ICMP’s Daily World News Digest brings together news stories dealing with enforced disappearances and missing persons cases from around the world. It offers a snapshot of daily events and over a longer period it highlights key trends.
At the end of 2015 the number of reported cases of enforced disappearance in Egypt continued to rise.
On 1 December Daily News Egypt reported the case of Sherif El-Afifi, a 26-year-old university graduate who was detained by Egyptian security forces near Giza the previous week and had not been heard from since. He was the second youth from the same district to be detained by security forces, and activists said nothing had been heard from the other youth. The Egypt Independent web portal carried a story on 6 December about a dispute between a human rights organization and a political commentator over the nature of enforced disappearances in the country. When Aida Seif al-Dawla, who chairs the El-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, issued a report by the center listing 40 cases of enforced disappearance in November, as well as 13 deaths due to torture by police, Khaled Salah, chief editor of the independent daily Youm 7, and media host at the satellite TV channel al-Nahar, suggested that “30 or 40 percent of those (victims of enforced disappearance) are with the Islamic State.” In a Facebook response, Seif al-Dawla called on Salah “to send us the names of the 30 or 40 percent to check whether they are listed in our reports. . . If it appears that you are not telling the truth, there will be a day when you and your newspaper will have to apologize for every victim of enforced disappearance and every heartbroken parent.” Daily News Egypt reported on 9 December that there were 125 cases of enforced disappearance across Egypt in October and November, according to a report issued by the Stop Forced Disappearances campaign. The report said 79 individuals had been located, while the whereabouts of the remaining 64 cases were still unknown. The forced disappearance cases included 11 children, nine seniors, 15 men and 34 youths, according to the report. Students constituted the highest number, with 42 percent of total cases. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) issued a statement on 10 December urging Egypt’s newly elected parliament not to ratify “repressive laws” and to “adopt and amend the necessary laws to enforce the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2014 constitution”. It said cases of enforced disappearance had increased where individuals are detained incommunicado and faced with high risk of torture. The Ikhwan Web news portal carried a story on 14 December saying that enforced disappearances in Egypt had risen almost tenfold in the months from February to May 2015. During August and September 2015, the “Stop Forced Disappearance” campaign documented 215 cases of disappearance in cities across Egypt, it said. On 19 December Daily News Egypt reported that the Cairo Criminal Court had decided to release 23-year-old photojournalist Esraa El-Taweel after six months in detention, on health grounds. Charges against her will remain according to her lawyer Haleem Henish. El-Taweel was initially forcibly disappeared for two weeks after her arrest, before reappearing in Qanater prison for women. Ikhwan Web carried a story on 22 December about Ahmed Mahmoud, Secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party in Suez and a member of the party’s Supreme Committee, who it said had been kidnapped by security forces on 19 December. The same portal reported on 23 December that in 2015 a group called the Freedom Seekers Monitor had monitored 400 cases of enforced disappearance in Egypt. The Middle East Monitor carried a story on 29 December saying that security services had carried out pre-emptive arrests against Muslim Brotherhood members across Egypt ahead of a week of action planned by the Muslim Brotherhood and others to mark the fifth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution.
Governments across Africa were accused of using perceived threats to national security as a pretext for repressive measures including enforced disappearance.
* * *
The Global Post carried a story on 30 November saying that more teenage girls had been abducted in the latest attack by Boko Haram militants, who had stormed a village in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno, according to security sources. The US Council on Foreign Relations reported on 2 December that a resurgent Boko Haram is continuing with its campaign of killing and kidnapping and is expanding. The Naij news portal from Nigeria reported on 16 December that the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) has affirmed that the Nigerian Army opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Kaduna and that the IHRC believes claims about the existence of mass graves following the incident are credible. The Nigerian army is reported to have attacked hundreds of Shiite protestors on 12 December in the town of Zaria. On 20 December the News, a Nigerian portal, reported that the International Crisis Group (ICG) had called for a full scale inquiry into the Zaria killings. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on 22 December condemning the killings and noting that “soldiers quickly buried the bodies in mass graves without family members’ permission, making it difficult to determine an accurate death toll.” The BBC reported on 23 December that Nigerian Military Spokesman Brig General Rabe Abubakar had denied that the army had killed anyone. Nigeria’s Islamic spiritual leader, the Sultan of Sokoto, has warned that the raids on the sect, known as the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), could spark a new insurgency. On 29 December CNN reported that attacks by suspected Boko Haram militants had left more than 50 people dead and as many as 114 others wounded in the northeastern Nigerian cities of Maiduguri and Madagali in the previous 24 hours. The attacks came less than a week after President Muhammadu Buhari said in an interview with the BBC that Nigeria had “technically” won the war against Boko Haram. The Vanguard news portal from Nigeria reported on 29 December that President Buhari had stated that his administration would do everything in its power to ensure the safe return of the more than 200 girls who were abducted in April 2014 from the Federal Government Secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, by members of Boko Haram.
The Star daily newspaper from Kenya carried a story on 2 December saying that there is concern that thousands of young people who have been reported missing may have been recruited into the al Shabaab militant group and have travelled to Somalia for training. In early October eight persons suspected of recruiting for al Shabaab were arrested and police say they were able to rescue 20 children. However, some 20 others are reported to have been taken to Somalia. Security agents say these acts constitute enforced disappearances. The BBC reported on 7 December that at least 20 bodies had been discovered near the Somali border in northeast Kenya buried in shallow graves. Kenya’s security forces deny charges they have been killing ethnic Somalis. The residents of ethnic Somali-dominated districts in the region have repeatedly accused Kenya’s security agencies of being behind the arrest and disappearance of youths suspected of having links with al-Shabab. A local politician suggested the dead were victims of enforced disappearances. The Capital News portal from Kenya reported on 9 December that Kenya’s Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet had stated that there were no more bodies in the 15 excavated sites alleged to contain mass graves. Boinnet said a court-sanctioned excavation had not yielded any results. On 10 December the BBC reported that six Kenyan politicians, detained over comments on the alleged discovery of the mass graves had been released after six hours. Amnesty International said it had visited Mandera, and could confirm that there were no mass graves. However, there were reports of systematic human rights violations, including torture and extra-judicial killings, it said.
Amnesty International UK issued a statement on 27 December calling on the authorities in Cameroon to conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations into the fate of 130 people rounded up and detained by Cameroonian forces a year ago following security operations against Boko Haram. On 27 December 2014, more than 200 boys and men were arrested by security forces in the villages of Magdeme and Doublé. The government claims that 70 suspected Boko Haram members were arrested and that 25 of them had died that night in custody. However, the whereabouts of at least 130 people are still unknown, Amnesty said.
Amnesty International issued a statement on 22 December saying that Burundi security forces had systematically killed dozens of people on 11 December, including by extrajudicial execution.
* * *
In Sri Lanka there were significant developments in the country’s efforts to address the issue of missing persons as a result of the country’s long conflict.
The Daily News from Sri Lanka reported on 2 December that former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had said on 1 December that reconciliation cannot happen without accepting the mistakes of the past and the injustices committed against minorities. Speaking in her capacity as the Head of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena, she said the accountability process would include a Missing Persons Office, a Special Court for investigation of war crimes, a compensatory instrument, and a mandate to ensure non-recurrence. On 3 December the Colombo Gazette reported that Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera had told Parliament that if anyone has information related to secret detention centers the Government will investigate those claims. Samaraweera said that the Government is also taking very seriously a report by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances following its recent visit to Sri Lanka. The UN group raised concerns over secret underground detention cells at the Trincomalee navy camp believed to have been used to detain people now reported missing. New Delhi TV reported on 3 December that a second illegal detention center has been found in Sri Lanka. A former Tamil parliamentarian has released photographs of blood-stained walls in a house in the northern Jaffna district, where he says detainees were tortured by the Sri Lankan army after the area was recaptured from the Tamil Tigers in 1995. The Sri Lankan army has denied the existence of this facility. The Sunday Leader reported on 7 December that a policy on reconciliation being drawn up under the chairmanship of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga will include setting up a grievance unit, issuing ‘Certificates of Absence’ for families, establishing a domestic mechanism to address post-war issues of truth and accountability, and holding senior military officers accountable in the domestic process when investigating incidents related to the war. Kumaratunga said that the accountability process will begin either this month or next month with the establishment of a Special Court. She said the government will accept foreign technical assistance in the domestic process but not foreign judges. The TamilNet news portal reported on 8 December that organizations representing families of victims of enforced disappearance from eight Tamil districts had met in Jaffna on 8 December and denounced the Sri Lankan Presidential Commission on Missing Persons, indicating they would not to take part in sittings of the Commission scheduled for 11-19 December and that they would step up protests against the Sri Lankan government. The Business Standard news portal from India reported on 10 December that Sri Lanka will sign the UN convention on enforced disappearance, to commemorate Human Rights Day. On 18 December The Hindu newspaper carried a story saying that the Sri Lankan government has decided to establish a secretariat to coordinate activities of various players engaged in reconciliation. It will monitor implementation of recommendations made by various panels, including the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights.
* * *
Activists report that disappearances continue to occur across Asia at an alarming rate, often because of a powerful and deeply embedded nexus of business and political interests.
The Jakarta Globe carried a story on 15 December on a two-day “Torture and Violence in Asia” workshop in Indonesia, hosted by activist organizations to highlight human rights violations across Asia. Recipients of the Gwangju Human Rights award were joined by human rights organizations and families of the disappeared. Scores of Indonesia’s human rights abuse cases have yet to be investigated, including the 1965/66 anti-communist massacres, and the disappearance of dozens of human rights activists, the meeting heard. According to data from the Asian Federation against Disappearances (AFAD), around 60 percent of the world’s enforced disappearances occur in Asia, with Pakistan and Sri Lanka topping the list with thousands of citizens missing.
The Bangladeshi newspaper Prothom Alo carried a feature story on 4 December exploring the human implications of the enforced disappearance of political activists in the country. The story focused on the case of Sjdul Islam, who disappeared on 4 December 2012, along with seven others, allegedly detained by Bangladesh’s security forces. A total of 19 people reportedly went missing between 28 November and 11 December 2013 from the capital Dhaka. After failing to enlist the help of the Bangladesh police, families of the missing filed an appeal to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearance in 2014. On 7 December the Daily Star reported reported a statement by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a legal aid and human rights organization, that 88 people were reported to have been abducted by law enforcers in 2014. Of this number, the organization said, 42 never returned and 23 were identified after death. In 2013 the number of such missing persons was 68. The Daily Star carried a story on 8 December describing “deep-seated anxiety over the continuation of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.”
The Guardian reported on 10 December that Thailand’s most senior police investigator into human trafficking, Major General Paween Pongsirin, is seeking political asylum in Australia, saying he fears for his life because influential figures in the Thai government, military and police are implicated in trafficking and want him killed. In May, Thai police discovered more than 30 graves near the Malaysian border. Many of the exhumed bodies were believed to be Rohingya Muslims, a long-persecuted minority fleeing Myanmar. The investigation led by Paween was disbanded after just five months, despite his insistence that it was not complete. The Bangkok Post reported on 27 December on the case of Somchai Neelapaijit, a human rights lawyer pulled from his car in Bangkok by five police officers on 12 March 2004 who has not been seen in public since. The paper also reported on the case of Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, who was detained on 17 April 2014 and has not been seen in public since. It said these are just the best-known people who have been disappeared in recent years. In addition to the outright cases of the disappeared, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of cases where security forces abduct people and return them later — but facing false charges. On 29 December the Bankok Post reported that the Supreme Court had upheld the acquittal of all five police officers charged in the case of Somchai Neelapaijit. The Supreme Court also ruled that Somchai’s family could not act as a co-plaintiff as there was no evidence showing that Somchai was dead or seriously injured. Mr Somchai’s wife Angkhana Neelapaijit, now a human rights commissioner, said earlier said the ruling would affect the cases of other victims of enforced disappearance.
The International Federation of Human Rights Organizations (FIDH) issued a statement on 8 December calling on the Lao government immediately and unconditionally to release two former pro-democracy student leaders who, it said, have been arbitrarily detained for more than 16 years and to disclose the fate or whereabouts of two others. The Straits Times reported on 14 December that rights groups had characterized the investigation into the disappearance of Laotian activist Sombath Somphone on 15 December 2012 as “a farce” that has had a chilling effect on civil society. Sombath, an award-winning campaigner for sustainable development, vanished after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane. Rights campaigners say likely hundreds of people have vanished across Southeast Asia in the past two decades, often after coming up against local business, criminal or political interests. Voice of America reported that on 16 December the United States called on Laos to resolve the disappearance of Sombath Somphone.
Advocacy Forum, a Nepalese human rights organization, announced on 2 December that the UN Human Rights Committee has found Nepalese authorities responsible for the disappearance of eight youths and called for criminal prosecution of the perpetrators. The youths, aged between 14 and 23 at the time of their disappearance, were detained by soldiers on 11 April 2002. Their families have not seen them since. The ruling follows a case brought to the Committee by family members of the missing in 2011. The Committee said it is insufficient for the case to be looked at by either Nepal’s soon-to-be-formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Enforced Disappearances Commission. Instead, Nepal must begin a full investigation into the disappearances with a view to prosecuting those responsible, it said.
* * *
Long-running peace talks between the Colombian government and rebels are reported to have made progress in addressing the legacy of missing persons, while the authorities in Mexico continue to face criticism for a perceived failure to tackle the issue of enforced disappearances in a credible way.
CounterPunch, a monthly US magazine, published an interview on 1 December with ‘’Alexandra’’, a representative of the FARC at the Havana peace talks. She noted that 45,000 persons are missing as a result of the conflict. An agreement has been made for the immediate search, location and delivery of the remains of missing persons to their families. Another agreement has been made, to be implemented after the signing of a final agreement, to create a special Search Unit for missing persons. Alexandra said the principle behind the agreement is that “more truth should lead to more restorative justice, while less truth leads to more retributive justice”. The Latin American Herald Tribune reported on 16 December that the Colombian government and the FARC have signed an agreement on reparations for more than 6 million victims of the conflict. There will be “the most extensive possible” amnesty for political wrongs, but crimes against humanity, whether committed by guerrillas or government agents, will not go unpunished. The conflict in Colombia has left 5.7 million displaced persons, 220,000 slain, 25,000 missing and 27,000 kidnapped, according to figures of the Historical Memory Center in Bogota. Fox News Latino reported on 16 December that a peace deal between the government and the FARC will be signed by March 2016, according to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Santos said the latest deal, related to victims of the civil war, clarifies there would be no amnesty for serious crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and human rights violations or grave violations of International Humanitarian Law, including abductions, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and displacement, torture, sexual abuse and forced recruitment of minors as rebel soldiers. The Jurist reported on 17 December that Colombia’s Supreme Court had exonerated a retired colonel who had been found guilty of the forced disappearances of two people he escorted from the 1985 Palace of Justice Siege, ordering the colonel’s immediate release. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega was detained after a prosecutor re-opened investigations into disappearances related to the siege in 2006 and has spent the last eight years in custody. Although he was originally charged with forcibly disappearing 11 people, he was convicted by Bogotá’s Superior Court for two of the alleged disappearances and sentenced to 30 years in prison. On 18 December AFP reported that the remains of 29 people who disappeared during the half-century conflict in Colombia had been handed over to their families on 17 December under a deal between the FARC and the government. The remains included the victims of both rebel and army atrocities. They were identified by forensic scientists and exhumed from common burial plots at several cemeteries. Prensa Latina reported on 28 December that the director of Colombia’s Institute of Legal Medicine, Carlos Valdes, had indicated that there has been progress in the exhumation works in several Colombian cemeteries in order to expedite the identification of people buried as unknown citizens. Such investigations are the result of previous agreements between representatives of the government and the FARC in Havana, under which the security forces and the guerrilla movement are to provide information about deceased citizens, in order to promote the recovery of remains and their delivery to families.
The Guardian reported on 30 November that investigators searching for two Australian surfers who went missing in Mexico were carrying out DNA tests on two charred bodies found in a region notorious for drug-trafficking. The Telesur news portal reported on 1 December that parents of the 43 students who disappeared from the city of Iguala in the state of Guerrero in September 2014 had agreed to dismantle their protest tents after the government accepted some of their demands. Mexico’s Attorney General’s office agreed on 30 November to create a special office devoted to cases of disappearances that will continue the search for the 43 Ayotzinapa students. The independent body will be made up of a group of experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and will start a new line of investigation. Telesur reported on 13 December that the Attorney General’s Office had located 184 mass graves in the country between January 2010 and June 2015, corresponding to 573 bodies. Almost half of these (273 bodies) were found in the state of Guerrero, while a third of the illegal mass graves were located in the city of Iguala. Human rights groups reported that as a result of the violence, over 120 mass displacements occurred between 2008 and 2010 in Mexico – a fifth of them in the state of Guerrero, and this rate significantly increased in 2015. On 15 December Telesur carried a story saying that the Mexican authorities had uncovered at least 19 corpses in an isolated region of Guerrero. Many of the remains were incomplete or mutilated. “So far there are nine complete bodies, eight half-burned, and the rest a variety of bones,” a law enforcement source told Reuters. Authorities said the bodies could be over a year and a half old, but were not believed to be linked to the high-profile Ayotzinapa case. The Fair Observer news portal reported on 22 December that an international jury of independent human rights experts and advocates has found Mexico, the United States and key countries of origin of migrants in transit jointly responsible for widespread human rights violations in Mexico, based on hearings held at New York University in September 2015. The verdict of the International Tribunal of Conscience is based on testimony and documentation regarding the cases of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, the San Fernando massacre and mass graves of August 2010 and April 2011 and the systematic violation of migrants’ rights in detention centers and along the migratory route. Telesur news portal reported on 26 December that hundreds of people had joined the parents of the 43 Ayotzinapa students at a peaceful demonstration in Mexico City to mark 15 months since their children were forcibly disappeared. Meanwhile Mexico’s 27th Infantry Battalion — the army group implicated in the disappearances — has agreed to speak with legislators after more than a year of resistance.
The BBC carried a story on 1 December saying that Argentine campaign group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have found the son of a woman who was held captive by the military junta in the 1970s and 80s. The man, Mario Bravo, was taken from his mother as an infant while she was in jail and given to military government supporters to bring up. Mario is the 119th child to be found by the Grandmothers. They have worked for decades to reunite families with missing children, stolen by the junta. The New York Daily News reported on 27 December that a 92-year-old Argentine activist must continue a search that has lasted 39 years after DNA tests showed that a woman who believed she was her missing granddaughter turned out not to be. In 2003, the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons listed the official number of missing people in Argentina at 13,000.
Free Speech Radio News carried a story on 10 December about a group of mothers from Central America who are searching for their missing loved ones traveling across Mexico. The women visited the largest and most visible hub of Mexico’s commercial sex industry seeking missing relatives who may have fallen victim to traffickers. Telesur reported on 20 December that the mothers had written to Pope Francis urging him to promote a new migration policy during his Mexico visit. Coming from the “northern triangle” – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – the women are seeking safer conditions and the recognition of the refugee status of Central American migrants. An estimated 400,000 migrants cross Mexico every year, and according to the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, about 80 percent do not reach their destination. Vice news carried a story on 23 December that the Caravan of Mothers of Disappeared Migrants stems from the desperation of relatives of the missing. At a meeting in the Mexican Senate earlier in December, members of the group asked legislators to address the problem of missing migrants within a proposed new law on enforced disappearance.
* * *
Winter weather was responsible for a drop in the number of refugees from the Middle East and Africa trying to reach Europe, but conditions for those who did make the journey were even more difficult, and fatalities continued.
Al Jazeera America carried a story on 1 December saying that an estimated 140,000 refugees and migrants had reached Europe by sea in November – a substantial drop from October. “The monthly figure for November is the first one this year that actually shows a decrease compared to the previous one,” William Spindler of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said. Some 220,000 were recorded in October. The Belfast Telegraph reported on 9 December that at least 11 people had died and 13 were missing after a boat carrying about 50 migrants sank in the eastern Aegean. It added that police in northern Greece had closed a border crossing with Macedonia and were stopping people from getting within five kilometers of it following a standoff with hundreds of people who had been denied entry. The Global Post reported on 16 December that Greek Coast Guard authorities had announced two more fatalities following the sinking of a refugee boat, just hours before the opening of an EU summit that was to examine the latest EU plan to upgrade the role of the European border Frontext in managing refugee influxes. On 19 December CNN reported that 18 people had drowned when their wooden boat sank near in the Aegean Sea. IOM issued a statement on 22 December confirming that over a million irregular migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, mostly from Syria, Africa and South Asia. The total is the highest migration flow since World War II. The total of migrant/refugee deaths in 2015 stood at 3,692 – over 400 more than in 2014. ABC News reported on 23 December that a small plastic boat carrying migrants from Turkey had sunk drowning at least 13, mostly children. The accident occurred off the small Aegean Sea island of Farmakonissi. World crunch news portal carried a story on 28 December saying that about 60,000 underage refugees had arrived in Germany in 2015 without their parents. It said an alarming number had disappeared from custody and were vulnerable to human traffickers and extremists.