Pakistan High Court Releases Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

By: Charlotte Volpe                                                                                                             Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – On September 19th, the Islamabad High Court announced the release on bail of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz, and his son-in-law. The three were convicted in July by an anti-corruption court due to inquiries related to their ownership of high-value properties in London, drawing scrutiny on how government officials could afford such luxury real estate abroad.

Supporters of former PM Nawaz Sharif celebrating the Islamabad High Court’s decision. Photo courtesy of Anjum Naveed.

Sharif was ousted from office last year by the Supreme Court for alleged acts of corruption related to the properties the family owned in London.

The ruling to release the Sharifs has been praised by observers as the court’s declaration of its authority and assertion of proper judicial process, independent of external influences. Back in July, independent lawyers and analysts viewed the court’s sentencing of the Sharifs as unsubstantiated by enough evidence linking the family to the London properties. The court too has now come to that conclusion.

Sharif’s political supporters and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), are in high spirits. They contend that his conviction was an attempt by Imran Kahn and his rival party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to discredit Sharif as a political candidate for the general elections in July and harm his chance for re-election.

Kahn, the favored candidate of the Pakistani military, swept the elections and is now prime minister. 

PLM-N supporters feel that this is clear indication of PTI involvement leading to Sharif’s original conviction in July. PTI supporters, however, retort that Sharif would never have been released if there was a PTI conspiracy to undermine him.

In any case, the Islamabad High Court’s overturning of their sentence will allow the Sharifs to resume rallying support for PLM-N. Seen by many as her father’s chosen political successor, Maryam in particular has added personal grievance towards Kahn and will likely begin mobilizing support against him and the ruling PTI party.

For more information, please see:

The Economist – Pakistan’s former prime minister is freed from prison – 20 September 2018

The New York Times – Pakistan Court Releases Nawaz Sharif, Ex-Prime Minister, From Prison – 19 September 2018

Al Jazeera – Pakistan court releases ex-PM Nawaz Sharif and daughter – 19 September 2018

The Telegraph – Pakistan court orders release of former prime minister Sharif and daughter – 19 September 2018

Head of OAS Refuses to Rule Out Military Intervention Against Venezuela

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela — On Friday, September 14, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro held a press conference addressing the ongoing economic crisis in Venezuela.

President Nicolas Maduro’s 2018 electoral win has been widely denounced as illegitimate by member-states of the OAS, the Lima Group, and many in the international community. (Photo Courtesy Ariana Cubillos, Associated Press)

During the press conference where he spoke to Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, Mr. Almagro stated that the OAS would not rule out military action to overthrow Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, and restore democracy.  Mr. Almagro further alleged that the Maduro regime is “Perpetrating crimes against humanity toward its population and violations of human rights.”

However, Mr. Almagro’s statements have been condemned by the Lima Group, a coalition of Latin American countries plus Canada, formed in 2017 specifically to address the Venezuelan crisis.  The Lima Group has accused Mr. Almagro of promoting military interventionism against Venezuela—a sentiment echoed by the Venezuelan government.  “Almagro attacks Latin America and the Caribbean. . . [and] intends to revive the worst military intervention on the continent,” said Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez.

Venezuela denounced the American Convention on Human Rights in 2012 but remained a member-state of the OAS until 2017, when President Maduro announced Venezuela would begin the two-year process to withdraw from the organization.  In June 2018, OAS held an extraordinary assembly to vote on suspending Venezuela from the OAS with a majority voting in favor of suspension.

In 2017, the Maduro Administration replaced Venezuela’s legislative branch, the National Assembly—which was dominated by opposition parties—with the regime-controlled “Constituent Assembly.”  The administration has gone further to stay in power by blacklisting and jailing opposition candidates and shutting down critical news outlets.

Critics of the Maduro Administration have proposed that a military coup is one of the last hopes to restore a legitimate constitutional democracy in Venezuela.  They have also warned that allowing President Maduro to remain in power could lead to a return to the Latin American military dictatorships of the mid-20th century.

At least 2.3 million people have fled Venezuela’s political and economic crisis that began in 2014 following a sharp decline in crude oil prices.  Approximately 93% of Venezuelans still in the country do not earn enough to buy food, and most must devote hours every day just to find food.  According to a recent report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Venezuelan security forces have killed over 8,000 people in non-protest related operations since 2012.

For more information, please see:

Independent – Venezuela government guilty of ‘worst human rights crisis in its history’ – 21 September 2018

Al Jazeera – Lima Group rules out military intervention in Venezuela – 17 September 2018

BBC News – How Venezuela’s crisis developed and drove out millions of people – 22 August 2018

PBS – 5 reasons why the crisis in Venezuela could get worse – 27 July 2018

United Nations Human Rights OHC – Venezuela: Continued impunity amid dismal human rights situation – UN report – 22 June 2018

Foreign Policy – It’s Time for a Coup in Venezuela – 5 June 2018

Reuters – OAS calls extraordinary assembly to vote on suspending Venezuela – 5 June 2018

Al Jazeera – Venezuela’s crisis explained from the beginning – 23 March 2018

Rwandan Opposition Leader Released From Prison

By: Skylar Salim
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa

KIGALI, Rwanda – Rwandan President Paul Kagame pardoned political opposition leader Victoire Ingabire from a 15-year prison sentence.

Victoire Ingabire as she is released from prison. Photo Courtesy of Jean Bizimana.

On September 15, 2018, Victoire Ingabire, leader of the FDU-Inkingi opposition party, and 2,140 other prisoners were pardoned by President Kagame and released from prison. Ingabire intended to run for president when she returned to Rwanda from exile in 2010. Upon her arrival she was arrested, charged with treason and terrorism and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Her sentence was extended by five years on appeal for “genocide denial” in relation to remarks she made concerning the government’s portrayal of the 1994 genocide.

Ingabire brought a claim against the Rwandan government in the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In November 2017, the court found that the Republic of Rwanda violated Ingabire’s right to freedom of speech. Although calls for a retrial were initially ignored by the government, the president pardoned Ingabire. Ingabire thanked Kagame for releasing her and she said, “this is the beginning of the opening of political space in Rwanda.” She also called on the president to “release other political prisoners.”

The government has noted that the pardons are not a result from outside pressure, and that “there is nothing political about [Ingabire’s] release, there is nothing political about her imprisonment.” Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Businge told Reuters “the president has granted mercy, and under the constitution, he is allowed to do that.”

While Ingabire and other political prisoners were released, one notable opposition leader remains imprisoned and will go to trial on September 24. Diane Rwigara, in a situation similar to Ingabire, ran for president in 2017 but could not complete her run due to issues raised by the electoral committee. Rwigara and her mother were later arrested on charges relating to the claims of electoral fraud and treason.

Typically in elections, Kagame wins with over 90% of the vote and the ruling party, Rwandan Patriotic Front, faces little opposition. Kagame commanded the rebel force that helped end the 1994 genocide and he has been president for 18 years. A new amendment to the Rwandan constitution that ends two-term limits could allow Kagame to remain in power until 2034.

For further information, please see:

CNN – Rwandan Imprisoned Opposition Leader to go on Trial as Another Walks Free – for now – 22 September 2018

Al Jazeera – Rwandan Opposition Leader Among 2,100 Released from Prison – 15 September 2018

The Citizen – Rwandan Opposition Leader Freed From Jail – 15 September 2018

Saudi Women Arrested, Receive Social Backlash as the Lift on the Driving ban Approaches

By: Natalie S. Maier
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — As Saudi Arabia prepares to lift its ban on women driving, activists behind the change are experiencing backlash. Activists Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef and Aisha Almane were arrested last week, accused of “suspicious contact with foreign entities to support their activities, recruiting some persons in charge of sensitive government positions, and providing financial support to hostile elements outside the country,” according to a state news agency. A headline in the daily al-Jazirah newspaper branded the women as “traitors.”

Saudi Activist Manal Al Sharif. Courtesy of Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images.

The arrests are cause for concern for women’s rights campaigners around the world, who applauded the lift of the ban as a significant step for women’s rights in the country. Sydney-based Saudi activist and author Manal Al-Sharif told CNN on Sunday that she thinks the arrests show a pattern of character assassination that has previously plagued the efforts of social reform. “We used to live in a police state; if you speak up you go to jail. And then there would be a defamation campaign against you, saying all sort of untrue things… We are seeing the same pattern now,” she says. Al-Sharif also says that the security forces arrested the women in their homes, without a warrant.

Amnesty International has condemned the arrests and negative coverage by the local media in the days following. Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns, said that, while the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman presents himself as a reformer, “his promises of reform seem entirely superficial as the repression of human rights activists continues unabated.”

Other citizens against lifting the ban have taken to social media using the hashtag #YouWontDrive, which has been used 65,000 times since Monday. Some women chose to respond humorously by tweeting pictures and videos of their dream cars. Others, such as Sarah Al-Otaibi, responded on a more serious note, calling the hashtag a threat to women and the free exercise of their rights.

The pressure to lift the ban on driving comes as a larger call by women to end Saudi Arabia’s practices of male guardianship, which require women to get the permission of a male guardian to do almost everything. Other key changes since December of 2015 include women voting and standing as candidates in political elections, attending public sporting events, and entering the workforce in the hotel industry.

King Salman issued the decree in September of 2017 allowing women to drive for the first time in the country’s history. The ban on driving is set to be lifted on June 24, 2018.

For more information, please see:

BBC – Saudi Arabia women’s driving activists ‘targeted in smear campaign’ – 20 May 2018

BBC – Saudi women troll men telling them ‘you won’t drive’ – 16 May 2018

CNN – Saudi Arabia arrests female activists week before lifting of driving ban – 20 May 2018


UK Apologizes for Torture of Libyan Rebel Commander and his Wife

By: Natalie S. Maier
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

TRIPOLI, Libya – Libyan Rebel Commander Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar have received an apology from the UK government following “appalling treatment” during their detention in 2004.

Boudchar and her son. Photo Courtesy of BBC News.

Mr. Belhaj and Ms. Boudchar were taken to Tripoli where they were both tortured by Libyan jailers. Belhaj had been an opponent of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi and lead the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in multiple assassination attempts on Gaddafi. Belhaj and his wife were abducted in 2001 while trying to fly from Bangkok to London to seek asylum in the UK . Boudchar was five months pregnant at the time.

In the aftermath of the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the US and its allies sought to track jihadists groups more closely. This included British Intelligence agencies’ monitoring of Libyan dissidents who had been living under UK protection. Senior MI6 officer, Sir Mark Allen, was at the center of an operation attempting to convince Gaddafi and his henchmen to work with the West. Papers found by the Human Rights Watch, known as the Tripoli documents, show that Allen and his Libyan counterpart, Moussa Koussa, had agreed that counterterrorism experts from both party’s sides should meet and discuss their common enemies. Koussa allegedly wanted intelligence that would lead to the capture of LIFG leaders on the run, in addition to recognition for Libya.

In 2004, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Gaddafi made a diplomatic move ultimately known as the “deal in the desert.” As consideration, the UK agreed to provide information on the whereabouts of the regime’s enemies.

On March 1, 2004, information from London to Tripoli tipped off Belhaj and his wife, who were in Malaysia at the time. Malaysian authorities, in communication with the Libyans, put the couple on a flight to Bangkok, where they were received and immediately detained. A day later, the couple was transported to Tripoli. Belhaj alleges that he was continuously tortured during a six-year period in prison. Boudchar was released only a few months after being detained, and shortly before giving birth.

On Thursday, May 10, 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a public apology to Belhaj, Boudchar, and their son, with whom Boudchar was pregnant at the time of her detainment. All three family members were present at the reading of the apology. Belhaj told BBC news, “I hope that it is a new page in history, that we guarantee and strengthen human rights and this practice is not repeated.”

For further information, please see:

BBC News – Belhaj rendition: UK apology over Libyan dissident treatment – 10 May 2018

Evening Standard – Libyan dissident Abdul Hakim Belhaj, tortured by Gaddafi regime, receives apology from Theresa May – as his wife Fatima Boudchar is given £500,000 payout – 10 May 2018

Middle East Eye – British government apologizes to Libyan dissident Belhaj over rendition – 10 May 2018 

BBC News – Abdul Hakim Belhaj: the documents trail that nailed  UK’s secret role in rendition – 10 May 2018