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Press briefing note on: Maldives, Burundi and CAR investigations

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville / OHCHR Rule of Law Chief Mona Rishmawi
Location:  Geneva
Date:  1 May 2015
Subject:  (1) Maldives (2) Burundi (3) CAR investigations

(1) Maldives

A delegation from the UN Human Rights Office, headed by Mona Rishmawi, the head of the rule of law, equality and non-discrimination branch, visited the Maldives from 20 to 23 April to examine the broader issues related to the criminal case against former president Mohammad Nasheed, who is serving a 13-year prison sentence.

After meetings with Government and judicial officials, civil society members and with Mr. Nasheed, the delegation’s findings suggested that, however serious the allegations against him, the trial of Mr Nasheed was vastly unfair and his conviction was arbitrary and disproportionate.

In the absence of an adequate criminal code, evidence law, and criminal procedures, the Prosecutor-General and the judges have excessive discretionary powers that worked in this case against Mr Nasheed. He learnt about the new charge under the Terrorism Act only upon arrest. Following a rushed process that took place over less than three weeks, at night and often without the presence of Mr. Nasheed’s lawyers, he was convicted and sentenced. Importantly, the court denied Mr. Nasheed the possibility to prepare and present adequate defence, including calling defence witnesses, and examining the evidence against him.

The judicial system as a whole is perceived as politicised, inadequate and subject to external influence. For instance, in addition to the conviction of Mr Nasheed, two former Ministers of Defence, Mr Mohamed Nazim and Mr Tholhath Ibrahim and former MP Mr Ahmed Nazim, also recently received disproportionate sentences in a flawed trials.
We once again stress the need for the authorities to allow an environment conducive to political dialogue in the country. A mass protest has been planned/is underway and we urge the authorities to allow such exercise of freedom of expression and opinion without undue interference.

During our visit, we also stressed to the Government the need to ensure the safety of Mr. Nasheed. We were told that all appropriate measures to safeguard his security, wellbeing and health would be taken.

We will continue to engage with the Government on these issues and will continue to monitor the situation closely.

A fuller account of this briefing by Mona Rishmawi will be available later today at:  http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B9C2E/httpPressReleases?ReadForm&count=10000&expand=2.1&count=10000&unid=973ECFD74E96A2F2C1257E38003B8CEA#1.2.1
(2)      Burundi

We are deeply concerned about the series of measures taken this week by Burundian authorities to seriously curtail the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful expression and assembly.

The reported use of live ammunition by intelligence and security forces during protests is particularly alarming and we urge the authorities to ensure that international standards, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, are fully respected.

Hundreds of people have also been detained since the demonstrations began last Sunday (26 April). According to one credible report, over 400 individuals are being held in extremely overcrowded conditions, with detainees having to sleep standing up.

Detainees have also been beaten, particularly on their feet and buttocks, with some of those released having trouble walking due to the beating.

With the electoral campaign due to officially begin in just nine days, we call on the authorities to ensure the space necessary for the conduct of free and fair elections.

Restricting independent coverage by closing radio stations, curbing live coverage of protests and curbing the use of social media will not succeed in quashing dissent. Freedom of expression and the right to information must be protected.

As the High Commissioner stressed during his visit to the country two weeks ago, “Criticism is a vital element of democracy, not a threat that must be crushed. The right to freedom of expression and opinion is enshrined in international treaties ratified by Burundi, and the Government is obliged to uphold those treaties.”

(3) CAR investigations

In response to a question about the investigation of sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic, the OHCHR spokesperson had the following reply:
As you will understand, there are two investigations under way, and because of that we are very constrained in what we can say at this point.

The first, and obviously by far the most important, investigation is into extremely serious allegations of sexual abuse of children by French soldiers in the Central African Republic. This is being investigated by the French authorities. I understand they have now said publicly that that investigation started on 31 July last year.

The allegations about what happened to these children are abhorrent. The details, contained in interviews with alleged victims and witnesses by UN investigators last summer, including one of our staff, are utterly odious. We are extremely glad that the French authorities are investigating this and that they have said they plan to call for the harshest punishments available under the law for anyone found guilty. This is incredibly important, not just as a matter of accountability, but also as deterrence. There have been far too many incidents of peacekeeping troops engaged in such acts, whether within UN peacekeeping forces, or – as in this case – forces that are operating independently. We have been cooperating with the French authorities and will continue to do so to the best of our ability.

The second investigation is internal, and is being carried out by OIOS at the request of the High Commissioner.  A statement was made about this by the Secretary-General’s Spokesperson in New York on Wednesday. There is not much I can add to that given that this investigation is underway. Essentially however, this investigation concerns the manner in which confidential information, and especially the identities of child victims and witnesses, as well as of the  investigators, was communicated to external actors in possible breach of strict rules that exist to protect victims, witnesses and investigators.

Obviously this is a matter of great importance, which is why such rules exist. Victims, witnesses and investigators may be extremely vulnerable to reprisals. We know of plenty of cases elsewhere where they have disappeared. 

In addition, sources - especially victims and witnesses - must be able to give their informed consent before their identities are shared with third parties. In the case of young children - and the youngest of the victims is believed to have been between 8 and 9 years old -  informed consent may not be obtained. So particular care must be taken in such cases.

We are extremely concerned that in recent days copies of this preliminary compilation of unredacted interviews with these children appear to have been given to journalists, possibly with the names still unredacted, and we urge any media organization or other individual that has this document not to circulate that information any further.  The protection of sources must be of paramount importance. As a concrete illustration of this concern, we know for a fact that at least one of the individuals named in this document has been contacted by a number of different media organizations over the last few days.

This is very worrying. I repeat the core issue here is the protection of witnesses, victims and investigators and whether or not this was compromised, and indeed is still being compromised.

I would also like to clarify a number of elements that have been widely misreported.

First, this does not concern UN peacekeepers. The French force in CAR was not under the umbrella of the UN.  This begs the question: Why would OHCHR - or indeed the wider UN - try to protect French troops accused of such odious acts against children by sitting on such information? 

Secondly, there is the timeline. This will obviously be clarified during the investigation.

But it is incorrect to say this collection of interviews was submitted on 24 June. That was the date the last interview with one of the children took place.  As far as we are aware at this point – and I stress this remains to be established as fact by the investigation – the document containing the interviews was apparently sent to Geneva in mid-July. And, as you are aware, the French have said they started their investigation on 31 July.

ENDS

For more information and media requests, please contact  Rupert Colville  (+41 22 917 9767 / mrcolville@ohchr.org)