African refugee women report surge of sex attacks in Egypt

African refugee women report surge of sex attacks in Egypt
By Nadeen Ebrahim and Ulf Laessing

CAIRO (Reuters) – The 17-year-old South Sudanese refugee finally managed to escape after three months as a prisoner in a Cairo apartment where she was repeatedly gang raped, only to realize that she had become pregnant by one of her attackers.

She is one of a growing number of African migrant and refugee women in the Egyptian capital who report abuse, in what rights groups say has become an epidemic of sexual violence that has worsened in recent months.

Reuters met five women from Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia at a community center in Cairo, each of whom said she was a victim of violent sexual assault.

The 17-year old South Sudanese woman said she was snatched by strangers in a poor neighborhood and brought by a taxi to another area, where a man locked her up in an apartment for three months and repeatedly raped her with friends.

“I tried several times to escape,” she said, adding that she finally managed to flee when her captor left a key in the house. She asked not to be identified but agreed to be filmed provided that her face was not visible.

A Sudanese woman who gave her name as Bakhtia said she was assaulted by a stranger on the street in what then became a gang attack.

“He touched me, after which I slapped him on the face,” she said. “Immediately, around four other people (came over), each one grabbing me from a different body part. I tried to defend myself, but how can I defend myself?”

Three other women who spoke to Reuters said they were attacked while cleaning houses as domestic workers. Two were raped and one sexually assaulted. They asked not to be filmed or quoted directly.

The United Nations estimates around 500,000 migrants, half of them refugees, live in Egypt. Many arrived aiming to reach Europe via Israel or by boat to Turkey, routes that have been largely closed by tougher security measures.

Jobs are scarce. With austerity measures having driven up inflation since last year, many have found it more difficult to pay rent. Increasingly they have become homeless or are forced to share rooms with strangers, making them more vulnerable to sexual assault.

Cairo was named most dangerous megacity for women in an international perception poll carried out by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2017.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered a crackdown on sexual harassment after seven men were arrested for attacking women near Cairo’s Tahrir Square during his inauguration celebrations in 2014. Tougher sentences have been imposed for sex crimes.

But rights groups say such measures have done little to deter attacks against African migrants, who often have no recourse to the police or family to protect them.

“From two to three (complaints of abuse) a week they were going to seven a week,” said Laurent De Boeck, head of the International Organization for Migration in Egypt, who blamed the surging cost of renting a room.

“The situation of them not having protection of a house, made them more vulnerable to the situation because they were basically in families in the street.”

Fatma Abdelkader, who works with local aid group Tadamon which runs the community center, said cases of sex abuse had increased in the past six months, with attackers seeming to seek out African women as prey.

“The darker the skin tone, the more susceptible the women are to violence,” she said.

(Reporting by Nadeen Ebrahim and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Peter Graff)

Two years on, Hollywood reflects on #MeToo changes

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – This week marks two years since the New York Times and the New Yorker published accounts by multiple women accusing film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, fueling the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and a drive to empower women who work behind and in front of the camera.

Weinstein is due to stand trial in January on charges of rape and predatory assault of two women. He denies any non-consensual sex.

Reuters asked actors, directors and producers how much Hollywood has changed since October 2017. Below are their replies, edited for length and clarity.

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS

“I’d like to say that I feel like men might be beginning to behave themselves a little bit better, and I say maybe. I’m not saying they have definitively, but there is a new way of communicating, or a slightly new awareness, an awareness shift that’s happened. It’s in process. This job is not done. It will never be done, but I think there’s a way of communicating that has improved, hopefully.”

PATRICIA ARQUETTE

“The #MeToo movement – my sister was one of the first people to come out – and I think it’s had a ripple effect all across the world, beyond Hollywood. Luckily there is more representation of women and women of color on television than there was before, but it’s still not really equal yet … Activists and people have been trying to get this work done for a long, long time, but the more we have this conversation, the more we ask for it, the more we talk about the need for it, the better. You have movies like ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Black Panther’ busting box office records and then suddenly, all of a sudden, the world is like ‘Oh, right, they could be successful.’ The business is sometimes the last one to learn.”

BRAD PITT

“We seem to work as a pendulum. We swing too far one way, then we find that sweet spot, and then we go too far back and we keep on this swing. But what is going on, which is positive, is that we’re recalibrating our relationships, behaviors and workplace. It’s long overdue and needed, and it’s a good thing.”

MICHELLE WILLIAMS

“I’ve seen so many changes within my industry, but not just within my industry … I see it at my daughter’s school. I see it in my friends’ places of employment. I see it really everywhere, and it gives me great faith that the world that these girls are growing up in is going to be different than the one that you and I grew up in.”

ANGELINA JOLIE

“I think we have very far to go. I think even in Hollywood there should have been an independent inquiry… There’s a lot of focus about what they say women want and I would say it’s not what we want. It’s what we’d like not to be done to us. Do not limit us to have an education, do not harm us whether it be at war or in our own homes, do not oppress us or try to control us, do not limit our possibilities as human beings and just let us be.”

KRISTEN STEWART

“There’s this solidarity that is providing women with a chance to start finally telling their own stories and not being used as sort of tools to tell their stories through other people … There are so many untapped resources and ways in which we can inhabit our own stories and repossess our narrative. (It) is fully doable right now and for the first time, like ever, so it is an exciting time for women in film, like, enormously.”

CARA DELEVINGNE

“I think the #MeToo movement has changed a lot, but like a lot of hashtag movements, the problem is that when you do a hashtag or something, people think it’s fixed. But it’s not. It hasn’t really changed anything, because it’s still happening.”

ELISABETH MOSS

“For me (on movie ‘The Kitchen,’) we had (director) Andrea (Berloff), three female leads, we also had (the) first female (director of photography), and it’s almost one of those things now that’s become natural because these women are the best at what they do, and that’s why they were there and not because they’re women … It’s just becoming more normalized, which I think is the best part of it.”

NICOLE KIDMAN

“Charlize (Theron), Margot (Robbie) and I just did a film – ‘Bombshell’ – which is about instigating change in terms of sexual harassment … We hope that constantly talking about it changes it for the generations to come.”

JULIANNE MOORE

“Because of Time’s Up, (New York) Governor (Andrew) Cuomo has adopted the Time’s Up safety agenda, which is really, really significant for every woman in New York state. New York is a much less progressive state than California, so when Time’s Up New York got together we thought, ‘What do we address here in our home state?’ And we’ve really been able to make changes (including) extend the statute of limitations on assault.”

MICHELLE PFEIFFER

“I think there’s been such a seismic shift in awareness in just a year. I think there’s a long way to go but I do think quite a bit has happened already. Already all the conversations I’ve had with women, we just didn’t have those conversations before.”

MELISSA MCCARTHY

“I think we’re at the beginning of a movement, and I think we have to keep pushing. You can talk a good game, but you have to wait until it changes, so we’re not there yet. We will be. You’ve got to root for it. I’m a hopeful person. I have two daughters; I have to be. I’ll fight. I’ll fight until I can’t fight anymore.”

ELLE FANNING

“For me, being a young woman in the industry and hearing actresses tell their story and being able to hear those voices and know that it’s OK to speak your truth on things and stand up for what’s right and say no – it’s a great community that has really formed because of this.”

KIRSTIE ALLEY

“When we did ‘Cheers,’ … if someone was in the bathroom, someone would kick open the door and we would take pictures, but the intent was in fun. And if the intent is to hold you hostage or not give you a job without sexual favors, you know the difference. But I think that the pendulum swung and now it needs to swing and balance out because people are not all ill-intentioned.”

JULIETTE BINOCHE

“I have been quite free, always, in my choices in life. I didn’t need #MeToo to do that, but I think #MeToo’s movement was very important for some people, for some women to speak out.”

RUTH NEGGA

“You really shouldn’t be able to get away with inequality anymore. The thing is that you’ve got to keep vocal about it; you’ve got to be vigilant. It’s not something that can ever be really done and dusted until there is equality and everybody’s voice is heard.”

RICHARD LINKLATER

“It’s just good everybody’s aware. I mean, out with the old, right? The old status quo can’t hold. There has to be these evolutionary leaps in what is acceptable.”

(Reporting by Rollo Ross, Alicia Powell, Sarah Mills, Jane Ross and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Myanmar troops’ sexual violence against Rohingya shows ‘genocidal intent’: U.N. report

FILE PHOTO: Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -Sexual violence committed by Myanmar troops against Rohingya women and girls in 2017 indicated the military’s genocidal intent to destroy the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, United Nations investigators said in a report released on Thursday.

The panel of independent investigators, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2017, accused Myanmar’s government of failing to hold anyone accountable and said it was responsible “under the Genocide Convention for its failure to investigate and punish acts of genocide”.

A military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine was in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

“Hundreds of Rohingya women and girls were raped, with 80 percent of the rapes corroborated by the Mission being gang rapes. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) was responsible for 82 percent of these gang rapes,” the report said.

At a news conference in Myanmar on Friday, military spokesman Major-General Tun Tun Nyi called the accusations “groundless” and based on “talking stories”.

“I cannot read out what they mentioned in their report, because it is not suitable to say in front of women in polite society,” he said.

Myanmar has laws against sexual assault, he added, and soldiers were warned against it at military schools.

“If you look at these experts, don’t they know our country’s law or respect it?” he asked.

The Myanmar government has refused entry to the U.N. investigators. The investigators traveled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, and met with aid groups, think-tanks, academics and intergovernmental organizations.

In an August 2018 report, the investigators laid out five indicators of genocidal intent by the Myanmar military: the use of derogatory language; specific comments by government officials, politicians, religious authorities and military commanders prior, during and after the violence; the existence of discriminatory plans and policies; evidence of an organized plan of destruction; and the extreme brutality of the campaign.

“The mission now concludes on reasonable grounds that the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls that began on 25 August 2017 was a sixth factor that indicated the Tatmadaw’s genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya people,” the new report said.

The conclusion was based on “the widespread and systematic killing of women and girls, the systematic selection of women and girls of reproductive ages for rape, attacks on pregnant women and on babies, the mutilation and other injuries to their reproductive organs, the physical branding of their bodies by bite marks on their cheeks, neck, breast and thigh.”

It said that two years later no military commanders had been held accountable for these and other crimes under international law and that the government “notoriously denies responsibility.”

“Myanmar’s top two military officials remain in their positions of power despite the mission’s call for them to be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” the panel said.

The investigators said they had collected new information about alleged perpetrators and added their names to a confidential list to be given to U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet and another U.N. inquiry charged with collecting and preserving evidence for possible future trials.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez)

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)

European Court says Russia not facing up to domestic abuse problem

FILE PHOTO: The building of the European Court of Human Rights is seen in Strasbourg, France March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia failed to protect a woman from repeated acts of violence by her former partner, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday, saying her case showed that Moscow was not facing up to its domestic abuse problem.

Valeriya Volodina, who now uses a different name for security reasons, was assaulted, kidnapped and stalked by her former partner after she left him in 2015 and moved out of their shared home in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk, the court said.

The police never opened a criminal investigation into violence and threats that she reported to them from January 2016 to March 2018, it said in its statement.

In one such episode, she was forced to have an abortion after he punched her in the face and stomach when she was pregnant. In other incidents, the partner, whom she met in 2014, cut her car’s brake hose and stole her identity papers, it said.

After she moved to Moscow, Volodina discovered a GPS tracker planted in her bag and the former partner, identified only as S., subsequently started stalking her outside her home and attempted to drag her from a taxi.

The court in Strasbourg said Russia’s police had interviewed the partner and carried out pre-investigation inquiries but not opened formal proceedings against him as it deemed that “no publicly prosecutable offense had been committed”.

Russian legislation does not define or mention domestic violence as a separate offense or aggravating element in other offenses and there is no mechanism for imposing restraining or protection orders, the court said.

“Those failings clearly demonstrated that the authorities were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women,” the court said in a statement.

Each year, about 14,000 women die in Russia at the hands of husbands or other relatives, according to a 2010 United Nations report.

Police finally opened a criminal investigation only in March 2018 when the partner circulated photographs of her on social networks without her consent, the court said.

The court said Russia’s response had been “manifestly inadequate” and ruled unanimously there had been two violations of the European Convention on human rights, one on the prohibition of discrimination and the other on the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment.

Russia’s Justice Ministry said it had three months to decide whether to appeal against the ruling, but that it would study the findings of the court, Interfax news agency reported.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

India jails three for life after shocking child rape and murder

Sanji Ram, one of the convicted in the case of rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, leaves the court in Pathankot, in the northern state of Punjab, India, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

By Manoj Kumar

PATHANKOT, India (Reuters) – A court in north India jailed three men for life on Monday over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl that stirred nationwide outrage and religious rivalries.

The case illustrated India’s appalling record on violence against women and children, and drew criticism of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after some members criticized police for pressing charges.

“This is a victory of truth,” said prosecution lawyer M Farooqi after the convictions.

“The girl and her family have got justice today.”

The girl, from a nomadic Muslim community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January 2018.

The prosecution had sought the death penalty for the three men – including a Hindu priest – who received life sentences.

Three other men, all police officers, received five-year terms for destroying evidence.

The abduction, rape and killing of the child was part of a plan to remove the minority community from the area, the 15-page charge sheet said.

APPEAL PLANNED

In a 432-page judgment, the court also levied fines of 150,000 rupees ($2,150) on the three men given life terms – priest Sanji Ram, Deepak Khajuria and Parvesh Kumar.

The policemen – Surinder Kumar, Tilak Raj and Anand Dutta – were also fined 50,000 rupees ($718) each.

Defense lawyer Vikram Mahajan said all six would appeal.

The case shocked India and prompted parliament to adopt the death penalty for rapists of girls younger than 12.

The trial began in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir state more than a year ago, but India’s Supreme Court shifted it to Pathankot in neighboring Punjab state after the girl’s family and lawyer said they faced death threats.

Lawyers and Hindu politicians, including some from the ruling BJP, had also held protests against the charges.

Women and children in India have long been subjected to violence. Reported rapes climbed 60 percent to 40,000 from 2012 to 2016, government figures show, which officials attribute to more women coming forward due to greater public awareness.

However, many more cases still go unreported, especially in rural areas, because of the fear of social consequences and lack of trust in police.

Of eight people accused in the girl’s case, one man identified only as Vishal was to be freed after being found not guilty, defense lawyers said.

The last, a juvenile, awaits trial.

(Reporting by Manoj Kumar; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Andrew Cawthorne)

Leader of Mexico-based church accused of rape, child porn

A man cleans a stained glass inside a La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World) church after its leader Naason Joaquin Garcia was arrested in California, in Mexico City, Mexico June 5, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Cortes

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – The head of a Mexican-based church estimated to have more than 1 million followers worldwide has been arrested in California and charged with crimes including human trafficking, child pornography production and rape of a minor.

“La Luz Del Mundo” (Light of the World) leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, was charged on Tuesday after being arrested at Los Angeles International Airport the day before, prosecutors said.

The church called the accusations unfounded.

“The Apostle of Jesus Christ, Brother Naason Joaquin Garcia, has always behaved in accordance with the law and with full respect for the institutions and the dignity of the people,” it said in a statement on its website on Wednesday.

The prosecutors’ 19-page court filing indicates Garcia was known as “the Apostle” and children were told they were defying God if they were disobedient.

The complaint says three minors and one adult woman were abused, with one child and the woman raped. Others were forced to perform sex acts and “flirty” dances for Garcia wearing “as little clothing as possible”, the complaint added.

“Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement Tuesday. “We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state.”

CHURCH DENIES ACCUSATIONS

The filing did not refer to any response by Garcia.

But his church said it trusts the U.S. legal system and the principle of innocence unless proven otherwise, adding: “We categorically reject the false accusations that have been made against him.”

In their statement late on Tuesday, prosecutors said Garcia and co-defendants committed a total of 26 felonies in south California over a period of about four years.

The victims were not named.

He is being held in jail on $25 million bond on 14 charges related to sex crimes, the prosecutors said.

It was unclear if he had an attorney.

The other individuals named in the complaint are Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez, and Susana Medina Oaxaca, all affiliated with La Luz Del Mundo, prosecutors said.

Ocampo and Oaxaca were also arrested and held on multi-million dollar bonds. A warrant has been issued for Melendez, officials said.

Internet sites say the church has between 1 and 5 million followers worldwide in more than 50 countries including many followers in the United States.

The church’s roots go back to the 1920s in Mexico and adheres to “nontrinitarianism”, rejecting a mainstream Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It says it adheres to the earliest doctrines of the Christian church teachings.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Alabama Senate delays vote on strict anti-abortion bill

FILE PHOTO - An exam room at the Planned Parenthood South Austin Health Center is seen in Austin, Texas, U.S. June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Ilana Panich-Linsman

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – Alabama’s state Senate on Thursday delayed until next week a vote on the strictest abortion bill in the United States after disagreement arose on the Senate floor about whether to allow women impregnated by rape and incest to have a legal abortion.

The Alabama debate follows passage of anti-abortion laws in states that border it to the east and west, Georgia and Mississippi, creating what abortion rights advocates have warned would be a massive “abortion desert.”

Anti-abortion legislators have introduced strict bills in states across the country, inviting legal challenges in hopes that a case will land before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court now has a majority of conservative judges, including two appointed by Republican President Donald Trump, who could possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion.

Alabama’s House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would have banned abortion except in cases where the mother’s life was in danger, which would make it the strictest state abortion law in the country.

After the bill moved to the Senate, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday added an amendment by Senator Tom Whatley that would also include exceptions for cases of rape and incest.

When the matter came before the full Senate on Thursday, and it was evident there was no consensus on the rape and incest amendment, the Senate delayed the vote until Tuesday, said Kim Robertson, a spokeswoman for Whatley.

Debate on a version of the bill without the rape and incest amendment was set to begin at 4 p.m. Central Time (2100 GMT) on Tuesday, she said.

Georgia on Tuesday became the fourth U.S. state this year to outlaw abortion after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, which abortion-rights advocates vowed to challenge in court.

Opponents called the legislation a virtual ban because fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks, before a woman may be aware she is pregnant.

Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have enacted heartbeat laws since mid-March, and Iowa passed one last year. Courts have blocked the Iowa and Kentucky laws, and the others face legal challenges.

Anti-abortion advocates have introduced measures in 15 states to ban the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, according to Rewire.News, a site specializing in the issue.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)

Exclusive: ‘Can’t eat, can’t sleep’ – Rohingya on Myanmar repatriation list

FILE PHOTO: Rohingya refugees take part in a protest at the Kutupalong refugee camp to mark the one year anniversary of their exodus in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/File Photo

By Ruma Paul

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (Reuters) – For Nurul Amin, a Rohingya Muslim living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, the days since learning he and his family were among a group of people set to potentially be repatriated to Myanmar have been among the most frightening since they fled their home.

“I can hardly sleep at night for fear of getting forcibly repatriated. Since the time I heard that my name is on the list I can’t even eat,” says Amin, 35, who has four daughters, a wife and sister with him in the Jamtoli Camp in southeast Bangladesh.

Reuters identified and spoke to more than 20 of the roughly 2,000 Rohingya refugees on a list of people Myanmar has agreed to take back. Though officials say no-one will be forced to return against their will, all say they have been terrified since learning this month their names were on the list prepared by Bangladeshi officials and vetted by Myanmar.

The list has not been made public and not all those whose names are on it have been informed, say Bangladeshi camp officials, due to concerns of sparking widespread panic in a camp that shelters 52,000 refugees.

Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed in late October to this month begin the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled across the border to escape a Myanmar army crackdown, even though the United Nations’ refugee agency and aid groups say doubts persist about their safety and conditions in Myanmar should they return.

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims crossed from Rakhine state, in mostly Buddhist Myanmar, into Bangladesh from August last year after Rohingya insurgent attacks on security forces triggered a sweeping military response.

Refugees said soldiers and local Buddhists carried out mass killings and rape during the violence in 2017, while U.N.-mandated investigators have accused the military of unleashing a campaign with “genocidal intent”.

Myanmar has denied almost all the allegations. It has rejected the U.N. findings as one-sided, and said the military action was a legitimate counterinsurgency operation.

WILLING TO RETURN?

This week, the U.N.’s human rights investigator on Myanmar urged Bangladesh to drop the repatriation plan, warning that Rohingya still faced a high risk of persecution in Myanmar.

A Bangladesh foreign ministry official, who asked not to be named, said on Friday the country would not send any Rohingya back forcefully.

“The Bangladesh government is in talks with them to motivate them,” he said.

Separately, another foreign ministry official told Reuters the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would verify whether those shortlisted were willing to return.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a UNHCR representative in Cox’s Bazar, told Reuters that effort would start within a few days.

“We have not started the process yet but we will be carrying out an assessment of the voluntariness,” he said.

Dr Min Thein, director of the disaster management department at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement in Myanmar, said his team was preparing for 2,000 people to return.

“The Immigration Department is doing the scrutinizing,” said Min Thein. An official at Myanmar’s Immigration Department declined to answer questions over the phone.

In late October, a delegation from Myanmar visited the camps in an effort to urge Rohingya to participate in the repatriation process.

“THROW US INTO THE SEA”

Refugees who spoke to Reuters said they did not trust the Myanmar authorities to guarantee their safety. Some said refugees would go back only if they got to return to their own land and were given citizenship.

“I’ll just consume poison if I am forced to go back. I saw my cousin shot dead by military … What is the guarantee that we’ll not be persecuted again?” said Abdur Rahim, 47, who previously owned a shop and 2 acres of land in Rakhine.

Nur Kaida, 25, who is the mother of a 19-month-old girl, said it “would be better to die in the camps rather go back and get killed or raped”.

On Friday, an alliance of humanitarian and civil society groups working in Rakhine and in refugee camps in Bangladesh, in a joint statement, warned sending people back would be “dangerous and premature”.

The group called on the governments of the two countries to ensure that refugees in Bangladesh were able to make a free and informed choice about their return. It also said U.N. agencies should have unimpeded access to all parts of Rakhine in order to monitor the situation in areas of potential return.

Recent days have seen dozens of Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh attempting to flee via sea to Malaysia, raising fears of a fresh wave of dangerous voyages.

But despite poor conditions in the camps prompting some to risk such a perilous route out, those like Muhammed Wares, 75, whose name is on the list, say it is better than going back.

“Why are they sending us back?” said Wares. “They may as well throw us into the sea.”

(Reporting by Ruma Paul in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh; Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir in Dhaka and Thu Thu Aung in Yangon; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Alex Richardson)

‘Ashamed and scared’: group details ‘endemic’ sex abuse in North Korea

FILE PHOTO: Residents pass by a painting of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Sexual abuse by North Korean officials appears to be “endemic”, a watchdog group reported on Thursday, as activists complain the isolated country’s rights record is being ignored as an international push is made to improve relations.

Investigators with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed more than 100 North Koreans who had left the country – including more than 50 who left since 2011 – and described unwanted sexual contact and violence as “so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life”.

Gathering information in North Korea is notoriously difficult, and HRW acknowledged its survey was too limited to provide a generalized sample.

But the testimonies paint a picture of sexual abuse – including rape – that is so widespread that many of the women interviewed did not understand that coercive sex should not be an almost every-day occurrence, said one investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the work.

The North Korean delegation to the United Nations in Geneva issued a statement to Reuters in response to the report, “strongly rejecting” the allegations as “trite” and “fictitious”.

“This is yet another futile attempt by some dishonest and hostile forces, who feel uneasy with the ongoing trend toward peace, reconciliation, prosperity and cooperation on the Korean peninsula, to hinder the rapprochement by raising the so-called ‘human rights’ issue of our country with unfounded and fictitious stories,” it said.

The global #MeToo movement has pushed to end sexual abuse, but HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said there appeared to be little progress in North Korea, despite economic reforms and a stated intention to modernize under leader Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian government.

“This is not a regime-threatening issue,” Roth told Reuters. “So that is why it is particularly appalling that the government is not doing anything to prevent sexual abuse by officials.”

Those interviewed described abuse and rape by police, prison guards, and even officials who oversee some of the growing private markets, who exact bribes in the form of sexual favors.

“Ironically, many of the women who are at the center of the economic opening that Kim says he cares about are the most at risk,” Roth said.

“Pervasive” social stigma meant many victims never discuss abuse, the group said.

“I was ashamed and scared,” one woman who said she was raped told HRW investigators. “Everybody would have blamed me.”

The Korea Future Initiative rights group said of North Korea in a March report that “a thinly disguised misogyny pervades all that the government touches, allowing perpetrators to find shelter in its institutions and society’s patriarchal conventions”.

As South Korea and the United States focus on diplomacy with North Korea, rights and defector groups in the South have said they are struggling to raise money and are facing pressure to avoid criticism of North Korea.

U.N. investigators have reported the use of political prison camps, starvation and executions in North Korea, saying security chiefs and possibly even leader Kim himself should face international justice.

Up to 120,000 people are held in political prison camps, the top U.N. North Korea rights official reported last year.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)