death squad
In a recent letter to the Bangladeshi government, Human Rights Watch urged the country to abolish its paramilitary group, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Deemed by HRW as a “death squad” after evidence that RAB officers were responsible for the murder of seven men this past spring, HRW expressed adamancy on the issue, calling for immediate action by the Bangladeshi government. Advising the government to make RAB a completely civilian force until its abolishment, the group’s recommendations were not met well by Bangladeshi officials.

In response to the letter, the Bangladeshi Cabinet Committee on Law and Order discussed the issue during its meeting. When asked by reporters about the outcome, Committee Chief Amu claimed, “Whether we’ll disband RAB or not is entirely an internal issue. It doesn’t concern them [HRW].” Adamant that the government will make its own decision separate from the rights group’s personal stance, the paramilitary group–which was formed in just 2004–is unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon, according to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The claims made by HRW are a result of evidence that linked at least three RAB officials to the death of seven civilian men this past spring. The three guilty officials, who are now in police custody, have admitted their link to the killings and have been stripped of their badges by the government.

Yet high officials in RAB are still being questioned, and it is highly unlikely that all guilty parties have admitted to their involvement in the scheme.

“The Bangladeshi government has promised to reform RAB and hold it accountable, but it has utterly failed,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “RAB is beyond reform and should swiftly be abolished.”

Responsible for at least 800 killings in the past 10 years and numerous acts of torture and mistreatment, human rights groups around the world have supported HRW’s statement against the paramilitary group in hopes that the Bangladeshi government will listen.

– Nick Magnanti

Sources: Human Rights Watch, BD News 24, Prothom Alo
Photo: Progress Bangladesh

Waleed abu al-Khair, a well known human rights lawyer and activist, has been sentenced to jail for 15 years for undermining the state as well as insulting the political system.

His charges stem from apparently disobeying an anti-terrorism law which punishes any civil act that “disturbs public order, shakes the security of society, or subjects its national unity to danger, or obstructs the primary system of rule or harms the reputation of the state.”

However, this is not the first time al-Khair has faced the threat of jail time. In multiple occasions he has been sentenced to varying amounts of time, never reaching such intensity as the most recent conviction.

His nationally heard liberal voice rings across the nation — a concern to the unsteady Saudi government. In his statement, al-Khair will not appeal the court because he does not see the legitimacy of the claim, and therefore believes it will fall apart when it comes time to book him.

The international reaction to the jailing of such a prominent voice has been negative thus far, with a Saudi researcher for Human Rights Watch saying that “Waleed abu al-Khair’s harsh sentence shows that Saudi Arabia has no tolerance for those who speak out about human rights and political reform and it will go to any length to silence them.” Saudi Arabia’s reaction simply shows the rest of the closely watching world that freedom of speech is less than valued.

By showing dissent to the Saudi king, al-Khair put himself in the cross-hairs of the government. Al-Khair brought international attention to Saudi Arabia and this action upset the government to the point where they believed he represented them falsely and under a harsh light.

This incarceration demonstrates Saudi Arabia’s fear of the people, and the movement they could start if enough voices show disagreement. Countries that strive for a democratic state allow the citizens to voice concerns, however it appears this is not the case. The oppressive government in this situation shows the deviation from the hope for democracy, forcing other countries to question the stability of Saudi Arabia.

With reason, multiple countries, including the United States, have shown moderate concern for the blatant disregard of human rights in this ongoing debacle with al-Khair.

According to Reuters UK, “in the past year, Saudi authorities have been criticized by international rights groups for jailing several prominent activists on charges ranging from setting up an illegal organization to damaging the reputation of the country.” Should this disrespect of the people continue, it’s likely Saudi Arabia will have little time and warning before activists stop getting trampled by the government and stand together and force the government to listen. The necessity for the government to acknowledge and consider the points being made by activists and lawyers like al-Khair is vital to the growth of the country as well as the progressive nature clearly being yearned for by many of its citizens.

– Elena Lopez

Sources: Reuters, CNN, Al Jazeera
Photo: Dhaka Tribune

womin in syria
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently released a report titled “We are still here: Women on the front lines of Syria’s conflict,” which details the increasingly significant role women in Syria have been playing over the past three years during the vicious war as well as the additional obstacles that women must face.

Protests against the Syrian government began in 2011, and they quickly erupted into a deadly civil war, pitting antigovernment militias against government forces. According to the United Nations, the war has killed 150,000 people and displaced over nine million. As of June, half of the entire population of the country is currently in need of humanitarian aid.

The report released by HRW includes the stories of 17 different women who fled this destruction in Syria and are now refugees in the neighboring country of Turkey. “Their experiences reflect the various roles that women, particularly those opposed to the government or living in areas that came under government attack, have taken on as political activists, caregivers, humanitarians, and providers, as well as the particular ways in which conflict impacts women.”

Because many men have had to leave their homes due to “indiscriminate attacks, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, or engagement in military operations,” women have become especially vulnerable, having less support in the case of an emergency, and having the additional responsibility of sole breadwinner.

Raids by armed forces and abductions, in which women are more highly targeted, become larger threats without this support. When women are abducted or arbitrarily detained, they are also disproportionately prone to receive abuse, including sexual assault and torture.

Some armed groups have explicitly targeted women in Syria, putting in place discriminatory policies that limit “women’s engagement in public life and ability to move freely” and “their access to education and employment.” In addition to fear of conflict, these types of overt restrictions severely limit women’s mobility.

However, many women are fighting back. Maha, a Syrian woman and founder of a peaceful activism organization, is continuing her organization’s civic work in Syria even though she fled the country after losing her husband to a government attack.

Maha is worried, however, that the work her organization and others like it are doing is being covered by the images of violence, saying, “On the news, you only see blood and destruction. You don’t see that behind it, there are civilian groups doing things peacefully.”

This HRW report has helped to shed light on the experiences Syrian women have had during this troubling conflict. They are at a disproportionately high risk to experience abuse and many have had to assume challenging and dangerous leadership roles.

“Recognizing women’s multiple and significant roles in the conflict,” the report noted, “and their experiences as both actors and victims, is critical to developing appropriate responses to women’s needs inside Syria and in refugee communities and to ensuring their ongoing and meaningful participation in determining Syria’s future.”

– Emily Jablonski

Sources: Al Jazeera America, Human Rights Watch
Photo: CTV News

Flagellation, beating and electric shock are among the injustices migrants and refugees have allegedly suffered in several Libyan detention centers, according to testimonies gathered in a Human Rights Watch investigation carried out in April. These detention centers, which are operated by the Libyan government, are home to as many as 6,000 people, most of whom are captured either while trying to flee to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea or attempting to illegally enter Libya.

Though the government has been unsuccessful in catching the majority of those illegally entering or exiting the country–approximately three million illegal immigrants reside in Libya, while over half a million individuals are estimated to have their sights set on Europe–these detention centers remain extremely overcrowded and those detained are subject to poor sanitation conditions. In addition, the detainees are denied not only proper medical care, but also legal representation and trial prior to entering the detention facilities.

A representative from HRW who reported accounts of male guards inappropriately strip-searching women and girls noted that the unstable political situation in Libya is no excuse for the “torture and other deplorable violence” occurring in detention centers run by the government. Other testimonies detailed incidents in which guards violently attacked men and boys, digitally raped women and girls, and hung individuals from trees in order to beat them.

HRW has instructed Italy and the countries comprising the European Union to withhold international aid to the detention centers until the abuses cease. In the next four years, those countries were to invest a combined 12 million euros (roughly $16.4 million) into rehabilitating these centers. Now, most of that money will be invested into Libyan NGOs. A small amount will be still committed to rehabilitating several of the detention centers violating Libya’s international obligation to protect all on its soil, including those in detention centers.

Should the abuses stop, Italy and the EU are to convene with the Libyan Interior Ministry on how to best use aid to bring all detention centers up to international human rights standards.

These reports of torture come at a crucial time, as the numbers of migrants and refugees in Libya is not only at a record high but expected to continue to grow within the next few years, especially if the political uncertainty currently plaguing Libya persists. Those who have already experienced torture in these detention centers are at increased of risk of poverty upon their release, as the psychological and physical stress they have endured may prevent them from seeking or sustaining employment.

Ending torture, wherever it occurs in the world, should be at the forefront of international aid agendas not just because it endangers those who currently suffer from it  but also because it will affect their lives negatively thereafter as well.

– Elise L. Riley

Sources: The Guardian, IRCT, Human Rights Watch
Photo: The Guardian

As Syria enters its fourth year in a civil battle, Human Rights Watch has reported certain Syrian groups are using child soldiers as young as 15 for battle and suicide missions. HRW has named extremist Islamic groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS,) as specifically baiting children through the false promise of free educational opportunity. According to international law, armed group leaders who recruit child soldiers can be tried as war criminals.

Majed was only 12 years old when he started spending time with members of the Islamic terrorist group, Nusra Front. Like many other groups, Nusra Front masked their true intentions behind educational opportunities, and once they had reeled in a significant group of followers, social pressure would do the rest. Amr, 17, fought with an extremist Islamist group in northern Syria at just 15, where children were “encouraged” to participate in suicide bombings. His friends had signed on, so Amr felt pressured to follow suit — though he was able to get away just before his turn came up.

While the actual number of child soldiers in Syria is unknown, the Violations Documenting Center, a Syrian monitoring group, has recorded at least 194 deaths of “non-civilian” male children since 2011. These children (male and female) are being used to fight in battles, act as snipers, participate in suicide bombing missions, treat the wounded on battlefields and carry ammunition to and from the front lines.

The Syrian government has been subject to an array of horrific crimes, including recent reports of government forces dropping chlorine bombs on citizens, including children. Now, with armed opposition groups sending children to fight, the civil battle has resulted in a double-edged sword: one which Syrian children are falling victim to.

Children who want to leave armed groups are left with few options and lack of social support. Saleh, 17, has fought with the Free Syrian Army since he was 15 after he was detained and tortured by government forces. After years of fighting, Saleh has often wished for a different life. “I thought of leaving [the fighting] a lot,” he said. “I lost my studies, I lost my future, I lost everything.”

— Nick Magnanti

Sources: Human Rights Watch, CNN, Time
Photo: Naij

This Tuesday the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that refugees fleeing the western Rakhine state in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are suffering increasing instances of abuse. This is an ongoing humanitarian issue as violence in the Rakhine state began almost exactly two years ago when clashes and riots between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted. The roots of this crisis come from the fact that the Rohingya Muslims are a linguistic and religious minority who the Rakhine Buddhists have long resented.

Regardless of the long-standing tensions between these two groups, the initial cause of the riots happened in May of 2012 when a Muslim woman was raped and murdered. Hundreds of people have since died and thousands have been displaced. Many of those affected are innocent women and children.

Authorities are considered to have exacerbated the problem by not acting quickly enough to stop the violence. Few people have been prosecuted and some of the local police even partake in the riots. Human Rights Watch called on the Myanmar government to take action but they have denied any wrongdoing.

This crisis has come into the news again because of the worsening conditions of refugees. Mostly Rohingya women and children, these refugees are fleeing to places such as Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. A spokesperson for UNHCR said that “more than 86,000 people have left on boats since June 2012. This includes more than 16,000 people in the second half of 2012, some 55,000 in 2013 and nearly 15,000 from January to April this year.” These boats are overcrowded and there is little access to food or water. Sadly, at least 730 people have died trying to make this journey.

The problems continue once these refugees reach land. In Thailand and Malaysia, reports of smuggling have begun to emerge. The smugglers take the refugees to camps where they are forced to live in squalor and minimal space until their families can pay the ransom for their release. The refugees suffer from malnutrition and are often beaten; some even die.

Luckily, Thai authorities are working with UNHCR to remove these smuggler camps and to offer services to the refugees. This means rehabilitation centers that offer educational services and basic community activities.

Problems still persist though as the Thai government has refused to sign the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention. This convention regulates the treatment of asylum seekers. In 2005 Thailand stopped registering refugees in an attempt to slow their arrival. However, this has not stopped the flow of refugees from Myanmar, causing many to be trapped in these refugee camps.

If the violence in Myanmar continues, as it has been for two years, the refugees will continue to leave their homes hoping to find safety elsewhere. What they find instead are smuggling camps and refugee camps as they wait with no legal status in either their home country or the country where they are trying to seek refuge. The UNHCR is trying to implement potential programs to help the refugee camps, but Myanmar as well as Thai and Malaysian governments need to work with this intergovernmental organization to to resolve this humanitarian crisis.

– Eleni Marino

Sources: Aljazeera, BBC News, UNHCR
Photo: Taipei Times

Human Rights Watch is currently investigating whether the Syrian government used chlorine bombs in recent attacks. Last September, Syria complied to dispose of its chemical weapons, around 1,300 metric tons, after external threats from the United States and Russia. Yet, many believe that chlorine was used in recent attacks in the country through barrel bombs.

The barrels, which are stuffed with nails and explosive material, are pushed out of airplanes into areas of rebel, and civilian, congregation — including schools, hospitals and civilian facilities. While the Syrian government has blamed the attacks on terrorist groups, Nadim Houry, the Deputy Director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, thinks otherwise.

Since the Syrian government has sole control over the air, Houry believes these attacks are meant to push residents away from these rebel areas. Causing panic amongst the civilian population, it causes them to flee and, subsequently, allows the government to advance more quickly.

While chlorine is not lethal, it can cause serious health problems for those affected. The Chemical Weapons Convention chalks chlorine’s exclusion from the list of prohibited toxic chemicals to its widespread commercial use, which is most commonly used for water purification and bleaching purposes. Yet this notion has been met with criticism; Charles Duelfer, who was head of Saddam Hussein’s investigation under weapons of mass destruction, claims that the magnitude of chlorine bombs equivocates the problem to other chemical munitions which are currently being destroyed.

Syria, which will be holding an election this upcoming Tuesday, has been in civil uproar since 2011, leaving many in rebel areas hopeless. Now, with voting only allowed in regime-controlled areas and set to virtually assure victory for the incumbent Bashar al-Assad, those in impoverished areas of the country are having trouble remaining hopeful.

Ahmed, a young rebel fighter from a now-besieged Deir Ezzor, is just one of many clinging to survival.

“Deir Ezzor is surrounded by the regime and [ISIS] has cut off the only way out,” Ezzor said.  “We will all be killed.”

– Nick Magnanti

Sources: CSMonitor, NPR, VOANews
Photo: Vice News

A Human Rights Watch report reveals that traveling employers often abuse their migrant workers in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the government tends to neglect the abuses and has thus far made it harder for the workers to escape the prison-like conditions.

According to the report’s press release, migrant workers face a range of abuses such as “confiscation of passports, confinement to the home, physical and psychological abuse, extremely long working hours with no rest days and very low wages or non-payment of wages.”

In 2012, the U.K., despite being challenged by UN experts and NGOs, terminated the migrant workers’ right to change their employers upon their arrival from a different country.

Before traveling to the U.K., under the Overseas Domestic Worker visa, domestic workers are required to have been employed by their employer for no less than a year. The visa also limits the employer and the migrant worker to a temporary visit.

“The most serious consequence of the new tied visa for migrant domestic workers is that if they leave their employ they become undocumented,” the report explains. “As a result, domestic workers who have escaped for abusive conditions can be afraid to approach the police out of fear of being deported from the U.K.”

Similar abuses such as the ones occurring in the U.K. take place in the Gulf under the “kafala” system.

According to Graham Peebles, director of the Create Trust, “The draconian Kafala sponsorship system, (which grants ownership of migrants to their sponsor), together with poor or non-existent labour laws, endemic racism and gender prejudice, creates an environment in which extreme mistreatment has become commonplace in the oil-rich kingdom.”

Although the U.K. government was criticized for doing little to stop the practice of kafala within its borders, HRW suggested it could still act to prevent further abuses.

For example, many abusive employers also serve as diplomats who are given immunity due to their profession. On the other hand, one possible course of action that could be taken involves waiving the immunity given to them when they commit crimes against the migrant workers.

As for the U.K. parliament, HRW suggests that the institution should pass legislation that criminalizes the confiscation of the workers’ passports.

While the government decides what to do next, diplomats who already practice kafala in their own countries are given the impression that they can continue to abuse their migrant workers while traveling in the U.K.

– Juan Campos

Sources: Counterpunch, Human Rights Watch
Photo: Flickr

Although the Indian caste system is no longer legitimate, its repressive characteristics still affect the lives of the Dalit population today, particularly its women.

According to Human Rights Watch, the caste system in India “is perhaps the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy” and is a “defining feature of Hinduism.”

“A person is considered a member of the caste into which he or she is born and remains within that caste until death,” the organization said in a report.

Graham Peebles, director of the Create Trust, a UK based charity that helps disadvantaged women and children, said that women suffer the most under the caste system.

In a Counterpunch article, Peebles said Dalit women suffer the most under the caste system despite its being banned by India’s constitution. They tend to become victims of sexual slavery, humiliation and torture. They are also denied access to land, water and education.

Peebles argues that they are living under a type of apartheid in which “discrimination and social exclusion is a major factor.”

That is not to say, however, that Dalit women are the only females who struggle under the Indian caste system.

Indian authorities are constantly unsuccessful in seeking justice for the rapes that occur throughout the country. India’s National Crime Records Bureau estimates that rape cases increased up to 900% over the last four decades. In 2011 alone, more than 24,000 rapes were reported.

But unlike girls who are born into a middle class family, Peebles believes that girls born into a Dalit family receive little attention due to the media’s success in making the country look like a Bollywood film to international observers.

India can definitely improve in several areas regarding the unfair treatment of women. However, with the outlawed caste system still in place, these improvements seem unlikely to occur any time soon.

– Juan Campos

Sources: CounterPunch, Human Rights Watch
Photo: Kamla Foundation

There are many women in Iraq who have faced and continue to face abuse within the Iraqi judiciary system, as outlined in a new report from the Human Rights Watch (HRW). According to the HRW, although both men and women suffer from the severe flaws of the criminal justice system, women suffer a double burden due to their second-class status in Iraqi society.

Iraq has had other allegations challenging its reputation for gender discrimination in the past. During the 1970s, Iraq guaranteed equal rights to women before the law by mandating compulsory education through primary school for both genders and changed labor, employment, and personal laws to grant women greater equality in the workplace, marriage, divorce and inheritance. These advancements were done, however, in order to create loyalty to the ruling government and Baath Party.

After losing the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein tried to boost his power and popularity by embracing Islamic and tribal traditions. This led to the rapid deterioration in social status for women in Iraq, which has only worsened since the Iraq War.

Although there has been some debate in the international community as to the legitimate use of interrogation tactics like water-boarding, the abuses these women sustained seem to have amounted to torture. Nearly all of the women in Iraq that were interviewed by the HRW were handcuffed, kicked, punched, beaten with cables, subjected to electric shocks, and subjected to falaqa, which is the practice of tying someone upside down and beating their feet.

Many also reported being raped and sexually assaulted by security officials who also threatened to do the same to their daughters. After succumbing to torture, these women were forced to sign and fingerprint confessions they could not read, or in some cases, that were just blank pieces of paper.

Although prohibited by both Iraqi and international law, corruption and a lack of government oversight ensures that these abuses continue with no repercussions for the abusers and no relief for the victims. By detaining women without arrest warrants, holding them for indefinite periods before allowing them to see a judge and demanding bribes for their release, the actions of the government are synonymous to kidnapping.

The current situation is also influenced by religious strife, as the vast majority of these women and girls are Sunni and being illegally detained by the Shia-led government solely because of their branch of Islam. The majority of the women interviewed were held for allegedly covering up for crimes committed by male family members, and charged under Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law. Many were convicted not by evidence, but based on coerced confessions and testimony from “secret informants.”

The response from Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s administration has been criminally insufficient. They have yet to begin investigating allegations of abuse, and many government officials have denied that there is a problem, with some even accusing the women of lying. To move past the legacy of corruption left by Saddam Hussein, a greater sense of transparency of and accountability for government procedures could greatly improve the situation.

– Kenneth W. Kliesner

Sources: Human Rights Watch, Al Jazeera
Photo: Aljazeera