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


Russian blogger convicted for inciting religious hatred

By: Sara Adams
Impunity Watch News Reporter, Europe

Ruslan Sokolovsky awaits sentencing in a Russian court. Image courtesy of Reuters.

MOSCOW, Russia – Russian blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky was convicted by a Russian criminal court on May 11 for insulting religious beliefs and inciting hatred. These actions are criminal offenses under Russian criminal codes.

The conviction comes after nearly a year of criminal proceedings after his arrest. Last August, Sokolovsky entered an Orthodox church in Yekaterinburg while playing the augmented reality game Pokémon Go on his smartphone. He had posted a video of himself playing the game on YouTube. At the end of the video, he said what many perceived to be an anti-religious insult. Sokolovsky’s YouTube channel included other videos that were seen as being against the Russian Orthodox Church.

After searching his apartment in September, authorities arrested Sokolovsky. They initiated another charge against him in January after months of house arrest. Sokolovsky had pled not guilty to any of the charges.

Religion has not always been a concern in Russia. Before the past few years, Russia was officially an atheistic country with no state religion. The Kremlin is now known to use religion as a means of pushing a state agenda. This year the highest court in the country banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, claiming they are an extremist group. In 2012, two members of the anti-Putin band Pussy Riot were charged with inciting religious hatred, the same conviction that Sokolovsky faces.

“Insult” was added as a crime to the criminal code of Russia after the members of Pussy Riot were arrested. According to Human Rights Watch, the crime of insult is defined as “a public action expressing clear disrespect for society and committed in order to insult the religious feelings of believers”. Critics see these laws as restrictions on freedom of expression.

Sokolovsky will face a suspended jail sentence of 3 and ½ years. He will also have to perform 160 hours of community service and cannot be seen in public places where people are meeting.

For more information, please see:

The New York Times – Russian Who Played Pokemon Go in Church Convicted of Inciting Hatred – 11 May 2017 

BBC News – Pokemon Go: Russian Blogger Suspended – 11 May 2017

Reuters – Russian court gives suspended sentenced to man who played Pokemon Go in church – 11 May 2017

Human Rights Watch – Russia: Pokemon Go Blogger Convicted – 11 May 2017

Ceasefire in Syria Leads to Conflicting Reports of Reduced Violence

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — An agreement aimed at reducing violence in Syria went into effect at midnight on Saturday, May 6th. The ceasefire was headed by Russia, which is the strongest ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and backed by Turkey and Iran.

The four “de-escalation zones” cover a total of 2.5 million citizens (Photo courtesy of AlJazeera)

The plan calls for ending hostilities between rebel groups and government forces by creating “de-escalation zones” in the major areas of conflict in western Syria for a period of six months, which could be extended if all three signatory countries agree. Although Russia is permitted to fly over the de-escalation zones, the agreement strictly prohibits the use of weapons and air strikes in those areas.

The ceasefire further calls for the creation of “conditions for humanitarian access, medical assistance and return of displaced civilians into their homes.” The Syrian government is required to allow “unhindered” humanitarian aid into rebel-held areas, and must restore services such as water and electricity.

The largest de-escalation zone, in northern Syria, covers a population of over one million and encompasses the Idlib province, which was hit by a chemical attack in early April. The three remaining zones cover the northern Homs province, the eastern Ghouta region, and the area surrounding the Jordanian border in southern Syria, encompassing a total of over 1.5 million citizens. Qaboun, a town in the eastern Ghouta region, is exempt from the deal due to its history as housing the Nusra Front, a group linked to al-Qaeda.

Despite the agreement, however, there have been conflicting reports of its effectiveness. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (“SOHR”) stated that it has already started seeing breaches of the deal, mainly in the northern Hama province. A spokesperson for the Jaish al-Nasr rebel group, Mr. Mohammed Rasheed, stated that the fighting started after midnight. The SOHR added that fighter jets shot upon al-Zalakiyat, a village held by Syrian rebels, as well as upon the countryside of northern Hama. Mr. Rasheed further noted that barrel bombs were also used in the attacks. He added that “[t]he bombardment has not stopped, it is no different from before[.]” Furthermore, on Saturday, May 6th, less than twenty-four hours after the ceasefire was implemented, four opposition fighters were killed and a child was wounded when a suburb of Damascus was shelled by government forces.

The SOHR, in contrast, also noted that despite the reduction in fighting, that it was still “too early” to determine whether it would last. The director of the SOHR, Mr. Rami Abdulrahman, noted that “[t]he reduction in violence must be clear and lasting[.]”

For more information, please see:

AlJazeera—Syria’s ‘de-escalation zones’ explained—6 May 2017

Washington Post—Syria violence kills 4, wounds child despite safe zones—6 May 2017

Reuters—Syria fighting eases as Russian deal takes effect—6 May 2017

Deutsche Wells—Fighting continues in Syrian ‘safe zones’—6 May 2017

CBS News—Russia’s proposed Syrian “safe zone” deal goes into effect—6 May 2017

Turkish Military Launches Airstrike into Iraq and Syria

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Turkish military released a statement indicating that its military jets attacked fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (“PKK”) with airstrikes on Tuesday, April 25th, in northern Iraq and northeast Syria.

Turkey’s attack, which hit “shelters, ammunition depots and key control centers[,]” was intended to “prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey.” (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)
Despite the Turkish military’s statement claiming that the attack was carried out “within the scope of international law[,]” it has been characterized as “unusually intense[.]” The statement indicated that the airstrike, which took place before dawn, hit targets on Sinjar mountain in Iraq and a mountainous region in Syria. It noted that the attack was necessary to “prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey.” A second statement indicated that the airstrikes hit “shelters, ammunition depots and key control centers[.]”

The spokesperson for the Syrian Kurdish militia, also known as the People’s Protection Units (“YPG”), Mr. Redur Khalil, stated that Turkey’s jets struck their headquarters in the town of Karachok in the northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh. Mr. Khalil added that the attack caused extensive damage to the headquarters as well as to neighboring civilian property.

The Turkish military’s statement noted that the airstrike killed a minimum of seventy people, with forty militants in Sinjar and thirty in northern Syria being “neutralized.” The YPG, however, stated that the attack killed twenty of its fighters and wounded eighteen more. The mayor of Sinjar, Mr. Mahma Khalil, stated that five members of the Iraqi Kurdish militia (“the peshmerga”), who support the fight against the Islamic State (“ISIS”) with the U.S.-led coalition, were also killed in the airstrike.

The YPG is a close ally to the U.S.’s fight against ISIS. However, Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group due to its ties to Turkey’s Kurdish rebels, the PKK, which are being harbored in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The attack attracted immediate international criticism and condemnation. The U.S.-led coalition stated that Iraq’s neighbors must be respectful of state sovereignty and encouraged “all forces to . . . concentrate their efforts on [defeating] ISIS [in Iraq and Syria.]” While Turkey claimed to have notified the U.S. and Russia in advance of the attack, the U.S. State Department indicated that it was “deeply concerned” by the airstrike and that it was not authorized by the U.S.-led coalition. The Foreign Minister of Iraq, Mr. Ahmad Jamal, stated that the airstrike was a “violation” of its sovereignty, and called upon the international community to end Turkey’s “interference[.]” The Syrian Kurdish fighters denounced Turkey’s airstrike, noting that the attack was “treacherous[,]” and accusing Turkey of “undermining the anti-terrorism fight.” Russia, which is a close ally of the Syrian government, also criticized the airstrike by stating that it “hindered efforts to combat [ISIS]” and added that it was “serious[ly] concern[ed]” about the strikes.

For more information, please see:

ABC News—Tensions rise after Turkish attack on Syrian Kurds—26 April 2017

The New York Times—Turkish Strikes Target Kurdish Allies of U.S. in Iraq and Syria—25 April 2017

AlJazeera—Turkey targets Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria—25 April 2017

BBC News—Turkey air strikes on Kurds in Syria and Iraq spark US concern—25 April 2017

The Washington Post—The Latest: Russia slams Turkish strikes in Iraq, Syria—26 April 2017

Boston Herald—Turkey strikes Kurds in Iraq, Syria, drawing condemnation—25 April 2017


Syrian Town Hit With Two More Airstrikes After Chemical Attack

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Tuesday, April 4th, the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun was hit with a chemical attack that left hundreds of civilians, including many children, dead or injured. This Friday and Saturday, April 7th and 8th, the same town was hit once more with a new wave of airstrikes.

Khan Sheikhoun was hit with an airstrike just days after the chemical attack that killed and injured hundreds of civilians (Photo courtesy of Middle East Eye)

Activist Alaa Al-Youssef stated that Saturday’s attack in Khan Sheikhoun targeted a residential neighborhood. The attack reportedly killed one woman and injured her son, while wounding three others.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that Russian planes had carried out the attack with the support of the Syrian government. However, despite the fact that only Russian and Syrian aircrafts have been bombing the town of Khan Sheikhoun, it was not clear which party directed the second wave of attacks. It was also not clear where the missiles had been launched from. However, Russia, which is the main ally of the Syrian regime, had sent a frigate armed with cruise missiles to a port in western Syria. Russia’s decision to send the armed frigate was characterized as a “show of force” in response to the United States.

The latest attacks on Friday and Saturday appear to be retaliatory, and in response to Friday morning’s missile strike by the United States. The United States’ attack had targeted a military base in western Syria used to launch Tuesday’s chemical attack but led to the deaths of nine people. However, despite the fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles that hit this target on Friday morning, the Syrian air force has already resumed its flight operations from this base. On Saturday, a reporter for a state-run Russian network posted a video on Instagram showing a jet rolling down the tarmac at the air force base with the caption “Return to work at Shayrat.”

G-7 foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Italy on Monday and Tuesday to build “coordinated international support for a ceasefire on the ground and an intensified political process.” Supporters of the Syrian opposition, such as Turkey, heralded the United States’ Friday morning attack, however, other countries, such as Russia and Iran, had the opposite reaction by “harshly condemn[ing]” it. The Foreign Minister of Turkey, Mr. Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned that Friday’s attack by the United States would remain purely “cosmetic” if Syria’s regime is not removed from power and if the intervention does not continue.

For more information, please see:

NBC News—Warplanes Strike Syrian Town Recovering From Chemical Attack: Human Rights Group—8 April 2017

LA Times—Warplanes strike Syrian town already hit by chemical attack—8 April 2017

CNN—Syria strikes: Site of chemical attack hit again—8 April 2017

Chicago Tribune—Syrian town hit by chemical weapons attack is targeted again in airstrikes—8 April 2017


Russian Ambassador to Turkey Assassinated in Turkey

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

ANKARA, Turkey — An off-duty Turkish police officer shot and killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey while shouting “don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” in an attack that appeared to be backlash against the Russian military’s involvement in Syria.


Russian ambassador to Turkey killed in attack in Turkey (Photo courtesy of the USA Today)

The attack on the ambassador, Andrei Karlov, occurred in the capital city of Ankara on the evening of December 19th. Mr. Karlov was shot while delivering a speech at the opening of an art exhibition entitled “Russia Through Turks’ Eyes” at Cagdas Sanat Merkezi. Footage from the scene showed a man dressed in a suit and tie standing calmly behind the ambassador. He then pulled out a gun, and fired eight shots. Mr. Karlov was taken to a hospital where he succumbed to his injuries and passed away.

While shooting the ambassador, the man shouted in Arabic: “Allahu akbar! Those who pledged allegiance to Muhammad for jihad!” He then continued shouting in Turkish: “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria! Unless our towns are secure, you won’t enjoy security. Only death can take me from here. Everyone who is involved in this suffering will pay a price.”

After the attack, which has been described as an “embarrassing security failure,” Turkish special forces surrounded the gallery, and killed the attacker during a shootout. The Turkish Interior Ministry identified the shooter as 22-year-old Mevlut Mert Altintas, a police officer in Ankara’s riot police squad. Three others were also injured by Mr. Altintas in the incident.

The assassination took place days after Turkish protests over Russia’s support for the Syrian government, and Russia’s role in the killings and destruction in Aleppo. As a precaution, all Russian tourists in Turkey had been advised against leaving their hotel rooms or visiting public places. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that Turkey would increase security measures around Russian diplomatic buildings and people.

The Turkish Interior Minister, Mr. Suleyman Soylu, offered his condolences to the Russian federation, while Mr. Erdogan called the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to brief him on the attack. During their conversation, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin agreed to cooperate in investigating the assassination and combating terrorism.

Mr. Putin called the killing a “provocation” aimed at sabotaging strengthening ties between Russia and Turkey. He further stated that the attack was an attempt at disrupting Russia’s peace advancement in Syria undertaken with Turkey and Iran.

Russia’s head of the foreign relations committee, Mr. Konstantin Kosachev, stated that the repercussions of the attack would depend on the details of the incident. He noted that while “it could have been a planned terrorist attack by extremists,” it could also have been “the work of a lone maniac.” He indicated that the future of Russia’s relations with Turkey would depend on the motives behind the attack.

The attack on Mr. Karlov cast doubt upon the ongoing evacuation attempts for civilians in Aleppo, which was secured by Russia and Turkey. Mr. Karlov had participated in the discussions with Turkey which had led to the evacuation deal.

For more information, please see:

New York Times—Russian Ambassador to Turkey Is Assassinated in Ankara—19 December 2016

CNN—Russia’s ambassador to Turkey assassinated in Ankara—19 December 2016

The Guardian—Russian ambassador to Turkey shot dead in Ankara art gallery—19 December 2016

The Washington Post—Turkish police officer, invoking Aleppo, guns down Russian ambassador in Ankara—19 December 2016

Hurriyet Daily News—Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov assassinated in Ankara—19 December 2016


Aleppo Hit By Airstrikes Following Weeks-Long Peace

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Tuesday, November 15th, Russia launched new airstrikes on the rebel-held sections of Aleppo in connection with a major new offensive against forces battling President Assad.

Aleppo is struck by several airstrikes, killing six and injuring dozens more (Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency)
Aleppo is struck by several airstrikes, killing six and injuring dozens more (Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency)

Local civil defense sources stated that Russia and the Assad regime have carried out intense airstrikes on the opposition-held city of Aleppo for the past twenty-four hours. A civil defense official, Baybars Meshaal, added that the airstrikes have also targeted the towns of Al-Shear, Salahaddin, Haydariyah, Al-Sahur, Muyesir and Misqan Khanuna. These attacks mark the end of a nearly three-week calm that had prevailed over the region.

Mr. Meshaal indicated that the intensity of the attacks is creating difficulty for paramedics and civil defense teams to reach targeted areas. He noted that “local residents are afraid to leave their homes,” while stating that at least six people were killed and dozens more injured when a warplane struck an ambulance. He noted that those who are injured cannot be taken to a hospital because regime forces are “striking anything that moves.” Residents and a war monitor indicated that both rocket strikes by jets and barrel bombs dropped by helicopters were being used.

A children’s hospital was one of the locations hit by the attacks, destroying sections of the building. Patients, doctors and staff members were forced to take shelter in the basement. The director of the hospital posted a message on Facebook, stating that he and the hospital staff were sitting in one room in the basement, trying to protect the patients. He indicated that they are unable to leave the basement due to the continued presence of aircraft in the sky, while asking for readers’ prayers.

The U.S. State Department condemned the airstrikes as a violation of international law, by reporting that it allegedly targeted civilian infrastructure. It described the Russian airstrikes as a “disappointment.” The Pentagon spokesman stated that he “hoped” the airstrikes were not an attempt to “change the balance of power in Aleppo.” He added that Russia already has significant military capabilities within Syria, and that anything brought in from the outside, such as aircraft carriers, cruise missiles or long-range strike bombers flying in from Russia, is “done for show.”

The Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, stated that Russia used its aircraft carrier to launch missile strikes against opposition-held areas in Syria through cruise missiles and fighter jets. He indicated that the country had started “a big operation to deliver massive strikes.” Mr. Shoigu further added that “exhaustive” research on all targets had been conducted, and that warehouses with ammunition, terrorist training centers and factories are being targeted.

For more information, please see:

The Wire—At Least Three Dead After Air Strikes Resume in Rebel-Held East Aleppo—16 November 2016

Boston Globe—Russia launches new Aleppo offensive—16 November 2016

Anadolu Agency—Russia, regime pounding Syria’s Aleppo: Local sources—16 November 2016

The Guardian—Children’s hospital in Aleppo hit as airstrikes continue—16 November 2016

Air Strikes Hit Aid Convoy in Syria Amid Collapse of Ceasefire

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Monday, September 19th, an aid convoy near the Syrian city of Aleppo was struck by an air strike hours after the army declared the end of a U.S.-Russia ceasefire.

Aid trucks were intended to deliver aid to 78,000 individuals (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

The aid convoy was intended to deliver aid to 78,000 individuals in Aleppo. A U.N. spokesperson confirmed that at least 18 of the 31 trucks in the convoy were destroyed. A witness at the scene indicated that the trucks were parked at a Syrian Red Crescent location when they were hit by approximately five missile strikes. The Red Crescent stated that approximately 20 civilians and at least one of its volunteers were killed in the attacks. It has suspended its operations for three days in protest. It further stated that the attack may have “serious repercussions” for its humanitarian work in the area. The U.N. has also suspended all aid convoy movement in Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that the attacks were carried out by either Russian or Syrian aircraft. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby noted that the destination of the convoy was “known to the Syrian regime and Russian Federation.” He further stated that the aid workers were “killed in their attempt to provide relief to the Syrian people.” The U.N. Aid Chief, Stephen O’Brien, declared that the “callous attack” would amount to a “war crime” if it was found to be deliberate. Russia has denied that its aircraft or those of its Syrian government allies were involved.

The ceasefire between the U.S. and Russia went into effect on September 12th. It was the most recent attempt to bring enough peace to the country to allow political negotiations to begin. A key part of the cessation involved humanitarian aid deliveries to civilians in besieged areas. The agreement further entailed halting fighting between government and rebel forces across Syria. If the ceasefire held, the U.S. and Russia were to set up a joint military cell to target the Islamic State group.

Despite an initial drop in fighting following the ceasefire, violence began to escalate late last week. The deal came under strain on Saturday, September 17th when a coalition strike led by the U.S. hit a Syrian army post near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Armed Forces General Command issued a statement on Monday, September 19th declaring that the ceasefire had ended. Following this announcement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that jets fired strikes, killing and wounding individuals in the Aleppo region. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to hold a meeting regarding Syria and the ceasefire on Wednesday, September 21st.

For more information, please see:

CNN—Syrian ceasefire: Is it all over?—20 September 2016

Reuters—Russian aircraft believed to hit Syria convoy, U.S. officials say—21 September 2016

BBC News—Syria conflict: US ‘outraged’ over aid convoy attack20 September 2016

Middle East Eye—UN outraged at ‘callous attack’ on aid convoy, as Syria ceasefire collapses—20 September 2016

NPR—Syrian Cease-Fire Negotiated By U.S., Russia Goes Into Effect—12 September 2016

United States Bombers Fly Over South Korea in Show of Force

by Zachary Lucas
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

SEOUL, South Korea — United States’ bombers flew over South Korea as a show of force to recent military actions by North Korea. This was the second time in weeks that the US and South Korea have shown military force around the tense peninsula.

North Korea has Violated UN Sanctions Multiple Times in 2016 (Photo Courtesy of CNN)

Two US B-1B Lancer strategic bombers flew over South Korea as a show of force and solidarity to protect their ally on the peninsula. South Korea officials stated the supersonic bombers flew from Guam and landed at the Osan Air Base, 75 miles from the North Korean bomber. The purpose of the mission, according to South Korean officials, was to preserve peace and security on the peninsula.

This is the second time in two weeks that US bombers have flown over the peninsula. On 13 September, two bombers flew over South Korea while escorted by South Korean fighter jets. The increase in military presence by the US is in response to continued military buildup by North Korea. On 9 September, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test and later stated they had successfully tested a new rocket engine capable of launching satellites. North Korea did not respond to the latest show of force but previously called the 13 September show of force as “ill-famed nuclear killing tools.”

US and South Korea also announced plans to run a simulated attack on a nuclear facility. This simulation will take place starting 3 October. South Korean officials said this was not related to recent nuclear tests by North Korea. US and South Korea will also run simulations on sudden missile attacks.

China and Russia condemned the show of force and asked all sides to deescalate rising tensions on the peninsula. China objected to the US recent decision to move THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense) anti-missile system in South Korea. Chinese officials called on all “parties to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could further escalate tensions.” China did not state if they would support increased United Nations’ sanctions against North Korea to prevent nuclear testing. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that using the threat of a North Korean attack to militarize was dangerous.

Following the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula split into the communist north and the democratic south. After North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the UN intervened to support the South Korean government. The end of the war in 1953 marked a division of the country with a demilitarized zone running across the country. Both sides remain armed along the zone, but no serious altercations have occurred since the end of the war.

For more information, please see:

ABC News — North Korea: US supersonic bombers fly over South Korea after Pyongyang nuclear tests — 21 September 2016

CNN — South Korea, US to simulate attack on nuclear facility — 21 September 2016

Fox News — US flies bombers over South Korea again in show of force — 21 September 2016

Reuters — Russia’s Lavrov says wrong to use North Korea to militarize NE Asia — 23 September 2016

Reuters — U.S. bombers fly over South Korea for second time since North’s nuclear test — 21 September 2016

NATO Military Drills in Poland Prepare for Possible Conflict with Russia

By Sarah Lafen

Impunity Watch Desk Reporter, Europe

WARSAW, Poland — On Friday, the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) wrapped up a 10-day training exercise simulating a Russian attack on Poland.  NATO sent over 30,000 troops, military vehicles, aircraft, and ships from over 20 countries to the military base in Wederzyn, Poland to take part in military drills and exercises.  This joint-military effort is the largest since the end of the Cold War, and is a part of Anakonda 2016 – a Polish national exercise which seeks to train national forces into an allied, multinational environment.

Polish Soldiers perform a mock-medical evacuation in an Anakonda 2016 training exercise (Photo Courtesy of NPR)

American units, as well as non-NATO forces such as Sweden and Finland, participated in the training drills in Poland.  Drills included collaborative helicopter attacks which included communications between Polish pilots and American air traffic controllers, hiking through dense forests, clearing houses room-by-room, and live fire drills.  The goal of these training exercises was to train Poland, along with other Eastern-European forces which used to be allied with the Soviet, to work together with the United States and Western European troops.

Many view the joint-military effort as one of prudent preparation.  Polish Defense Minister Antoni Maciarewicz states that they now feel prepared for “the worst” and for “any bad eventualities.”  Evelyn Farkas of the Atlantic Counsel characterized this joint-military effort as one which will send a message to Russia that NATO is prepared to respond if Russia attempts to “step…into one of our allied countries.”  NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said the alliance has maintained communication with Russia throughout Anakonda 2016, however “practical cooperation” has been suspended since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Some leaders view the preparation and training as dangerous.  John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago political scientist who specializes in European security issues, calls the training a dangerous “poke at the Russian bear,” and thinks it will be perceived by Russia as a threat which will give them more motivation to invade the Baltic States.   German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir categorized the NATO training as “counterproductive to regional security,” and instead urged NATO to replace the training drills with more cooperation with Russia.

Russia has also spoken out against Anakonda 2016.  Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that the “war games” of Anakonda 2016 “do not contribute to the atmosphere of trust and safety on the continent.”

For more information, please see:

NBC — Huge NATO Drills in Poland Prepare West for Possible Conflict with Russia — 19 June 2016

BBC — German Minister Warns NATO Against ‘Warmongering’ — 18 June 2016

NPR — NATO War Games in Poland Get Russia’s Attention — 17 June 2016

U.S. Army Europe — What is Anakonda?

Violent Riots Ensue in the Midst of the Euro 2016 Football Tournament

By Sarah Lafen
Impunity Watch Desk Reporter, Europe

PARIS, France — This past week at the Euro 2016 championship football tournament in Marseille, France, English and Russian fans engaged in violent fights at a match between the two countries.  After the match ended in a tied 1-1 score, Russian fans jumped over the barriers separating the two nations’ fans and swarmed the section where the British fans sat.  Some Russians were equipped with fireworks and flares which were subsequently set off within the stadium.  Witnesses stated that some attackers wore mouth guards and fighting gloves during the brawls.

Russian fans smuggled fireworks and flares in to the match (Photo Courtesy of BBC)

According to Marseille’s emergency services, over 30 people were injured in the riots, including three police officers.  As a result of the riots, multiple head wounds were sustained, a significant amount of blood was shed, one man was knocked unconscious, and another suffered a heart attack.  Police used tear gas to break up the riots.

In anticipation of potential violent outbursts, France took extra security measures to prevent riots of this exact nature.  The Minister of Interior denied 3,000 people entry to the country, based on lists of people banned from stadiums in different countries, on suspicions they would bring disruption to the national order of France.  Bars in the Vieux-Port area of Marseille closed hours earlier than they normally do.

The Union of European Football Association (UEFA) has threatened to disqualify both England and Russia if these violent riots continue.  UEFA has already begun taking disciplinary actions against the Russian Football Union, charging them with crowd disturbances, racist behavior, and for the use of fireworks within a stadium.  A decision in regards to the sanctions will be made within a few days, once all evidence has been considered.

Both England and Russia have condemned the fighting.  Russia displayed its support for the launch of an investigation into their participation in the riots, and the United Kingdom Government has offered to send British police to the England’s next match against Wales in Lens, France.  Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), the governing body of the sport, has also condemned the violence.  FIFA released a statement calling the riots “wholly unacceptable.”

So far, 17 people have been arrested in connection with the riots.

For more information, please see:

BBC — Euro 2016: England and Russia Given Disqualification Warning — 12 June 2016

CNN — Euro 2016: Dozens Injured as Crowds of Rival Fans Brawl — 12 June 2016

CNN — Euro 2016: Russia, England Threatened with Disqualification Over Violence — 12 June 2016

The Guardian — Euro 2016: England and Russia Fans Clash Before and After Match — 12 June 2016

The Guardian — England and Russia Could be Thrown out of Euro 2016 if There is More Violence — 12 June 2016

NY Times — Russia and England Fans Clash Repeatedly at European Championships — 11 June 2016