Special Report: In a working-class Hong Kong neighborhood, the protests hit home

Special Report: In a working-class Hong Kong neighborhood, the protests hit home
By James Pomfret and Jessie Pang

Hong Kong (Reuters) – “In life, there is joy, but inevitably there is also sorrow.

We all met below the Lion Rock.”

– “Below the Lion Rock,” theme song for long-running Hong Kong drama series

From the top of Lion Rock, all of Hong Kong reveals itself: the sprawl of the Kowloon Peninsula directly below, the iconic Star Ferry plying the waters of Victoria Harbor, the moneyed heights of Hong Kong island beyond. Like a crouching beast, the craggy ridgeline stands guard over a city on edge.

In the shadow of the revered mountain rise huge monoliths, drab concrete tower blocks far removed from the glittering glass highrises of Hong Kong island’s steroidal skyline. Here, in a neighborhood of public housing estates called Wong Tai Sin, seemingly endless stacks of aging windows heave with drying laundry and hum with air conditioners sweating droplets onto the pavement below.

At night, the towers slowly light up, each window’s glowing rectangle framing a second glowing rectangle flickering with the latest soaps and news. Every evening, at exactly 6:30, many residents take part in a daily ritual: tuning in to the main newscast on broadcaster TVB for the latest on a political crisis raging in this former British colony now ruled by China.

Sparked by anger against a controversial extradition bill, protests spread through many of Hong Kong’s 18 districts, putting the city’s freedom-loving populace on a collision course with the local government, and China’s Communist Party leaders behind it.

Over the summer and autumn, millions have marched. Protesters have hurled Molotov cocktails and bricks at police, sprayed revolutionary graffiti on walls, burned Chinese flags and vandalized businesses linked to the world’s second-largest economy. Police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, arresting more than 2,600 people on charges including rioting.

The violence has also come to the concrete towers of Wong Tai Sin, home to tens of thousands of working-class families whose struggles are woven into the fabric and lore of Hong Kong’s global rise. And with the unrest has come a test of what Hong Kongers call “the Lion Rock spirit” – this city’s sense of community and grit in the face of hardship.

THE LION ROCK SPIRIT

Elaine Chan heard gunshots. She opened the window of her flat in Lung Kwong House, or Dragon Bright House, and smelled something vinegary. Her eyes and skin began to smart. Tear gas. She started coughing. “I felt like being sick,” said the 39-year-old office worker, who has spent most of her life in Wong Tai Sin.

Two days later, on August 5, clashes broke out again in Wong Tai Sin as hundreds of anti-government protesters dressed in black blocked roads as part of a citywide strike. Chan had just finished eating a bowl of rice noodles at a place in the Temple Mall when a group of youngsters ran past, fleeing riot police.

“Follow me,” she yelled, then guided them into her building’s communal area via a back staircase, keying in the passcode to the security door to let them through to safety.

Chan, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, felt indignant and maternal.

“We had to help them,” she said. “They were terrified.”

She’d seen video clips of police beating skinny teenagers, smashing batons over their bodies and heads. She wondered what the Hong Kong she’s known her whole life had come to.

“Some people say Hong Kongers no longer have the Lion Rock spirit,” Chan said. “The ’60s and ’70s immigrants are different. You felt that they were really striving for Hong Kong. Helping one another, with no airs. Hong Kong has lost this. It’s become zero now.”

Lion Rock speaks to the constantly fluctuating Hong Kong identity over decades of transformation, hardship and reinvention. Many locals revere the peak, in the way Japanese cherish Mount Fuji, or Parisians love Notre Dame cathedral. In recent years, the mountain has become a politically charged space, with banners including those in support of full democracy draped from the peak.

Back in the 1970s, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, began running a television series called “Below the Lion Rock.” Airing periodically for decades, it chronicled the lives of regular Hong Kongers as they worked their way out of poverty, touching on social issues. With diverse characters including a policeman, an odd-jobs man, an office worker and a bookseller abducted by Chinese authorities, the show seemed to illuminate part of Hong Kong’s essence, a kind of can-do spirit that had elevated it from almost nothing into one of the world’s wealthiest cities.

The title song, “Below the Lion Rock,” is an unofficial Hong Kong anthem, and hearing its Cantopop melody and we’re-in-this-together Cantonese lyrics can make normally stoic residents choke up, particularly older ones who suffered deprivation and grinding poverty.

“The impression it gives me is of being very small at the time, watching it on telly,” Chan said, her voice cracking, as she listened on a mobile phone to the opening refrain, “In life, there is joy, but inevitably there is also sorrow.”

Today, she said, some people have criticized the protests because the unrest has disrupted the unfettered capitalism for which the city is famous.

“People only feel that this movement has meant they make less money, stops them from going to work,” she said. “Making money is most important.”

She has no time for that kind of thinking.

“The Lion Rock spirit is that no matter how tough things are, Hong Kong people will use each arm and each leg to help one another; if you can’t go on, I’ll help you. If I can’t make it, then you help me back. Real Hong Kong people still have this spirit. I really hope that I can pass this spirit to my next generation.”

MAINLANDERS IN HONG KONG

The only fully landlocked district in the city of 7.4 million, Wong Tai Sin extends along the flanks and approach of Lion Rock with a population of 420,000. Once a squatter area full of tin shacks and wooden shanties, the district was redeveloped by the then-British administration to provide affordable public housing blocks with elevators, running water and toilets to meet the chronic needs of a population that had been swelling with Chinese immigrants for decades.

The first of the modern public housing blocks in Wong Tai Sin, 15 of which are named after dragons, was built in 1982. Some had a then-innovative H-shaped design with open corridors to allow better ventilation and natural light. The apartments, some as small as 200 square feet, are utilitarian, with basic kitchens and bathrooms. Their doors are often left open to let in air, guarded only by concertina metal grilles.

Since the return from British to Chinese rule in 1997, more than 1 million people have arrived in Hong Kong from mainland China, but public housing hasn’t kept pace, meaning queuing times for flats are now over five years.

But for some new arrivals from the mainland, the housing crunch hasn’t mattered.

“It was like heaven on earth when I arrived,” said Chun Hui, a pork butcher at Wong Tai Sin’s Tai Shing Street wet market, a sprawling building crammed with stalls selling everything from pak choi to silver carp.

The 28-year-old came to Hong Kong 10 years ago from a coastal town in eastern Guangdong province after his mother married a Hong Kong man. “The people, the education, the politeness,” he said. “It was so civilized!”

Chun, who has a Japanese manga tattoo of Son Goku from the martial arts cult series “Dragon Ball” on his right forearm, gets to work every day at half past 5 in the morning, when he chops up several whole pig carcasses into cuts of meat for the day’s trade.

“Hong Kong is a good thing. The Hong Kong spirit, the mutual respect,” he said as a man flame-torched a pig’s head behind him.

He said soaring pork prices in China from African swine flu have made life more difficult and eroded his monthly income. He gets home around 8 p.m. and takes one day off a month to spend with his 5-year-old daughter.

He sees the protesters ultimately losing out.

“Hong Kong will become more mainlandized. But so what? We just need to fill our stomachs, wear warm clothes, have a job, buy a mobile phone. What more do you need?” he added, lighting up a cigarette and flicking the ash into a used Nescafe can.

All around him, locals wandered with red plastic bags of groceries, hailed loudly by stall owners and haggling back with equal volume.

Wong Tai Sin had long tended to vote for pro-Beijing candidates in local elections given its older populace and deep-rooted ties to patriotic Chinese political groups in the area. In Hong Kong, such China and government supporters are described as being in the “blue” camp. Yet the recent unrest has seen lots of residents turn against the police given the perceived excessive violence. They’ve shifted to the “yellow” camp of the protesters and democracy advocates, including those who supported the Occupy movement, which spearheaded pro-democracy protests in 2014.

Chun is troubled by this split. “The Lion Rock spirit is about unity. If a society isn’t unified, then the country will collapse,” he said.

He’s uneasy with the violence that has marked some demonstrations. “I feel that if you just protest with some violent individuals, including those who throw petrol bombs, I think this is very wrong,” he said.” I understand that they’re striving for something, but they shouldn’t do it this way.”

“THERE WILL BE TROUBLE”

Many Hong Kongers believe their city’s success is underpinned by not only geography, but also myth. A coastal city on the South China Sea, it has one of the best deep-water harbors in Asia, cradled between the hills of the Kowloon Peninsula to the north and the peaks of Hong Kong island to the south.

The ridgeline of Lion Rock runs uninterrupted down to the seas to the east and west of Kowloon. Nestled in these hills are believed to be the spirits of nine dragons, or Kau Lung, after which the Kowloon Peninsula was named.

“The lion guards over Hong Kong,” said Wai Nang-ping, 69, who has been a soothsayer in the Wong Tai Sin Temple for more than three decades.

The temple is one of the most famous in the city, drawing visitors with its promises of luck, wealth and health. The Taoist place of worship has done a roaring trade with a flood of mainland Chinese tourists. The visitors shake fortune sticks that are then read by soothsayers such as Wai, who channels prophecies from the gods from a two-story collective of her fellow seers.

Their building was tear-gassed in the recent protests, and these days, the temple is half-empty as many Chinese stay away from the city given the unrest. The carpark is no longer crammed with tourist coaches, and it’s much easier to get a table for dim sum in the mall next door. Fewer people take selfies beside the sinuous dragons that twist all over the eaves, walls and columns of the temple or the 12 bronze statues of the animals of the zodiac, in anthropomorphized form, arrayed in a half-crescent in front of the public housing estate to the south.

“Lion Rock is very auspicious and has a strong spirit,” Wai said. “Hong Kong is a lucky place. But sometimes the environment changes, and this year, the feng shui has three jade stars coming to the south, so you have squabbles.

“Each year, the environment shifts and the fortune sticks change. Especially for the youth and boys, there will be more trouble.”

A POLICE OFFICER’S SON JOINS PROTESTS

On September 13, Wong Tai Sin residents celebrated the traditional mid-autumn festival at a piazza near the temple surrounded by swirls of incense smoke. The crowds linked arms, singing, holding lanterns.

“Liberate Hong Kong!” came the shouts of hundreds, followed by its paired refrain, “Revolution of our times!” These twin bursts of defiance carried above the roaring traffic on a highway near Wong Tai Sin Lower Estate and its cluster of 15 tawny-sided buildings.

Suddenly the crowd hushed and everyone looked up to a floodlit spot above where a young man in a yellow helmet and goggles held a trombone. He played a few wistful bass notes through his face mask, and the crowd began singing “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song written by an anonymous composer over the summer that has galvanized protesters.

That same evening, Yan, the 17-year-old son of a policeman, climbed Lion Rock with four of his schoolfriends and thousands of other Hong Kongers. The Wong Tai Sin teenager set off at 7 p.m. and didn’t get home until 1 in the morning.

It was so packed at the summit, Yan said, that he couldn’t make it to the very top. Many people shone mobile phone flashlights and headlamps, giving the mountain a halo effect. Across the harbor, on Victoria Peak on Hong Kong island, people also shone laser beams, creating a crisscrossing light show with the beams on Lion Rock. The Peak is a wealthy residential neighborhood, while Lion Rock is seen as an egalitarian symbol of the poor and striving in the city.

Hong Kong’s wealth gap is one of the biggest in the developed world. Hong Kong real estate is among the most expensive anywhere, making it difficult for youngsters to get on the home ownership ladder without being left with crippling lifelong mortgages – and feeding a sense of disillusionment in society.

So far, however, the protesters haven’t directed their ire at the city’s billionaire tycoons. Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, started off as a penniless migrant from China and still commands respect in this capitalist haven, where even pensioners play the forex markets and the stock exchange.

Yan said the rich and poor came together that evening amid protests that have crossed economic divides. A recent poll of 613 protesters by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey backs him up, showing that demonstrators are fairly evenly split between those living in private apartments, who tend to have higher incomes, and those in public or subsidized housing, who tend to be working or lower-middle class.

“There were a lot of people that night. You can see Hong Kong people, above and below, are of one heart. They go up together and come down together; no one is left behind,” he said.

“It was tough, but I enjoyed it. I was moved, seeing lots of people on the same road going up the hill.”

Yan spoke on the condition that he be identified by his Chinese nickname to protect his father, who declined to talk for this story.

“I’m afraid of being arrested, as my dad works for the force,” he said. “If I’m arrested, it will create pressure for him, especially from his colleagues.”

His dad knows he joins the protests, with a rucksack bulging with kit: body armor, change of clothes and, to shield him from the tear gas, three gas masks, including a 3M 6800 full-face respirator with double filters that he bought on Amazon.

“We just don’t talk about politics,” he said with a shrug. “We don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings.”

Yan said of his dad: “He understands that the government ignores people’s voices, and that it’s a good thing for the people to protest. But he doesn’t support violence.”

Yan doesn’t want independence – which China resolutely opposes – but he hopes for a brighter future.

“If we win, I hope young people can take over Hong Kong,” he said. “One day, the future belongs to us.”

A HOMEMAKER IS CHANGED BY THE UNREST

Ah Bi, a homemaker who grew up in Wong Tai Sin, was in the piazza on the evening of the mid-autumn festival. In the disarming euphoria of that night, she said, the protests had brought division, but also unity.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “There’s a connection between people.”

The protests had already changed Ah Bi’s life. On August 3, she was in the Temple Mall on Ching Tak Street with her 12-year-old daughter when a group of riot police blocked the road and shouted at passers-by. As she tried to get closer, she was pushed back and forced against the wall of the Wong Tai Sin Catholic Primary School.

“My daughter sprinted up the steps into the shopping center,” and the two were separated, she said.

A group of police special forces, known as “raptors” or “fast dragons” in Cantonese, charged at the crowds and grabbed a young man by his shirt and pressed him to the ground. The crowd began growing – and getting more agitated. “Black police!” and “Triads!” they yelled, likening the police to members of Hong Kong’s notorious organized criminal gangs, given their beatings of protesters.

When Ah Bi was finally reunited with her daughter and they had made it home, her hands were trembling as she put her daughter to bed. “The police didn’t used to be like this. What happened, mummy?” her daughter said, her head on the pillow.

Ah Bi went out into the streets again after her daughter was in bed, outraged by the actions of the police. She joined crowds outside the station, demanding they release those arrested.

“I prayed very late that night. I couldn’t sleep. We adults are not worried so much about our peace and safety but the future for our children. I want to do something for Hong Kong, to protect our home.”

Days later, Ah Bi did something unprecedented. On August 8, she joined a “citizens press conference” and spoke on behalf of the protest movement in a live broadcast beamed across the city and abroad. She has remained politically active since.

“My mum used to say I didn’t care about politics,” she said. “But that day, my personality changed.”

A RETIREE FEELS HELPLESS

A greater percentage of elderly people live in Wong Tai Sin than any other Hong Kong district. One in four people here are over 65.

Poon Wing-cheung, a retired electrician, lives near the top floor of the 28-story Lung Hing House, or Dragon Vigour House, with his wife and grown daughter. He has a steadfast daily routine: a brisk walk or run into Morse Park with its landscaped grounds and football pitches, followed by an afternoon nap on the sofa and a stroll over to the Tai Shing Street wet market. A contented man with a round Buddha’s face and ready smile, his eyes dance with delight at this simple pleasure.

The 65-year-old moved into Dragon Vigour House 34 years ago when it was first built. The city has changed, he said, but also remained unchanged in other ways. He paused, leaving these words to settle upon the mind.

He talked of politics in the abstract, and said he rarely turns on the television for news of the protests anymore because “they keep doing the same every day. What’s the use? There’s no point watching.”

Some afternoons, when no one else is home, he takes out his DVD of pop singer Roman Tam performing “Below the Lion Rock” from a shelf crammed with a selection of animated films like “Finding Nemo” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” He slips it in, takes out his karaoke mic and starts singing.

“There used to be a lot of things we were unhappy about with the government, but they can’t possibly agree to everything you want,” he said after one of the sessions. “It’s not about not striving for something, but you sometimes have to accept the bigger picture.”

Sitting in his flat with a wall full of family pictures Blu-tacked behind the sofa, he said: “Singing this song at this time seems to have some meaning. I feel a bit helpless somehow. I can’t think of what we should do, how to change things.”

He crossed his arms with a contemplative smile. “Can anyone figure out a way?”

LADY LIBERTY ATOP LION ROCK

The worst violence in months of protests flared on October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Across the city, 269 people were arrested, and a policeman shot an 18-year-old in the chest, an escalation that shocked the city.

In Wong Tai Sin, thousands blocked Lung Cheung Road, one of Kowloon’s key highway links, and battled riot police on the tarmac in front of the Wong Tai Sin Temple.

Yan, the cop’s son, stood a little farther back, extinguishing tear-gas canisters with bottles of water. Elaine Chan watched the smoky projectiles arc in the air toward the youngsters from a footbridge to the Temple Mall. Poon, the retired electrician, stayed home several hundred paces away in Dragon Vigour House. Ah Bi, the homemaker, watched the clashes from her flat overlooking the temple, and went down several times to join the crowds occupying Lung Cheung Road. Chun, the butcher, had been at work at his pork stall since before dawn.

Nearly two weeks later, as the change in weather brought the first of the autumn birds down from the north, a group of protesters hatched a plan. Meeting at midnight at a temple on the lower slopes of Lion Rock, the masked men stood like ninjas in the shadows. Before long, a truck arrived with the cargo they would hoist to the summit.

The men made their way up steep and winding mountain paths, their headlamps flickering upon the dismembered parts of a giant statue known as “Lady Liberty.” The statue, which had been displayed on university campuses and at various protests, was heavy, so the men had dismantled her to make the climb easier. In small teams, they carried her legs, her torso and her upraised arm through the scrubby slopes, then over the craggy ridgeline until they came to the very head of the lion. There, the glowing rectangles of the windows of Wong Tai Sin spread below them.

One of the men, a Wong Tai Sin resident, talked about wanting to create a new Lion Rock spirit. “We feel that it’s not enough to just try hard in life. You also have to care about society,” he said. “This new Lion Spirit is to fight against injustice, and for all of society to strive for freedom.”

As they struggled to tether Lady Liberty with metal struts and wires, the four-meter-high symbol of the protest movement began to sway. They drilled into the granite with power tools in the howling winds of a sudden thunderstorm, and eventually managed to secure it. Then, at dawn, the weather cleared and the statue could be seen from afar, a beacon atop Lion Rock.

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; edited by Kari Howard)

Nigerian president vows crackdown on abusive Islamic schools after second raid

Nigerian president vows crackdown on abusive Islamic schools after second raid
By Desmond Mgboh

KANO, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigeria’s president on Tuesday ordered a crackdown on abuse at Islamic schools, after a second police raid in less than a month revealed men and boys subjected to beatings, abuse and squalid conditions.

Nearly 300 had been held captive at a school in the Daura area of Katsina, the home town of President Muhammadu Buhari, where police said they discovered “inhuman and degrading treatment” following a raid on Monday to free the remaining students.

Late last month, police freed hundreds from similarly degrading conditions in neighboring Kaduna state.

“Mr. President has directed the police to disband all such centers and all the inmates be handed over to their parents,” said a presidential spokesman.

“The government cannot allow centers where people, male and female, are maltreated in the name of religion,” he said.

Prior to this week’s raid, hundreds of captives had escaped the center, police said on Tuesday.

The 67 inmates who were freed by Katsina police were shackled, and many were taken to hospital for treatment, police superintendent Isah Gambo told Reuters.

“I tell you they were in very bad condition when we met them,” Gambo said.

A freed captive told Reuters on Monday that the instructors beat, raped and even killed some of the men and boys held at the facility, who ranged from 7 to 40 years of age. It was not immediately possible to verify his account.

While the institution told parents it was an Islamic teaching center that would help straighten out wayward family members, the instructors instead brutally abused them and took away any food or money sent by relatives.

Police said they had arrested the owner of the facility and two teachers, and were tracking other suspects.

The more than 200 captives who escaped were still missing, Gambo said. Police were working to reunite the others with family members.

“The inmates are actually from different parts of the country – Kano, Taraba, Adamawa and Plateau States,” he said. “Some of them are not even Nigerians. They come from Niger, Chad and even Burkina Faso and other countries.”

Islamic schools, called Almajiris, are common in the mostly Muslim north of Nigeria. Muslim Rights Concern, a local organization, estimates about 10 million children attend them.

Buhari said the government planned to ban the schools eventually, but he has not yet commented on the Katsina school.

(Reporting by Desmond Mgboh in Kano; Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Libby George and Paul Carsten; Editing by Giles Elgood and Nick Macfie)

‘Used and dehumanized’: Dozens of boys found chained in Nigeria

People with chained legs are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Garba Muhammad and Bosun Yakusak

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 300 boys and men, some as young as five and many in chains and bearing scars from beatings, have been rescued in a raid on a building that purported to be an Islamic school in northern Nigeria, police said on Friday.

Most of the freed captives seen by a Reuters reporter in the city of Kaduna were children, aged up to their late teens. Some shuffled with their ankles manacled and others were chained by their legs to large metal wheels to prevent escape.

One boy, held by the hand by a police officer as he walked unsteadily, had sores visible on his back that appeared consistent with injuries inflicted by a whip.

Some children had been brought from neighboring countries including Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana, police said, while local media reports said others had been left by their parents in what they believed to be an Islamic school or rehabilitation center.

“This place is neither a rehab or an Islamic school because you can see it for yourselves. The children gathered here are from all over the country… some of them where even chained,” Kaduna state’s police commissioner, Ali Janga, told reporters.

“They were used, dehumanized, you can see it yourself.”

Kaduna police spokesman Yakubu Sabo said seven people who said they were teachers at the school had been arrested in Thursday’s raid.

People are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

People are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

“The state government is currently providing food to the children who are between the ages of five and above,” he said.

It was not clear how long the captives had been held there.

Reports carried by local media said the captives had been tortured, starved and sexually abused. Reuters was not immediately able to confirm those details.

The children have been moved to a temporary camp at a stadium in Kaduna, and would later be moved to another camp in a suburb of the city while attempts are made to find their parents, police said.

Some parents who had already been contacted went to the scene to retrieve their children.

“We did not know that they will be put to this kind of harsh condition,” one parent told Reuters.

SCHOOL SHUTDOWNS?

Islamic schools, known as Almajiris, are common across the mostly Muslim north of Nigeria – a country that is roughly evenly split between followers of Christianity and Islam.

Parents in northern Nigeria, the poorest part of a country in which most people live on less than $2 a day, often opt to leave their children to board at the schools.

Such schools have for years been dogged by allegations of abuse and accusations that some children have been forced to beg on the streets of cities in the north.

Earlier this year, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Muslim, said it planned to eventually ban the schools, but would not do so immediately.

“Any necessary ban on Almajiri would follow due process and consultation with relevant authorities,” said Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu in a statement issued in June.

“The federal government wants a situation where every child of primary school age is in school rather than begging on the streets during school hours,” the statement said.

A presidency spokesman did not immediately respond to calls and text messages seeking comment on the raid in Kaduna and whether it would alter the government’s approach to such schools.

Professor Ishaq Akintola, director of the Nigerian human rights organization the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), said around 10 million children across the north of the country are educated at Islamic schools.

“Those responsible for abuse, if found guilty, should be held accountable but these schools should continue because shutting them down would deprive so many students of an education,” he said.

Akintola said Islamic schools needed funding to train teachers and improve the buildings.

(Reporting by Garba Muhammad and Bosun Yakusak; Additional reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alex Richardson)

Outpouring of support in Russia for sisters who killed abusive father

A woman holds a placard during a rally in support of three Khachaturyan sisters, who accused of killing their father, in Moscow, Russia July 6, 2019. Picture taken July 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

By Anna Rzhevkina

MOSCOW (Reuters) – One summer night last year, sisters Krestina, Angelina and Maria Khachaturyan went into the room where their 57-year-old father Mikhail was sleeping and attacked him with pepper spray, a knife and a hammer.

The sisters are now on trial for his murder, but thousands of people have come out in support of them, saying the sisters were defending themselves from an abusive father after being failed by a Russian legal system that, critics say, turns a blind eye to domestic abuse.

The outpouring of support – over 230,000 people signed a petition asking to free the sisters from criminal charges – was in part because many women believe unless the system is changed, anyone could end up in their same situation.

“I feel solidarity with the sisters,” said Anna Sinyatkina, a translator who was in a Moscow nightclub last week when about 200 people, mostly young women, gathered for a poetry evening in support of the sisters.

“I feel that like them I can at any moment be put in a situation when there will be no one but me to protect my life, and I won’t get protection or a fair trial afterwards.”

After killing their father in their Moscow apartment on the night of July 27, the Khachaturyan sisters, now aged 18, 19, and 20, called the police. Initially, they said they killed their father in self-defense when he was attacking them.

YEARS OF ABUSE

Later, the investigation found that was not true, but that they had been subject to years of abuse by their father, including systematic beatings and violent sexual abuse, according to investigators’ documents seen by Reuters.

The case has emerged at a time when many Russians believe protections for women abused in the home are being weakened.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday Russia failed to protect another victim of domestic violence – a woman, who was assaulted, kidnapped and stalked by her former partner.

In 2017 Russia decriminalized some forms of domestic violence. Under the new rules, the maximum punishment for someone who beats a member of their own family, causing bleeding or bruising, is a fine, as long as they do not repeat the offense more than once a year.

The sisters’ lawyer, Alexei Parshin, said they were not demanding anonymity as victims of sexual abuse because the allegations about abuse were already in the public domain.

The lawyer said the sisters, at the time of the killing, were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. He said they considered running away but feared his retribution if they were caught. Their mother and father were separated.

“NOT AN ISOLATED CASE”

Parshin said the girls’ neighbors went to the police several times to report his violence against the sisters, but no criminal prosecution was ever brought against him.

Moscow police and Russia’s Investigative Committee did not immediately reply to Reuters request for comments.

“The situation in which the girls found themselves living with a father for a rapist is familiar and scary,” Alyona Popova, a lawyer and organizer of the petition told Reuters.  

“Many people, not only women but also men in the Russian Federation realize that this is not an isolated case.”

On July 6, activists staged protests in a square in the center of Moscow, holding posters with the tag “I/We are the Khachaturyan sisters”.

“In any civilized country, these girls would be in a psychotherapy clinic… but not in prison, no way,” said one of the protesters, Zara Mkhitaryan.

Nearby there were counter-protesters. A handful of men standing with posters that read “Killers have no gender” and “Men’s state” the name of a nationalist movement whose members believe men should dominate society.

 

(Reporting by Anna Rzhevkina, Editing by William Maclean)

When a text can trigger a lynching: WhatsApp struggles with incendiary messages in India

Satish Bhaykre, 21, who was beaten by a mob due to a fake WhatsApp text, poses inside his house on the outskirts of Nagpur, India, June 23, 2018. Picture taken June 23, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Sankalp Phartiyal, Subrat Patnaik and David Ingram

MUMBAI (Reuters) – A WhatsApp text circulating in some districts of India’s central Madhya Pradesh state helped to inflame a mob of 50-60 villagers into savagely beating up two innocent men last week on suspicion that they were going to murder people and sell their body parts.

The essence of the message, written in Hindi, was that 500 people disguised as beggars were roaming the area so that they could kill people to harvest their organs. The message also urged recipients to forward it to friends and family. Police say the message was fake.

Police officers who joined several local WhatsApp groups, found three men circulating the message and they were arrested, said Jayadevan A, the police chief for Balaghat district, where the incident occurred.

This happened just weeks after a WhatsApp text warning of 400 child traffickers arriving in the southern Indian technology hub of Bengaluru led a frenzied mob to lynch a 26-year-old man, a migrant construction worker from another Indian state, on suspicions that he was a kidnapper. He was attacked while he was just walking on the road.

So far this year, false messages about child abductors on Facebook Inc <FB.O>-owned WhatsApp have helped to trigger mass beatings of more than a dozen people in India – at least three of whom have died. In addition, fake messages about child snatchers on Facebook, as well as some texts on WhatsApp, also led to the lynching of two men in eastern India earlier this month.

WHATSAPP’S BIGGEST MARKET

With more than 200 million users in India, WhatsApp’s biggest market in the world, false news and videos circulating on the messaging app have become a new headache for social media giant Facebook, already grappling with a privacy scandal.

In India, a country with over a billion phone subscribers with access to cheap mobile data, false news messages and videos can instantly go viral, creating mass hysteria and stirring up communal tensions.

Those tensions can be high between the Majority Hindu community and the minority Muslim population but also within the rigid Hindu caste hierarchy where the so-called Dalits at the bottom of the pyramid have faced attacks for trying to improve their position in society.

In 2017, at least 111 people were killed and 2,384 injured in 822 communal incidents in the country, according to the federal home affairs ministry. It is unclear whether any of these incidents were triggered by fake news messages.

WhatsApp said it is aware of the incidents in India through media coverage.

“Sadly some people also use WhatsApp to spread harmful misinformation,” WhatsApp said in a statement. “We’re stepping up our education efforts so that people know about our safety features and how to spot fake news and hoaxes.”

Group texts, where fake news spreads most easily, are still a minority: 90 percent of messages are between two people, and the average group size is six people, according to the messaging platform.

WhatsApp also said it is considering changes to the service. For example, there is now a public beta test that is labeling any forwarded message.

The company is not planning any changes to its encryption, which ensures messages are not read by anyone except the sender and the recipient.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

Two senior Indian government officials told Reuters that New Delhi had engaged with WhatsApp on the issue but they are not allowed to discuss the matter publicly. WhatsApp declined to comment on possible contact with Indian government officials.

Indian ministries of IT, home affairs and information and broadcasting did not respond to requests for comment.

PRIVACY CONCERNS

A deluge of hoax news incidents, several with fatal consequences, may bolster the Indian government’s attempts to get social networks to share more user data so that police can track down those spreading rumors. That concerns privacy advocates who fear the authorities will use such access against activists and political opponents, and not just against those spreading malicious information.

“Government restrictions on dissemination of false news are too often an attempt to shroud government intentions of restricting freedom of expression and criticism,” according to David Kaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has also recently floated a tender for a firm to scrutinize social media posts of Indian users and identify fake news.

The Indian authorities have been signaling they will take an increasingly harsh line with foreign companies who are providing Internet services in India.

India’s central bank in April issued a directive compelling all payments firms operating in the country to store payments data locally within six months for “unfettered supervisory access”. Separately, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is working on a data protection law that could force all foreign tech firms to store key Indian user data locally.

“There is a distinct link between fake news and laws being proposed undermining privacy,” said Apar Gupta, a co-founder of advocacy Internet Freedom Foundation.

Meanwhile, the inflammatory hoax news messages keep coming.

One floating in Bengaluru last month warned parents to take “extra measures towards the safety” of children during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as they remain busy with prayers and shopping.

More than 500 kidnappers have entered the southern state of Karnataka from western Rajasthan state and the cities of Chennai and Hyderabad, the message said.

WhatsApp messages on organ thieves or child abductions are just the tip of the iceberg though – fake reports can range from incorrect medical advice to news about top jobs.

A recent message circulating in India’s northeast starts by saying the deadly brain-damaging Nipah virus has arrived in Shillong city and advises parents to keep children away from lychees, a popular summer fruit. No confirmed cases of Nipah have been found yet outside of southern Kerala state.

(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal, Subrat Patnaik and David Ingram; additional reporting by Nidhi Verma in New Delhi, Derek Francis and Sangameswaran S in Bengaluru; Edited by Martin Howell)

Exclusive: $6 for 38 days work: Child exploitation rife in Rohingya camps

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, serves plates at a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017.

By Tom Allard and Tommy Wilkes

COX’S BAZAR/KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh (Reuters) – Rohingya refugee children from Myanmar are working punishing hours for paltry pay in Bangladesh, with some suffering beatings and sexual assault, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has found.

Independent reporting by Reuters corroborated some of the findings.

The results of a probe by the IOM into exploitation and trafficking in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, which Reuters reviewed on an exclusive basis, also documented accounts of Rohingya girls as young as 11 getting married, and parents saying the unions would provide protection and economic advancement.

About 450,000 children, or 55 percent of the refugee population, live in teeming settlements near the border with Myanmar after fleeing the destruction of villages and alleged murder, looting and rape by security forces and Buddhist mobs.

Afjurul Hoque Tutul, additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar, near where the camps are based, said 11 checkpoints had been set up that would help prevent children from leaving.

“If any Rohingya child is found working, then the owners will be punished,” he said.

Most of the refugees have arrived in the past two and a half months after attacks on about 30 security posts by Rohingya rebels met a ferocious response from Myanmar’s military.

Described by the United Nations human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, Myanmar’s government counters that its actions are a proportionate response to attacks by Rohingya “terrorists”.

The IOM’s findings, based on discussions with groups of long-term residents and recent arrivals, and separate interviews by Reuters, show life in the refugee camps is hardly better than it is in Myanmar for Rohingya children.

The IOM said children were targeted by labor agents and encouraged to work by their destitute parents amid widespread malnutrition and poverty in the camps. Education opportunities are limited for children beyond Grade 3.

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, stands inside a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017.

Azimul Hasan, 10, a Rohingya refugee boy, stands inside a roadside hotel where he works at Jamtoli, close to Palong Khali camp, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Rohingya boys and girls as young as seven years old were confirmed working outside the settlements, according to the findings.

Boys work on farms, construction sites and fishing boats, as well as in tea shops and as rickshaw drivers, the IOM and Rohingya residents in the camp reported.

Girls typically work as maids and nannies for Bangladeshi families, either in the nearby resort town of Cox’s Bazar or in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, about 150 km (100 miles) from the camps.

One Rohingya parent, who asked not to be identified because she feared reprisals, told Reuters her 14-year-old daughter had been working in Chittagong as a maid but fled her employers.

When she returned to the camp, she was unable to walk, her mother said, adding that her daughter’s Bangladeshi employers had physically and sexually assaulted her.

“The husband was an alcoholic and he would come to her bedroom at night and rape her. He did it six or seven times,” the mother said. “They gave us no money. Nothing.”

The account could not be independently verified by Reuters but was similar to others recorded by the IOM.

Most interviewees said female Rohingya refugees “experienced sexual harassment, rape and being forced to marry the person who raped her”, the IOM said.

A 12 year old Rohingya girl who worked as domestic help in a house in Bangladesh, looks out the window at an undisclosed location near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, November 8, 2017.

A 12 year old Rohingya girl who worked as domestic help in a house in Bangladesh, looks out the window at an undisclosed location near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, November 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

PAID A PITTANCE, IF AT ALL

Across Bangladesh’s refugee settlements, Reuters saw children wandering muddy lanes alone and aimlessly, or sitting listlessly outside tents. Many children begged along roadsides.

The Inter Sector Coordination Group, which oversees UN agencies and charities, said this month it had documented 2,462 unaccompanied and separated children in the camps. The actual number was “likely to be far higher”, it said.

A preliminary survey by the UNHCR and Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission has found that 5 percent of households – or 3,576 families – were headed by a child.

Reuters interviewed seven families who sent their children to work. All reported terrible working conditions, low wages or abuse.

Muhammad Zubair, dressed in a dirty football shirt, his small stature belying his stated age of 12 years old, said he was offered 250 taka per day but ended up with only 500 taka ($6) for 38 days work building roads. His mother said he was 14 years old.

“It was hard work, laying bricks on the road,” he said, squatting in the doorway of his mud hut in the Kutupalong camp. He said he was verbally abused by his employers when he asked for more money and was told to leave. He declined to provide their identities.

Zubair then took a job in a tea shop for a month, putting in two shifts per day from 6am to past midnight, broken by a four-hour rest period in the afternoon.

He said he wasn’t allowed to leave the shop and was only permitted to speak to his parents by phone once.

“When I wasn’t paid, I escaped,” he said. “I was frightened because I thought the owner, the master, would come here with other people and take me again.”

 

FORCED MARRIAGE

Many parents also pressure their daughters to marry early, for protection and for financial stability, according to the IOM findings. Some child brides are as young as 11, the IOM said.

But many women only became “second wives,” the IOM said. Second wives are frequently divorced quickly and “abandoned without any further economic support”.

Kateryna Ardanyan, an IOM anti-trafficking specialist, said exploitation had become “normalized” in the camps.

“Human traffickers usually adapt faster to the situation than any other response mechanism can. It’s very important we try to do prevention.” Ardanyan said.

“Funding dedicated to protecting Rohingya men, women and children from exploitation and abuse is urgently needed.”

 

(Reporting by Tom Allard and Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Philip McClellan)

 

U.N. finds torture widespread in Afghanistan

Afghan National Police (ANP) officers march at a training centre near the German Bundeswehr army camp in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan

By Josh Smith

KABUL (Reuters) – Torture and mistreatment of detainees by Afghan security forces is as widespread as ever, according to a U.N. report released on Monday, despite promises by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and new laws enacted by the government.

At least 39 percent of the conflict-related detainees interviewed by U.N. investigators “gave credible and reliable accounts” of being tortured or experiencing other mistreatment at the hands of Afghan police, intelligence, or military personnel while in custody.

That compares with 35 percent of interviewees who reported such ill treatment in the last U.N. report, released in 2015.

In response to allegations in the past, the Afghan government has acknowledged that some problems could be caused by individuals but not as any national policy.

“The government of Afghanistan is committed to eliminating torture and ill-treatment,” the government said in a statement.

The U.N. report comes as senior Afghan officials prepare to appear before the U.N. Committee Against Torture in Geneva this week to face a review of Afghanistan’s record of implementing anti-torture laws.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague is conducting a separate review of torture in Afghanistan.

“Notwithstanding the government’s efforts to implement its national plan … the present report documents continued and consistent reports of torture and ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees, mainly during interrogation, and highlights a lack of accountability for such acts,” U.N. officials concluded.

Over the past two years, investigators interviewed 469 detainees in 62 detention centers across Afghanistan.

The report’s authors noted an alarming 14-percent spike in reports of torture by Afghan National Police, at 45 percent of those interviewed.

More than a quarter of the 77 detainees who reported being tortured by the police were boys under the age of 18, according to the United Nations.

A force known as the Afghan Local Police severely beat almost 60 percent of their detainees, according to the interviews carried out by U.N. investigators.

Nearly 30 percent of interviewees held by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, said they had faced torture or mistreatment.

Afghan National Army soldiers were also accused of mistreating some detainees, but the prisoners held by the army usually fall in categories less vulnerable to torture, the United Nations noted.

The majority of detainees who were tortured said it was to elicit a confession, and the ill treatment stopped once they signed a written confession, which in many cases, they could not read.

“Torture does not enhance security,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement. “Confessions produced as a result of torture are totally unreliable. People will say anything to stop the pain.”

Among the methods described in the report were severe beatings to the body and soles of the feet with sticks, plastic pipes or cables, electric shocks, including to the genitals, prolonged suspension by the arms, and suffocation.

(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Turkmenistan’s president must renounce torture:

President of Turkmenistan Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov walks past an honour guard before a ceremony to welcome Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the capital Ashgabat, Turkmenistan,

GENEVA (Reuters) – Turkmenistan must renounce torture, a U.N. body said on Wednesday, accusing the country of systematic abuse, including rape and beating in jail, and political disappearances.

“The Committee (against Torture) is seriously concerned at consistent allegations of widespread torture and ill-treatment, including severe beatings, of persons deprived of their liberty, especially at the moment of apprehension and during pretrial detention, mainly in order to extract confessions,” it said.

The body called on President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to make “a public statement affirming unambiguously that torture will not be tolerated”, adding that nobody had been prosecuted for torture, despite widely publicized cases.

Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry and its diplomats in Geneva could not be reached for comment.

Earlier on Wednesday, the ministry said the government was working closely with international human rights bodies and was improving its legal framework, including the prison system.

Turkmenistan reportedly holds 90 people in long-term detention, amounting to enforced disappearance, the panel of 10 independent rights experts said. They were particularly concerned about the whereabouts of people convicted in relation to an assassination attempt on a former president in 2002.

A former foreign minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, and a former ambassador, Batyr Berdiev, disappeared in 2002, committee member Felice Gaer told a news conference and there had been no information about what happened to them.

Turkmenistan has failed to investigate the abduction of Atymurad Annamuradov, who was beaten to death in retaliation for the work of his brother, Chary Annamuradov, a journalist. Three other brothers also died in suspicious circumstances, the committee said.

Many prisoners had reportedly died because of conditions at Ovadan-Depe jail, and inmates with infectious diseases were held with healthy prisoners, only getting hospitalized “when they are close to death or through bribing the relevant officials”, the committee said.

Political prisoners were detained in psychiatric hospitals, and there were reports of abuse including sexual violence and rape by prison staff, resulting in several suicides, it said.

Turkmenistan does not allow independent organizations such as the Red Cross to monitor detention facilities, nor does it allow U.N. rights experts to investigate in the country.

The Foreign Ministry said diplomats from Europe, the United States, the OSCE and the United Nations visited a juvenile correctional facility on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Tom Miles, Stephanie Nebehay and Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Turkey’s post-coup emergency rule led to torture, abuse

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey,

By Humeyra Pamuk

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey has effectively written a “blank check” to security services to torture people detained after a failed military coup attempt, a U.S.-based rights group said on Tuesday, citing accusations of beatings, sleep deprivation and sexual abuse.

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said a “climate of fear” had prevailed since July’s failed coup against President Tayyip Erdogan and the arrest of thousands under a State of Emergency. It identified more than a dozen cases raised in interviews with lawyers, activists, former detainees and others.

A Turkish official said the Justice Ministry would respond to the report later in the day; but Ankara has repeatedly denied accusations of torture and said the post-coup crackdown was needed to stabilize a NATO state facing threats from Kurdish militants as well as wars in neighboring Iraq and Syria.

Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, said in a statement it “would be tragic if two hastily passed emergency decrees end up undermining the progress Turkey made to combat torture.”

“By removing safeguards against torture, the Turkish government effectively wrote a blank check to law enforcement agencies to torture and mistreat detainees as they like,” he said.

Erdogan reined in police use of torture especially in the largely Kurdish southeast, seat of a militant rebellion, when he first came to power in 2002. But the battle with Kurdish militants has become more fierce since the breakdown of a ceasefire last year and drawn accusations of rights abuses.

HRW said it had uncovered allegations that police had used methods including sleep deprivation, severe beatings, sexual abuse and the threat of rape since the failed coup. Cases were not limited to possible putschists, but also involved detainees suspected of links to Kurdish militant and leftist groups.

Turkey has arrested more than 35,000 people, detained thousands more and sacked over 100,000 people over their suspected links with Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric blamed for orchestrating the coup attempt. Gulen denies the charge.

The government says the widescale crackdown is justified by the gravity of the threat to the state on July 15, when rogue soldiers commandeered tanks and fighters jets, bombing parliament and killing more than 240 people.

Erdogan declared a state of emergency days after the failed putsch, allowing him and the cabinet to bypass parliament in enacting new laws and to limit or suspend rights and freedoms as they deem necessary.

Emergency decrees have since extended the period of police detention without judicial review to 30 days from 4, allowed the authorities to deny detainees access to lawyers for up to five days, and to restrict their choice of lawyer.

HRW said it had found 13 specific cases of alleged abuse in its report, which was based on interviews with more than 40 lawyers, activists, former detainees, medical personnel and forensic specialists conducted in August and September.

(Editing by Nick Tattersall)