Freedom of Speech

U.S. Sanctions on ICC Officials on Hold

By: Andreas Munguia

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

NEW YORK, United States – On November 4, 2021, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York granted a preliminary injunction blocking an executive order issued by the Trump Administration in June of last year, which threatened to impose sanctions on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) officials and “any foreign person” assisting ongoing investigations by the court into suspected human rights abuses and other crimes by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2014. The ICC, which holds jurisdiction over investigations and prosecutions of individuals accused of war crimes, called the Trump Administration’s move an attack on international criminal justice and referred to it as an attempt to interfere with the court’s independence and its responsibility to investigate suspected war crimes. The European Union had also expressed its opposition to the move.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke about a Trump administration executive order on the International Criminal Court as Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper listens during a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, U.S. on June 11, 2020. Photo Courtesy of Yuri Gripas and Reuters.

Four dual-national U.S. international law professors and the Open Society Justice Initiative, a human rights organization based in New York, challenged the executive order on the ground that it was a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. The plaintiffs – both of whom often interact with the ICC and the Office of the Prosecutor through, for example, trainings, advice, or amicus briefs – were concerned that their interactions with the court would potentially be considered “prohibited transactions” with ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and Phakiso Mochochoko, a senior member of the prosecutor’s office. If these interactions were in fact considered “prohibited transactions” with Bensouda and Mochochoko, both of whom faced sanctions under the executive order, the plaintiffs would be subject to prosecution. In addition, because the executive order allows for sanctions to be imposed on “entities that have materially assisted designated persons,” the plaintiffs were also concerned that they would face sanctions themselves.   

The district court granted the preliminary injunction on the ground that there was a high likelihood that the plaintiffs would succeed on their First Amendment claim. According to the court, the regulations under the executive order are “content-based restrictions on free speech,” because speech in support of Bensouda or Mochochoko is prohibited while speech against them is not. Therefore, such regulations are subject to strict scrutiny under which the government must show that the regulations are narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest.   

While the court did not question the government’s stated interest in “protecting the personnel of the United States and its allies from investigation, arrest, detention, and prosecution by the ICC without the consent of the United States or its allies,” the court found that the restrictions were not narrowly tailored toward such stated interest due to the fact they also prohibited speech that was not relevant to that interest. For example, the regulations also prohibited speech pertaining to ICC investigations that did not involve the U.S. and its allies.

The litigation is ongoing, and the government must respond to the plaintiff’s complaint by January 19, 2021. However, there is a chance that President Biden may rescind former President Trump’s executive order, and thus eliminate the need for further litigation.

For further information, please see:

Human Rights Watch – US Sanctions on the International Criminal Court – 14 Dec. 2020

Just Security – ICC Associates Win Temporary Reprieve from Draconian US Sanctions – 05 Jan. 2021

Law360 Legal News – Trump’s Move to Sanction ICC Officials On Hold, For Now – 04 Jan.  2021

Reuters – U.S. judge blocks Trump’s sanctions targeting human rights lawyers, war crimes tribunal – 04 Jan. 2021

Modi Regime Cracks Down on Free Speech Amid Farmers Protesting for Fair Agricultural Laws

By: Hannah Bennink

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

NEW DELHI, India – In the midst of massive protests led by farmers in pursuit of fair agricultural laws, the Indian Government has imposed a crackdown on media outlets providing coverage. Police have filed criminal charges against journalists and activists for covering and sharing information on the protests.

Citizens gather to protest for freedom of speech and expression. Photo Courtesy of BBC and Getty Images.

Among the arrested include editors of two prominent independent news outlets, The Wire and The Caravan, as well as Shashi Tharoor, a very prominent opposition Congress party politician who is charged with “misreporting facts” surrounding the death of the protestor. Other charges include sedition, promoting communal disharmony, and making statements prejudicial to national integration.

This is not the first time the press has targeted India despite the freedom of expression being a constitutionally guaranteed freedom. There have been 405 sedition cases filed against Indian citizens for criticizing politicians and governments in the last decade, an overwhelming majority of those arrests coming after Modi gained power in 2014. In 2020 alone, sixty-seven journalists were arrested and 200 physically attacked. Despite the Indian government’s pride in its vibrant and competitive media, the country ranked 142 on the 180-country World Press Freedom Index in 2020 according to Reporters Without Borders.

The Indian government denies that journalists are being targeted. The National Vice President, Baijayant Panda, told the BBC that “All journalists with avowed political affiliations and evident slant against the government have continued to write and speak freely in newspapers, television and online portals.”  The Vice President alleges that recent arrests of journalists have been in response to “serious criminal allegations of fake news peddling in a riot-like situation, with the intent of fanning violence.”

In addition to the arresting journalists, the Indian government has shut down mobile internet services at protest sights in order to “maintain public safety”. Internet rights groups have condemned the shutdowns, asserting they were “suppressing the free flow of information related to peaceful assembly and the right to protest.” International human rights law requires India to ensure that restrictions on the internet and other forms of communication are part of a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern, and not to curtail the flow of information or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views. The Indian government has been known to block internet access in the past. In 2019, they shut off web access more than one hundred times, along with the longest imposed blanket internet outage in a democracy for five months in Kashmir.

Several internationally known figures have spoken out in support of the farmers and the journalists including Rhianna, Rupi Kaur, Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris. Despite the international attention, arrests have continued, the most recent being February 13th when 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi for being a “key conspirator” in the “formulation and dissemination” of a protest “tool-kit” meant to provide resources to farmers.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Disha Ravi: India activist arrest decried as ‘attack on democracy’ – 14 Feb. 2021

BBC News – Why journalists in India are under attack – 4 Feb. 2021

Columbia Journalism Review – India cracks down on journalism, again – 5 Feb. 2021

Human Rights Watch – India: Journalists Covering Farmer Protests Charged – 2 Feb. 2021

The Guardian – Indian journalists face criminal charges over police shooting reports – 1 Feb. 2021

The NY Times Modi’s Response to Farmer Protests in India Stirs Fear of a Pattern – 8 Feb. 2021

ECHR Finds Violations of Liberty and Freedom of Expression in Detention of Cumhuriyet Journalists

By: Tiffany Love

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

STRASBOURG, France – On November 11th, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights issued a non-final Chamber judgment in the case of Sabuncu and Others v. Turkey (application no. 23199/17). The case concerned ten Turkish nationals who were either journalists for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, or managers of the newspaper’s principal shareholder, the Cumhuriyet Foundation.

The Cumhuriyet is One of Turkey’s Oldest Daily Newspapers. Photo Courtesy of Media Defence.

Following Turkey’s attempted coup d’état on July 15th, 2016, the individuals had been detained in November 2016 by a magistrate judge who alleged there was strong suspicion that they had been involved in dissemination of propaganda on behalf of terrorist organizations. The detainees were indicted in April 2017 and each applied to the Turkish Constitutional Court in December 2016 and to the European Court of Human Rights on March 12th, 2017, alleging in both complaints, violations of their right to liberty and security of person, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press. They had been sentenced to lengthy prison terms by the Turkish Court.

The Court released the following holdings regarding the European Convention on Human Rights:

First, via unanimous decision, there were violations of Article 5 § 1, the right to liberty and security, and of Article 10, freedom of expression. The Court found that the applicants’ detention was arbitrary and based upon ‘mere suspicion,’ lacking enough evidence to rise to the required level of ‘reasonable suspicion.’ In fact, the detention was in violation of evidentiary requirements of the Turkish Code of Criminal Procedure, which required a showing of ‘strong suspicion.’ Further, the published articles and editorials did not incite violence nor show support of or contribution to terrorist organizations; they represented public debate of already known facts and fell within the exercise of freedoms outlined by the Convention.

Also unanimously, there was no violation of Article 5 § 4, the right to speedy review of the lawfulness of detention. Despite the fact that applicants faced continued rejection of their applications to the Turkish Court, and that the indictment and sentencing process took many months, the Court did not find the time unreasonable in light of the circumstances.

By majority decision, there was no violation of Article 18, limitation on use of restrictions on rights. The Court did not find any indication that Turkish authorities had pursued any ulterior purpose in the pre-trial detention of the ten individuals. However, the applicants contend that their detention was targeted retaliation and punishment for their unfavorable reporting of government actions. Judge Kuris dissented to this holding, stating that Turkey’s pre-trial detention of the journalists amounted to “political persecution of the media” and revealed a pattern of behavior that demonstrated a clear intent to silence the media in the wake of the attempted coup.

Following the coup of 2016, the Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began to target and arrest service personnel, judges, school teachers, university leaders, and journalists. The government declared a state of emergency, which allowed the president to promulgate new laws without the consent of parliament and to curb personal rights and freedoms with lawful justification. Journalists found themselves sentenced to lengthy prison terms and Amnesty International received credible reports of beatings, torture, and rape of government detainees. Some journalists applied to the European Court of Human Rights for relief, and several third-party free expression organizations intervened and submitted briefs on their behalf, urging the Court to take a strong stance against the unlawful detention of journalists.

In the aftermath of the 2016 coup, the Committee to Protect Journalists estimated that as many as 140 journalists were imprisoned in Turkey; other reports estimate that number to be 150. The Court’s decision in Sabuncu is promising for detained journalists. However, some support organizations, such as Media Defence, wonder whether the Court will be willing to engage beyond the instant case and act in the face of the larger crisis in Turkey. Clearly, the Court believes that without the necessary evidence, detention of journalists is unlawful and in violation of their rights to liberty and freedom of expression. Further decisions may illuminate the Court’s willingness to play an active role in the protection of journalists in Turkey.

For further information, please see:

Article 19 – Free Expression Organisations Intervene on Cases of Detained Turkish Journalists Before the European Court of Human Rights – 26 Oct. 2017

BBC – Turkey Coup Attempt: ‘Arrest Warrants Issued’ for Journalists – 25 Jul. 2016

BBC – Turkey Sentences 25 Journalists to Jail for ‘Coup Links’ – 9 Mar. 2018  

European Court of Human Rights – Case of Sabuncu and Others v. Turkey, Second Section – 10 Nov. 2020

European Court of Human Rights – Press Release: Judgment Sabuncu and Others v. Turkey – Pre-Trial Detention of Ten Journalists and/or Managers of the Newspaper Cumhuriyet – 10 Nov. 2020

Media Defence – European Court Finds Turkey Violated Cumhuriyet Journalists’ Rights to Liberty and Security, Freedom of Expression, Detained in the Crackdown Following July 2016 Coup – 11 Nov. 2020

The Guardian – Record Number of Journalists in Jail Globally After Turkey Crackdown – 13 Dec. 2016  

Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project – Commentary on the May 2019 Judgments Adopted by the Turkish Constitutional Court on the Detention of Journalists and a Civil Society Leader – 2 Aug. 2019

Is China Using COVID-19 as an Excuse to Silence Its Dissenters?

By: Madison Kenyon

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

BEIJING, China — On December 31, 2019, the government in Wuhan, China announced that health authorities were in the process of treating dozens of individuals who all had similar symptoms. A few days later, the Wuhan government confirmed that these individuals had all been infected with a new virus: COVID-19. Now about five months later, the spread of the virus seems to be slowing down in cities throughout China, and thus China has begun lifting its lockdown measures.

Despite the Chinese government lifting many of its lockdown measures, over 200 cities in China now require its citizens to download software that tracks citizens’ movements. Specifically, in order to freely move throughout different Chinese regions, a citizen must download either the WeChat or Alipay App which contains this software. After downloading this, the citizen is required to answer a list of personal information questions, including: name, Chinese ID number, phone number, residential address, their place of work, their travel history, and their purpose for being in the region. Next, the citizen is required to answer a list of health questions, ranging from “Do you have any symptoms? to “Have you been in contact with someone with COVID-19?” Based on the answers to these questions, each citizen is administered a different colored scanning code – either green, yellow, or red. Those who receive a green code can move around the city freely. However, those that receive a yellow code must self-quarantine for seven days, and those with a red code must self-quarantine for 14-days.

Although these cities have not technically made it a requirement for its citizens to download this software, they have implicitly done so since citizens may not travel throughout the city without a colored code. Specifically, a citizen is required to scan into every public place they enter. The government argues this is necessary to track the travel history of someone who becomes infected with COVID-19 and track who the infected person has been in contact with.

On the outside, this appears to be a creative way to track and maintain the spread of COVID-19. However, this tracking technology concerns many human rights activists. For starters, there is no end-date for the use of this technology. Many believe the Chinese government will continue to use the “health-scare” justification to track its citizens far after this global pandemic is over. Second, there has not been much transparency from the Chinese government as to how it reaches its decision in the color code it provides to each individual. Due to this, many believe that China will use this color-coded system to silence the government’s dissenters by giving them red codes and forcing them into isolation. This is especially troublesome since this pandemic broke out amid the Hong Kong protests. As Sophie Richardson, the China Director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “This is viewed as scary stuff from a human rights perspective…It is yet another way to gather information about people to potentially use it against them in ways which there’s no legal basis.”

It will surely be interesting to see if these predictions by human rights activists come true.

For further information, please see:

CNN – China is Fighting the Coronavirus with a Digital QR Code. Here’s How it Works – 16 Apr. 2020

ABC News – China Rolls Out Software Surveillance for the COVID-19 Pandemic, Alarming Human Rights Advocates – 14 Apr. 2020

N.Y. Times – A Timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic – 14 Apr. 2020

Business Insider – As China Lifts Its Coronavirus Lockdown, Authorities are Using a Color-Coded Health System to Dictate Where Citizens Can Go. Here’s How It Works. – 7 Apr. 2020

ECHR Rules Supermarket Cameras Don’t Violate Right to Privacy

By: Genna Amick

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor 

MADRID, Spain — On October 17, 2019, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found that the right to privacy of supermarket employees was not violated by the supermarket using visible and hidden cameras to record areas of the store where it suspected theft by employees.

The manager of a Spanish supermarket noticed that stock valued at upwards of €20,000 was missing. He decided to install cameras without informing any of his employees. The cameras focused on exits, entrances, and checkout counters. Based on the surveillance footage, the manager discovered that a number of his employees were taking goods without paying for them and helping customers to steal. He fired 14 of his employees, five of which are the applicants in this case.

The applicants argued that they were dismissed unfairly and that their right to privacy was violated by the installation of the cameras without their knowledge. The Spanish Employment Tribunal found that the dismissal was valid and that the applicant’s right to privacy had not been violated. After the Spanish High Court affirmed the Employment Tribunal’s ruling, the applicants submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.

In January 2018, a chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found that the employee’s right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention had been violated because they had not been informed of the installation of the cameras. However, the chamber did not find that the applicant’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention had been violated.

The case was then accepted and reviewed by the Grand Chamber which found that applicant’s Article 8 right to privacy was not violated nor was their Article 6 right to a fair trial. Delving into the right to privacy, the Grand Chamber held that employers are not required to notify employees of surveillance equipment if it was installed to protect a “significant” interest.

Applicant’s also argued that the State had a positive obligation to protect their rights against the actions of a private company. The Grand Chamber found that since there were a number of domestic laws in place intended to safeguard the applicant’s right to privacy which they could have sought legal remedies under, the State had acted within its margin of appreciation. The Grand Chamber concluded that the applicant’s Article 8 right to privacy had not been violated.

The Grand Chamber also concluded that applicant’s Article 6 right to a fair trial was not violated. In this case, the applicants attempted to argue that using their former employer’s video recordings of them stealing was inadmissible. The Grand Chamber held that using the videos as evidence did not undermine the fairness of the proceeding for two reasons. First, applicants had the ability to challenge the quality and accuracy of the videos. Second, the recordings were not the only evidence that was used by the Spanish domestic courts.

For further information, please see:

International Justice Resource Center – European Court Holds Secret Surveillance Did Not Violate Employees’ Privacy – 24 Oct. 2019

Warner Goodman – Employment Law Case Update: Lopez Ribalda and others v Spain – 24 May 2018