U.S. accuses Syria in the latest chemical attacks

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

United Nations – On January 23, the United States accused the Syrian government of using chlorine gas attacks in the same rebel region four years ago. The chemical attack took place on January 22 in Eastern Ghouta. As of now, 21 people have been admitted to a hospital, including six children. The rebel base near Damascus, Syria’s capital, has fought against the government for the past seven years.

Victims in Eastern Ghouta receive treatment following the chemical attack on January 22. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Badra, European Pressphoto Agency.

On August 23, 2013, Eastern Ghouta was attacked with a strain nerve agent. This attack killed approximately 1,400 people. While President Assad denied responsibility, he agreed to destroy his arsenal of chemical weapons and promised to never use such weapons in the war. This deal, created by the United States and Russia, prevented an American response. The latest attack on January 23 is, at least, the second report of chemical attacks within the past months. However, there is no official way to determine who launched the attacks because the United Nation’s Security Council panel was disbanded after Russia vetoed the council’s renewal.

The UN called an emergency meeting the day after the attack. During the meeting, US Ambassador Nikki Haley heavily criticized the Russian government for failing to stop Syria. “We know that for years Russia has looked the other way while their Syrian friends use these despicable weapons of war,” she said. “Russia is complicit in the Assad regime’s atrocities. Will the Russian Federation say anything at all today about the suffering caused by Assad’s barbaric tactics? Will they hold Assad to account? Of course not. They never do.”

Haley was not the only U.S. official criticizing Russia. On the same day Haley spoke to the UN, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke in Paris at a meeting where approximately 20 countries were coming together to discuss a new organization that would identify and punish countries who used chemical weapons. Tillerson condemned Russia’s failure to follow through on the agreement in 2013. “There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the United States as a framework guarantor,” he said. “Russia’s failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution to the overall crisis.”

Russian officials denied the attacks and called the reports “uncorroborated.” While, Russia has claimed it has a proposal for a new method of investigations involving chemical weapons, Haley stated that the United States would not accept any Russian proposal regarding the matter.

For more information please see:

New York Times – U.S. accuses Syria of New Chemical Weapons Use – 23, Jan. 2018

Newsweek – U.S. blames Russia for Syrian chemical attack – 23, Jan. 2018

CNN – Nikki Haley says Russia is complicit in Syrian atrocities – 24, Jan. 2018

FIFA Advisers Warn Fans of Homophobia and Racism Ahead of World Cup Games

By Jenilyn Brhel
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

MOSCOW, Russia – FIFA’s anti-discrimination advisers are warning LGBTQ soccer fans that displays of affection at next year’s World Cup games could be met with violence.

In Sochi, Protests Against Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law Took Place at the Winter Olympic Games in 2014. Photo Courtesy of Tatyana Makeyeva.

Fare, an anti-discrimination organization that campaigns for equality in soccer, is partnering with FIFA to control fan behavior at the World Cup games next year.

Hate crimes against LBGTQ people in Russia have doubled since the country instituted a law banning “gay propaganda” in 2013. The law has thwarted gay pride marches and allowed gay rights activists to be detained. It is also believed to have incentivized and condoned violence against LGBTQ people.

Similar concerns were raised at the 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi following the enactment of the “gay propaganda” law.

The legislation was deemed illegal by Europe’s top human rights court in June, but Russia says it will not honor the ruling.

“(Offenders) have become more aggressive and less fearful,” said Svetlana Zakharova, a Russian LGBT Network Board Member. “It seems to them that, to some extent, the government supports their actions. Many perpetrators openly talk about their crimes as noble deeds.”

Researchers say that the number of hate crimes that has occurred in the country in recent years is likely to be much higher than documented, as many crimes go unreported or are not investigated or prosecuted.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993 but remained classified as a mental illness until 1999. Russia was ranked the second least-LGBT friendly nation in Europe, behind Azerbaijan, in 2016.

For the first time in FIFA’s 113 year history, the organization has added a human rights element to its statute.

“If there are any cases of abuse, or even possibility of human rights defenders or journalists being forced into a difficult corner, then according to our statutes and human rights policy FIFA will intervene,” said Federico Addiechi, Head of Sustainability and Diversity at FIFA.

FIFA and Fare will have crowd-monitors at the games. They will be on the lookout for displays of racism, political extremism and homophobia. Matches will be stopped or abandoned if such displays occur and persist.

Fare plans to administer cautionary guides to fans traveling to the tournament. The guides will include information about the current LGBTQ situation in Russia and will advise people to use caution when traveling in areas not considered to be welcoming to the LGBTQ community.

For more information, please see:

Reuters – LGBT Hate Crimes Double in Russia After Ban on ‘Gay Propaganda’ – 21 November 2017

Newsweek – Anti-LGBT Hate Crimes Double Since ‘Gay Propaganda’ Law in Russia – 23 November 2017

The Guardian – Gay Fans Warned Holding Hands at Russian World Cup Will be Dangerous

The New York Times – Ahead of World Cup, Fans Are Warned About Homophobia and Racism in Russia – 28 November 2017

NBC News – ‘Danger’ for Gay Fans at World Cup in Russia, FIFA Advisers Warn – 29 November 2017

Crackdown on anti-Putin protests leads to several arrests

By: Sara Adams
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Europe

Russian police pat down a protester. Image courtesy of Nikolay Koreshkov.

MOSCOW, Russia – Several protesters were arrested by the Russian police in Moscow on November 5th.

News outlets are reporting anywhere from 86 to 260 have been arrested at an unauthorized gathering at Manezh Square.

The rally was allegedly planned by a group known in Russia for their anti-Vladimir Putin stance. The group, called Artpodgotovka, has been labeled an “extremist” group by a Russian court.

Russia’s security agency also reported that it had arrested several group members suspected of plotting to firebomb government buildings.

This is not the first time President Putin has sent in law enforcement to arrest people who oppose him.

In early October, 290 protesters were arrested among 26 cities. The protests were marches against Mr. Putin, taking place on his birthday.

Thousands reportedly marched against Mr. Putin’s government.

Free speech and assembly rights in Russia have been severely limited since Mr. Putin took presidential power in 2012.

Before that, Mr. Putin served as prime minister since 1999.

Much of the anti-Putin sentiment is stoked by fears of another revolution.

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, the event that led to a massive civil war with millions of casualties.

The Russian government, the Kremlin, will not commemorate this event for fears of stoking anti-government sentiment.

Dima Litvinov is the great-grandson of Maxim Litvinov, who was a Soviet foreign minister after the Bolshevik revolution.

He says that his great-grandfather would be “horrified by the extreme nationalism and religious intolerance that is going up in Russia.”

He adds, “Russia, in a way, hasn’t moved on. People feel detached from the ability to affect their fate and the government. The authorities like it that way.”

Mr. Litvinov may not be far off.

The November 5th protesters are alleged to have been led by nationalist politician Vyacheslav Maltsev. Mr. Maltsev is an outspoken critic of Mr. Putin.

Mr. Maltsev has called publicly for Mr. Putin to be impeached. He also has said that a “revolution is imminent.”

While several of the protesters are being released from detainment, Mr. Maltsev is reportedly living abroad after a Moscow court issued an arrest warrant for him.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Russia protests: At least 260 nationalist Putin opponents held – 5 November 2017

The Washington Post – Russia struggles with legacy of 1917 Bolshevik Revolution – 5 November 2017

ABC News – At least 86 Russian nationalist protesters reported arrested – 5 November 2017

Reuters – Police detain dozens in Moscow amid fear of anti-government attacks – 5 November 2017

The New York Times – At Least 86 Russian Nationalist Protesters Reported Arrested – 5 November 2017

CNN – Russian police arrest hundreds in protests on Putin’s birthday – 8 October 2017

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

European human rights court finds Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law discriminatory

By: Sara Adams
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Europe

One of the activists involved in the case speaks after the hearing. Image courtesy of AP.

STRASBOURG, France – Russia’s law that banned the “promotion of homosexuality to minors” was ruled discriminatory on June 20 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The law, introduced in 2013, made it illegal to engage in any event or act that attempted to “promote” homosexuality to minors. Three activists were fined for violating the law when they staged pro-LGBT protests between 2009 and 2012.

The fines ranged from around 85 US dollars (USD) to upwards of 8,400 USD.

The activists were unsuccessful in their first appeals to Russian courts, where they argued that the laws were discriminatory. As a member of the European Convention on Human Rights, the ECHR has the power to hear the cases that Russian courts refused.

The ECHR found that the activists had been discriminated against. They opined that the laws encouraged prejudice and homophobia in a democratic society. Even though the intent of the law, to protect minors, was in the public interest, the Court found that the application of the laws were “arbitrary” and lacked a clear definition.

They also found that the law served no legitimate public interest.

The Court held that the discriminatory effect of the law was a violation of the people’s right to freedom of expression. The Russian government was ordered to pay the activists almost $55,000 (USD) in monetary damages.

Discrimination against the LGBT community in Russia has been prevalent for several years. Until 1993, homosexuality was a punishable criminal offense. Until 1999, homosexuality was considered a “mental illness.”

Nearby Chechnya has also been in the news lately regarding LGBT rights. It has been reported that the republic, located within Russia, has been detaining gay men in detention camps.

Though Russia is a member country of the Convention on Human Rights, a law was adopted in 2015 that would allow Russia to overrule judgments from the Court. The law, supported by President Putin, aimed to give the country the right to ignore ECHR decisions if they “conflict” with the constitution.

The Justice Ministry in Russia has spoken out against the decision, claiming that the law did not establish any measures “aimed at banning homosexuality…or its official censure.” The Ministry has stated that it will appeal the ruling within three months.

For more information, please see:

New York Times – Russia’s ‘Gay Propaganda’ Laws Are Illegal, European Court Rules – 20 June 2017

The Guardian – Russian ‘gay propaganda’ law ruled discriminatory by European court – 20 June 2017

Reuters – European court angers Russia with ‘gay propaganda’ ruling – 20 June 2017

BBC News – European Court blasts Russia ‘gay propaganda’ law – 20 June 2017

NBC News – European Court Angers Russia With ‘Gay Propaganda’ Ruling – 20 June 2017

CNN – Russian ‘gay propaganda’ law discriminatory, European court rules – 20 June 2017

BBC News – Russia passes law to overrule European human rights court – 4 December 2015