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August 24, 2011

Clinic Files UN Complaint on Behalf of Filipina-American Abducted and Tortured in the Philippines


Melissa Roxas asks UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to call for full and impartial investigation
into her abduction and torture in the Philippines in 2009

August 24, 2011, Los Angeles, CA
—Filipina-American Melissa Roxas has filed a submission with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture seeking justice for the abduction and torture she suffered in the Philippines in 2009.  The submission, prepared by the International Human Rights Clinic and the firm of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris Hoffman & Harrison LLP, requests that the Special Rapporteur call upon the Philippines government to investigate Ms. Roxas’s abuse in order to identify the perpetrators and hold them accountable.

Melisa Roxas speaks into a microphone.
Melissa Roxas, a Filipina-American, was kidnapped and tortured in the Philippines in 2009.

In May 2009, Ms. Roxas was preparing for an aid mission in the Philippines when approximately fifteen armed men abducted her, along with two companions.  She was then held for six days, during which time she was kept blindfolded and handcuffed, deprived of food and water, and brutally interrogated.  During these interrogations, Ms. Roxas was choked, beaten, and suffocated with a plastic bag.  While in captivity, Ms. Roxas heard sounds consistent with those of a military airbase.  For example, some of her captors used the greeting “sir,” and one informed her she had been detained by a special forces unit of the Philippines military.

Ms. Roxas initially pursued investigations in the Philippines, but with limited success.  While the Philippines judicial system and other bodies agreed that her allegations of detention and torture were factually true, they failed to identify the perpetrators.  Some of Ms. Roxas’s efforts to investigate were barred.  For example, though Ms. Roxas presented evidence indicating that she had been abducted by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, she was prohibited from inspecting the military base where she suspects the detention occurred.

“Although no one denies the abuse that I suffered, the Philippines government has repeatedly denied me justice for it,” said Ms. Roxas, who continues to seek a full and impartial investigation that will lead to accountability for those responsible.

“Faced with a lack of transparency and a lack of results in the Philippines, Melissa Roxas had to turn to the UN,” said Paul Hoffman, Ms. Roxas’s attorney at Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris Hoffman & Harrison.  “Rather than accepting impunity she is taking her case to the international level.”

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August 23, 2011

Strengthening the Humanitarian Protections of Incendiary Weapons Treaty

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

In the latest step of our push for stronger international law on incendiary weapons, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch (HRW)  released recommendations yesterday for amending an existing protocol on the weapons.

The new paper calls on states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to close several loopholes in CCW’s Protocol III.  The paper recommends broadening the definition of “incendiary weapon” to cover all munitions with incendiary effects, including white phosphorus.  It also argues that while an absolute ban would have the greatest humanitarian impact, countries should at least prohibit the use of incendiary weapons in populated areas and consider outlawing use against people, whether civilian or soldier.

In earlier papers, the Clinic and HRW outlined the shortcomings of Protocol III and described the humanitarian suffering produced by incendiary weapons. Incendiary weapons cause cruel, conscience-shocking injuries such as severe burns, asphyxiation, disfigurement, and psychological trauma, as well as death.

Joanne Box, LLM ’11, Alan Cliff, JD ’11, and Joe Phillips, JD ’12, helped develop the team’s recommendations and drafted the paper being distributed at a conference of CCW states parties in Geneva this week.

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August 18, 2011

Challenge to Australia: Don’t Do the Bidding of the U.S. on Cluster Munitions

Posted by Cara Solomon

In a strongly worded opinion piece today in Australia’s National Times, Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty urged the Australian Senate to take the responsible course in its implementation of the international ban on cluster munitions and push back against proposed legislation that would blunt the impact of the ban.  The Senate is scheduled to debate the bill in the coming days.

A US Air Force bomber drops cluster munitions during a training exercise.
A US Air Force bomber drops cluster munitions during a training exercise.

The Australian Senate has a chance to avoid an embarrassing double standard in its approach to international law.  But it needs to decide: does it want to ban cluster munitions or not?  Is it willing to stand by its signed commitment to eliminate these indiscriminate weapons immediately rather than do the bidding of the United States, which wants to put off a ban until at least 2018?

If the Senate passes the Cluster Munition Prohibition Bill without amendment, Australia will be in the unfortunate position of having arguably the world’s weakest national law to carry out the international ban on cluster munitions. The Senate, which is scheduled to debate the bill in coming days or as early as today, should instead seize the opportunity to strengthen the proposed legislation, increasing protection for civilians in armed conflict and remaining true to the international law Australia claims to support . . . .”

Lecturer on Law Bonnie Docherty, also a senior researcher in the arms division of Human Rights Watch, examines a cluster munition in Lebanon
 Bonnie Docherty, who is also a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of HRW, examines a cluster munition in Lebanon.

The International Human Rights Clinic has worked with Human Rights Watch (HRW) for several years to push for an international ban on cluster munitions; when the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which codifies the ban, took effect last August, the team shifted its focus to urging states to implement it effectively.

In January, Maria van Wagenberg, JD ’11, and Mona Williams, JD ’11, helped Bonnie write a critique of the Australian government’s proposed implementation legislation, which allows for broad exceptions to the Convention’s ban in the event of joint military operations with countries not party to the Convention, such as the United States.  The paper was jointly submitted—by the Clinic and HRW—to the Australian Senate committee reviewing the bill.  In March, Bonnie testified before the committee by telephone, arguing against the country’s proposed legislation.

The committee ultimately forwarded the bill to the Senate without changes.

Learn more about our work on cluster munitions.

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August 16, 2011

News Story on the Forced Sterilization of Women Living with HIV

Posted by Mindy Roseman

Yesterday we came across this CNN story on the forced sterilization of HIV-positive women in Namibia. It’s a strong piece, and it features one of our partners, Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet, and the critical work of the Namibian Women’s Health Network (NWHN) and the International Council of Women Living with HIV and AIDS.

Our own report on the violations of sexual and reproductive health and rights of women living with HIV in Namibia—undertaken by students in the International Human Rights Clinic, with NWHN and the support of Aziza Ahmed, now at Northeastern Law School—will be published this fall.


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August 12, 2011

Legal Victory Places Massive Aníbal Bruno Prison Under International Sanction

Posted by Fernando Ribeiro Delgado

On August 4, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights officially called on Brazil to take all steps necessary to protect the life, personal integrity, and health of prisoners in Aníbal Bruno prison and reduce over-crowding at the pre-trial center, one of largest prison complexes in Latin America and among Brazil’s most violent.  This is the first time Aníbal Bruno prison has come under international sanction.  The measures were sought this past June by a coalition of human rights groups including the Catholic Prison Ministry (Pastoral Carcerária), the Ecumenical Service of Advocacy in Prisons (Serviço Ecumênico de Militância nas Prisões), Global Justice (Justiça Global), and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.

Starting in 2010, the Clinic and its partner organizations began gathering evidence of 55 violent deaths occurring in the prison since 2008, the vast majority of them homicides.  Joint fact-finding visits documented systematic torture and severe medical neglect as well.  The coalition reported these abuses to state authorities—as had occurred many times before—but little was done to address the prison’s problems.  The request for precautionary measures to the Inter-American Commission was filed this past June, as the death toll continued to rise.

The coalition’s filing sought measures to reduce rampant violence within the facility, provide health services to gravely ill prisoners, and promote long-term reforms that would stem excessive pre-trial incarceration, improve conditions of detention, and tackle corruption. Brazil has until August 24 to inform the Commission of its efforts to comply with the decision.

Located in one of Brazil’s tourism capitals, Recife, Pernambuco state, the Aníbal Bruno prison gained national notoriety in 2008 when the facility was designated by a congressional inquiry as one of the top ten worst detention centers in the country.  Inhuman detention conditions persist today.  Aníbal Bruno prison is currently at 334 percent capacity, with over 4,800 prisoners crammed into space designed to hold 1,448.  In its decision, the Commission sought from Brazil “a substantive reduction in the overpopulation of persons deprived of liberty [in Aníbal Bruno],” among other steps.

During their inspections, coalition members found evidence of systematic torture, including signs that some prisoners had been partially skinned and had their bones broken in assaults orchestrated by “keymasters” (chaveiros)—prisoners who are officially deputized with guard duties.  The “keymaster” prisoners derive their nicknames from the fact that they literally control the keys to cells and, in practice, decide which prisoners get to access medical and other services outside the cellblock walls.  The coalition documented prisoners suffering severe medical neglect in Aníbal Bruno, including untreated open wounds, infections, and chronic pain.  The Inter-American Commission specifically urged Brazil to end the “keymaster” system, provide, “adequate medical attention to the [prisoners],” and adopt, “all the measures necessary to avoid the transmission of contagious diseases.”

Members of the Catholic Prison Ministry and the Ecumenical Service of Advocacy in Prisons have been monitoring human rights conditions in Aníbal Bruno prison for decades. Justiça Global and the Clinic began fact-finding, international litigation, and media advocacy surrounding Aníbal Bruno last fall, joining the work of advocates in the region.

For the initial complaint on Aníbal Bruno (in Portuguese with certain names redacted), click here [warning: this document contains a graphic image].

For the Commission’s decision (in Portuguese), click here.

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