Current Events

Opportunism in the Face of Tragedy
Repression in the name of anti-terrorism

During the months following September 11, the world was focused on efforts to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice, and to prevent additional terrorist attacks. However, many countries around the globe cynically attempted to take advantage of this struggle to intensify their own crackdowns on political opponents, separatists and religious groups, or to suggest they should be immune from criticism of their human rights practices. In other places, leaders exploited the situation to advance unnecessarily restrictive or punitive policies against refugees, asylum-seekers, and other foreigners. Human Rights Watch has collected and compiled a number such opportunistic statements and actions.


On September 13, 2001, Defense Minister Peter Reith cited the attacks in the United States to justify his government's effort to prevent asylum-seekers from entering Australia. His remarks came as his government successfully attempted to overturn a court decision that it had illegally detained hundreds of migrants from Afghanistan.

More on human rights in Australia


In December 2001, the Belarusian Parliament approved the "Law of the Republic of Belarus on Fighting Terrorism." In a country already saddled with one of the worst human rights records in the region, the new law contains new measures that may be used to further limit press freedom and undermine accountability for government forces engaged in antiterrorist operations. Article 13 permits persons conducting antiterrorist operations to "use for official purposes means of communications belonging to citizens, state agencies and organizations, regardless of their form of ownership" and enter "citizens' houses," citizens' land plots," and "grounds of organizations of all forms of ownership" and "inspect them while pursuing persons suspected of committing a terrorist act and having substantial grounds to believe that a crime has been or is being committed there." A prosecutor does not need to be informed of such entries until 24 hours after the fact. According the Article 13, the head of the antiterrorist operation also "regulates the activities of media representatives in the zone of the conduct of an antiterrorist operation."

Article 19 of the antiterrorism law grants "persons participating (or those who participated in the past) in combating terrorism" and "persons temporarily or permanently cooperating with state agencies involved in combating terrorism" "legal and social protection." Article 21 exempts participants in antiterrorist operations from responsibility for "inflicting damage" during an antiterrorist operation, and also allows participants to "cause harm to the lives, health and property of terrorists."


On September 18, 2001, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhu Bangzao linked Chinese support for the global campaign against terrorism to U.S. support for China's campaign against those advocating independence for the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a predominantly Muslim area in China's northwest. The Uighurs are the largest of the many Turkic-speaking Muslim groups inhabiting the area. "The United States has asked China to provide assistance against terrorism. China, by the same token, has reasons to ask the United States to give its support and understanding in the fight against terrorism and separatists," Zhu said. On October 11, 2001, Sun Yuxi, another spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stated that the Chinese government has "conclusive evidence" proving that "East Turkestan independent elements" have been involved in terrorist attacks and "collude with international terrorist forces." Sun added that "opposing East Turkestan terrorism is also a component part of the international community's struggle against terrorism." His statement marks the first time the Chinese government has referred to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, the name used by Muslims advocating independence of true autonomy for the region.

Since then, official Chinese statements have attempted to make a stronger case for international assistance in its fight to contain so-called Uighur terrorists. On November 11, 2001, during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan reemphasized the point, adding that "The 'East Turkestan' terrorist force is trained, armed, and financed by international organizations." He repeated the assertions in a Security Council meeting the following day, adding that China opposes dual standards in the fight against terrorism. On November 14, 2001, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson gave details about purported Uighur terrorist activities including assassinations in neighboring countries. Influential state-run magazines in China had reported earlier that the separatist movement had also targeted Chinese diplomats abroad. Vice Premier Qian Qichen, in a meeting with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on November 8, 2001, put the number of terrorists trained in Afghan bases at 1,000, considerably higher than earlier estimates of 200-400.

Since April 2001, China has been engaged in its latest nationwide anti-crime campaign called "Strike Hard," partially aimed at those suspected of supporting independence in ethnic regions. The campaign has led to arbitrary arrests and summary executions, with little or no due process. While there have been incidents of violence in Xinjiang, China has routinely arrested peaceful activists and has imposed tight restrictions on Muslim religious activities.

More on human rights in China


In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Abeid lashed out at human rights groups for "calling on us to give these terrorists their 'human rights,'" referring to documented reports of torture and unfair trials. "After these horrible crimes committed in New York and Virginia, maybe Western countries should begin to think of Egypt's own fight and terror as their new model." Egyptian security forces on September 20, 2001, arrested Farid Zahran and held him for fifteen days without charge, apparently fearing that a demonstration he was helping to organize to mark the first anniversary of the outbreak of Palestinian-Israeli clashes would raise criticism of the government's close ties with the U.S. The government has also ordered nearly 300 suspected Islamists to be tried in three separate cases before the Supreme Military Court, despite their civilian status. According to defense lawyers, many had been imprisoned for years without trial. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell subsequently noted that "we have much to learn" from the Egypt's anti-terrorist tactics, despite the fact that such tactics have been used against non-violent critics as well and include emergency rule, detention without trial and trials before military courts. Egypt is "really ahead of us on this issue," Powell said. On December 16, 2001, President Mubarak asserted that new U.S. policies "prove that we were right from the beginning in using all means, including military tribunals…." In its most recent human rights report on Egypt, the State Department had said Egypt's military tribunals "infringe on a defendant's right to a fair trial before an independent judiciary." "There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy.that differs from the concept that Western states defended before these events, especially in regard to the freedom of the individual," Mubarak said.

More on human rights in Egypt


In comments to a Washington Post columnist in November 2002, Eritrea's Ambassador to the United States justified his government's arrest of journalists by claiming that detention without charge was consistent with the practices of democratic countries. He cited the roundup of material witnesses and aliens suspected of terrorist activities in the United States as proof.

More on human rights in Eritrea


In response to heightened national security concerns, and as relations with Pakistan deteriorate and violence in Kashmir and elsewhere escalates, the Indian government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO), a modified version of the now-lapsed Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) of 1985, which facilitated the torture and arbitrary detention of minority groups and political opponents. POTO was signed into law by the president on October 24, 2001 to remain in effect for six weeks. It was introduced as a bill during India's winter session of parliament and was passed on March 27, 2002.

Under TADA, tens of thousands of politically motivated detentions, torture, and other human rights violations were committed against Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, trade union activists, and political opponents in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the face of mounting opposition to the act, India's government acknowledged these abuses and consequently let TADA lapse in 1995. Civil rights groups, journalists, opposition parties, minority rights groups, and India's National Human Rights Commission unequivocally condemned POTO.

Now enacted, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) sets forth a broad definition of terrorism that includes acts of violence or disruption of essential services carried out with "intent to threaten the unity and integrity of India or to strike terror in any part of the people." Since it was first introduced, the government has added some additional safeguards to protect due process rights but POTA's critics stress that the safeguards don't go far enough and that existing laws are sufficient to deal with the threat of terrorism. Shortly after POTA was approved by parliament, Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman, declared that the bill was "within constitutional bounds" and India had strengthened its legal system to combat terrorism in a manner "consistent with democratic principles."

More on human rights in India


On September 14, 2001, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Elizier bragged, "It is a fact that we have killed 14 Palestinians in Jenin, Kabatyeh and Tammum, with the world remaining absolutely silent." Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat "our Bin Laden".

On December 17, 2001, Israeli police briefly detained Sari Nusseibeh, a senior political representative of the Palestinian Authority, along with several of his colleagues, after he invited guests, including foreign diplomats, to a hotel in Jerusalem for a cookie-and-juice party to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Uzi Landau, the Internal Security Minister for Israel, called the reception a "terror-related" activity.

More on human rights in Israel


In October 2001 Jordan amended by decree its penal code and press law in order, said Prime Minister Ali Abul Ragheb, "to cover all the needs that we are confronting now." The amendments allowed the government to close down any publications deemed to have published "false or libelous information that can undermine national unity or the country's reputation," and prescribed prison terms for publicizing in the media or on the internet pictures "that undermine the king's dignity" or information tarnishing the reputation of the royal family. The prime minister told Al-Rai newspaper that the aim was not to suppress press freedom "but rather to put an end to attacks on the country and the authorities." Because King Abdallah had earlier dissolved parliament, Jordan's legislators will only have a chance to review the amendments after they reconvene in September 2002.

The new amendments apparently provided the basis for the January 13, 2002 arrest of Fahd al-Rimawi, editor of Al-Majd weekly, for articles criticizing Abul Ragheb's government and predicting, accurately as it turned out, that the King intended to replace his cabinet. Rimawi was released on bail on January 16, 2002. If convicted Rimawi could face jail terms of up to three years as well as sizeable fines.

More on human rights in Jordan


On September 14, 2001, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Interior announced it had conducted a "passport control regime" against "pro-Islamic" activists in the southern part of the country. The government of Kyrgyzstan has been intensifying its harassment of political opponents, independent media, religious groups and ethnic minorities since the reelection last year of President Askar Akayev.

More on human rights in Kyrgyzstan


According to media reports from July 2002, on June 24, 2002, the editor of one of Liberia's independent newspapers was arrested, along with other journalists, and taken by plain-clothes policeman to an unknown destination, where they have been held incommunicado ever since. The Minister of Information announced that the journalists - Hassan Bility, Ansumana Kamara, Abubakar Kamara and Blama Kamara - where being held on suspicion of operating a rebel terrorist cell. The government twice failed to honor a court decision to produce the detainees in court, claiming that Bility was an "illegal combatant" who should be tried before a military tribunal. Judge Wynston Henries, the criminal court judge who established that the men will be tried under a military court, allegedly claimed that an illegal combatant may not only be a person who carries arms, but "collaborates ways and means to assist one side or the other" ("Bility Faces Military Court",

In a statement released on July 8, 2002, the US State Department criticized the Liberian government for the arrests, and urged authorities to present the bring the individuals before a judge. The State Department, in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2001, noted that arbitrary arrest and detention was a problem in Liberia, and that a number of journalists and human rights activists had been arrested in Liberia in 2001.

More on human rights in Liberia


On September 18, 2001, Macedonia Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said that he hopes that the attacks on the U.S. will lead NATO to change its policy towards "terrorism" in Macedonia. On September 13, 2001, the VMRO-True Party, a leading nationalist party, gloated, "After the destruction of Lesok Monastery [in Macedonia], we said that this would not end here and that sooner or later the Islamic fundamentalists and Taliban would turn against the United States." Many government officials in Macedonia have sought to portray their predominantly Muslim and Albanian opponents as terrorists. In the course of the recent conflict in Macedonia, both government and rebel forces have committed abuses against innocent civilians. On September 20, 2001, James Pardew, US Special Envoy in Macedonia, condemned the Macedonian government for seeking political gain from the tragedy.

More on human rights in Macedonia


On September 15, 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahman Badawi took advantage of the attacks to praise Malaysia's Internal Security Act (ISA), which has been used to imprison pro-democracy activists, students, alleged Muslim extremists as well as supporters of jailed former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Badawi said that the attacks showed the value of the ISA as "an initial preventive measure before threats get beyond control." The ISA allows for indefinite detention without trial and allows for arrest without a warrant anyone any police officer has "reason to believe" has acted or likely to act "in any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia." In separate comments on September 18, 2001, Rais Yatim, minister in the Prime Minister's Department overseeing legal affairs, said that the suggestion that the United States might endorse "political assassinations" showed the relative merits of the ISA. In recent years, the repeal of the ISA has been at the top of the list for leading human rights and civil society groups in Malaysia.

On Wednesday, October 10, 2001, six men were arrested under the ISA for alleged involvement with a group the government calls the Malysian Mujahideen Group, an organization it says is responsible for crimes including robbery and the bombing of a church. Five of the men arrested are teachers in religious schools . The arrests have been criticized by Malaysia's main Muslim opposition party, the Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), which called the actions a "political ploy," urging that the detainees instead be produced for trial in open court.

During his May, 2002 visit to the United States, Prime Minister Mathahir stated that "the United States now appreciates some of the things we have done as being in the national interest."

More on human rights in Malaysia


Ever since the September 11 attacks, international concern for human rights abuses in Chechnya appeared to wane, although Russian forces in Chechnya have continued to engage in extrajudicial executions, arrests, and extortion of civilians. Since September 11 alone, at least one person per week has "disappeared" after being taken into custody by Russian forces.

The muting of Western concern has not been lost on the Kremlin. On December 13, 2001, according to Ria Novosti, Russian government spokesman Sergei Yastrzembsky said that the situation in Chechnya was improving, and that this improvement was influenced by the fact that "the Western media has changed its information policy regarding Chechnya."

The Kremlin has labored to link the Russian operation in Chechnya and the global fight against terrorism. On September 12, 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that America and Russia had a "common foe" because "Bin Laden's people are connected with the events currently taking place in our Chechnya," glossing over the political aspects of the conflict. In a speech to the German Bundestag on September 27, 2001, Putin remarked that the conflict in Chechnya should have warned the West of the threat of Islamic extremism. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder responded: "As regards Chechnya, there will be and must be a more differentiated evaluation in world opinion." This reflected a distinct change from the general concerns EU nations had previously voiced regarding the abusive Russian military campaign.

For some time after September 11, the United States also did little to challenge perceptions that it had softened its criticism of Russian actions in Chechnya to gain Russian support for the war on terrorism. President Bush did not publicly press the Russian government to curb human rights abuses when he met with Putin for a summit in November. Following this summit, Kremlin officials met Chechen rebel representatives for the first and only time since the start of the conflict, but the meeting yielded no tangible results. Civilians in Chechnya continued to suffer from ruthless sweep operations by Russian troops and from abusive guerrilla tactics employed by rebel fighters.

On January 10, 2002, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher seemed to suggest increased U.S. frustration with the lack of progress in Chechnya, stating that, "the latest information on Russian operations in Chechnya indicated a continuation of human rights violations and the use of overwhelming force against civilian targets....the number of credible reports of massive human rights violations, we believe, contribute to an environment that is favorable towards terrorism. " The Kremlin responded through ITAR-Tass by once again comparing Russian conduct to U.S. actions: "Our experience in Chechnya and America's experience in Afghanistan show how hard it is sometimes to reach terrorists and to prevent any harm to civilians. Nevertheless, that is the goal of Russia and the United States.

In early March 2002, the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to the release of the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which detailed human rights problems in Russia, by claiming that its role in the fight against terrorism should make it immune to such criticism. The Russia section of the report noted that Russia's human rights record, "was poor in Chechnya, where the federal security forces demonstrated little respect for basic human rights and there were credible reports of serious violations, including numerous reports of extrajudicial killings by both the Government and Chechen fighters." In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that, "One gets the impression that its writers simply used old drafts, as if nothing had happened in either Russia or the United States in recent years, as if the events of September 11, 2001 had not occurred and the international community had not closed ranks in the battle against terrorism."

More on human rights in Russia and Chechnya


Syria used the September 11 attacks to assert that it was "ahead [of the United States] in fighting terrorism," in the words of Minister of Information Adnan Omran. President Bashar Asad in early January 2002 urged the U.S. to "take advantage of Syria's successful experiences," referring to the government's ruthless campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in response to assassinations and other acts of armed violence attributed to the organizations armed wing. Syria's security forces carried out mass arrests, tortured detainees with impunity, and engaged in summary and extrajudicial executions on a large scale. On June 26, 1980, units from the paramilitary Defense Brigades, commanded by Rifaat al-Asad, massacred some 1,100 suspected Muslim Brothers at Tadmor military prison, in reprisal for the attempted assassination of then-president Hafez al-Asad a day earlier. In February 1982, the government carried out a full-scale military assault on the city of Hama, a Brotherhood stronghold, leveling parts of the city and killing an estimated 5,000 to 25,000 residents. Hundreds of persons accused of being members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as non-violent critics of the government, remain imprisoned in Syria today. "The kind of terrorism that we faced was the same kind and probably the same persons now fighting the United States," the Information Minister said.

More on human rights in Syria

United States

In what appeared to be an attempt to stifle criticism of the Bush Administration's 2001 anti-terrorism policies, Attorney General John Ashcroft, during his December 6, 2001 testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, stated that, "to those who pit Americans against immigrants and noncitizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national security and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends."

Ashcroft's comments were criticized by several members of Congress, including Senator John Edwards, who said in a December 11, 2001 speech on the floor of the Senate that, "our country has nothing to fear from the exercise of its freedoms as long as it leaves truth free to combat error."

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The government of Uzbekistan has systematically arrested thousands of peaceful Muslims in recent years, justifying these violations in part as a necessary element of its campaign against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an armed insurgent group primarily based in Afghanistan that launced cross border incursions into Uzbekistan in 2000 and Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. The Uzbek government campaign against independent Islam targets Muslims who practice their religion beyond the tight restrictions imposed by the government - participating in private prayer groups, following imams out of favor with the state, joining religious organizations banned by the stae, and distributing literature not sanctioned by the state. Victims face charges of "anti-state activity" or "attempted subversion of the constitutional order," with sentences of up to 20 years in prison. Torture of detainees in routine, resulting in a number of deaths in custody.

The U.S. government has linked the IMU to Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is taking advantage of this linkage to further justify his government's crackdown on peaceful believers in the name of anti-terrorism. On October 9, 2001, he stated that, "Indifference to, and tolerance of, those with evil intentions who are spreading various fabrications, handing out leaflets, committing theft and sedition in some neighborhoods and who are spreading propaganda on behalf of religion should be recognized as being supportive of these evil-doers."

On January 14, 2002, police spokesman Davlatov justified the actions of four policemen charged with the October death in custody of Ravshan Haidov, an accused member of the Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, by claiming that the group was responsible for the events of September 11. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which employs anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric, is banned in Uzbekistan for espousing the establishment of a Caliphate, but it has not been implicated in acts of violence. On January 30, 2002, the policemen were found guilty of "inflicting bodily harm that caused death" and each was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

More on human rights in Uzbekistan


On November 23, 2001, a spokesman for President Robert Mugabe stated that six journalists for foreign-based media, including both Zimbabweans and non-citizens, who wrote stories on attacks on whites and political violence in Zimbabwe would be treated as terrorists. "It is now an open secret that these reporters are not only distorting the facts but are assisting terrorists who stand accused in our courts of law of abduction, torture and murder, by covering up and misrepresenting the brutal deeds of terrorists, said the spokesman, adding that, "As for the correspondents, we would like them to know that we agree with U.S. President Bush that anyone who in any way finances, harbors or defends terrorists is himself a terrorist. We, too, will not make any difference between terrorists and their friends and supporters." Critics of the Mugabe regime have increasingly been subject to intimidation, harassment, and arrest. In his remarks, the presidential spokesman also criticized Zimbabwe's independent media for intimidating state-controlled media, stating that, "this kind of media terrorism will not be tolerated."

Speaking anonymously in the state-owned press in January 2002, a senior government official dismissed a call by the European Union for open press access during the upcoming elections, stating that this was a "mad request especially in this age of terrorism when governments are coming together to fight terrorism."

On January 10, 2002, a state owned newspaper reported that Jonathan Mayo, Zimbabwe's Information Minister, had been sent an envelope containing a white powder. The envelopes tested negative for anthrax, but the Home Affairs Minister John Nkomo accused the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of sending the envelopes, claiming that, "those responsible for these terrorist attacks are people who formed the MDC and supported it." MDC spokesmen denied these charges.

More on human rights in Zimbabwe