Former inmate tours Ethiopian torture center after it opens to the public

Visitors use their phone torches inside Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Blogger Befekadu Hailu’s eyes filled with tears as he stood on the spot where he had watched a guard attack a friend in Maekelawi detention center, a name long synonymous in Ethiopia with torture and fear.

Befekadu returned to visit the former police station on Friday as a tourist, not an inmate, after the government opened the building to the public for three days as part of its push towards new democratic freedoms.

“We have to take a lesson from this,” Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye said at a ceremony at the site. “Human rights violations which took place here should not be repeated.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closed the notorious detention and interrogation center in Addis Ababa last year after he took office pledging an end to “state terrorism”.

Befekadu, 39, was imprisoned there for 84 days without charge in 2014. On Friday morning, he took Reuters to see the damp, dark interrogation rooms.

Prisoners called the frigid underground cells where he was detained “Siberia”.

The center was used by successive rulers, including military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which wrested power from him in 1991.

BEATINGS

Befekadu and other detainees had poked holes in the plaster that filled the metal bars on their cell door. It was meant to stop them from seeing outside.

He said that one day, a policeman noticed him peering out and demanded to know who made the holes. The officer began kicking Befekadu’s fellow prisoner Atnaf.

Befekadu Hailu, 39, an ex-inmate of the Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners is seen as he stands in the room where he was detained after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Befekadu Hailu, 39, an ex-inmate of the Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners is seen as he stands in the room where he was detained after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

“My friend was beaten here and I couldn’t defend him,” he said, his voice cracking. He searched on Friday for graffiti that prisoners had scrawled, but the wall under his fingers was slick with fresh yellow paint.

In a 2013 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch documented torture at Maekelawi, often used to extract confessions from suspected political opponents.

Guards beat prisoners with gun butts and electric wires and handcuffed victims’ wrists to the ceiling.

That is forbidden now, said Supreme Court president Meaza Ashenafi, a lawyer and women’s rights activist appointed by Abiy last year. The country was changing “from a condition where human rights were violated to a condition where they are now respected”, she said during her visit to the cells on Friday.

Some senior officials implicated in rights abuses have been arrested. The former head of national intelligence has been charged with murder and torture in absentia. Former political prisoners now head the election board and the government-run national human rights commission.

But Laetitia Bader, a senior Human Rights Watch Africa researcher, said more needs to be done to heal past wounds. Most trials have not begun and a reconciliation commission set up in December has an unclear mandate, Bader said.

“The government hasn’t presented a clear roadmap for how it plans to deal with the country’s abusive past,” she said.

Activists continue to be detained, said prominent journalist Eskinder Nega, who was jailed repeatedly on terrorism charges prior to Abiy’s appointment.

Five of his colleagues have been held without charge since June under the anti-terrorism law, he said. The prime minister is new, but the government is still the same ruling coalition, he said.

“This is a classic pretext to crackdown on dissent,” he said. “None of the authoritarian structures have been overhauled.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Frances Kerry)

U.S. says China’s treatment of Muslim minority worst abuses ‘since the 1930s’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

By Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department on Wednesday slammed human rights violations in China, saying the sort of abuses it had inflicted on its Muslim minorities had not been seen “since the 1930s.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted abuses in Iran, South Sudan, Nicaragua and China in the department’s annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” but told reporters that China was “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.”

“For me, you haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s,” Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau told the same briefing, referring to abuses of China’s Muslim minority.

“Rounding up, in some estimations … in the millions of people, putting them into camps, and torturing them, abusing them, and trying to basically erase their culture and their religion and so on from their DNA. It’s just remarkably awful.”

Kozak said China had initially denied there even were camps, and is now saying “there are camps, but they’re some kind of labor training camps and it’s all very voluntary.”

The governor of Xinjiang said on Tuesday that China is running boarding schools, not concentration camps, in the far western region of China. The vast area bordering Central Asia is home to millions of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities.

“That does not match the facts that we and others are saying, but at least we’re starting to make them realize there is a lot of international scrutiny on this,” Kozak said, adding: “It is one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today.”

The report said that in the past year, the Chinese government had significantly intensified its campaign of mass detention of members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.

It said authorities there were reported to have arbitrarily detained 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslims in internment camps designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. This centre, situated between regional capital Urumqi and tourist spot Turpan, is among the largest known ones, and was still undergoing extensive construction and expansion at the time the photo was taken. Police in Dabancheng detained two Reuters journalists for more than four hours after the photos were taken. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. This centre, situated between regional capital Urumqi and tourist spot Turpan, is among the largest known ones, and was still undergoing extensive construction and expansion at the time the photo was taken. Police in Dabancheng detained two Reuters journalists for more than four hours after the photos were taken. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The State Department report said government officials in China had claimed the camps were needed to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. However, international media, human rights organizations and former detainees have reported that security officials in the camps abused, tortured and killed some detainees, it said.

Pompeo also said the Iranian government had killed more than 20 people and arrested thousands without due process for protesting for their rights “continuing a pattern of cruelty the regime has inflicted on the Iranian people for the last four decades.”

In South Sudan, he said that military forces inflicted sexual violence against civilians based on their political allegiances and ethnicity, while in Nicaragua, peaceful protesters had faced sniper fire and government critics had “faced a policy of exile, jail or death.”

The report also revised its usual description of the Golan Heights from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled.”

A separate section on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas that Israel captured along with the Golan Heights in a 1967 war in the Middle East, also did not refer to those territories as being “occupied,” or under “occupation.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Paul Simao and G Crosse)

Exclusive: EU to agree new sanctions regime for chemical attacks

FILE PHOTO: Bags containing protective clothing are seen after Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) left after visiting the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union envoys are set to agree a new mechanism to punish chemical weapons’ attacks by targeting people blamed for using banned munitions regardless of their nationality, diplomats said.

The legal regime, based on a French proposal to combat what Paris and London say is the repeated use of chemical weapons by Russia and Syria, would allow the EU to impose sanctions more quickly on specific individuals anywhere in the world, freezing their assets in the bloc and banning them from entry.

Ambassadors from the EU’s 28 governments are expected to approve the regime at their weekly meeting on Wednesday, without debate.

The EU already has sanctions lists for Syria and Russia, but under the current system individuals must be added to special country lists. These are complex to negotiate and difficult to expand because some EU governments are reluctant to criticize close partners, particularly Moscow.

“This is significant because we will be able to add names without a big, sensitive debate,” said one senior EU diplomat involved in the negotiations. “We can try to uphold certain rights rather than just issuing statements.”

Banned two decades ago under an international treaty, the rising use of nerve agents has alarmed Western governments.

Recent cases include the assassination of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2017 and the attempted murder of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in March.

EU diplomats say the new chemical weapons regime could be followed up by a similar mechanism for human rights violations, similar to the United States’ Global Magnitsky Act, which allows Washington to sanction individuals for abuses or corruption.

The regime, due to be given a final stamp of approval by EU foreign ministers on Oct. 15, will still need the support of all EU governments for names to be added, according to a preparatory paper seen by Reuters.

It was not immediately clear if Britain would propose to add two Russians accused of poisoning Skripal and his daughter.

But diplomats say it is a possibility as Britain has been unable to convince other EU countries to back new sanctions on Russia over the case.

Britain has charged two Russian men, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempting to murder Skripal and his daughter Yulia by spraying a chemical weapon on Skripal’s front door in the English city of Salisbury.

France pushed the EU sanctions regime in part because the United Nations Security Council has been deadlocked over how to set up an independent inquiry for chemical attacks in Syria.

Russia rejected a joint draft resolution by Britain, France and the United States earlier this year.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Ed Osmond)

Killings by security forces rife in Venezuela, rule of law ‘virtually absent’: U.N.

Demonstrators fall on the ground after being hit by a riot police armoured vehicle while clashing with the riot police during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces suspected of killing hundreds of demonstrators and alleged criminals enjoy immunity from prosecution, indicating that the rule of law is “virtually absent” in the country, the United Nations said on Friday.

The U.N. human rights office called on the government to bring perpetrators to justice and said it was sending its report to the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation in February.

The U.N. report cited “credible, shocking” accounts of extrajudicial killings of young men during crime-fighting operations in poor neighbourhoods conducted without arrest warrants. Security forces would tamper with the scene so that there appeared to have been an exchange of fire, it said.

There was no immediate response from the government of President Nicolas Maduro to the report.

Critics say Maduro has used increasingly authoritarian tactics as the OPEC nation’s economy has spiralled deeper into recession and hyperinflation, fuelling discontent and prompting hundreds of thousands to emigrate in the past year.

About 125 people died in anti-government protests last year.

Security forces were allegedly responsible for killing at least 46 of them, U.N. rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told a news briefing, adding: “Evidence has reportedly disappeared from case files.”

Maduro says the opposition protests were aimed at overthrowing him and accuses the United States of directing an “economic war” against Venezuela.

“The failure to hold security forces accountable for such serious human rights violations suggests that the rule of law is virtually absent in Venezuela,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The impunity must end.”

Zeid called on the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday to set up an international commission of inquiry into alleged violations in Venezuela — one of its 47 member states.

“The time has come for the Council to use its voice to speak out before this tragic downward spiral becomes irreversible,” Leila Swan of Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Friday.

The unpopular Maduro has cast the release of dozens of opposition members as a peace gesture following his re-election to a new six-year term last month, which was condemned by most Western nations as an undemocratic farce. His government denies the detainees are political prisoners.

Venezuela is suffering from an economic collapse that includes chronic shortages of food and medicine and annualised inflation around 25,000 percent. Maduro blames an “economic war” directed by the opposition and the United States — which has imposed new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry.

Under previous attorney-general Luisa Ortega Diaz, who fled Venezuela last year, 357 security officers were believed to be under investigation for crime-related killings, but there has been no public information since then, the report said.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Catherine Evans)

Moscow office of Amnesty International sealed off

The office door of rights group Amnesty International is sealed off in Moscow, Russia,

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Moscow office of rights group Amnesty International has been sealed off by municipal officials without warning and staff cannot get inside, the group said on Wednesday.

Alexander Artemyev, a staff member, told Reuters that official seals had been placed on the entrances to the office, the locks had been changed, and that power to the office had been cut off.

An official notice left behind said the building was city property and that nobody was allowed to enter without being accompanied by a municipal official.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe Director, said he did not know what had prompted Moscow authorities to seal off the office, calling it “an unwelcome surprise.”

“Given the current climate for civil society work in Russia, there are clearly any number of plausible explanations, but it’s too early to draw any conclusions,” Dalhuisen said in a statement.

“We are working to resolve the situation as swiftly as possible and very much hope there is a simple administrative explanation for this setback to our work.”

Amnesty, which was founded in London, frequently criticizes the Russian authorities over what it says are human rights violations. It said it was confident it had fulfilled all its obligations as a tenant.

A representative of the Moscow state property department, from which Amnesty rents the office, said they had no immediate comment.

Rights groups that receive foreign funding and are critical of the Kremlin have come under pressure from the authorities in the past few years. Some have been designated as “foreign agents” which makes them subject to intense scrutiny from officials.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was unaware of Amnesty’s office problems.

(Reporting by Svetlana Reiter; Writing by Christian Lowe/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)