United Nations Reports ‘Grave’ Human Rights Abuses in Crimea

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

GENEVA, Switzerland – In a report published on September 25th, the United Nations cited grave instances of human rights abuses in Crimea.

People Wave Flags in Observation of the Third Anniversary of Russia’s Annexation of Crimea. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times.

“There is an urgent need for accountability,” UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said of the situation.

The United Nations ordered the human rights investigation in December 2016. The report is based on interviews conducted from Ukraine, as investigators were not allowed access into the region.

Among the abuses found are incidences of illegal arrests, allegedly taking place to instill fear and stifle opposition. There is also evidence of torture, and a finding of at least one extra-judicial execution. Additionally, between 2014 and 2015, dozens of people were abducted, and ten still remain missing.

The abuses are alleged to have been perpetrated by the Federal Security Service, Russian police officers and a paramilitary group.

Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 in a referendum that was and is not recognized by the international community. It has been condemned by the European Union as well as the United States and has resulted in sanctions against Russia.

The human rights abuses are primarily directed at the Tatars, a Turkic speaking minority in Crimea that makes up about 12% of its population.

The report states that “while those human rights violations and abuses have affected Crimean residents of diverse ethnic backgrounds, Crimean Tatars were particularly targeted especially those with links to the Mejlis.”

The Tatar parliament, the Mejelis, boycotted the referendum on joining Russia and were deemed an extremist organization and banned by Moscow in 2016. The Tatar community has since been limited in its ability to celebrate important dates and display cultural symbols.

Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, states that the report is “an unjust and biased assessment of the human rights situation in Crimea.” A Crimean official has also stated that the report is not objective or indicative of reality.

Thousands of Crimean residents have fled rather than be subject to forced Russian citizenship.

The report notes that hundreds of Crimean prisoners were illegally transferred to Russian jails, an act that violates international law. Three detainees who were transferred died after they did not receive medical treatment for serious medical conditions.

“The frequency and severity of these human rights violations, together with the lack of accountability, has created an atmosphere of impunity which encourages the further perpetuation of such violations,” said Fiona Frazer, lead of the investigating mission.

For more information, please see:

Anadolu Agency – UN Says Russia Violating Crimea Tatars’ Rights – 25 September 2017

BBC News – UN Accuses Russia of Violating Human Rights in Crimea – 25 September 2017

New York Times – Russia Committed ‘Grave’ Rights Abuses in Crimea, UN Says – 25 September 2017

Reuters – Russian Occupation of Crimea Marked by Grave Human Rights Violations – 25 September 2017

Washington Post – UN Human Rights Office: Russia Violating International Law in Crimea – 25 September 2017

Deadliest Mass Shooting in Modern US history is the 273rd Mass Shooting in 2017

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

LAS VEGAS, Nevada On Sunday night, October 1st, Stephen Paddock opened fire from his room on the 32nd floor upon concert-goers attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.  Police received the first reports of the shooting at 10:08 pm, according to the New York Times, and the shooter was found dead by the time SWAT entered his room.  As of October 2nd, 59 people were killed and 527 people were injured during the shooting.

Dozens of people were killed and hundreds were wounded during Sunday evening’s shooting in Las Vegas. Photo Courtesy of Vox News.

According to multiple law enforcement officials, 23 guns were recovered from the hotel room and an additional 19 guns and explosives were recovered from Paddock’s home in Mesquite, NV, 90 miles north of Las Vegas.  Stephen Paddock was a 64-year-old wealthy white man with “no significant criminal history.”

In a statement to The New York Times, FBI Special Agent Aaron Rouse dismissed claims that Paddock was associated with ISIS and stated that “[Paddock had] no connection to an international terrorist group.”

Sunday night’s tragic shooting, categorized by many as an act of domestic terrorism, has surpassed the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida as well as the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre as the deadliest shooting since 1949.

Mass shootings do not have a consistent definition: organizations may categorize a mass shooting by number of people injured, number of people killed, and may exclude certain kinds of violence.  These definitions may exclude the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 or the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, both incidents with a death toll in the hundreds. Under Vox News and the Gun Violence Archive’s definition of mass shootings (any incident where “four or more people were shot, but not necessarily killed, at the same general time and location”), this incident is the 273rd mass shooting in the US in 2017.

For more information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Las Vegas shooter named as Stephen Paddock – 2 October 2017

Al Jazeera – The deadliest mass shootings in the US – 2 October 2017

The Guardian – 1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days: America’s gun crisis – in one chart – 2 October 2017

The Guardian – Mandalay Bay attack: at least 59 killed in deadliest US shooting – 2 October 2017

The New York Times – Las Vegas Shooting Live Updates: Multiple Weapons Found in Gunman’s Hotel Room – 2 October 2017

NPR – Las Vegas Shooting Update: At Least 59 People Are Dead After Gunman Attacks Concert – 2 October 2017

Vox – Is Las Vegas the worst mass shooting in US history? It’s surprisingly complicated – 2 October 2017

Reveal – Charlottesville underscores how homegrown hate is going unchecked – 21 June 2017

97-year-old Shipping Regulation Limiting Post-Hurricane Relief to Puerto Rico

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico On Wednesday, September 20, Category 4 Hurricane ‘Maria’ made landfall in Puerto Rico with winds reaching 155 miles per hour and covering parts of the island in over 10 feet of water.  It was the strongest hurricane to affect Puerto Rico since San Felipe Segundo in 1928.

The sun sets on a devastated neighborhood in Yabucoa in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Photo Courtesy of The Guardian.

As of September 27, 97% of the population did not have access to electricity and over 50% do not have access to drinking water with the daily temperature reaching over 90°.  Puerto Rico’s hospitals are dependent on diesel fuel to power their emergency generators, and despite their stringent fuel rationing, the majority of the hospitals are on the verge of running out.  Diesel is a necessary good imported to Puerto Rico from the mainland United States.

The existing poor infrastructure and the current difficulty in getting aid to Puerto Rico post-Maria have been blamed in a large part on the Jones Act.

The Jones Act—also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920—requires that the transportation of goods between points in the US be done in a ship (1) bearing the US flag, (2) built in the United States, (3) owned by US citizens, and (4) operated by US citizens or legal permanent residents.  This means that basic shipments of necessary goods must be imported to Puerto Rico from the US on Jones Act-compliant ships that tend to run four times more expensive than non-compliant ships.  This results in the cost of living in Puerto Rico is about 13% higher on average than in the contiguous United States.

Precedents for Jones Act waivers in the last 15 years have included exceptional situations of humanitarian need—Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012, and Harvey and Irma in 2017—and have spanned three administrations: Bush, Obama, and Trump.

President Donald Trump has been hesitant to waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and told reporters on Wednesday: “We’re thinking about that, but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people, a lot of people who work in the shipping industry, that don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”

Puerto Rico has a population of 3.4 million—roughly equivalent to the combined population of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

For more information, please see:

CNN – Puerto Ricans still waiting for aid a week after Maria’s devastation – 27 September 2017

NBC News – What is the Jones Act? Opponents to 1920 Law Argue It’s Worsening Puerto Rico’s Crisis – 27 September 2017

The Guardian – Hurricane Maria pushes Puerto Rico’s struggling hospitals to crisis point – 27 September 2017

Vox – The Jones Act, the obscure 1920 shipping regulation strangling Puerto Rico, explained – 27 September 2017

The Washington Post – Feds rush aid to Puerto Rico amid growing pleas for help – 25 September 2017

Al Jazeera – Hurricane Maria strikes US territory of Puerto Rico – 21 September 2017

Department of Homeland Security – DHS Statement on Extending the Jones Act Waiver – 13 September 2017

Venezuelans forced to scavenge for food to survive

By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela – The people of Venezuela are starving as the economic and political situation in their country worsens. Thousands flee every day because there is not enough food to survive in their homes. This country that was once an economic hub in South America can no longer sustain its population.

Church in Cucuta serves food to immigrants. Image Courtesy of BBC.

With little food available in Venezuela, people look across the border for help. An estimated 25,000 people cross the Simon Bolivar International bridge into Colombia each day. The town of Cucuta in particular has been swarmed with hungry immigrants. One local church feeds between 600 and 2,000 people a day. Immigrants line up in the open-air courtyard set with plastic tables and chairs. Most say they cannot find work back home and come to this church for their only proper meal of the day.

In order to facilitate this mass migration, the Colombian government has recently introduced “border mobility cards.” These allow Venezuelans to move freely across the border without a passport. This is useful for those who go home to Venezuela after getting fed, but some do not ever want to return. Many have remarked that they will not return until their President is gone. One Venezuelan condemned Maduro saying, “he’s a president who spends money while his people die of hunger.”

For those that stay in Venezuela, aid is severely limited. One soup kitchen at a Catholic Church in Caracas can only serve children. Relying solely on donations, it serves 100 children every day and there are never any left overs. Parents, who would rather beg than let their kids go hungry, often have to be turned away. One parent remarks, “sometimes my wife and I do without food so at least the children can eat twice a day.”

President Maduro released “Plan Rabbit” in an effort to solve his country’s hunger crisis. Basically, he asks that Venezuelans eat their pet rabbits as a source of protein. The agricultural minister, Freddy Bernal, remarked with a smile, “the rabbit isn’t a pet, it’s only two and a half kilos of meat.” This country does not commonly consume rabbit and is more used to them as pets. The suggestion that communities should raise rabbits as sustenance was seen as a desperate and extreme measure taken by the President.

Strict food rationing, surging malnutrition, and starvation all became prevalent when the armed conflict began a few years ago. As the economy spiraled, the population’s nutrition did as well. Most Venezuelans have lost significant weight as a result. “A national poll found that Venezuelans lost 19 pounds on average in 2016 due to food shortages.” Malnutrition continues to afflict thousands of people. There has been an infant mortality rise from 35% to 65%. Nutrition in children has dramatically declined while the number of deaths from malnutrition grows.

While all this happens at home, President Maduro focuses his concern on building his army for the war with the U.S. “that will likely never come.” The leader blames President Trump and the United States for his country’s economic crisis and denounces the sanctions brought against them.

For further information, please see:

Fox News – Escape from Venezuela: Colombia border crossing mobbed as starving citizens flee – 28 September 2017

CNS News – No Need for TP or Toothpaste in Venezuela Because There’s No Food – 28 September 2017

BBC – Venezuelans cross into Colombia as crisis deepens – 28 September 2017

Bloomberg Businessweek – From 172 to 115 Pounds: The Faces of Venezuelan Hunger – 27 September 2017

Aljazeera – Venezuelan families scavenge for food to survive hunger – 25 September 2017

CNN Money – Can rabbit meat save Venezuela from going hungry? – 14 September 2017

Mass Graves Discovered in Myanmar

By: Katherine Hewitt
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

RAKHINE, Myanmar – Amongst the ethnic conflict between Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in the Rakhine state of Myanmar (Burma), a mass grave of 28 Hindus was found on 24 September 2017. The Myanmar army discovered the two pits near Yebawkya Village. The Information Committee confirmed the news later that day in a Facebook post.

Myanmar’s government response on Facebook to discovery of first mass grave. Photo Courtesy of BBC News.

The Rakhine state is the scene of tense ethnic fighting between the Hindus and Rohingya Muslims that has spanned several years. However, the state has been in a state of crisis since the Rohingya militants attacked 30 police posts. The government responded with a military offensive that the UN declares as an act of ethnic cleansing against the Muslims. The High Commissioner called the government attacks disproportionate.

Hindu refugees from an attack on 25 August 2017 stated that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)* militants stormed a Hindu village in the north of the Rakhine state, killing many. Others were escorted into the forest. A list of 102 missing people has been presented by Hindu women who fled the village. The Myanmar government is working to confirm this list.

In the meantime, the military is searching for more mass graves and bodies in the same area that original two graves were found. One day later, 25 September, the military found 17 more bodies 200 yards away from the mass graves. Members of the village were present to identify the bodies. In a statement from the government, the bodies were found blindfolded with slit throats and hands bound.

The Myanmar government has not released a formal statement on who committed the crime. The military supports the idea that those responsible are members of ARSA. ARSA militants fight for the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state. An ARSA spokesman denies these accusations calling them “lies,” and reminds the community that “ARSA has internationally pledged not to target civilians.”

Currently, the government keeps Myanmar closed to foreigners, journalists and media personal specifically. Therefore, obtaining a neutral and independent view is difficult.

It is important to note that the majority of those afflicted by the ethnic violence in the Rakhine state are the Rohingya Muslims. There is little sympathy for the group. They are not universally considered citizens of Myanmar, but rather classified as invaders from Bangladesh. The Myanmar government seeks to rid out Rohingya militants. However over 400,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the past month to escape the government violence.

For more information, please see:

Newsweek – MYANMAR CRISIS: AS ARMY CLAIMS DISCOVERY OF ‘MASS HINDU GRAVE’ U.N. SEEKS AID FOR TRAUMATIZED ROHINGYA” – 25 September 2017

The New York Times – “Myanmar Follows Global Pattern in How Ethnic Cleansing Begins” – 18 September 2017

The Hindu – “Myanmar looks for more Hindu corpses as mass grave unearthed” – 25 September 2017

Reuters – “Myanmar finds more bodies in mass grave; UN seeks rapid aid increase” – 25 September 2017

The BBC – ” ‘Mass Hindu grave’ found in Myanmar’s Rakhine state” – 25 September 2017 

Flint Water Crisis Causes Precipitous Fertility Drop

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

FLINT, Michigan – The lead-poisoned water of Flint, Michigan has had a major effect on the fertility rate in the city according to a working paper by Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky of Kansas University. The city of Flint switched to the lead-poisoned Flint River in 2014 in order to cut costs. However, the result was a “culling of the least healthy fetuses” leading to a “horrifyingly large” increase in both miscarriages and fetal deaths according to the paper’s authors.

During the Flint water crisis, free water was distributed at the Lincoln Park Methodist Church on February 3, 2015. Photo Courtesy of Business Insider.

In the paper, the authors estimate that among babies conceived from November 2013 to March 2015, “between 198 and 276 more children would have been born had Flint not enacted the switch in water.” Grossman and Slusky found that pregnancies that lasted at least 20 weeks but did not result in birth increased by 58%. The authors also found that fertility rates dropped by 12% compared to other economically similar cities in Michigan that did not have a switch in their water source.

The authors argue that the change in water supply has effects beyond just infants. They believe the drop in fertility is evidence of the effect of lead on the health of potential newborns in utero.  It is important to note that the authors list a number of limitations their study had. Lead builds up in the body over time so focusing on neonatal health could underestimate the overall effects of lead on human health and development. There are also several other contaminates that could have been in the water and affected the results.

This table from the working paper shows the moving fertility rate of Flint compared to other cities in Michigan. Photo Courtesy of Washington Post.

But lead is definitively one of the contaminates of the water. According to Reuters, the water from the river is so corrosive that it stripped the city pipes of lead and contaminated the city’s drinking water. Following the switch to the Flint River, residents began complaining about the appearance and odor of the water. Yet, the city assured residents that the water was safe to drink into 2015.

Water utilities typically point out that although a person has higher lead levels in their blood, the person can’t say definitively what caused the increase. They argue it could have been dust or old paint or lead contaminated dirt. However, most of the effects of water contaminated with lead can only be observed through analysis of the population.

Grossman and Slusky conclude that “failure to provide safe drinking water has large health implications.” It has been come common knowledge that children who have been exposed to lead can face harmful consequences. Some of these consequences are increased antisocial behavior, lower educational attainment, cognitive deficiencies, and many other problems that affect the liver, kidneys and brain.

What is not as well-known is the effects of lead on fetal health. Grossman and Slusky’s literature review shows that pregnant women exposed to lead are linked to “fetal death, prenatal growth abnormalities, reduced gestational period, and reduced birth weight.” At the time the lead exposure began, many Flint residents were unaware that there was lead in the water at all. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states pregnant women who are exposed to lead also expose their unborn child because lead can cross the placental barrier. According to the World Health Organization, there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered to be safe.

For more information, please see:

Business Insider – Fetal Deaths Rose 58% After Flint Switched to Lead-Poisoned Water – 22 September 2017

Huffington Post – Flint Water Crisis Likely Increased Fetal Deaths, Study Shows – 21 September 2017

Washington Post – Flint’s Lead-Poisoned Water had a ‘Horrifyingly Large’ Effect on Fetal Deaths, Study Finds – 21 September 2017

Working Paper – The Effect of an Increase in Lead in the Water System on Fertility and Birth Outcomes: The Case of Flint, Michigan – 7 August 2017

Center for Disease Control and Prevention – Health Problems Caused by Lead – 17 April 2017

Business Insider – Michigan is Urging Infants Take Lead Screening After Flint Water Crisis – 17 November 2016

World Health Organization – Lead Poisoning and Health – September 2016

 

Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq to Hold Referendum

By Justin Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East 

KIRKUK, Iraq The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq has elected to hold a non-binding referendum signaling its desire to provincially separate from the central Iraqi regime. The referendum is scheduled to be put to a vote on 25 September. The independence referendum has gained its most support over the last couple of months as Iraq continues its counterterrorism-minded overtaking of provincial and regional governments. Moreover, the referendum is facing much criticism from both the central Iraqi government and the nearby Turks. The central Iraqi government view the measure as an impingement upon their regional control in northern Iraq, especially because the referendum expresses intention to reject central Iraqi control of the security forces and recruit, train and develop an exclusively Kurdish security apparatus. The Turks view the referendum as granting empowerment to the minority Kurdish political parties and forcing terrorists to seek more readily available opportunities in Turkey. The primary opposition again refers to the weakening of Turkey’s counterterrorism apparatus.

Kurdish Regional Government President, Massoud Barzani. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

The KRG President, Massoud Bazani, has expressed the intention to move forward with the referendum, despite its mass criticism. In speaking to Kurds on 24 September, Barzani told Kurds that the future of the Kurdish people depends upon the passage of the referendum. Barzani continued that the referendum would give the KRG important standing to continue negotiations with the Iraqi government. Barzani concluded that the Kurds currently maintain the most bargaining power since their ousting by the Hussein regime. As momentum continues to build, the passage of the referendum is important because it allows the government to continue to forge relationships with Baghdad, while also building the governmental institutions that are central to success and stability. Barzani, whose tenure began in 2005, urged his commitment to recruit Kurdish forces and receive international aid and training.

Counterterrorism remains at the forefront of both criticism and support for the referendum. While Barzani claims that the ability to recruit and develop independent security forces will allow for a more specialized focus in repelling ISIS fighters from the region. Conversely, the Iraqi central government disagrees in saying that independent security forces will not be well equipped nor prepared to endure the challenges of repelling ISIS fighters. Moreover, the time lapse in acquiring and building the security apparatus lends itself to a void in time, for which terrorists can take advantage, especially when such a schedule is well promulgated. With the referendum looming, its determination can ultimately change the mechanisms with which the Middle East combats ISIS and other regional terrorists. The United States has publicly denounced the referendum, calling it illegitimate.

For more information, please see:

U.S. Department of State – Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s Referendum – 25 September 2017

Aljazeera News – Barzani to Kurds: Vote in Referendum to Secure Future – 24 September 2017

Reuters – Kurds Stick with Independence Vote – 24 September 2017

Aljazeera News – Barzani: Kurd Region Poll to Occur Despite Opposition – 23 September 2017

Turkmenistan uses Athletic Games to mask Human Rights Violations

By: Katherine Hewitt 
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan – President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov welcomed the fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games to Ashgabat on 17 September 2017. Turkmenistan is considered to be one of the most repressive countries in the world, with Freedom House scoring the “highly repressive authoritarian state” a 3/100. In addition, Turkmenistan is one of the most closed off countries in the world.

The capital city of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat, is pristine but oddly quiet. Photo courtesy of The Atlantic.

In preparation for these games, there have been reports of multiple human rights violations. To make available real estate to build the sports facilities, athlete housing, and a new airport among other construction projects, homes have been demolished.  The government handed out inadequate compensation to those afflicted in order to create available real estate. The cost of the new construction is roughly $7.3 billion.

At the same time the government charged citizens higher rent for adequate sized housing. Many families could not afford the rise in prices, as Turkmenistan is in a severe economic crisis.

Other violations included restricting travel, requiring “minders” for foreign journalists, and denying entrance of human rights workers form the UN.

As the games progress throughout the 10 day period (17 September to 27 September 2017), the state continues to block the athletic village off form the rest of the capital city with barriers. Traffic cannot enter the central part of the city. It appears that Ashgabat is isolated from the rest of the country. The government claims this is for security measurers.

Homeless citizens, prostitutes, and drug users are removed from the city center to provide an illusion of a perfect city. In addition, a curfew is in effective during the games. Schools in the city center are closed for the duration of the games. Citizens are not to be seen outside after 8 pm. It is enforced by police. Small privately-owned businesses in the city-center will remain closed during the games.  The government is less clear on why these polices are in place.

Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch, Rachel Denber suggests that these measures are less about security than they are about repression of the Turkmen citizens. “The government deeply fears what will happen when Turkmen come into contact with foreigners. They worry that the government’s secrets about how repressive it is and how poor the social conditions are will suddenly spill out. It is doing everything to prevent that from happening.”   Whatever the rational, the government is intent on limiting the contact of the Turkmen from the outside visitors.

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – IOC turns blind eye to Turkmenistan using sport to legitimize tyranny – 17 September 2017

Freedom House – Turkmenistan Country Report 2017 

Human Rights Watch – Turkmenistan: Repression Casts Shadow on Asian Games – 13 September 2017

The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights – Cordoned off roads, curfew, soldiers guarding pyrotechnics and toilets made from freight containers. Ashgabat gets ready for the Asian Games – 17 September 2017

Brazilian Army Troops Are Deployed in Rio De Janeiro City to Counter Drug-Related Shoot-Out

By: Fernando Oliveira
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – On September 23th, 2017, Brazilian Defense Minister Raul Jungmann authorized the deployment of about 950 federal army soldiers in Rio de Janeiro city, given the formal state government request of assistance to face the worsening of drug-related violence.

Brazilian army progressing within Rocinha, while neighbors pass through – Picture courtesy of O Globo.

After a whole week of several fire shooting episodes, last Saturday, September 23,  Rio de Janeiro city awoke with a war scenario surrounding one of its biggest favelas, named Rocinha. Armored tanks were on the streets, military helicopters in the sky, and roads were blocked in order to help the cash-strapped state police forces step into the slum area.

Rocinha – as many other Rio`s favelas – is a very poor neighborhood located in the Southern area of the city, not far from some of the most expensive real estate areas. It has about 70,000 inhabitants which were under trafficking gang rules until 2011, when the state government set forth a “pacification program” that pushed criminals, mainly drug dealers, out of the slum.

However, soon after the 2016 Summer Olympics, a wide spread corruption scandal led the former state governor, Sergio Cabral, to jail. According to federal prosecutors, he was the leader of a huge bribery mafia that diverted millions of dollars from state sources, and has been sentenced to more than 45 years in prison. As a consequence, state institutions, including the state police department, have run out of money and the “pacification program” – which had originally been successfully implemented in several favelas – began to run down.

As the “pacification program” weakened, the drug gangs went back to Rocinha. Currently, they are completely reinstalled, and started to fight among them toward controlling the worthiest drug trade points within the slum. War weapons, such as rifles AR-15 and grenades, are constantly used by the drug traffickers on rival gang firefights, and also against the state police forces. Be that as it may, the only hope for the poor Rocinha’s population is to believe that the federal troops will reestablish the order in the neighborhood, and life will return to normal.

For further information, please see:

Reuters — Brazil army deploys in Rio slum as drug-related violence worsens – 22 September 2017

Washington Post – Army mobilizes in Rio as shootings erupt in several areas – 22 September 2017

New York Times – Sérgio Cabral, Ex-Governor of Rio de Janeiro, Arrested on Corruption Charges – 17 November 2016

Wall Street Journal – Brazil Judge Sentences Ex-Rio Governor to 14 Years in Corruption Case – 13 June 2017

Foha de São Paulo – Ex-Governor of Rio de Janeiro Sérgio Cabral Sentenced to 45 Years in Prison – 21 September 2017

Washington Sees Bipartisanship on Bill Against Sex Trafficking

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. – On September 19, 2017 the Senate Commerce Committee heard testimony from victims’ families urging law makers to approve the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). The bill has bipartisan support as it was promoted by both Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut).

Human trafficking survivors and their advocates have been pushing Congress to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) for years. Courts around the country have been interpreting the act to afford immunity to individuals and companies who knowingly work with sex traffickers to create advertisements for the sale of women and children into sex trafficking.

The CDA was passed by Congress in 1996 to help families shield children form sexually explicit material. At the time, Congress also wanted the Internet to be successful. Taking both of these goals into account, Congress designed the CDA “to protect companies when they merely hosted content from third parties and when they chose in good faith to regulate explicit material on their sites — not when they knowingly engaged in clearly illegal activity.”

Yvonne Ambrose, who’s daughter Desiree Robinson was killed as a result of sex trafficking, speaks to the media after giving her testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, in favor of amending the CDA.

Today, individuals and companies utilized the immunity law of the CDA. California Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown stated, “until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.” One webpage it applies to is Backpage.com which is the website where most American victims of sex trafficking are sold.

Backpage is involved in 73% of cases of suspected child trafficking in America. Although this is a large percentage, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently dismissed three sex trafficking cases. The court ruled that the CDA’s immunity provision precluded the litigation even if they knowingly collaborated with sex traffickers to sell children. The court suggested that the victims seek legislative change to stop this issue.

Despite not taking ads from Backpage, Google “has emerged as its behind-the-scenes champion.” Google is concerned that closing the loophole created by the CDA would allow for frivolous lawsuits and investigations that will damage its’ interests and the freedom of the Internet. Senator Portman says they have nothing to fear.

Senator Portman said, “They have to be proven to have knowingly facilitated, supported or assisted in online sex trafficking to be liable in the first place.”  The Senator further declared, “Because the standard is so high, our bill protects good tech actors and targets rogue online actors like Backpage.”

While none of the members of the Commerce Committee have come out against the bill, some have indicated that they are open to revising it in order to address the concerns of the tech industry. It remains to be seen how the bill may be revised to address these concerns and effectively close the CDA loophole.

For more information, please see:

The Hill – Senators Hear Emotional Testimony on Controversial Sex-Trafficking Bill – 19 September 2017

Huff Post – Who Will Win in Congress – Trafficking Victims or Special Interests? – 19 September 2017

Washington Post – Mother of Slain Teen Makes Tearful Plea for Congress to Amend Internet Law – 19 September 2017

New York Times – Google and Sex Traffickers Like Backpage.com – 7 September 2017

Tunisian Authorities Pledges to Stop Forced Anal Examinations for Homosexuality

By: Adam King
Impunity Rights News Reporter, Africa

Tunisian authorities recently announced a change to compulsory anal examinations for accusations of homosexuality. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisian authorities recently announced that it would be ending its current practice of forcing those who face accusations of homosexuality to undergo mandatory anal testing.  In Tunisia, a judge has the power to compel a defendant accused of homosexuality to undergo an anal examination to collect evidence against the defendant. Under the new policy, defendants would be able to refuse the examination.  According to Mehdi Ben Gharbia ( a Tunisian politician), “judges can still request that a suspect undergo the test but that person has every right to refuse, without his refusal being held up as proof of homosexuality”.

The United Nations and other human rights organizations have equated the practice of mandatory anal exams to torture. In March 2016, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing instances of forceful abuse of the anal examination protocol against Tunisian citizens.  One victim recalled his experience with the examination process,

“[T]he policeman took me outside to a small garden. He hit me. He slapped me on the face and punched me on the shoulder and said “You will do the test.” The doctor was not watching, but he knew I was being beaten. The policeman pushed me back into the room and said to the doctor, “He will do the test…..He entered one finger inside my anus, with cream on it. He put his finger in and was looking. While putting his finger in, he asked “Are you ok now?” I said, “No, I’m not okay.” It was painful…Then he put in a tube. It was to see if there was sperm. He pushed the tube far inside. It was about the length of a finger. It felt painful. I felt like I was an animal, because I felt like I didn’t have any respect. I felt like they were violating me. I feel that up to now. It’s very hard for me.”

Amnesty International covered the issue of abuse against homosexual and transgender persons in Tunisia originally in 2015. In their report, they detailed the challenges that homosexual and transgender persons faced when trying to seek redress for the harms against them,

“In some cases, instead of duly investigating these homophobic and transphobic crimes – as is their obligation under international law – the police warned or openly threatened survivors, including lesbian women, to drop their complaints if they did not wish to be prosecuted themselves. In other cases police officers have exploited LGBTI people’s fears of prosecution to subject them to blackmail, extortion and, at times, sexual abuse. Gay men and transgender individuals who do not want to be arrested are often forced to bribe police officers and give up their phones or other valuables.”

While this measure will provide more protection to those accused of homosexuality, there are still some uncertainties around the proposal.  First, there is no set date when the measure will go into effect.  The policy is the proposition stage, with no indication as to how soon the measure will be enacted. The Tunisian medical council actually banned the practice in April of 2017, but that ban served more as a declaratory opinion rather than a legally binding mandate. Second, while the refusal of taking the exam is claimed to not be used as evidence against a defendant, the subjective outcomes may be different. As the victim detailed in the Human Rights Watch report, the coercion and violence can be used to compel a defendant to take the examination long before he comes in front of a judge.  This leaves an open question as to whether the change will adequately protect those accused of homosexuality. 

While much progress has been made since the coup of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the progress is still met with staunch opposition.  Tunisia is still a Muslim country that adheres to the pillars of Islam.  The measure also does not have broader implications for the acceptance of homosexuality in Tunisia. The measure for example does not make homosexuality legal in Tunisia, “Homosexuality is still punishable by three years in jail under Article 230 of Tunisia’s criminal code, which President Beji Caid Essebsi has said would not be repealed.”

For more information, please see:

Daily Mail UK — ‘Tunisia vows to ban anal examinations on ‘suspected homosexuals’ to determine if they are gay’ — 22 September 2017

Independent — ‘Tunisia medical council bans forced anal tests for homosexuality after nearly decade of abuse’ — 12 April 2017

Independent — ‘Tunisia is jailing men for having gay sex and forcing them to undergo anal exams, human rights group claims’ — 30 March 2016

Human Rights Watch — ‘Tunisia: Men Prosecuted for Homosexuality, Abuses in Detention, Prison’ — 29 March, 2016

Amnesty International — ‘Challenging Tunisia’s homophobic taboos’ — 30 September 2015

Upcoming Liberia Elections Signal New Chapter for Democracy

By: Adam King
Impunity Rights News Reporter, Africa

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addressing UN General Body. Photo courtesy of UN News Centre.

MONROVIA, Liberia – Democracy hasn’t come easy for Liberia: a country ravaged with civil warfare aplenty.  October 10, 2017 will mark a historic achievement for Liberia. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, proclaimed the achievement:

“The [legislative and presidential polls] will mark the first time in 73 years that political power will be handed over peacefully, and democratically, from one elected leader to another….Democracy is on the march in Liberia and, I believe, on an irreversible path forward on the African continent.”

Liberia has gone almost a century without a peaceful transition of power from one government to the other.  President Sirleaf’s achievement in being the first woman to be elected in a democratic election on the African continent is right on par with the anticipated peaceful transition of power.  Former United States President Barack Obama underscores the importance of a peaceful transition of power in his farewell address:

“In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy:  the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next…it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face…But that potential will be realized only if our democracy works.  Only if our politics reflects the decency of the our people.  Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”

President Sirleaf echoed Mr. Obama’s sentiments in the view that she has for Liberia going forward:

“Liberia’s transformation was powered by a world community that made a shared commitment to deliver peace to a country, and a subregion, beset by civil conflict and cross border destabilization. The UN and its partner nations were of one mind, and from that global unity, a new Liberian democratic state was born. Liberia is a post conflict success story. It is your post conflict success story.”

President Sirleaf assumed the presidency at a time when Liberia was facing stagnant development and civil war. Despite those challenges, Liberia has erected a new foundation through government restructuring and citizen engagement. President Sirleaf commented on some of the initiatives that have helped to revitalize the country:

“Further, previously dysfunctional public institutions now have the capacity to respond to the needs of our citizens through decentralized county service centers with ownership by strong local governments. And from the tragedy of the health crisis, we are strengthening our healthcare systems, prioritizing prevention and delivering capacity at the community level.”

Much remains to be seen as to how Liberia will fair upon the departure of President Sirleaf.  The local election commissions in Liberia are taking sizable precautions to safeguard the electoral process.  In addition to training for its volunteers, the government will be providing upwards of 6,000 security servicemen to assist with order on election day.  The field of candidates for the presidency is quite extensive (upwards of 20), leaving doubt as to what direction Liberia will take once the new president is elected and assumes power. While President Sirleaf has ushered in some notable achievements in here tenure, it has not all been free of scrutiny.   

The tenure of President Sirleaf herself has also been questioned by some.  Most recently, President Sirleaf proposed a law entitled the “Presidential Transition Act”.  According to the Liberian Observer, the act contained provisions related to peaceful transitioning of the government and protection provisions for the president and vice president including vehicles, security and dependent benefits. There were other parts of the law that were more controversial.  Some have argued that this bill could be used to shield President Sirleaf from charges of corruption for example.  President Sirleaf has since withdrawn the bill as of September 17, 2017.

For more information, please see:

Front Page Africa — 6,000 Security Officers to Guard Polling Stations on During Elections — 20 September 2017

Liberian Observer — Ellen Dispels Notion of Living in Fear after Tenure — 20 September 2017

UN News Centre — “Upcoming elections will signal Liberia’s ‘irreversible course’ towards democracy, President Sirleaf tells UN” — 19 September 2017

United Nations — “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet” — 19 September 2017

Bloomberg — Liberia Elections Body Says 20 Candidates Will Vie for President — 31 July 2017

Los Angeles Times — Read the full transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech — 10 January 2017

Syrian Activist and her Daughter Murdered in Turkey

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

ISTANBUL, Turkey – A Syrian activist and her daughter, a journalist, were fatally stabbed in their home on September 21st in Istanbul’s Uskudar neighborhood.

Orouba Barakat and her daughter, Halla. Photo Courtesy of BBC News.

Orouba Barakat, 60, and her daughter, Halla, 23, were found stabbed to death in their Istanbul apartment.

Orouba was a prominent activist for the Syrian National Coalition, although she was critical of some of the opposition groups. She left Syria in the 1980s and worked for some time covering economic and political affairs for Arab newspapers. She had recently been investigating allegations of torture in prisons run by the Assad regime.

Halla was born in North Carolina. She was a freelance journalist for Orient News, TRT World and ABC News. Friends contacted police when Halla did not show up for work.

In the weeks leading up to their deaths, both women had received threats from Syrian regime supporters. A Turkish newspaper, The Cuhhiryet, published details indicating there were similarities between the killings of the mother and daughter and those known to have been committed by the Islamic State.

Family members believe that the killings were perpetrated by the Assad government. Orouba and Halla had been critical of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Orouba’s sister, Shaza, said of the killings “We accuse the Syrian regime, the gangs, because we are against the unjust government, this deadly oppressor, which has killed three quarters of the Syrians and displaced the rest, and destroyed all of Syria.”

Another relative, Suzanne Barakat, noted that the women “were vocal activists in the Syrian revolution, speaking truth to power, and raising awareness about the atrocities committed by the Assad regime.”

There have been four other Syrian journalists murdered in Turkey since 2015.

The US State Department released the following statement concerning the murders: “The United States is deeply saddened by the deaths of Arouba and Halla Barakat. Halla served as a journalist for Orient News and we remember the courageous work of her mother, Orouba, a Syrian activist who reported on the Syrian regime’s atrocities. The United States condemns the perpetrators of these murders and we will closely follow the investigation.”

Orouba and Halla had been friends with American humanitarian worker Kayla Mueller, who was taken hostage by ISIS in Aleppo, Syria in 2013 and killed 18 months later.

Before their deaths, Orouba and Halla were preparing to start a charity for Syrian women living in refugee camps in Turkey in Mueller’s honor.

For more information, please see:

ABC News – Syrian-American Journalist and her Mother, Friends of ISIS Hostage Kayla Mueller, Killed in Turkey – 22 September 2017

BBC News – Syrian Activist and Journalist Daughter ‘Murdered’ in Istanbul – 22 September 2017

New York Times – Syrian Activist and her Daughter Fatally Stabbed in Turkey – 22 September 2017

People – American Journalist and Activist Mom Found Strangled and Stabbed in Turkey: Reports – 22 September 2017

Washington Post – Syrian Activist, Journalist Daughter Found Dead in Turkey – 22 September 2017

Saudi Arabia Lifts Ban on Skype and WhatsApp

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – On September 20, Saudi Arabian officials announced that the kingdom was lifting its ban on video calling apps such as Skype and WhatsApp. Apps such as these were previously banned under the country’s Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), when the government argued that it was trying to “protect society from any negative aspects that could harm the public interest.”

Saudi Arabia lifts its ban on voice internet apps such as Skype and WhatsApp. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

The decision is motivated by Saudi Arabia’s economic interests as the look to expand their revenue sources. While the countries financial strength lies in oil, it hopes the removal of the ban will spark technology entrepreneurship in the region. The nation’s Information Ministry supported the decision and stated, “Digital transformation is one of the key kick starters for the Saudi economy, as it will incentivize the growth of internet-based businesses, especially in the media and entertainment industries.”

The goal to promote long term development may damage local companies in the telecommunications industry. Saudi Telecom, Etihad Etisalat, and Zain Saudi, the three main telecom operators in Saudi Arabia, will likely see a decrease in their revenue from phone calls and texts made by the millions of expatriates in the country. Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder of the Cornerstone Global Associates management consultancy stated, “Any phone company would rather have people using their telephone lines but this is an important message from the Saudi government that they have to move into the 21st century and not be left behind.”

Prior to its removal, Saudi citizens used virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around the ban. The VPNs tricked the computer into thinking it was someplace else so that it could access the apps banned by the nation’s internet laws. Many are happy this method is no longer needed. One anonymous international student was happy she could now easily talk to those outside the country, “It feels like we can communicate with the outside world,” because “Sometimes it felt like we had no connection here.” The ban was supposed to be officially lifted at midnight on September 21, but some citizens claim they could already access the apps on the mobile devices prior to that date.

The government still imposes tight regulations over other aspects of the internet. Websites that feature gambling, pornography, or that are critical of government actions remain banned. The country often still appears on “internet enemies”, the list compiled by Reporters Without Borders names countries who restrict internet access.

For more information please see:

BBC – Saudi Arabia to lift ban on internet calls – 20, Sept. 2017

The Telegraph – Saudi Arabia lifts ban on skype and whatsApp voice calls – 20, Sept. 2017

Independent – Saudi Arabia set to lift ban on video calling apps Skype and WhatsApp – 20, Sept. 2017

Reuters – Saudi Arabia to lift ban on internet calls – 20, Sept. 2017

Congress Considers Major Change to the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. – Currently, Congress is contemplating the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 620). H.R. 620’s protestors believe it would place major increases on the burden of people with disabilities. As the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) stands now, owners of businesses open to the public – such as hotels, restaurants and movie theaters – must make sure their businesses are accessible for people with disabilities. When a business fails to comply with these rules, a person with disabilities can either take them to court or file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

H.R. 620 would change this process and allow businesses to delay fixing the problem for months at a time. The process under the new bill includes many more steps. These steps start with a written notice to the business owner of the inability of the disabled person to access their business. After that, the business has two months to respond and then another four months to actually begin addressing the violation. During that six-month period, the person with disabilities sees no relief.

In the 1990’s when the American’s with Disabilities Act was passed, it contained a provision that required businesses to “remove architectural barriers and other obstacles that impede access to the establishment,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This provision is known as Title III. The provision makes it possible for people with disabilities to have access to businesses such as groceries stores or shopping malls as well as facilities such as public restrooms and libraries.

Crowd comes together to support disability rights. Photo Courtesy of Getty Images.

The goal of H.R. 620 is to allow for businesses to opt out of Title III. By allowing businesses to opt out of Title III, the responsibility falls on the person with disabilities to make sure businesses have the proper accommodations. Essentially, the person with disabilities has to invest a considerable amount of time and effort to get the necessary accommodations from a business. Whereas, the way the bill stands now, businesses are much more likely to fix a problem sooner in order to settle cases or appease the U.S. Department of Justice.

Supporters of H.R. 620 believe that amending Title III would reduce the number of frivolous and unwarranted lawsuits. After Title III was instituted, there were many lawsuits against businesses for failure to comply with Title III. Those against H.R. 620 believe that there are many reasons for why the amendment is unwarranted.

Currently, the ADA offers free educational resources to businesses that explain how they can comply with Title III. According to Rewire, “an analysis of ADA lawsuits in 2016 identified just 12 individuals and one organization that have filed more than 100 lawsuits each.” Those who oppose H.R. 620 believe that shows most law suits are not abusing Title III. They also say that the ADA already has methods to deal with those frivolous lawsuits.

The passage of H.R. 620 will have a major impact on the lives of people with disabilities. Many believe their civil rights are on the chopping block. With 18 co-sponsors, the bill was voted to advance by the House Judiciary Committee on September 7th, 2017. Now, many wait to see if this bill will become a reality and if it does, how it affects their lives.

For more information, please see:

Romper – What is HR 620? It Could Threaten the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities – 14 September 2017

Human Rights Watch – Will the US Weaken its Disability Laws? – 13 September 2017

Action Together Massachusetts – Action: Protect the American Disabilities Act – Oppose H.R.620 – 12 September 2017

Rewire – Congress Makes Progress in Destroying the Americans with Disabilities Act – 11 September 2017

Rewire – The Americans with Disabilities Act is Under Attack in Congress – 30 May 2017