018

NBC News – Facebook Bans Britain First for Inciting ‘Animosity and Hatred’ Against Minorities – 14 March 2018

The Washington Post – Facebook Removes Home Page of Far-Right Group Britain First – 14 March 2018

The Philippines plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court

By: Katherine Hewitt
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

MANILA, Philippines – In a statement on Wednesday, March 14, President Duterte announced that he plans to remove the Philippines from the International Criminal Court (ICC). In accordance with the ICC treaty, the withdrawal will take place a year after official notification of intent to withdraw is received.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks to the ICC. Photo courtesy of Noel Celis.

The Court opened a preliminary examination into the Philippines as of February 8, 2018 in the context of its “war on drugs.” Findings would be used to determine if investigations for a criminal case should take place. The Court is following the extra-judicial killings that began in July 2016.

Duterte originally allowed the preliminary examination to proceed hoping that the investigation would end accusations of crimes against humanity. However, in his speech, Duterte said his withdrawal was because of “baseless, unprecedented and outrageous attacks” and the ICC prosecutor seeking jurisdiction “in violation of due process and presumption of innocence.”

Authorities believe that there is no need for the ICC to get involved in the situation. In the ICC founding statute, the Court has jurisdiction over a situation only when the country is unable or unwilling to investigate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Harry Roque, spokesman for Duterte, said that local authorities and the national criminal justice system are capable of carrying out investigations and plan to look into those who violate the laws. Duterte also states that these killings are not crimes against humanity but rather accidental killings of self defense during legitimate police operations.

Yet, international human rights organizations don’t agree. No public evidence of in regards to the extra-judicial killings is available. Human Rights Watch reported, “No one has been meaningfully investigated, let alone prosecuted, for any of the ‘drug war’ killings.”

  For more information, please see:

CNN- Philippines to withdraw from International Criminal Court – 14 March 2018

The Washington Post – The International Criminal Court moved to investigate Duterte. Now he wants out. – 14 March 2018

International Criminal Court – Statement of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Mrs Fatou Bensouda, on opening Preliminary Examinations into the situations in the Philippines and in Venezuela – 8 February 2018

NPR – Duterte Pulls Philippines Out Of International Criminal Court – 14 March 2018

Argentina lawmakers propose bill to legalize elective abortion

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina’s government said it would consider holding a referendum on legalizing abortions. After seven proposals for bills that would decriminalize abortion, this is the first time the center-right government has ever agreed to consider it.

A pro-abortion activist listens to a speech outside of Congress. Image Courtesy of Victor R. Caivano.

On Tuesday, more than 70 Argentine lawmakers of various political parties presented a bill to legalize elective abortions for women in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Most lawmakers wore green handkerchiefs symbolizing the abortion rights movement and cheered as the bill was introduced. Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña said the issue is “on the table.”

Historically, abortion has been a controversial issue in the predominately Catholic nation. Right now, it is only allowed in Argentina in cases of rape, cases where a woman’s health is at risk, or cases where there is a severe malformation of the fetus. In 2012 the Supreme Court passed a ruling to remove barriers and take judges out of the decision. However, women must still apply to a judge for permission to get an abortion. Critics consider it an unnecessary requirement intended to delay the procedure. Regardless of the legislation, doctors and judges continue to block abortions.

While legislative efforts have failed in the past, new initiatives have gained momentum. This bill was introduced at a ceremony attended by dozens of activists. Following 13 years of struggle, the National Campaign for the Right of Legal Safe and Free Abortion has gained the support of over 500 organizations and prominent figures. The group said, “over the past weeks, Argentine society has proved that it was not only prepared to debate about abortion but also to make a decision in favor of its decriminalization and legalization.”

The group also stated, “the State does not fulfill with the international treaties regarding women’s rights and people with the ability to be pregnant: in this country, between 370,000 and 520,000 abortions are carried out every year in secrecy, with about 49,000 women ending at the hospital because of complications related to unsafe surgeries.”

Argentina’s health ministry reaffirms those numbers and estimates that up to 522,000 Argentine women undergo illegal abortions every year. Several Latin American countries outlaw abortion in any circumstance. However, some have legalized therapeutic abortions.  The U.N. Population Fund reported that eight percent of women’s deaths worldwide are due to unsafe abortions. In Latin America and Africa, about 25% of all abortions are classified as unsafe and performed under substandard conditions.

Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri said he was personally opposed to relaxing the country’s abortion laws, but assured that he would give Congress a free vote.

For more information, please see:

Americas Quarterly – The Surprising Politics Behind Argentina’s Abortion Debate – 7 March 2018

BBC News – Argentina abortion: Referendum ‘on the table’, government says – 6 March 2018 

Washington Post – Argentina lawmakers propose legalizing elective abortion – 6 March 2018

Telesur – Argentine Women’s Groups Hopeful About Legalizing Abortion – 4 March 2018

Thousands mourn the assassination of Rio councilwoman

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Thousands of Brazilians are taking part in a vigil to honor a politician who was brutally murdered, Marielle Franco. In the days leading up to her death, Franco campaigned heavily against police brutality.

Marielle Franco in Rio. Image Courtesy of Midia Ninja.

The 38-year-old Rio city councilor for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party was shot dead in her car on Wednesday evening. After leaving a meeting about empowering black women, a car pulled up alongside hers. Attackers sprayed her car with bullets which fatally injured her and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes. Additionally, a press officer working for Franco was injured while sitting in the back seat.

The Brazilian director of Human Rights Watch, Maria Laura Canineu, described Franco as “an outspoken and courageous advocate for victims of police abuse and a tireless defender of the rights of women and Afro-Brazilians.” She added, “Brazilian authorities need to respond decisively by identifying those responsible for the killing of Marielle and Anderson, and bringing them to justice.”

Franco grew up in an impoverished community in Rio. She became an activist and was elected to city council in 2016 as the only black female representative and one of seven women in the council. She became president of the women’s commission and was recently appointed to rapporteur of a municipal commission to monitor the federal intervention in policing Rio.

This federal intervention began in February when President Michel Temer handed over control of the state police and prisons to the armed forces. Franco had been a vocal critic of the measure, pointing out that it threatened to raise bloodshed without addressing the root cause of violence. In the days leading up to her death, she posted several tweets about police killings and assumed responsibility for conducting oversight of the military intervention.

As of Thursday afternoon, no suspects have been taken into custody. Rio’s civil police is responsible for investigating the killing. If needed, it is supposed to collaborate with federal police. Human Rights Watch asks that the army general in charge of the military intervention makes sure that investigators have the necessary independence and resources to find the killers. Also, Amnesty International urged that the investigation be rigorous and focus on the context, motive, and responsibility for the killing.

Canineu says, “The climate of near total impunity in Rio de Janeiro needs to end once and for all. Marielle and Anderson are the latest victims of a security system that has long failed to stop violence, or to ensure justice for the victims.”

On Thursday, thousands of Brazilians marched to the Rio state assembly to protest Franco’s murder. Many wore black and chanted against the police. One woman, Ilona Szabo, said that Franco “represented hope for so many women who never felt like they had a voice.”

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Brazil: Vigil held for Rio politician killed in drive-by shooting – 15 March 2018

Human Rights Watch – Brazil: Assassination of Rights Defender, Driver – 15 March 2018

New York Times – Killing of Rio de Janeiro Councilwoman Critical of Police Rattles Brazil – 15 March 2018

The Guardian – Protests held across Brazil after Rio councillor shot dead – 15 March 2015

The Citizen – Thousand of Brazilians mourn slain Rio councillor, rights activist – 15 March 2018

Politico Magazine: Gina Haspel Is a Torturer. What Else Does the Senate Need to Know?

Gina Haspel is pictured. | AP Photo
CIA via AP


Gina Haspel Is a Torturer. What Else Does the Senate Need to Know?

President Donald Trump is notoriously hostile toward the CIA. He frequently denigrates it in public and reportedly rarely even bothers to read its reports. None of Trump’s critical tweets, utterances or acts, however, carries as much venom or has the potential for causing as much harm to the agency as the president’s recent nomination of Gina Haspel to serve as the CIA’s next director. If evidence were needed of the president’s continuing grudge against the agency, this is it.

And why?

The answer begins with an understanding of the role of the director. As is the case with any agency, the director is critical to the CIA’s identity and effectiveness. Inwardly, she sets the standard, defines the vision and mission, drives effectiveness, ensures legal compliance, and is accountable for everything and everyone. If the director rises from the ranks (as Haspel did), she serves as the honored model of and guide to career success and accomplishment. Externally, the director represents the public face of the agency and the embodiment of its ethos, character and competence. And while these functions are common to all agencies, arguably the role is most important at the CIA because it uniquely operates at the boundary of law and illegality—a dangerous intersection for a democracy where particular care is required.

In nominating Haspel, Trump could hardly have selected a person more demonstrably ill-suited to carry out any of these essential duties. Although most of her career has taken place in the shadows and part of it was reportedly distinguished, Haspel is most prominently known for being intimately involved in carrying out the agency’s catastrophic Bush-era torture program or, as it was euphemistically called back then, the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program. As such, she bears great personal responsibility for a program famous for its exceptional savagery and brutality, managerial incompetence and consistent ill-judgment.

Haspel was no mere CIA paper-shuffler. By all accounts she was an engaged participant in the torture program. She reportedly ran the CIA’s torture “black site” in Thailand and directly supervised the inhuman interrogations of Al Qaeda suspects Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Later, when a congressional committee sought to exercise its constitutional oversight of the RDI program, Haspel was instrumental in the destruction of the videos of the black site waterboarding sessions—against the advice of superiors in the Bush administration. This act alone, which I believe was almost certainly motivated by a desire to destroy the evidence that waterboarding exceeded the legal threshold for torture and thus to evade both personal and institutional accountability and oversight, should be sufficient to disqualify her from confirmation.

And yet there is more to consider. To weigh the merits of her nomination, the full, unredacted version of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 2014 Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program should be released to the public. The data in the devastating 6,700-page report will help the public better understand why the Intelligence Committee concluded that the torture program was such a failure, despite the CIA’s bogus claims to the contrary, and why it helped weaken—not strengthen—the nation’s defenses against terrorism. It will also help us better understand Haspel’s central role in the fiasco and probe the questionable presumption of competence that she would bring as director.

In the end, though, confirmation should not hinge merely on Haspel’s technical competence, but on her integrity and her ability to lead the agency and to credibly represent our country in that role. In making this judgment, a rhetorical question posed to test journalistic integrity is apt: “What do you call a reporter who tells the truth 99 percent of the time but deliberately lies the other 1 percent?” The correct answer is, of course, “a liar.” So it is with torturers in the service of a government. Regardless of the other good a person may have done in the course of her career, the act of having tortured indelibly and forever defines the character and identity of that person.

Is Haspel a torturer? Yes, inescapably. The Justice Department may have approved the RDI program in concept, but its lawyers were not present in the black sites to witness the conditions of confinement, the totality of the torment, and the effect on the victim, which are always the ultimate tests of whether torture was applied. But Haspel was there; she lived it. The situation may have varied from site to site, but she can be presumed to have felt the piercing cold, experienced the bleak darkness and heard the deafening, ceaseless music; she directed and then oversaw the application of pain—the blows, the hanging from shackles, the confinement in coffin- or suitcase-size boxes, the suffocation when water was inhaled time and again; and she heard the cries and groans and saw the bruises, the loss of consciousness, and the blood. And all of this not for a moment, but ceaselessly for weeks on end.

American law and values teach us that the test for torture will always be the severity of the pain, not merely whether a lawyer may have approved its infliction. Haspel didn’t have to rely on a lawyer to tell her whether the pain inflicted under her authority amounted to torture because she was there to see it applied and could not have mistaken it for anything else.

During my service as chief counsel for the Navy and Marine Corps, I was involved in numerous discussions where an officer’s fitness to command was evaluated. Anyone with Haspel’s involvement with brutality would have been summarily dismissed from either service. Perhaps the CIA is different, its standards lower. And perhaps there are no standards. I’m hoping this is not so, but this confirmation hearing will be the test.

These are the questions the Senate will have to answer: Is Haspel the person the Senate would want to stand before the agency’s personnel as the model CIA officer, the leader, the person to be emulated? To recruit at colleges and challenge students to join her and be like her? To reach out to foreign partners and receive their respect? To be a trusted facilitator of congressional oversight? To represent the agency’s future, not its discarded past? Is she to be the face of the agency?

We can guess why Trump is nominating Haspel: He dislikes the CIA and likes torture, so she suits him. Trump may not care much for the agency, but the Senate must. That’s why the Senate must withhold its consent for Haspel’s nomination and advise the president to find a more fitting director.

Alberto Mora is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a former general counsel of the Department of the Navy. He was an early opponent of torture during the Bush administration.

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre: How the Legacy of Halabja has Failed to Protect Syria

SJAC Update | March 13, 2018
The Monument of Halabja Martyrs was built in 2003, in a city that was still largely destroyed. Photo from Wikipedia.
Thirty Years Later: How the Legacy of Halabja has Failed to Protect Syria
Thirty years ago this week, Saddam Hussein’s forces attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in Northeastern Iraq. Iraqi forces first launched a conventional attack, forcing civilians into confined basements and shelters. The air force then dropped what is believed to have been a combination of the deadly nerve agent sarin and mustard gas, effectively converting civilian shelters into gas chambers and killing an estimated five thousand people, mainly women and children. The attack was the deadliest use of chemical weapons on a civilian population in history and has become a symbol of the horrors of chemical warfare.
In the three decades since the attack, the international community has made great strides in prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. The conflict in Syria, however, is a stain on that record. To commemorate the Halabja atrocity, SJAC is looking back at why the immense progress on prohibiting chemical weapons over the past 30 years has failed to protect Syrians.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) is a Syrian-led and multilaterally supported nonprofit that envisions a Syria where people live in a state defined by justice, respect for human rights, and rule of law. SJAC collects, analyzes, and preserves human rights law violations by all parties in the conflict — creating a central repository to strengthen accountability and support transitional justice and peace-building efforts. SJAC also conducts research to better understand Syrian opinions and perspectives, provides expertise and resources, conducts awareness-raising activities, and contributes to the development of locally appropriate transitional justice and accountability mechanisms. Contact us at info@syriaaccountability.org

The Washington Post: Trump gives the Assad regime an open invitation to keep gassing children

A Syrian girl receives treatment after airstrikes in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta on March 7. (Amer Almohibany/AFP/Getty Images)
 March 10

NEARLY TWO weeks after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution mandating a 30-day cease-fire in Syria, Russian and government forces are unrelentingly pursuing one of the bloodiest and most brutal offensives of the war. They are attempting to overrun the rebel-held area of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, where nearly 400,000 people have been besieged since 2013. Scores of people are being killed each day; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights counted 93 on Wednesday alone. There have been numerous reports of attacks on hospitals and schools and of the use of chlorine gas — all of which are war crimes.

Tragically, there is little new in this, apart from the intensity. Over and over, the government of Bashar al-Assad and Russia have accepted cease-fires, or “humanitarian pauses,” or “de-escalation zones” in Eastern Ghouta, only to continue their attacks. Their brazenness is enabled by the unwillingness of any other power to enforce U.N. resolutions, or the Chemical Weapons Convention, or to otherwise punish the regime or Russia for their crimes.

There is, at least, reason to hope that the impunity will not last forever. Since 2011, a U.N. commission has been meticulously gathering evidence of war crimes in Syria for presentation at the U.N. Human Rights Council, and eventually to international and national courts. Its latest report, covering the period from last July until January, offers horrifying detail about the Russian-Syrian depredations in Eastern Ghouta.

The siege, the report says, has been “characterized by pervasive war crimes, including the use of prohibited weapons, attacks against civilian and protected objects, starvation leading to acute malnutrition, and the routine denial of medical evacuations.” Hospitals and schools have been systematically bombed; on a single day, Nov. 8, three schools were struck from the air. Hundreds of medical workers have been killed or injured in airstrikes, and women have begun giving birth at home rather than risk going to a hospital.

The United Nations documented three uses of chlorine against rebel fighters in July, and another attack in November in which a phosphorus-based pesticide was used. These are carefully calibrated atrocities. President Trump ordered a retaliatory strike following the regime’s use of nerve gas last year, but he has not responded to chlorine attacks. And so they continue.

Russian forces also target civilians, and the United Nations documented one incident it says “may amount to a war crime.” Last Nov. 13, a Russian plane was observed carrying out a series of airstrikes on the main market as well as surrounding houses in the town of Atarib, in Aleppo province. The report says at least 84 people were killed, including six women and five children. It said the plane dropped unguided “blast weapons,” even though “the use of such weapons in a densely populated area was certain to impact civilians.” That, no doubt, was the intention.

As the Ghouta offensive has continued, the State Department has objected; spokeswoman Heather Nauert castigated Russia on Twitter. The trouble is, Moscow knows that Mr. Trump feels differently. When he was asked about Eastern Ghouta, on Feb. 23, the president reiterated his view that the only U.S. interest in Syria was “to get rid of ISIS and to go home.” For the Assad regime and Russia, that’s an open invitation to continue gassing children, bombing hospitals and committing other war crimes.

Syria Deeply: The latest developments from Eastern Ghouta, Afrin, Idlib, the Aleppo countryside and Daraa

Syria Deeply
Mar. 12th, 2018
This Week in Syria.

Welcome to Syria Deeply’s weekly summary of our coverage of the crisis in Syria.

As the Syrian conflict enters its eighth year, Syria Deeply is collecting insights from our expert community about what the war has taught us about 21st century conflicts. We invite you to share your expertise about the most important developments and lessons here.

Eastern Ghouta: The death toll in East Ghouta continued to rise this week, as pro-government forces continued their aerial and ground offensive on Damascus suburbs that have been under siege for more than four years.

Over the weekend, Syrian troops reportedly cut off the major towns of Douma and Harasta from the rest of the opposition enclave and seized the towns of Misraba and Mudeira. The advance split the Eastern Ghouta suburbs in two, as pro-government forces established a corridor that cuts through the opposition holdout.

More than 1,100 people have been killed since the start of the campaign three weeks ago, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Civilians in the area are now faced with the difficult choice of either staying in East Ghouta amid the pro-government advance, despite the deadly aerial campaign and the lack of necessary medical and food supplies, or evacuating to government-run shelters.

The SOHR said on Monday that negotiations were ongoing between community leaders from certain towns in East Ghouta, and mediators from the capital. The Russian military said late on Sunday that 52 civilians, including 26 children, had been evacuated from Misraba, according to Reuters.

Jaish al-Islam, one of the main rebel groups in the area, said on Monday it reached an agreement with Russia through the United Nations to evacuate the wounded, the Associated Press reported. A day earlier, Faylaq al-Rahman, another major rebel group, said in a statement that it rejected a previous Russian proposal that would allow them safe passage out of East Ghouta if they surrendered the enclave to government forces.

Northern Syria: Turkish troops and allied rebels reached the outskirts of the Kurdish-held city of Afrin over the weekend. Ebrahim Ebrahim, a Europe-based spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), told theAssociated Press that thousands are fleeing the area as Turkish-backed fighters advance on Afrin. According to Al Jazeera, others are planning to erect a human shield to protect the center of Afrin from Turkish forces.

Elsewhere in northern Syria, there have been clashes between major opposition groups vying for control in the countrysides of Aleppo and Idlib provinces for more than a week. Clashes began after rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki announced last month they would merge forces in an attempt to seize territory controlled by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Meanwhile, Syrian government and Russian airstrikes are escalating in Idlib province. SOHR reported that at least seven people were killed in air raids on Sunday and Monday, and at least a dozen more people were injured. Syrian Civil Defense officials said one of the airstrikes hit a preschool in Teftenaz village on Monday, injuring at least 20 people, the Turkish Anadolu Agency reported.

Southern Syria: Syrian warplanes reportedly hit the southwestern province of Daraa on Monday, despite the de-escalation zone deal that Russia, the United States and Jordan agreed to in July, according to SOHR. In the first aerial attack since the de-escalation agreement, at least eight raids targeted the eastern Daraa towns of Busr al-Harir, Hrak, al-Gharaiya al-Gharbiya and al-Sowara, Reuters reported.

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Brazilian Supreme Court rules pregnant women will no longer await trial in jail

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The Brazilian Supreme court issued a groundbreaking human rights ruling that people accused of non-violent crimes are allowed to await trial under house arrest instead of in detention centers. This rule applies to women who are pregnant, who have children up to twelve years of age, and people with disabilities.

Painted fingernails at a women’s prison in Brazil. Image Courtesy of Ueslei Marcelino.

This decision came in the wake of public outcry about pretrial detention conditions. In December, Human Rights Watch reported that conditions were worsening and pre-trial detention was growing dramatically. Brazilian prisons lack adequate care for pregnant women and newborns. Prenatal and postpartum medical care are minimal or non-existent. Also, two thirds of female detention centers lack designated facilities for pregnant women and babies.

Before this decision, the Brazilian Criminal Code stated that judges “may” determine house arrest instead of preventative detention when a woman is pregnant or has a child of up to twelve-years-old. Now, justices have decided that this exception needs to become a rule. After the decision is published, courts will have to comply with the order within sixty days. Human Rights Watch estimates that up to 15,000 women could be released. However, it will not affect inmates who have been found guilty.

While Human Rights Watch celebrates the ruling, the organization says Brazil still has work to do on prison reform. Brazil must address “excessive pretrial detention for all, and ensure all pregnant women and mothers in detention are held in humane conditions, with adequate health care, in compliance with Brazilian law and international standards.”

The public outcry stemmed from stories like Jessica Monteiro’s. She was arrested for allegedly possessing ninety grams of marijuana. At twenty-four years old, she had no criminal record, was pregnant, and was throw into a filthy police precinct cell. She went into labor the next day and was taken to a hospital to give birth. The court held a hearing in her absence where a judge ruled that she should remain in jail pending her trial. A few days later, police returned her to the cell where she slept on a mattress on the floor with her newborn.

Several have raised criticism over the ruling. The President of the Federation of Penitentiary Servants, Allan Vieira, stated that “women could be used by criminal enterprises to commit crimes while on house arrest including carrying weapons and drugs into the jails.”

While this will not affect the male incarceration rate, officials hope this will relieve overcrowding in women’s prisons.

For more information, please see:

IR Insider – Brazil Supreme Court Issues Landmark Human Rights Ruling – 4 March 2018

The Nation – Deceit at a Brazilian ‘Crisis Pregnancy Center’ – 28 February 2018

The Jurist – Brazil top court rules pregnant woman will no longer serve pre-trial detention in jail – 23 February 2018

Human Rights Watch – Pregnant Women Will No Longer Await Trial in Brazilian Jails – 23 February 2018

Folha de S. Paulo – Pregnant Women and Mothers of Children of Up to 12 Years of Age to Be Placed on House Arrest – 21 February 2018

Sri Lanka Declares a State of Emergency

By: Katherine Hewitt
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

 COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – After recent acts of community violence between religious groups in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the government declared a state of emergency. Soldiers are now patrolling civilian areas in the city of Kandy. The declaration will last 10 days, after which the parliament will need to vote on furthering military action.

Sri Lankan soldiers remove debris after an attack in Digana, a suburb of Kandy. Photo courtesy of Pradeep Pathiran/ AP.

The violence in Kandy began in March 2018 when a group of Muslim men were accused of killing a Sinhala Buddhist man. Buddhists represent 75% of the population of Sri Lanka. In response, they targeted Muslim-owned businesses, homes, and a mosque, burning them down. Upon their arrest a group of Buddhist monks, known for violence, traveled to Kandy to attempt to release the men. However when they were not successful in their mission, they turned to creating violence in the city. The police stepped in arresting several and setting a curfew.

This is not the first attack against Muslims by Buddhists in Sri Lanka.  Since the end of the Civil War in 2011, tensions between the two religious groups have grown more tense.  A Sri Lankan expert at International Crisis Group notes that Buddhist attacks on Muslim populations occur quite regularly.

The government is concerned about the potential spread of religious violence throughout Kandy and the nation after this last wave. The Prime Minister posted on Twitter “As a nation that endured a brutal war we are all aware of the values of peace, respect, unity & freedom. The Gov[ernment] condemns the racist & violent acts that have taken place over the last few days. A state of emergency has been declared & we will not hesitate to take further action.”

The state of emergency also widens the power of the police to detain suspects. Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, Biraj Patnaik, is afraid that these powers could threaten the rights of minority groups and cautions the Sri Lanka government to follow obligations under International Human Rights Law.

For more information, please see:

Amnesty International – Sri Lanka: State of emergency must respect human rights – 6 March 2018

The Guardian – Sri Lanka declares state of emergency after communal violence – 6 March 2018

Human Rights Watch – State of Emergency Declared in Sri Lanka – 7 March 2018

Dutchess County Schools Face Multiple Potential Threats

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

DUTCHESS COUNTY, New York – Following the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas, several schools in Dutchess County New York have dealt with potential threats. The week of February 19th, three Dutchess County School Districts dealt with threats. The following week, social media has brought to light more potential threats for several different schools. Among those schools, both junior high schools and high schools, have threats under investigation.

For Van Wyck Junior High School, a threat is currently under investigation by the East Fishkill Police Department. According to the Chief of Police, the students are safe and the child who is alleged to be making the threats was not in school on February 27-28. On the 26th, a parent was made aware of the student’s plan to shoot up the school by her daughter who came home and told her about it. They contacted the police who informed the parent that the investigation began last Monday. Social media is sparking rumors and gossip to run wild with these potential threats. Parents are anxious and posting on community pages and school pages trying to find out more information, but also fueling further rumors.

John Jay High School of Hopewell Junction is facing rumored threats. Photo Courtesy of Patrick Oehler.

On February 28th, rumors began about a threat to John Jay High School. A vague email went out to parents explaining that police were investigating but, at this time, it was still safe for children to come to school. Following that email, posts were made by parents on social media claiming the school was on lock down, but those allegations proved untrue. On Friday, February 23rd, John Jay had been under lock down after school hours. That alarm proved to be a glitch in the alarm system, but all the recent threats have parents on edge. Some have chosen to keep their children home from school or pick them up early.

In Poughkeepsie, the school district was closed on Wednesday February 28th due to the alleged threats made against the school. The Superintendent sent out an email saying the school was closed because of a social media post detailing a potential shooting at the high school. That threat was posted on social media site ‘snapchat’ and contained a picture of several guns and text stating that no one was safe. There was also a list of students who were named in that post. The School Board President said the threat is “beyond (the district’s) purview,” and that local police and the FBI are actively investigating the situation.

For more information, please see:

Poughkeepsie Journal – Threat Closes Poughkeepsie Schools as Officials Investigate – 28 February 2018

Poughkeepsie Journal – 2 More Dutchess School District Handling Threats, Police Say No Concern – 27 February 2018

News 12 Westchester – Van Wyck JHS Student Accused of Making Threats – 27 February 2018

Poughkeepsie Journal – John Jay High Goes into Friday Afternoon Lockdown Following Alarm Mishap: Police – 23 February 2018

Mass exodus of Venezuelans overwhelms Latin America

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CUCUTA, Colombia – The mass exodus of Venezuelans desperate to leave their country are overwhelming the continent. Venezuela has spurred one of the biggest migration crises in Latin American history.

A boy from Colombia’s indigenous Yukpa community stands at the entrance to the border bridge in Cucuta. Image Courtesy of Ivan Valencia.

The International Organization for migration reports that nearly one million Venezuelans have left their country over the past two years, with a surge during the second half of 2017 when the economy took a hit. One immigration expert, Tomas Paez, says that “our migration levels are now comparable to Syria or to Bangladesh.”

Colombia’s border cities are taking the worst of the crisis. Roughly 250,000 migrants have crossed the border into Colombia since August, with 3,000 still arriving every day. Approximately 3,000 troops are fanning out across the 1,400-mile border in an effort to contain the migration. The government had to suspend the issuance of temporary visas for Venezuelans last month. It has begun operations to capture and expel illegal immigrants. The regional director of a Catholic charity in Colombia, Willington Munoz Sierra, considers this a humanitarian crisis. He says, “In Venezuela, children are dying. People are starving and being persecuted. What they’re getting from us is a door in the face.”

Similarly, Brazil has declared a state of “social emergency” in response to the massive influx of migrants. In recent months, 40,000 Venezuelans have poured across Brazil’s northern border. The migration has stressed infrastructure and caused security concerns. Residents in border cities worry about crime and Venezuelans taking away jobs. Brazilian President Michel Temer assessed the crises and suggested that some migrants could be moved to other states. Still, he insisted that Brazil would not turn its back on the refugees and pledged $20 million to the cause. The military has doubled its troops in border areas and established a field hospital for migrants.

All Latin American nations are feeling the impact of the crisis to some extent. Peru has seen the largest percentage increase in Venezuelan population. From 2015 to 2017, it increased 1,388%. In response, Peru is offering temporary resident permits to Venezuelans which grants them the right to work. Likewise, Panama has been overwhelmed with Venezuelans. It has imposed new visa requirements making it more difficult for migrants to be granted asylum.

Jozef Merkx, representative for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees in Colombia, said the agency is concerned about the operations that expel migrants lacking valid visas. However, it is harder to classify its people as refugees in need of international protection because Venezuela is not at war. He says, “People fleeing Syria were generally seen as refugees, but that’s not the case with Venezuelans. Venezuela is not being bombed. It has some of the dimensions [of a refugee crisis], but not all Venezuelans are refugees.”

For more information, please see:

Chicago Tribune – Venezuelans are fleeing their crisis-torn country en masse – 3 March 2018  

Washington Post – The Crisis Next Door – 2 March 2018

Reuters – Special report: A journey on a caravan of misery – 2 March 2018

DW – Brazil to declare ’emergency’ in response to Venezuela migrant influx – 16 February 2018

China Proposes Lifting President Xi’s Term Limit

By: Brian Kim
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

BEIJING, China – The legislatures open its annual session with a constitutional amendment to end the two-term limit for President Xi Jinping’s presidency. This move was predicted when President Xi did not nominate a clear successor in October. By removing the two-term limit, President Xi’s status will be elevated to president for life. Since 2012, President Xi Jinping has been tightening control over the country. Over the past five years, he has solidified himself as a father figure and cracked down on his opposition.

President Xi’s two-term limit is expected to be removed at the annual meetings of China’s top legislative bodies. Photo courtesy of Mark Schiefelbein.

The presidency in China combines the three pillars of power in China: president, party chairman, and head of the Central Military Commission. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping established the collective leadership model. Since its formation, every leader was expected to hand the power over to its successor for a smooth transition.

Based on Xi’s rule, many analysts believe that the Chinese politics has shifted from collective autocracy to one-man rule. Xi has laid out his vision to turn china into a top innovative nation by 2035. By achieving the “China Dream,” he has proposed to fully modernize the country by mid-century. Moreover, he has lead a campaign to end corruption and end poverty by establishing the National Supervisory Commission.

Xi has also laid out his vision to eclipse the United States as the world’s largest economy and pushing it out of the Asia-Pacific sphere.

On March 4th, the spokesman for the congress defended the constitutional amendment publicly. Zhang Yesui stated that the move is “conductive to uphold the authority of the (Communist Party) Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core.”

Although the constitutional amendment is expected to pass with near-unanimous approval, the proposal has been criticized by independent political commentators.

Business Insider – Xi Jinping’s permanent presidency has terrifying ramifications for the Chinese people – 3 March, 2018

The Guardian – Eight signs that Xi Jinping was planning to cement his grip on China – 3 March, 2018

The Washington Post – Xi term-limits controversy looms at China political meeting – 4 March, 2018