European Parliament Members Join #MeToo Movement

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

BRUSSELS, Belgium – As part of a campaign to speak out against sexual harassment and assault, several Members of the European Parliament have recently joined the viral #MeToo movement.

Members of the European Parliament Display ‘#MeToo’ Placards. Photo Courtesy of Patrick Seeger. 

At a meeting in Strasbourg, France to discuss sexual harassment, men and women from across parliament displayed placards in front of them with the phrase “#MeToo.” Several members spoke out about their experiences and discussed ways to combat the problem.

The #MeToo movement originated in the late 90s, when activist Tarana Burke, program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equality, was a youth camp director. She spoke with a young child about the heinous sexual abuse she had been subjected to and came up with the mantra “me too” as a statement of strength and solidarity.

The movement has gained worldwide attention in recent weeks following the torrent of accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Actress Alyssa Milano recently revitalized the statement, and it has since taken off on social media.

The debate in Europe comes amid contentions that European authorities are not doing enough to address sexual harassment, assault and rape.

“At least one in every three women has been victim of some sort of physical or sexual violence,” European Commissioner for Trade Cecelia Malmstrom said during the debate. “But these statistics do not tell enough personal stories, and the reason we are debating this today is of course because of the global movement of #MeToo.”

Terry Reintke, a Green Party parliament member, said “Me too. I have been sexually harassed, just like millions of other women in the European Union, and I think it’s about time that we say that we should not be ashamed, but that the perpetrators should be ashamed.”

Many victims are afraid to make official complaints because of the stigma associated with coming forward and for fear that their careers may be ruined if they do.

Members of Parliament wrote a letter addressed to Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, calling for external investigations into sexual harassment at the institution in response to allegations. The letter also demands that gender awareness and harassment training be provided to all parliamentary staff.

Several lawmakers also support adoption of the Istanbul Convention. This would require members to establish comprehensive systems aimed at preventing sexual violence against women.

The convention has thus far been ratified by 15 of the EU’s 28 member states.

For more information, please see:

CNN – An Activist, A Little Girl and The Heartbreaking Origin of ‘Me Too’ – 19 October 2017

BBC News – EU Parliament Members Demand Action on Sexual Harassment – 25 October 2017

The Independent – MeToo: Members of the European Parliament Protest Against Sexual Harassment – 25 October 2017

The New York Times – A #MeToo Moment for The European Parliament – 25 October 2017

Italy Lays to Rest 26 Young Women Lost at Sea

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

SALERNO, Italy – The bodies of twenty-six Nigerian girls were laid to rest in Italy on November 17th after they were discovered drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on November 5th.

Women pass by coffins of 26 Nigerian girls that drowned at sea. Photo Courtesy of Alessandra Tarantino.

The women, ranging in age from 14 to 18, are believed to have drowned after the dinghies in which they were traveling sank. One victim had suffered internal bleeding from blunt trauma before falling into the water.

Another 100 victims are missing and believed to have drowned. Search and rescue missions have brought nearly 400 migrants to safety.

An investigation into the deaths of the girls was initiated due to fears that they were abused and then killed.

After the discovery of the bodies, two men who are believed to have skippered the boats were arrested on human trafficking charges.

Approximately 168,000 migrants arrived in Italy this year. This represents a 32 percent decline from 2016 and is the result of a controversial agreement between Libya and Italy to keep boats from leaving Libya.

UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the agreement between Libya and Italy “inhuman,” as it results in migrants seeking refuge to be sent back to Libya’s lawless detention centers.

This year, more than 2,700 people have died or are missing at sea.

Since the 1980s, tens of thousands of Nigerian girls have been taken to Italy and forced into prostitution. In the last three years, there has been a 600 percent increase in sex-trafficking victims arriving by sea. Of the 11,000 Nigerian girls who made the trip last year, 80% of them are believed to be victims of trafficking.

In 2014, 1,454 girls arrived. That number rose to 11,009 in 2016.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, 90% of the women arriving in the country display bruises and other signs of violence.

Only two of the victims buried have been identified. “Most of the Nigerian girls travel alone, part of a huge trafficking network, and no one knows exactly who they are,” said Marco Rotunno, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy.

The unidentified victims were buried with white cards simply stating the number of their coffins.

A group of Nigerian girls watched the funeral from a distance. “It is not easy for them because they have all made that crossing, that journey,” said Alessandra Galatro, who works with young Nigerian women to help them escape prostitution. “The cruelty that women faced in Libya, they all experienced.”

For more information, please see:

The New York Times – Two Dozen African Girls Dead at Sea – 13 November 2017

The Guardian – Teenage Nigerian Girls Drowned at Sea, Italian Autopsies Confirm – 16 November 2017

CNN – 26 Young Nigerian Migrant Women Laid to Rest in Italy – 17 November 2017

The Washington Post – Italy Buries 26 Nigerian Women – Most Without a Name – 17 November 2017

Transgender Community Hopeful After Passage of New Law in Greece

By: Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

ATHENS, Greece – The Greek parliament has passed a law making it easier for individuals to change their legally recognized genders, a move that has been met with strong support as well as vehement opposition.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras Urges Lawmakers to Support Law. Photo Courtesy of Costas Baltas.

The law passed with 171 votes in favor in the 300-member parliament. It allows Greek citizens over the age of 15 to change the gender listed on identification cards and official documents. This requires a court order but does not require medical tests or surgery. Applicants must not be married and are limited to changing their legal gender twice.

Prior to the law’s enactment, those wishing to change their genders were required to undergo gender reassignment surgery along with a psychiatric assessment. This was criticized by human rights groups and transgender activists as an “outdated and oppressive practice that violates individuals’ bodily integrity.”

In opposition to the law, some churches in the western Greek region rang funeral bells and claimed that “Christian morals have been murdered.”

Some believe that the bill is an attempt to distract the public’s attention away from Greece’s financial problems.

Others believe the minimum age is too young. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, leader of the New Democracy party, said “for us it is inconceivable to bar 15-year olds from consuming alcohol, yet enabling them to take such an important decision.”

Before the vote, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pleaded with lawmakers to support the law, saying that “we are on the side of those who have no voice, or whose voice is stifled.”

The transgender community sees the law as a positive step towards inclusion and hopes that it will foster greater acceptance in the largely conservative nation. The Transgender Support Association stated that the vote was historic and that it was a “first positive step toward enjoying basic rights and freedoms.”

In response to those opposed to the law, Prime Minister Tsipras said this: “Absolutely no tradition, no perception of family calls for people to be sidelined or tossed aside into a social and institutional abyss.”

Anna Kouroupou, a 24 year old female who underwent gender reassignment surgery at the age of 24, believes that the new law will help improve the daily lives of those who suffer in the transgender community. She believes that the new law will help people find jobs and “therefore they’ll have health care, all those rights that each person has from the minute they’re born.”

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Greek Parliament Approves Law Allowing Legal Gender Change – 10 October 2017

NBC News – Churches Ring Funeral Bells Over New Gender Rights Law – 16 October 2017

The New York Times – Greek Transgender Community Hopes New Law Will Improve Lives – 10 October 2017

Reuters – Greece Passes Sex Change Law Opposed by Orthodox Church – 10 October 2017

The Washington Post – Greek Transgender Community Hopes New Law Will Improve Lives – 10 October 2017

UK Supreme Court to Rule on Abortion Ban in Northern Ireland

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

LONDON, England – Activists in Northern Ireland are urging lawmakers in the United Kingdom to overturn the current restrictions on abortion in the country.

A Protestor at a Rally in Belfast. Photo Courtesy of Charles McQuillan. 

In June, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Council (NIHRC) was unsuccessful in its efforts to convince judges that the rights of sexual assault victims and women with fatal fetal abnormalities were being violated.

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will hear evidence from the United Nations Human Rights Committee beginning on Tuesday, November 7th. The hearing is scheduled to last three days and end with a vote. The Supreme Court in London is the final court of appeal. Ireland will hold a referendum in 2018 regarding its strict abortion laws.

Criminalization of abortion began in 1861 with the passage of the Offences against the Person Act. Abortion is currently still illegal in Northern Ireland, but a provision was added in 1945 that allows for termination of a pregnancy if there is a threat to the life of the mother. Those who break the law face life imprisonment.

Human rights activists believe that the strict laws strip women of their fundamental human rights. Nathalie Lieven, lead counsel for the NIHRC said that “The impact of the criminal law in Northern Ireland does amount to inhuman and degrading treatment by the state.”

In 2016, the legislature voted against allowing abortions in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormality.

Ms. Lieven says that the laws cause “trauma and humiliation” and criminalize those who are already in “exceptionally vulnerable position(s).”

The NIHRC has provided testimony from women who have been denied abortion to bolster their case. Ashleigh Topley was four-and-a-half months into her pregnancy in 2013 when she was told by doctors that her baby’s limbs were not growing and that the baby would die. Ms. Topley was forbidden from terminating the pregnancy. Her baby girl’s heart stopped when she went into labor after thirty-five weeks.

A poll conducted by Amnesty International found that the majority of citizens favor a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy given certain factors. 85% of citizens in Northern Ireland would support the choice for abortion if the pregnancy is the result of rape, 81% if there is a diagnosis of fetal abnormality and 89% if a woman’s health is at risk.

Colm O’Groman, Executive Director of Amnesty International in Ireland, stated that the public shows strong support for “women making their own decisions about their pregnancies.” He points to the poll as evidence that the issue is not as divisive as the media portrays it.

“Public support varies on the precise gestational limits but it remains solidly behind women making their own decisions about their pregnancies,” said O’Groman.

Litigation regarding the law was initiated by NIHRC is 2014 and has been ongoing ever since.

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Northern Ireland Abortion law – 23 October 2017

BBC News – Abortion Laws ‘Punish Sex-Crime Victims’ – 26 October 2017

Reuters – UK Supreme Court Hears Attempt to Change Northern Ireland Abortion law – 24 October 2017

The Washington Post – Rights Group Challenges N Ireland Abortion ban at top Court – 24 October 2017

Poland Opposes Visit by White Supremacist Richard Spencer

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

WARSAW, Poland – Richard Spencer, the American white nationalist, is not welcome in Poland.

Richard Spencer. Photo Courtesy of David J. Phillip.

The Polish government has issued statements condemning Spencer’s views as a threat to democracy and objecting to his upcoming visit to Warsaw. Foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski stated that Spencer should not appear publicly in Poland, describing him as someone who “defames what happened during World War II, defames the Holocaust.”

Spencer is the white supremacist who organized the Charlottesville, Virginia rally that killed a counter-protestor in August after the rally turned violent. He has since held other rallies and is looking to expand his message to Europe.

He was invited by several far-right Polish organizations to speak at a conference in Warsaw that took place on November 10th. The National Social Congress announced that Spencer would speak at a panel discussion during its “Europe of Future” meeting. The annual conference is organized by the far-right to celebrate Polish Independence Day. In past years, marches held on November 11th by far-right extremists were some of the largest extremist gatherings in Europe.

Spencer’s followers consist of members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. They support his condemnation of diversity and embrace his far-right ideologies including nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism. Studies show that anti-Semitism and xenophobia is on the rise in Poland, which will likely help Spencer draw an audience there.

The government had been pressured to prevent Spencer from speaking at the event. “Spencer’s views strike not only the Jewish community or other minority groups. The hatred that Spencer and his followers proclaim is a threat to all who are close to the values of human rights and democracy,” said Agnieszka Markiewicz, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Central European office.

When the Polish Border Guard was contracted regarding the issue, a spokeswoman declined to divulge any information, citing privacy regulations. Spencer did not end up attending.

In 2014, Hungary Spencer’s think tank, the National Policy Institute, was prevented from holding a conference. When Spencer defied the ban, he was arrested, deported and banned from entering Europe’s 26 visa-free countries for three years.

The Polish Foreign Ministry said “As a country which was one of the biggest victims of Nazism, we believe that the ideas promoted by Mr. Spencer and his followers could pose a threat to all those who hold dear the values of human rights and democracy.”

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – Poland to Richard Spencer – Keep Out – 27 October 2017

The New York Times – Poland Objects to Visit by White Nationalist Richard Spencer – 27 October 2017

Newsweek – Richard Spencer is too Racist for Poland’s Right-Wing Government – 27 October 2017

The Washington Times – Poland Opposes Visit From Richard Spencer, White Nationalist and Charlottesville Rally Participant – 27 October 2017

Austria turns far to the right after October election

By: Sara Adams
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Europe

Sebastian Kurz walks through a crowd of supporters. Image courtesy of Sean Gallup.

VIENNA, Austria – After center-right candidate Sebastian Kurz won a surprising victory in the Austrian election, he is now calling for discussion with “alternative right” groups in the country, hoping to give them a voice in the national government.

Mr. Kurz is Austria’s current foreign minister. On October 15th, Austrians voted to give Mr. Kurz’ party, the People’s Party, the power to form the next government. This means that Mr. Kurz is likely to be Austria’s next Chancellor.

The vote reflected a right-wing shift in Austria. The third-place vote-getters were the Freedom Party, a far-right, anti-immigration party with ties to Neo-Nazism.

Mr. Kurz and his party seem to echo the sentiments of the Freedom Party.

During his time as foreign minister, Mr. Kurz was responsible for stopping the flow of refugees into Austria by shutting down borders on the Balkan route. During the campaign, he promised to do the same thing on the Mediterranean route of asylum seekers.

Mr. Kurz’s anti-Muslim sentiment has come out in other policy points. He cited a study that allegedly found that Islamic kindergartens, religious schools permitted under Austrian law, contribute to a “parallel society.”

Yet Mr. Kurz and his party insisted on the campaign trail that shifting to the right is merely an issue of popular viewpoint in Austria.

An anonymous adviser for Mr. Kurz stated that “most European populations don’t want to become half-Afghan or half-Syrian or half-African.” The adviser added that “you have to accept it. If you don’t, we’ll go to the extreme far right.”

Mr. Kurz People’s Party did not gain enough votes in the election to lead the country on their own. In a coalition government, this means that the People’s Party will have to partner with another to achieve its goals.

Mr. Kurz has said that this partner will likely be the Freedom Party.

To back up his choice, Mr. Kurz said that the Freedom Party has shown a “will to bring change in Austria together.”

Austria has been moving consistently further right in the several years since the refugee crisis began.

If the new government is a coalition between two right wing parties, it may lead to even stricter restrictions on refugees fleeing war in the middle east.

Ramazan Demir is an imam and leader of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria. He has expressed concerns over where Austria is going in recent years.

“They did their politics on the backs of Muslims,” Mr. Demir said about the rise of the far-right parties in Austria.

“There’s never been this much Islamophobia in Austria.”

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Austria: Sebastian Kurz opens talks with Freedom Party – 24 October 2017

The Independent – Austria election winner Sebastian Kurz invites far-right Freedom Party to enter government – 24 October 2017

The Washington Post – For Austria’s Muslims, country’s hard-right turn is an ominous sign – 20 October 2017

Wall Street Journal – Austrian Election Winner Sebastian Kurz Prepares for Talks With Far Right – 20 October 2017

NPR – Austria Election: Center-Right Party Head Likely Next Prime Minister – 15 October 2017

Hate Crimes on the Rise in England and Wales

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

LONDON, England – Hate crimes are on the rise in the United Kingdom, according to authorities.

Candlelight Vigil Following Manchester Attack. Photo Courtesy of Andrew Testa.

The rise comes following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016 along with a wave of extremist attacks since then.

Between 2016 and 2017, there were 80,393 reported offenses, compared to 62,518 between 2015 and 2016. This 29 percent rise is the largest since official hate crime figures were published five years ago.

The crimes spiked surrounding significant events such as the European Union referendum, known as “Brexit,” and extremist attacks on the Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena and the London Bridge.

Last year’s Brexit campaign was supported by many right-wing and nationalist groups. The vote spurred concerns that minorities and immigrants would be susceptible to hate crimes as a result.

Of the crimes reported, approximately 80 percent were based on race, 10 percent on sexual orientation and 7 percent on religion. A number of these crimes were recorded as disability hate crimes and others as motivated by transgender hate.

The rise in figures may partially be attributed to the broadened definition of what constitutes a hate crime. Hate crimes are now categorized if victims of verbal or physical assaults consider them as such. Public awareness and increased reporting may also be a factor, as authorities are also considered better able to record and document such incidents.

Amber Rudd, Home Secretary, said that “no one in Britain should have to suffer violent prejudice, and indications that there was a genuine rise in the number of offenses immediately following each of this year’s terror attacks is undoubtedly concerning.”

Governmental funds are being designated to protect places of worship and support community projects.

Tougher sentences are being handed down by courts dealing with hate crimes. The Crown Prosecution Service published data showing that sentences increased if the crimes were motivated on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

However, the number of cases being prosecuted has dropped from 15,542 between 2015 and 2016 to 14,480 between 2016 and 2017.

“We must continue to encourage all those affected by hate crimes to speak out, and in doing so send a clear message that hate and prejudice can have absolutely no place in modern Britain,” said Mustafa Field, director of the Faiths Forum for London.

For more information, please see:

BBC – Rise in Hate Crime in England and Wales – 17 October 2017

The Guardian – Hate Crime Surged in England and Wales After Terrorist Attacks – 17 October 2017

The New York Times – U.K. Reports Big Rise in Hate Crime, Citing Brexit and Terrorist Attacks – 17 October 2017

The Washington Post – Britain Reports Hate Crimes Spike After Brexit Votes, Attack – 17 October 2017

Violence at Independence Vote in Catalonia Injures Hundreds

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

BARCELONA, Spain – Nearly 900 civilians and over 400 police officers were injured in clashes sparked by the Catalan independence referendum on October 1st.

A Police Officer Struggles With a Demonstrator in Spain. Photo Courtesy of Luca Piergiovanni / EPA-EFE / REX/ Shutterstock.

Videos at the scene show police dragging people out of voting stations, throwing them down stairs and kicking them. Rubber bullets were also fired at civilians.

Human Rights Watch, a human rights organization based out of New York, sent a representative to Barcelona to investigate the allegations of police brutality, declaring that the Spanish state “has a duty to protect the rights to peaceful assembly and free expression.”

Government officials in Spain defended the police action and called it proportional to the threat. Force was used under orders from Madrid to shut down voting stations and seize ballot boxes.

Citizens of Catalonia have long harbored a desire for independence from Spain. Catalonia is a region in Spain with its own language and culture. However, Spain’s constitution of 1978 gives the government exclusive power to hold referendums, and it considered the referendum to be unconstitutional.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had promised to do anything in his power to stop the referendum from taking place. He thanked the police for their “firmness and serenity” in the situation.

Over two million people were able to vote despite the violence. Of those, 90 percent voted for the secession of Catalonia. Many were prevented from casting their votes.

Eyewitnesses report that police were indiscriminate in who they targeted. There were reports of children and elderly people being injured.

“The police didn’t beat just people who were going to vote ‘Yes,” they forced and kicked at everybody, old people included,” said Pau Subira Zirita, a witness.

Violence also ensued between the Catalan regional police and the Civil Guards, a paramilitary force sent in from around Spain.

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, urged Spain to conduct “swift, independent and effective” investigations into the conduct of the police and their use of force in the situation.

“I urge you to ensure, in co-operation with other authorities in charge of law enforcement, that swift, independent and effective investigations are carried out into all allegations of police misconduct and disproportionate use of force during the events of 1 October 2017 in Catalonia,” he said.

Anais Franquesa Griso, a human rights lawyer, is working with several organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to collect information from those injured or whose rights were deprived. This information will be reported to international human rights organizations.

For more information, please see:

Aljazeera – Catalan Vote: Claims of Police Brutality Probed – 3 October 2017

Los Angeles Times – Amid Scenes of Chaos and Violence, Catalonia Independence Vote is Projected to Pass Overwhelmingly – 1 October 2017

The Local – Council of Europe Human Rights Chief Urges Spain to Launch Probe Into Police Action in Catalonia – 9 October 2017

The New York Times – Catalonia Leaders Seek to Make Independence Referendum Binding – 2 October 2017

Reuters – Madrid Representative in Catalonia Apologizes for Police Violence During Independence Vote – 6 October 2017

Merkel Agrees to Limit Refugees Entering Germany

 By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

BERLIN, Germany – German Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed to limit the number of refugees allowed to enter Germany each year to 200,000, a decision that has elicited both support and criticism in the nation.

Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union Party. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

The German Christian Social Union and the Christian Democratic Union  were in talks for hours before an agreement could be reached.

Many German voters had been angered with Merkel’s previous open-door policy, which effectively allowed in anyone who could reach the country. In 2015, this policy allowed over one million people in.

In July, Merkel stated “on the issue of an upper limit, my position is clear. I won’t accept one.”

Many see the policy as a concession to the demands of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, which was propelled in September’s elections where Merkel lost millions of voters. The AfD campaigned on an anti-Islam, anti-migrant platform, becoming the third largest party in Parliament. The new measure is seen in many as a way of winning back voters.

Many believe that Merkel must negotiate with smaller parties in order to form a cohesive coalition government. Ms. Merkel believes the policy is necessary, saying that “Germany needs a stable government and the prerequisite for this was a common negotiating position.”

In 2016, the number of refugees capped at 280,000. That number has since fallen drastically, with fewer than 124,000 people applying for asylum in the first eight months of 2017. Experts are saying that the proposed limit is in line with current immigration trends.

The new policy is not being described as a limit, as no one who is seeking asylum will be turned away at the borders once the 200,000 limit has been reached. The figure can be altered should a new refugee crisis emerge.

The policy is being criticized, with Karl Kopp, director for European Affairs at Pro Asyl, a German refugee charity, saying that the policy is “not compatible with international law” and “totally unacceptable.”

Simone Peters, head of the Green Party, claimed that “The figure is completely arbitrary, fixed purely ideologically. As far as we’re concerned the fundamental right to asylum applies. When you throw together asylum seekers, refugee contingents, resettlement programs and family members joining refugees all in one pot, and then set a limit of 200,000, one group will be thrown under the bus.”

For more information, please see:

CNN – Merkel Changes Tune on German Refugee Cap – 9 October 2017

The Guardian – Germany: Merkel Agrees to 200,000 Refugees Cap in Bid to Build Coalition – 9 October 2017

The New York Times – Germany’s Angela Merkel Agrees to Limits on Accepting Refugees – 9 October 2017

Fate of Catalonia rests on Catalan president’s shoulders

By: Sara Adams
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Europe

Supporters of Catalonia’s independence wave Catalan flags in Barcelona, outside of the Catalan parliament building. Image courtesy of Nakam/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock.

BARCELONA, Spain – Catalonia has yet to determine whether they have declared independence.

On October 10th, Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont decided the southern region of Spain would not immediately declare independence from its mother country.

The statement came after Mr. Puigdemont signed an official declaration of independence. Soon after, Mr. Puigdemont announced the suspension.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has accused the Catalan president of deliberately confusing the Spanish government.

On October 11th, the government officially stated that the “ball was now firmly back in Puigdemont’s court.”

What the Catalonian government does next will determine whether the Spanish government will strip Catalonia of its autonomy using Article 155 of the federal constitution. If this happens, administrative control over Catalonia will be given to the Spanish government.

The struggles over the past several days have caused some divide within Spain itself.

The Constitution itself was established in the late 1970s after years of an authoritarian regime, where Catalans were severely oppressed by a dictator.

Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez, of Spain’s main opposition leadership, has expressed support for using the Constitution to deprive Catalonia of its autonomy.

The support was in exchange for an agreement to form a commission to change the Constitution.

Both sides of the spectrum argue that the other side is a threat to democracy.

Prime Minister Rajoy accused separatists of “foisting their will on all the people of Catalonia,” indicating that they ignore the Catalans who do not want to secede.

Yet Mr. Puigdemont, Catalonia’s president, sees Catalonia as an autonomous region that has “won the right to be independence” as a result of the vote held on October 1st.

“The people’s will” is to break free from the central government in Madrid, Mr. Puigdemont stated in front of the Catalan parliament in Barcelona.

On the day of the election, the Spanish government sent police troops in to various towns and cities around Catalonia. This led to several clashes between Catalans and police, with hundreds reportedly injured.

The chaos that day has led to the launch of an investigation into the allegations of police brutality. The main question is whether law enforcement used excessive force against people who were peacefully assembling to vote or protest.

If the Spanish government does choose to invoke Article 155, it may cause more civil unrest similar to the kind seen on October 1st.

Meanwhile, Mr. Puigdemont told CNN that he is sending a message of “calmness”, stating, “[w]e are facing a political problem that we need to solve with politics and not with police.”

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – Spanish PM asks Catalonia: have you declared independence or not? – 11 October 2017

The New York Times – Spain Asks Catalonia: Did You Declare Independence or Not? – 11 October 2017

BBC News – Catalonia: Spain takes step towards direct rule – 11 October 2017

The Guardian – Catalonia’s suspended declaration of independence: what happens next? – 11 October 2017

BBC News – Catalonia independence declaration signed and suspended – 10 October 2017

Al-Jazeera – Catalan vote: Claims of Spanish police brutality probed – 3 October 2017

 

France Passes Controversial Counterterrorism Bill

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

PARIS, France – On Tuesday, October 3rd, the French Parliament approved a national counterterrorism security bill, significantly expanding the state’s power to fight terrorism. Activists are calling it a historic threat to civil liberties.

Demonstrators Protest Counterterrorism Bill in France. Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.

The bill was passed in response to a wave of terrorist activity that began in November 2015 when 130 people were killed in attacks in Paris. A state of emergency was declared at the time and has been extended six times. Since then, the number of lives taken by terrorist violence has risen to 239.

The legislation, which was enacted at the behest of President Emmanuel Macron, allows French police to conduct searches and seizures and place suspects under house arrest with little court intervention or supervision. With judicial approval, police will also be able to raid private property, impose restrictions on people’s movements, and use electronic surveillance tags.

Mosques and other places of worship will be shut down if intelligence agencies believe religious leaders are promoting radical ideology or justifying terrorist acts.

Activists are concerned with the abuses that may arise with this legislation and its potential to infringe on civil rights and discriminate against French Muslims, the country’s largest minority.

“A project like this one constitutes a threat to our rights because it replaces facts by suspicion,” said Jacques Toubon, who now serves as the country’s human rights watchdog.

One concern is that the legislation is too vague in its language. Police will be able to exercise the measures described in the bill if they have “serious reasons” to suspect someone is involved in terrorist activity.

Many French citizens support the bill and do not believe that it threatens their liberty. They believe that they are more vulnerable to violence without the measures in place.

Other countries have tightened up security in response to terrorist threats, but the French laws are among the broadest in scope.

The United Nations sent a letter to the French government in late September regarding the “restrictions to fundamental liberties” that would be a consequence of the law.

Other critics of the law point to the fact that since the emergency measures have been put in place in 2015, none of them have prevented terrorist attacks.

Marwan Muhammad, director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, an advocacy group that fights discrimination, said that a result of the measures will be that “what was problematic and exceptional will now become problematic and normal.”

For more information, please see:

BBC – France Approves Tough New Anti-Terror Laws – 4 October 2017

New York Times – French Parliament Advances a Sweeping Counterterrorism Bill – 3 October 2017

Reuters – France Backs Tough Anti-Terrorism Laws After Wave of Attacks – 3 October 2017

Washington Post – French Muslims Enraged by Passage of Macron’s Version of Patriot Act – 3 October 2017

Tensions in Spain rise as court blocks Catalonia parliament from meeting

By: Sara Adams
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Europe

Supporters of independence for Catalonia marching in the streets of Barcelona. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

BARCELONA, Spain – Less than a week after Catalonia’s vote for independence from Spain, the highest federal court in the country has blocked the constitutionality of the vote.

On October 5th, the court ruled that allowing the Catalan parliament to meet and consider declaring independence violates the rights of the Catalonian Socialist Party’s members of parliament.

The court urged that any session of the Catalan parliament defying its decision would be “null.”

They also added that any leaders who hold the session could face “criminal action” if they choose to ignore the court’s verdict.

Despite Catalan leader’s call for “peace and accord” in their quest for independence, violence erupted after the vote on October 1st, much of it stemming from citizens clashing with Spanish police.

The Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, has also stated that the situation will “escalate further” if the Catalan government declares independence.

“[The] best [solution] would be a return to legality and the swiftest possible confirmation that there won’t be a unilateral independence declaration, because that way still greater harm could be avoided,” Mr. Rajoy said in a statement to the Spanish news agency Efe.

King Felipe of Spain has also condemned Catalan attempts to secede from the country, calling Catalan actions as “an unacceptable attempt” to take over the institutions placed there by the federal government.

The vote on October 1st has caused much division, both within the region of Catalonia and outside of it.

The New York Times reports a rise of nationalist sentiment throughout Spain, with many pushing openly against Catalonia.

And while 90% of the votes counted on the October 1 election were in favor of independence, the voter turnout hovered at only 42%. This in part may be due to the many anti-secession Catalans who boycotted the election, hoping to avoid giving “legitimacy” to the vote.

Both anti- and pro-independence rallies are reportedly planned for the next several days.

When asked what they thought about the high court’s decision, the Catalan government told CNN, “we will see.”

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether Catalonia will carry forth with their attempt to gain independence from Spain.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Catalan crisis: Spanish court bars MPs’ independence vote – 5 October 2017

The Washington Post – Catalonia poses a real crisis for both Spain and Europe – 5 October 2017

CNN – Spanish court blocks Catalan parliament’s independence move – 5 October 2017

The Guardian – Spanish court blocks Catalan parliament from declaring independence – 5 October 2017

The New York Times – Catalonia Separatism Revives a Long-Dormant Spanish Nationalism – 5 October 2017

Austria Criminalizes the Wearing of Burqas in Public

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

VIENNA, Austria – On Sunday, October 1st, Austria implemented a law prohibiting Muslim women from wearing Burqas in public.

Woman wearing a niqab. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

The “Prohibition for the Covering of the Face” law, commonly known as the “Burqa Ban,” was approved in May of 2017 and implemented on October 1st. It prohibits women from wearing burqas and niqabs in public.

The decision to prohibit burqas comes at a time when anti-Muslim bigotry is at an all-time high, both in Europe and the United States. The law has thus far garnered strong support in the predominantly Catholic country, reflecting anti-Muslim attitudes.

Similar sentiments have become increasingly prevalent in other European countries. In the midst of elections in Germany in September, the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party campaigned with posters featuring the slogan “Burqas? We prefer Bikinis.”

The upcoming national election in Austria is looking favorably to those who are campaigning on an anti-migrant message.

Five out of seven of those polled that support the law also said they will vote for the two parties that are linked to anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Freedom Party and the People’s Party.

Muslim women leaders are condemning the law, viewing the claim that it is intended to help women as insincere.

Carla Amina Baghajati, spokeswoman for the Austrian Islamic Religious Authority, criticized the law. “They believe that they are ‘freeing these women’ and that they’re taking action to secure the identity of Austria, but this is hypocritical as the idea of an open society is that everybody has the liberty to act and dress as they please as long as nobody else is harmed,” she said.

Activists and experts say that the ban violates religious rights and will only perpetuate the problem of Islamophobia.

Farid Hafez, a senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, said that “Islamophobia is a problem in Austria as it is a problem and a challenge to democracy, human rights and religious freedom in many European countries today.”

Sebastian Kurz, Foreign Minister of Austria, said that the burqa “is not a religious symbol but a symbol for a counter-society.”

Those who defy the law and continue to cover their faces can be fined up to $175. Police are authorized to use force for anyone resisting the law.

Laws such as these are already in effect in France and Belgium. The Alternative for Germany is also calling for such measures.

The ban affects approximately 150 women.

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – Austria’s Full-Face Veil Ban is a Kneejerk Reaction to the Rise of the Far Right – 1 February 2017

USA Today – Austria Becomes Latest European Country to Ban Burqas – But Adds Clown Face Paint, Too – 27 September 2017

PBS – ‘Burqa Ban” Law Signals Rightward Political Turn in Austria – 30 September 2017

Aljazeera – Austria Face Veil Ban ‘Criminalizes’ Muslim Women – 1 October 2017

BBC – Austrian Ban on Full-Face Veil in Public Places Comes Into Force – 1 October 2017

New York Times – Austria’s ‘Burqa Ban’ Law Comes Into Force – 1 October 2017

Washington Post – ‘Burqa Ban’ Law Signals Rightward Political Turn in Austria – 1 October 2017

Dozens of LGBT People Arrested and Detained in Azerbaijan

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

BAKU, Azerbaijan – Dozens of gay and transgender people in Azerbaijan’s capital city Baku have been detained and sentenced to jail this month.

People Gather in Support of LGBT Community in Madrid, Spain. Photo Courtesy of CBC News.

Those arrested have been sentenced to up to thirty days in jail. They are also being demanded to provide names and addresses of gay and transgender acquaintances.

The detainees have been subjected to beatings and medical examinations, according to the Civil Rights Defenders, a human rights group based out of Sweden. Transgender women have been forced to have their heads shaved.

Azerbaijan government officials claim that the arrests are part of a crackdown on the illegal sex trade in Baku, but Samed Rahumli, a lawyer who is assisting the victims, said the police “targeted homosexuals in general, not prostitutes as they have claimed.”

Rahumli reported that those “detained were subjected to inhuman treatment and torture. Their heads were shaved, some were electroshocked.”

In some instances, police posed online as gay or transgender people looking for dates.

One victim, who identified himself as Hasan, reported that police claimed he was a sex worker, beat him and demanded he provided information pertaining to his alleged clients.

According to activists, the reasoning provided by the government is being used as a pretext for persecution of the LGBT community.

The detainees were being held under “administrative detention”, which is a legal practice in Azerbaijan that allows for the bypass of public hearing prior to sentencing.

A survey conducted in 2016 by a human rights organization ranked Azerbaijan as the worst of 49 European counties in which to be gay.

International organization Human Rights Watch reported that men have been outed to their families and that these relatives have been encouraged to carry out honor killings.

Several victims have been evicted from their apartments as a result of the raids.

The arrests are reminiscent of the detainment and torture of gay men in Chechnya earlier this year. In some cases there, victims were killed.

A spokesman for the country’s interior ministry said “these raids are not against all sexual minorities. The arrested are people who demonstratively show a lack of respect for those around them, annoy citizens with their behaviour, and also those whom police or health authorities believe to be carriers of infectious diseases.”

Evelyne Paradis, European executive director of the International Lesbian,Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, called “for the immediate release of anyone still in detention.”

For more information, please see:

ABC News – Dozens of LGBT People Detained in Azerbaijan Capital – 29 September 2017

CBC News – Azerbaijan Arresting More LBGT People ‘day by day’, Activist Says 30 September 2017

The Guardian – Outcry as Azerbaijan Police Launch Crackdown on LGBT Community – 28 September 2017

Independent – Mass Arrests of LGBT People in Azerbaijan Condemned by Human Rights Groups – 28 September 2017

NBC News – Dozens of LGBTQ Reportedly Arrested in Azerbaijan – 26 September 2017

New York Times – Azerbaijan Detains Dozens of Gay and Transgender People – 29 September 2017

Washington Post – Dozens of LGBT People Detained in Azerbaijan Capital – 29 September 2017

Clashes with Spanish government as Catalans move to vote for independence

By: Sara Adams
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Europe

Police fire rubber bullets at Catalans attempting to vote. Image courtesy of AP Photos.

BARCELONA, Spain – Despite the Spanish government deeming the vote “illegal”, citizens in the Catalonia region of Spain on October 1st held an independence referendum.

Catalonia has sought independence from Spain for several years. Barcelona, one of Spain’s biggest cities, is nestled in the region.

Catalonia has its own language, and many of its residents have never felt “Spanish”. This was part of the driving force behind the October 1st vote.

Polls suggest that 7.8 million people in Spain support Catalan independence.

Despite this, the government in Madrid has fought against allowing Catalan to sever from Spain.

The federal government has seized voting materials, imposed fines on officials for supporting the election, and sent several groups of law enforcement to prevent the vote from happening.

Protests quickly erupted in the streets of Barcelona on Sunday, October 1st, which quickly led into violent clashes between law enforcement and citizens.

The police, in riot gear, stormed into an elementary school polling station, while election activists grabbed the ballot boxes, hiding them in various places around the school.

Once the police left, voting recommenced.

However, that was not the end of the chaos.

More than 300 people were reportedly injured in clashes with law enforcement.

Some of the injuries suffered came from rubber bullets from police, who shot at crowds lined up to vote outside polling centers.

Police also faced protestors, dragging them and whipping them with batons.

The scene in Catalonia is being called a “mass act of civil disobedience”. While Spain is a democratic country, its history with authoritarian governments is still fresh in the minds of some citizens.

“The government today is in a position to affirm that we can celebrate the referendum of self-determination-not as we wanted, but [as democracy] guarantees,” Jordi Turull, spokesman for the Catalan government, stated at a news conference.

Under dictator Francisco Franco in the early 1900s, Catalonia was heavily repressed. Citizens were barred from speaking Catalan disallowed to give children traditional Catalan names.

Democracy would not be completely established in Spain until the 1970s. The push for Catalonian independence would not come to its full extent until the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

Catalonia was given autonomy, but not independence or sovereignty, by the central government in Spain five years ago.

But on election day, Spain rescinded that autonomy and took control of Catalonian’s finances.

Even with popular opinion indicating a majority of support for independence, it is unclear what will happen next.

“Spain let us vote in 2014,” one of the organizers of the October 1st vote said to ABC News. He was referring to the vote in 2014, where most people who voted said “yes” on a ballot to sever from Spain.

That vote did not go anywhere.

“This time they refuse [to let us vote] because they know it’s happening,” he added. “I hope it’s the last battle.”

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Catalan referendum: ‘Hundreds hurt’ as police try to stop voters – 1 October 2017

The Telegraph – Catalan Referendum: Riot police ‘fire rubber bullets’ at crowd as they block voters at besieged polling stations – 1 October 2017

The Washington Post – Clashes during Catalan independence vote injure more than 300, including 12 police officers – 1 October 2017

The New York Times – Catalans, Elated but Fearful, Brace for Independence Vote – 29 September 2017

ABC News – What you need to know about the Catalan independence referendum – 26 September 2017

BBC News – Catalonia referendum: Madrid moves to take over local policing – 23 September 2017