News

High Court’s Decision in Northern Ireland Puts Pressure on the Legislature to Liberalize Abortion Laws

By: Madison Kenyon 

Impunity Watch Staff Writer 

BELFAST, Ireland — On Thursday, October 3, the high court in Belfast, Ireland held that Northern Ireland’s abortion law violates human rights. Specifically, Justice Keegan, the presiding judge, found that the law is incompatible with the United Kingdom’s human rights commitments. Justice Keegan will hear more submissions before deciding what definitive action to take.

Sarah Ewart and her mother after the October ruling. Photo Courtesy of BBC.

The current abortion law in place in Northern Ireland only permits an abortion in cases where it is necessary to save the life of the mother or prevent permanent mental or physical damage of the mother. There is no exception for rape, incest, or fatal fetal abnormalities. Further, abortion is a criminal offense under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Due to this law, women who seek an abortion must travel outside of Northern Ireland in order to get one. Although England, Scotland, and Wales all legalized abortions in 1967, Northern Ireland did not follow suit.

In June 2018, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission brought a case in the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court challenging Northern Ireland’s abortion law. The court dismissed the case though because it found that the Commission lacked standing and rather the case needed to be brought by a woman who had been denied an abortion. The court did state however, that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Following this dismissal, in January 2019, Sarah Ewart brought the present case. Ms. Ewart had previously been denied an abortion in 2013 even though her doctor told her that the child would either die during birth or shortly after leaving the womb. Along with being denied an abortion, she did not receive any advice as to where she could get an abortion or what she should do. Thus, Ms. Ewart had to travel to London in order to obtain an abortion. Justice Keegan found Ms. Ewart’s testimony to be very persuasive and she held that she did not think another woman should have to go through the same trauma that Ms. Ewart went through.

Regarding Thursday’s decision, Ms. Ewart stated, “Today’s ruling is a turning point for women in their campaign against the outdated laws prohibiting against abortion in Northern Ireland.” As Ms. Ewart suggests, this is definitely a step towards liberalizing Northern Ireland’s abortion law however, it is still very dependent on how the legislature reacts to this decision. Yet, this is not the only pressure the legislature has received to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law. Rather, in July 2019, the British Parliament voted on a plan that would decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland if the local government, which stopped functioning in January 2017, did not re-establish itself by October 21. Thus, with an upcoming deadline, the legislature must act fast and in compliance with Thursday’s holding, or the court should expect a lot more cases like Ms. Ewart’s.

For further information, please see: 

The Hill – High Court Rules Northern Ireland’s Abortion Ban Violates Human Rights – 3 Oct. 2019

AlJazeera – Northern Ireland Abortion Law Breaches Human Rights, Court Says – 3 Oct. 2019

CNN – Northern Ireland Abortion Law Breaches Human Rights, High Court Rules – 3 Oct. 2019

House of Commons: Women and Equalities Committee – Abortion Law in Northern Ireland – 3 Apr. 2019

 

South Sudanese Practice of Juvenile Death Sentences Condemned by Human Rights Actors

By: Jordan Broadbent

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

JUBA, South Sudan — On February 14, 2019, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights issued a plea for the President of South Sudan to stop using the death penalty against juveniles.

Since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, President H.E. Salva Kiir Mayardit has ruled South Sudan with an iron fist. His rule has raised several concerns of the human right to life. After gaining independence, the South Sudanese government began to increasingly use the death penalty and citizens who were children at the time they committed a crime were not exempted from the death penalty.

While not prohibited under international law, it is illegal to issue the death penalty to someone under the accepted age of adulthood – 18 years old – at the time that person committed the crime. Issuing the death penalty to children is rare, and only a handful of countries still continue this practice. In this region, South Sudan and Somalia are the only countries that still issue the death penalty to children. 

Since independence 140 death sentences have been issued, including citizens who were children at the time of the crime. One, a 17-year-old boy was just 15 at the time of an accident which ended up killing another person. The boy was not afforded a lawyer at the time of his trial and he was sentenced to death by hanging, he is currently waiting for his appeal on death row.

According to the South Sudan Criminal Code, the designated method of execution is death by hanging. Prior to execution, both the President and the Supreme Court must approve of the sentence. This requirement implicates the President for the increase of death penalty sentences to those under 18 years old.  This violates the government’s obligations under Article 37(a) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which South Sudan is a party. The Convention outlaws both the death penalty and life imprisonment for those who committed crimes while under the age of 18.  The President has denied there has ever been an execution of someone under 18 sentenced in South Sudan.

Amnesty International along with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have issued statements condemning South Sudan.

For further information, please see:

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – Appeal to the President of South Sudan to end the Death Penalty against children- 14 Feb. 2019

CNN- Child on Death Row in South Sudan as State executions escalate – 7 Dec. 2018

Amnesty International – South Sudan execution spree targets even children and nursing women –  7 Dec. 2018

International Bar Association – The Death Penalty under International law – May 2009

What is Happening Along the Border of Turkey and Syria?

By: Madison Kenyon 

Impunity Watch Staff Writer 

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Sunday, October 20, Syrian Kurdish forces began their withdrawal from Ras al-Ayn, a town along the Syrian border. This withdrawal is part of a cease-fire negotiated by the United States’ Vice President, Mike Pence, and Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo with Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This cease-fire began Thursday, October 17, and will end on Tuesday, October 22. By Tuesday evening, the Kurdish forces must not only have all soldiers removed from Ras al-Ayn, but also, they must withdraw from a zone about 75 miles wide and 20 miles deep between Ras al-Ayn and the town of Tel Abyad.

The aftermath of a shelling by Turkish forces on a target in Das al-Ayn. Photo courtesy of NPR.

Despite the Kurdish forces’ withdrawal from this zone, Turkey states that this is not enough. Rather, Erdogan wants the Kurdish forces to withdraw more than 260 miles from the Syrian border.  He has vowed that if the forces fail to do so, he will “continue to crush the terrorists’ heads.” Erdogan’s persistency to remove the Kurds from the Syrian border comes from his belief that the presence of any Kurds along the Turkey border is an “existential threat” to Turkey.

This tension between Turkey and the Kurds stems from years of conflict. The Kurds, a largely Muslim ethnic group, are one of the largest groups of people without a state of their own (despite being promised one after World War I). Due to this, for years, a Kurdish militant group has launched attacks throughout Turkey in an attempt to achieve autonomy. Therefore, Turkey sees the Kurdish forces located in northern Syria as linked to this militant group. Thus, Turkey argues that it wants to create a “safe zone” between the Turkey-Syrian border. It also argues that it wants to resettle at least a million refugees living in Turkey who were displaced by the Syrian war into this zone.

Previously, the U.S. has backed the Kurds in their defense against Turkey. However, recently, President Donald Trump signed an executive order withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria. The Kurds have now had to turn to Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s leader, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, for help in this conflict.

Since President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, over 200,000 people have been displaced. Many of these people blame President Trump for this displacement. One 70-year-old Kurdish man, forced to flee from his home in Ras al-Ayn, stated, “This was a clear betrayal by the Americans. The Turks never would have done what they did had the Americans stayed.”

This criticism is what led the U.S. to negotiate this cease-fire. However, despite the Kurds’ current withdrawal, both sides claim that the other side still repeatedly violates the cease-fire. For example, Turkey’s Defense Ministry stated that the Kurds killed one of its soldiers today during an attack.

It is hard to believe that this cease-fire will make any real difference in this conflict. Rather, the world is awaiting to see what happens at the Turkey-Syrian border Tuesday evening once the cease-fire ends.

For further information, please see: 

Time – Kurds Begin to Evacuate Besieged Syrian Border Town – 20 Oct. 2019

Washington Post – The Latest: Kurdish Fighters Pull Out of Syrian Border Town – 20 Oct. 2019

Bloomberg – Syrian and Kurdi News: Trump Approach to Turkey Syria Incursion – 20 Oct. 2019

Los Angeles Times – ‘How Long Can We Live Like This?’: Kurds in Growing Refugee Camp Plead for Help, End to Losses, Suffering – 20 Oct. 2019

CBS News – Turkey’s Involvement in Syria’s Civil War: The Complicated History of How We Got Here – 15 Oct. 2019

Akdağ v. Turkey: Right to a Lawyer While in Police Custody

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ANKARA, Turkey — On September 17, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) held that the Turkish government unfairly restricted a citizen from gaining access to a lawyer, thus violating Article 6 §1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Hamdiye Akdağ was arrested in November 2003 and while in police custody, she confessed to being a member of the PKK/KADEK (the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan), an illegal organization. On her statement form, in the “no lawyer sought” section, she printed an “X” next to it, and was not provided a lawyer subsequently. However, once she was brought before the public prosecutor and the investigating judge, she instantly retracted her statement.

Before the trial court, Akdağ maintained her position, claiming that she was forced into signing her statement. She also noted that she was illiterate. Ultimately in 2009, Akdağ was found guilty of membership in a terrorist organization and sentenced to over six years in prison. In 2010, the Court of Cassation upheld the conviction.

Here, the Government argued that Akdağ had specified on her statement form that she did not require legal assistance. Therefore, the Government noted that she justifiably waived her right to a lawyer. However, the Court held that Akdağ did not waive her right to a lawyer because she immediately withdrew her statement before the public prosecutor and the investigating judge, and also asserted that position before the trial court. In addition, her statement form just had a printed “X” next to the type-written “no lawyer sought.” With regards to her contention that she was illiterate, the trial court did not perform a proper assessment. Lastly, the Government failed to show that Akdağ had explicitly been advised about the consequences of not requesting the assistance of a lawyer.

The Court stated that while Akdağ had been allowed legal representation during the trial, the national courts had failed to examine the validity of the waiver or of the statements she had made to the police in the absence of a lawyer. As a result, the Court found the Government violated Article 6 §1 of the ECHR and the trial was unjust because the insufficiency of close scrutiny had not been resolved by any other procedural measures.

The ECHR dedicates an entire section of the Convention to rights to access court, the right to a fair trial, and the right to access a lawyer. In this decision, the ECHR ensured that Akdağ was not deprived of this fundamental right after the lower courts failed her. This decision will help set the precedent for citizens from member states who find themselves in a similar situation.

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Case of Akdag v. Turkey – 17 Sept. 2019

ECHR Case Law – Invalid Resignation of an Illiterate Accused of the Right to a Lawyer, Infringement of Fair Trial – 17 Sept. 2019

European Court of Human Rights – Guide on Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights – 30 Apr. 2019

The ICC Prosecutor’s Road to Justice for Afghanistan

By: Madison Kenyon 

Impunity Watch Staff Writer 

KABUL, Afghanistan — On September 17, 2019, the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (ICC) granted in part the request of the prosecutor for Leave to Appeal the Chamber’s earlier decision, which rejected the prosecutor’s request for authorization to investigate into the situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The Pre-Trial Chamber originally rejected this authorization because it believed that an investigation at the current stage of the situation would not serve the interests of justice. Thus, on June 7, 2019, the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, filed for leave to appeal this decision.

International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. Photo courtesy of the ICC.

This procedural history stems from the preliminary examination, which began in 2006, by the Office of the Prosecutor of the situation in Afghanistan. Specifically, the prosecutor examined alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes that have occurred in Afghanistan since July 1, 2002, with particular focus on alleged crimes that occurred on May 1, 2003. The prosecutor asserts that the results of this examination prove the following: (1) crimes against humanity and war crimes by the Taliban and their affiliated network; (2) war crimes by the Afghan National Security Forces, and in particular, members of the National Directorate for Security and the Afghan National Police; (3) and war crimes by members of the United States’ armed forces and the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Overall, through this examination, the prosecutor determined that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation into this situation and thus made the request for authorization to investigate on November 20, 2017.

The prosecutor asserts that, at a minimum, the crimes against humanity that have been committed include: murder; imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty; and persecution against an identifiable group or collectivity on political and gender grounds. Along with this, the prosecutor states that the war crimes that have been committed include: murder; cruel treatment and torture; outrages upon personal dignity; intentionally directing attacks against civilians; intentionally directing attacks against personnel or objects involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission; internationally directing attacks against protected objects; rape and other forms of sexual violence; using, conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen; and killing or wounding treacherously a combatant adversary. Further, regarding the United States’ involvement in the situation in Afghanistan, the prosecutor states that there is a reasonable basis to believe that members of the U.S. armed forces and members of the CIA committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape and sexual violence against conflict-related detainees in Afghanistan and other locations.

Although the Pre-Trial Chamber granted the prosecutor leave to appeal its earlier decision, this does not mean that it will also grant the prosecutor authorization to investigate further into the situation in Afghanistan. Due to the evidence produced by the prosecutor from her preliminary examination, if the Chamber again refuses to grant authorization to investigate further, it may leave many to wonder if the court is actually concerned about the “interests of justice” or if it is actually trying to avoid upsetting an international powerhouse like the United States.

For further information, please see: 

International Criminal Court – Afghanistan: ICC Pre-Trial Chamber II Authorises Prosecutor to Appeal Decision Refusing Investigation – 17 Sept. 2019

International Criminal Court – Situation in Afghanistan: Summary of the Prosecutor’s Request for Authorisation of an Investigation Pursuant to Article 15 – 20 Nov. 2017

International Criminal Court – The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, Requests Judicial Authorisation to Commence an Investigation into the Situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – 20 Nov. 2017