As DR Congo Seeks to Expand Drilling, Some Worry Pollution Will Worsen

MOANDA, DR Congo — The oil drills that loom down the road from Adore Ngaka’s home remind him daily of everything he’s lost. The extraction in his village in western Congo has polluted the soil, withered his crops and forced the family to burn through savings to survive, he said.

Pointing to a stunted ear of corn in his garden, the 27-year-old farmer says it’s about half the size he got before oil operations expanded nearly a decade ago in his village of Tshiende.

“It’s bringing us to poverty,” he said.

Congo, a mineral-rich nation in central Africa, is thought to have significant oil reserves, too. Drilling has so far been confined to a small territory on the Atlantic Ocean and offshore, but that’s expected to change if the government successfully auctions 30 oil and gas blocks spread around the country. Leaders say economic growth is essential for their impoverished people, but some communities, rights groups and environmental watchdogs warn that expanded drilling will harm the landscape and human health.

Since the French-British hydrocarbon company, Perenco, began drilling in Moanda territory in 2000, residents say pollution has worsened, with spills and leaks degrading the soil and flaring — the intentional burning of natural gas near drilling sites — fouling the air they breathe. And the Congolese government exerts little oversight, they say.

Perenco said it abides by international standards in its extraction methods, that they don’t pose any health risks and that any pollution has been minor. The company also said it offered to support a power plant that would make use of the natural gas and thus reduce flaring. The government did not respond to questions about the proposed plant.

Congo’s minister overseeing oil and gas, Didier Budimbu, said the government is committed to protecting the environment.

Congo is home to most of the Congo Basin rainforest, the world’s second-biggest, and most of the world’s largest tropical peatland, made up of partially decomposed wetlands plant material. Together, both capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide — about 1.5 billion tons a year, or about 3% of global emissions. More than a dozen of the plots up for auction overlap with protected areas in peatlands and rainforests, including the Virunga National Park, which is home to some of the world’s rarest gorillas.

The government said the 27 oil blocks available have an estimated 22 billion barrels. Environmental groups say that auctioning more land to drill would have consequences both in Congo and abroad.

“Any new oil and gas project, anywhere in the world, is fueling the climate and nature crisis that we’re in,” said Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafak, program director for Greenpeace Africa. She said Perenco’s operations have done nothing to mitigate poverty and instead degraded the ecosystem and burdened the lives of communities.

Environmental activists said Congo has strong potential to instead develop renewable energy, including solar, as well as small-scale hydropower. It’s the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a key component for batteries in electric vehicles and other products essential to the global energy transition, although cobalt mining comes with its own environmental and human risks.

Budimbu said now is not the time to move away from fossil fuels when the country is still reliant on them. He said fossil fuel dependency will be phased out in the long term.

Rich in biodiversity, Moanda abuts the Mangrove National Park — the country’s only marine protected area. Perenco has been under scrutiny for years, with local researchers, aid groups and Congo’s Senate making multiple reports of pollution dating back more than a decade. Two civil society organizations, Sherpa and Friends of the Earth France, filed a lawsuit in 2022 accusing Perenco of pollution caused by the oil extraction; that suit is still pending.

During a rare visit by international media to the oil fields, including two villages near drilling, The Associated Press spoke with dozens of residents, local officials and rights organizations. Residents say drilling has inched closer to their homes and they have seen pipes break regularly, sending oil into the soil. They blame air and ground pollution for making it hard to cultivate crops and causing health problems such as skin rashes and respiratory infections.

They said Perenco has responded quickly to leaks and spills but failed to address root problems.

AP journalists visited drilling sites, some just a few hundred meters from homes, that had exposed and corroding pipes. They also saw at least four locations that were flaring natural gas, a technique that manages pressure by burning off the gas that is often used when it is impractical or unprofitable to collect. AP did not see any active spill sites.

Between 2012 and 2022 in Congo, Perenco flared more than 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas — a carbon footprint equivalent to that of about 20 million Congolese, according to the Environmental Investigative Forum, a global consortium of environmental investigative journalists. The group analyzed data from Skytruth, a group that uses satellite imagery to monitor threats to the planet’s natural resources.

Flaring of natural gas, which is mostly methane, emits carbon dioxide, methane and black soot and is damaging to health, according to the International Energy Agency.

In the village of Kinkazi, locals told AP that Perenco buried chemicals in a nearby pit for years and they seeped into the soil and water. They displayed photos of what they said were toxic chemicals before they were buried and took reporters to the site where they said they’d been discarded. It took the community four years of protests and strikes before Perenco disposed of the chemicals elsewhere, they said.

Most villagers were reluctant to allow their names to be used, saying they feared a backlash from a company that is a source of casual labor jobs. Minutes after AP reporters arrived in one village, a resident said he received a call from a Perenco employee asking the purpose of the meeting.

One who was willing to speak was Gertrude Tshonde, a farmer, who said Perenco began dumping chemicals near Kinkazi in 2018 after a nearby village refused to allow it.

“People from Tshiende called us and asked if we were letting them throw waste in our area,” Tshonde said. “They said the waste was not good because it spreads underground and destroys the soil.”

Tshonde said her farm was behind the pit where chemicals were being thrown and her cassava began to rot.

AP could not independently verify that chemicals had been buried at the site.

Perenco spokesperson Mark Antelme said the company doesn’t bury chemicals underground and that complaints about the site near Kinkazi were related to old dumping more than 20 years ago by a predecessor company. Antelme also said Perenco hasn’t moved operations closer to people’s homes. Instead, he said, some communities have gradually built closer to drilling sites.

Antelme also said the company’s flaring does not release methane into the atmosphere.

Perenco said it contributes significantly to Moanda and the country. It’s the sole energy provider in Moanda and invests about $250 million a year in education, road construction, training programs for medical staff and easier access to health care in isolated communities, the company said.

But residents say some of those benefits are overstated. A health clinic built by Perenco in one village has no medicine and few people can afford to pay to see the doctor, they said.

And when Perenco compensates for oil leak damages, locals say it’s not enough.

Tshonde, the farmer, said she was given about $200 when an oil spill doomed her mangoes, avocado and maize eight years ago. But her losses were more than twice that. Lasting damage to her land from Perenco’s operations has forced her to seek other means of income, such as cutting trees to sell as charcoal.

Many other farmers whose land has been degraded are doing the same, and tree cover is disappearing, she said.

Budimbu, the minister of hydrocarbons, said Congo’s laws prohibit drilling near homes and fields and oil operators are required to take the necessary measures to prevent and clean up oil pollution. But he didn’t specify what the government was doing in response to community complaints.

Congo has struggled to secure bidders since launching the auction in July 2022. Three companies — two American and

one Canadian — moved on three methane gas blocks in Lake Kivu, on the border with Rwanda. The government said in May that they were about to close those tenders, but did not respond to AP’s questions in January about whether those deals were finalized.

There are no known confirmed deals on the 27 oil blocks, and the deadline for expressions of interest has been extended through this year. Late last year, Perenco withdrew from bidding on two blocks in the province near where it currently operates. The company didn’t respond to questions from AP about why it withdrew, but Africa Intelligence reported that Perenco had found the blocks to have insufficient potential.

Perenco also didn’t respond when asked whether it was pursuing any other blocks.

Environmental experts say bidding may be slow because the country is a hard place to operate with rampant conflict, especially in the east where violence is surging and where some of the blocks are located.

Local advocacy groups say the government should fix problems with Perenco before bringing in other companies.

“We first need to see changes with the company we have here before we can trust other(s),” said Alphonse Khonde, the coordinator of the Group of Actors and Actions for Sustainable Development.

Congo also has a history of corruption. Little of its mineral wealth has trickled down in a country that is one of the world’s five poorest, with more than 60% of its 100 million people getting by on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.

And some groups have criticized what they see as lack of transparency on the process of offering blocks for auction, which amounts to “local communities being kept in the dark over plans to exploit their lands and resources,” said Joe Eisen, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK.

Some communities where the government has failed to provide jobs and basic services say they have few options but to gamble on allowing more drilling.

In Kimpozia village, near one of the areas up for auction, some 150 people live nestled in the forest without a school or hospital. Residents must hike steep hills and travel on motorbike for five hours to reach the nearest health clinic and walk several hours to school. Louis Wolombassa, the village chief, said the village needs road-building and other help.

“If they come and bring what we want, let them drill,” he said.

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Analysts: Doha Agreement ‘Flawed’ as US, Taliban Accuse One Another of Violating Terms

washington — Four years after the signing of the Doha agreement, the U.S. and Taliban accuse each other of violating its terms, while analysts say that the agreement was “flawed” and has had “disastrous” outcomes for Afghans.

“The Taliban have not fulfilled their commitments in the Doha agreement,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday in a news briefing in response to a question from VOA’s Afghan Service.

“The Taliban have also not fulfilled their Doha commitment to engage in meaningful dialogue with fellow Afghans leading to a negotiated settlement, an inclusive political system,” she said.

After seizing power in 2021, the Taliban established an all-male Taliban caretaker cabinet and rejected calls to form an inclusive government.

Jean-Pierre added that the U.S. would hold the Taliban to their commitment and work “tirelessly every day to ensure that this set of commitments is fulfilled.”

The Taliban, however, accused the U.S. of “violating” the agreement.

“If you have read the agreement, it is written that the U.S. would normalize its relations with the future government in Afghanistan, remove the sanctions and restrictions, and cooperate, which [the U.S. does] not,” spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said Thursday in an interview with state-run TV in Afghanistan.

Mujahid, however, said that the two main objectives — the U.S. withdrawal and not allowing anyone to use Afghan soil against the U.S. and its allies — have been implemented.

The U.S.-Taliban peace deal, signed in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020, paved the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

The agreement obliged the Taliban to cut their ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and participate in intra-Afghan peace talks to decide on “the future political map of Afghanistan.”

Retired U.S. General David Petraeus, who served as the commander of U.S. forces in South Asia and then as director of the CIA, told VOA that the Taliban obviously had not complied with the deal.

“If they had, the leader of al-Qaida wouldn’t have been a couple of blocks from the presidential palace, in a building controlled by the Taliban in Kabul, the capital … despite the promise in the agreement not to allow them back on Afghan soil,” he added.

He said that the outcome of the implementation of the agreement was “very tragic, heartbreaking and disastrous,” as since the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan has been facing multiple crises.

The United Nations says that Afghanistan continues to experience one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises.

‘Disastrous for Afghan women’

The Taliban imposed repressive measures on women, including barring them from attending high schools and universities, traveling long distances without a male companion, working with public and nongovernmental organizations, and going to gyms and parks.

Shukria Barakzai, a former Afghan diplomat and member of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, told VOA that the Doha agreement was “disastrous for Afghan women, as nothing related to human rights, women’s rights and women’s achievements from 2001 to 2021 were referred to in the agreement.”

She added that the agreement paved the way for the return of repressive rules against women introduced when the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s.

Before the ouster of the Taliban by the U.S. in 2001, women were not allowed to leave their houses without a male chaperone, work outside their homes, or attend school.

The international community has repeatedly called on the Taliban to respect women’s rights and form an inclusive government as conditions for their recognition.

No country has yet officially recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, although China has accepted the credentials of the Taliban’s ambassador in Beijing.

‘Flawed in almost every way’

Annie Pforzheimer, a former U.S. acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan, told VOA that there should have been “some kind of international guarantee” to prevent the Taliban’s return.

“But instead, what happened was a withdrawal that happened before the right circumstances were in place,” she said.

The agreement was “flawed in almost every way, in terms of implementation,” Pforzheimer said, adding that “the only people who complied with it were the international forces, and in fact the United States withdrew its forces and obliged NATO to do the same.”

She added that she was concerned about the future of Afghanistan, especially for Afghan girls and women who are “denied an education and a future.”

“Right now, there’s not much hope, but I think that Afghans working together will understand that they are in greater numbers than the Taliban,” Pforzheimer said.

Noshaba Ashna of the VOA Afghan Service contributed to this report, which originated in the VOA Afghan Service.

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Advocacy Groups Call for Halt to Shell’s Planned Exit from Nigeria

Abuja, Nigeria — Advocacy groups are calling on the Dutch oil giant Shell to halt its plans to divest assets from Nigeria’s Niger Delta region unless proper cleanup and decommissioning of its infrastructure is complete.

This week, a Netherlands-based nonprofit released a report accusing Shell of trying to avoid responsibility for oil spills. The Center for Research on Multinational Corporations’ report, entitled “Selling Out Nigeria — Shell’s Irresponsible Divestment,” said the Dutch oil giant’s divestment in Nigeria must be suspended until clean-up and decommissioning of assets are complete.

The group accused Shell of trying to avoid responsibility for decades of oil spills in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region that have polluted bodies of water and farmlands. It said Shell’s assertion that it cleaned up polluted oil spill sites is flawed and cannot be trusted.

Faith Nwadishi, founder of Center for Transparency Advocacy, agrees with the report.

“The contract that they have signed that talks about the issue of remediation, protection of the environment and all of those things have not been done,” said Nwadishi. “We should be looking at the contract and interpreting it accordingly — this is international best practice. This is what happens everywhere.”

Shell operations grew controversial

Shell pioneered Nigeria’s oil and gas explorations in 1937, but its operations have been subject to controversy and lawsuits from local communities.

Shell often blamed sabotage and vandalism by locals for busted pipelines, oil spills and environmental pollution.

In January, the company announced plans to sell its onshore operations to a local consortium of five companies for $2.4 billion.

Shell said the move would allow it to focus on more lucrative offshore businesses and that it was also proof that local companies are able to take on a larger share of Nigeria’s oil and gas industry.

But Nwadishi said if the pollution issue is not addressed, Shell’s exit could set a bad example for other multinationals operating in Nigeria.

“Once one person sets a precedent — especially the bad precedences — once they’re set, you see other people following up,” said Nwadishi. “When they do that, what it will mean is that they set a wrong template for other multinationals to do the same thing. And unfortunately, we have this judicial system that takes forever to take care of issues like that.”

Law mandates funding for cleanup

Under Nigerian law, Shell is expected to provide funding for cleanup and decommissioning of its infrastructure before exiting.

But the report says the implementation of the law is flawed and said there is no sign that Shell is trying to comply with the law.

The company has not commented on the report but recently released a list of eight cleanup operations it plans to carry out in Nigeria this year, all for spills of less than 100 barrels of oil.

Emmanuel Afimia, founder of Enermics Consulting, said Nigerian authorities must take the Shell divestment plan seriously.

“Nigeria should implement the following measures: establish a robust regulatory framework that holds multinational corporations accountable for the environmental damage caused by their operations; ensure that affected communities are consulted and involved in the cleanup process and that their concerns and needs are addressed,” said Afimia. “We need to monitor and evaluate the cleanup process regularly to ensure that it is being done properly and transparently.”

VOA asked Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency for comment on the Shell issue but has not received a response.

Before Shell can sell the assets in question, it must get approval from the Nigerian government. The government has not said whether it will authorize the sale.

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Rising Violence, Human Rights Violations Threaten Peace in South Sudan

GENEVA — U.N. investigators warn an alarming rise in violence and human rights violations threatens prospects for a durable peace in South Sudan and risks impeding free and fair elections in December, the first since the country gained its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011.

Members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, which submitted its latest report Friday to the U.N. Human Rights Council, expressed hope that the government would live up to the commitments of the 2020 revitalized peace agreement.

The outlook is not promising. Commission members agree that much remains to be done before elections can go ahead later this year. While South Sudan is coming to the end of a political process, the commission notes that the drafting of a new, permanent constitution has not yet started.

Commission member Barney Afako told the council that entrenched impunity in South Sudan was fueling armed conflict, repression, corruption and human rights violations, including sexual violence. That, he noted, was hardly an environment in which free and fair elections could take place.

“Last April, we named senior officials responsible for serious crimes, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence,” he said. All of them retain their positions, including the governor of Unity State (Joseph Monytuil) and the Koch County commissioner (Gordon Koang). These two individuals enjoy impunity and have continued to instigate serious violence and violations.”

The commission report paints a stark picture of a society where killings, sexual and gender-based crimes, and gross human rights violations against the civilian population go unpunished.

It says children are recruited into the army, and militias and armed cattle keepers encroach upon and grab the land of farmers, inflicting sexual violence and mass abductions on women and children.

The commission has documented cases of young girls and women who have been abducted and held as sexual slaves. Afako said many of the victims have testified to being regularly beaten, continuously raped and threatened with death.

“The scale, severity and violence associated with abductions is worsening. These attacks are well-planned,” he said. “Although authorities were often well aware of them, they claimed to be powerless to stop them. Instead, authorities have negotiated ransoms and encouraged families to pay off abductors. We believe this can only incentivize further abductions.”

He said impunity and lack of justice, accountability and protection institutions are root causes of violations, “including targeted killings, repression, torture and sexual violence against women and girls.”

The commission calls on South Sudan’s government to urgently establish transitional justice institutions and allow the country’s political process to operate meaningfully and legitimately.

Ruben Madol Arol, the South Sudanese minister of justice and constitutional affairs, called the commission report deplorable. He said the report does not consider the actions the government has taken to implement the renewable agreement and improve security in the country.

He bristled at the report’s description of widespread sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls in South Sudan, saying it “is misleading and meant to tarnish the image of the country.”

Christian Salazar Volkmann, the director of the field operations and technical cooperation division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the council that the government has made some “concrete progress on institutional electoral preparations.”

While some signs of openness with civil society were emerging, he said, they were insufficient to “create the necessary conducive environment” for the South Sudanese to fully exercise their democratic right to vote.

“Currently, the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, and association all remain severely restricted,” he said.

“Censorship, harassment, arbitrary arrests, and detention of journalists and dissenting voices continue in South Sudan. This impedes genuine public engagement in the electoral process,” he said.

Justice Minister Arol did not take all that criticism lightly. He threatened to end the mandate of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in South Sudan unless it accepts new conditions.

He said the commission must “share evidence and names of the individuals and entities accused of human rights violations” to the government.

He said the commission also must agree “to monitor and report human rights situations” and let the government handle all investigations.

“If these positions are accepted, the government will accept the extension of [the] mandate of the commission for a period of one year only,” he said.

Ninety-five nongovernmental and human rights organizations sent a letter early last week to council members and observer states urging the council to renew the commission’s mandate. They expressed concern about South Sudan’s human rights situation in view of the upcoming elections.

They noted that the commission’s critical role in that it “is the only mechanism tasked with collecting and preserving evidence of violations on international humanitarian and human rights law with a view to ensuring accountability.

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Taliban Warns of Ban on Female Media Appearance Without Dress Code Compliance

ISLAMABAD — Taliban authorities in Afghanistan have reportedly warned of barring female journalists and women at large from media platforms unless they comply with a dress code requiring that only their eyes be visible.   

The Afghanistan Journalists Center, or AFJC, a press freedom organization, said the warning was issued Tuesday by Mohammad Khaled Hanafi, head of the Taliban’s Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Ministry, meeting with journalists in Kabul.

In a statement on its website, the AFJC quoted ministry spokesman Abdul Ghaffar Farooq as recommending at the meeting that they “adhere to a modest dress code, showing images of women in black attire and veils with their faces mostly covered, leaving only their eyes visible.”  

Farooq also suggested that television news channels avoid interviewing women “who do not adhere to the hijab or fully cover their faces,” the organization said.

“Hanafi warned that failure to comply with these guidelines may lead to a potential prohibition of women working in the media” by Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, the statement said.

Ministry officials have not yet commented on the reported meeting or its details.

The media watchdog said it was “deeply concerned” about the state of Afghan media and “the potential repercussions of banning women from working in the media, who already face significant restrictions in their work.”  

It said Hanafi’s warning could ultimately eliminate women from the media in Afghanistan, where the Taliban already have placed sweeping restrictions on most women’s access to education and work or public life at large.

The AFJC said in its statement that local media professionals in the country have dealt with stringent work conditions requiring them to strictly follow a set of media guidelines the Taliban introduced after reclaiming power in 2021. 

Some of the existing directives prevent women from working in national radio and television stations, enforce “gender-based segregation” in workplaces, and prohibit broadcasting female voices and phone calls in certain provinces, the center said.

The AFJC moved its office out of Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover but says it has workers on the ground and coordinates with local media outlets.

The Taliban have banned television dramas that include female performers, and female news presenters must wear an officially prescribed “Islamic hijab” on air.  

‘Gender Apartheid’

The Taliban have prohibited teenage girls from receiving an education beyond the sixth grade, female aid workers are banned from working for nongovernmental humanitarian groups, including the United Nations, except in the health sector, and females are not allowed to visit public parks, gyms, and bathhouses.

A U.N. expert warned in a report issued Thursday that the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan had “deteriorated immensely” and caused “unacceptable suffering” since the Taliban takeover.  

Richard Bennett, the special rapporteur on the situation of Afghan human rights, urged action by the Taliban and the outside world “to halt this downward spiral and give hope” to Afghans.

“Women and girls are being erased from public life, peaceful dissent is not tolerated, violence and the threat of violence are used with impunity to control and instill fear in the population,” Bennett said. He said he is “deeply concerned” about the bans on girls’ education and female aid workers.  

He denounced the Taliban-ordered public executions and floggings of Afghans, including women, convicted of crimes, including murder and adultery.

The report found that “the institutionalized, systematic and widespread nature of gender-based discrimination was unparalleled, rising to the level of gender persecution and justifying being characterized as ‘gender apartheid.’”

Just hours before the report was issued Thursday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that Bennett and other Western critics should stop “misusing” the issue of Afghan human rights and instead focus on and stop rights abuses elsewhere in the world.

The Taliban have rejected criticism of their governance, saying it is aligned with the Islamic law of Sharia and Afghan culture. 

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UN Experts: Sudan’s Paramilitary Forces May Have Committed War Crimes

UNITED NATIONS — Paramilitary forces and their allied militias fighting to take power in Sudan carried out widespread ethnic killings and rapes while taking control of much of western Darfur that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, United Nations experts said in a new report.

The report to the U.N. Security Council, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, paints a horrifying picture of the brutality of the Arab-dominated Rapid Support Forces against Africans in Darfur. It also details how the RSF succeeded in gaining control of four out of Darfur’s five states, including through complex financial networks that involve dozens of companies.

Sudan plunged into chaos in April, when long-simmering tensions between its military led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary commanded by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, broke out into street battles in the capital, Khartoum.

Fighting spread to other parts of the country, but in Sudan’s Darfur region it took on a different form: brutal attacks by the RSF on African civilians, especially the ethnic Masalit.

Two decades ago, Darfur became synonymous with genocide and war crimes, particularly by the notorious Janjaweed Arab militias against populations that identify as Central or East African. It seems that legacy has returned, with the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor Karim Khan saying in late January there are grounds to believe both sides are committing possible war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Darfur.

The panel of experts said Darfur is experiencing “its worst violence since 2005.”

The ongoing conflict has caused a large-scale humanitarian crisis and displaced approximately 6.8 million people — 5.4 million within Sudan and 1.4 million who have fled to other countries, including approximately 555,000 to neighboring Chad, the experts said.

The RSF and rival Sudanese government forces have both used heavy artillery and shelling in highly populated areas, causing widespread destruction of critical water, sanitation, education and health care facilities.

In their 47-page report, the experts said the RSF and its militias targeted sites in Darfur where displaced people had found shelter, civilian neighborhoods and medical facilities.

According to intelligence sources, the panel said, in just one city — Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state near the Chad border — between 10,000 and 15,000 people were killed.

The experts said sexual violence by the RSF and its allied militia was widespread.

The panel said that, according to reliable sources from Geneina, women and girls as young as 14 years old were raped by RSF elements in a U.N. World Food Program storage facility that the paramilitary force controlled, in their homes, or when returning home to collect belongings after being displaced by the violence. Additionally, 16 girls were reportedly kidnapped by RSF soldiers and raped in an RSF house.

“Racial slurs toward the Masalit and non-Arab community formed part of the attacks,” the panel said. “Neighborhoods and homes were continuously attacked, looted, burned and destroyed,” especially those where Masalit and other African communities lived, and their people were harassed, assaulted, sexually abused, and at times executed.

The experts said prominent Masalit community members were singled out by the RSF, which had a list, and the group’s leaders were harassed and some executed. At least two lawyers, three prominent doctors and seven staff members, and human rights activists monitoring and reporting on the events were also killed, they said.

The RSF and its allied militias looted and destroyed all hospitals and medical storage facilities, which resulted in the collapse of health services and the deaths of 37 women with childbirth complications and 200 patients needing kidney dialysis, the panel said.

After the killing of the wali, or governor, of West Darfur in June, the report said, Masalit and African communities decided to seek protection at Ardamata, just outside Geneina. A convoy of thousands moved out at midnight but as they reached a bridge, RSF and allied militias indiscriminately opened fire, and survivors reported that an estimated 1,000 people were killed, they said.

The panel stressed that disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians — including torture, rapes and killings as well as destruction of critical civilian infrastructure — constitute war crimes under the 1949 Geneva conventions.

The RSF was formed out of Janjaweed fighters by Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir, who ruled the country for three decades, was overthrown during a popular uprising in 2019, and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for charges of genocide and other crimes during the conflict in Darfur in the 2000s.

According to the panel, the “RSF’s takeover of Darfur relied on three lines of support: the Arab allied communities, dynamic and complex financial networks, and new military supply lines running through Chad, Libya and South Sudan.”

While both the Sudanese military and RSF engaged in widespread recruitment drives across Darfur from late 2022, the RSF was more successful, the experts said. And it “invested large proceeds from its pre-war gold business in several industries, creating a network of as many as 50 companies.”

The RSF’s complex financial networks “enabled it to acquire weapons, pay salaries, fund media campaigns, lobby, and buy the support of other political and armed groups,” the experts said.

United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who visited Chad in September, called the report’s findings “horrific” and expressed “deep disappointment” that the U.N. Security Council and the international community have paid such little attention to the allegations.

“The people of Sudan feel that they have been forgotten,” she said.

In light of the humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan and the broader region, Thomas-Greenfield demanded that the Sudanese military lift its prohibition on cross-border assistance from Chad and facilitate cross-line assistance from the east. She also demanded in a statement Wednesday that the RSF halt the looting of humanitarian warehouses and that both parties stop harassing humanitarian aid workers.

“The council must act urgently to alleviate human suffering, hold perpetrators to account, and bring the conflict in Sudan to an end,” the U.S. ambassador said. “Time is running out.”

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More Than 40 Dead in Bangladesh Restaurant Fire

Dhaka, Bangladesh — At least 43 people were killed and dozens were injured by a fire that blazed through a 7-story building in an upscale neighborhood in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka late Thursday, authorities said.

“So far, 43 people have died from the fire,” Bangladesh’s health minister Samanta Lal Sen told AFP after visiting the Dhaka Medical College Hospital and an adjoining burn hospital.

Police inspector Bacchu Mia said one more person died at Dhaka’s main police hospital to bring the death toll to 44.

Sen said at least 40 injured people were being treated in the city’s main burn hospital.

“None of them are out of danger,” he told AFP.

Fire department official Mohammad Shihab said the blaze originated in a popular biriyani restaurant in Dhaka’s Bailey Road Thursday night and quickly spread to the upper floors, trapping scores of people.

Firefighters brought the blaze under control in two hours, he said.

They rescued 75 people alive, a fire service statement said.

Fire officials told reporters they suspected the inferno was caused by a gas cylinder explosion at the restaurant.

“It raced through the upper floor quickly as there were restaurants in almost all floors of the building. They use gas cylinders,” one fire officer, who did not give his name, said.

The government has ordered an investigation.

The Bailey Road building houses mainly restaurants along with several clothing and mobile phone shops.

“We were at the sixth floor when we first saw smoke racing through the staircase. A lot of people rushed upstairs,” said a restaurant manager who gave his name as Sohel.

“We used a water pipe to climb down the building. Some of us were injured as they jumped from upstairs,” he said.

Others were trapped on the rooftop and called out for help.

“Alhamdulillah (praise be to god). We are sending down all women and children including my wife and children. We all men are in rooftop. Fire service stands beside us. Fifty yet to be down,” wrote Kamruzzaman Majumdar, a professor of environmental science, in a Facebook post.

He was rescued safely.

Hundreds of anxious family members rushed to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital as ambulances brought the dead and injured to the clinic.

Fires in apartment buildings and factory complexes are common in Bangladesh because of lax enforcement of safety rules.

In July 2021, at least 52 people were killed, including many children, when a fire swept through a food processing factory.

In February 2019, 70 people died when an inferno ripped through several Dhaka apartment blocks.

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Freedom House: Civil Liberties Decline Globally for 18th Year

washington — Civil liberties declined globally for the 18th consecutive year in 2023, with conflict and flawed elections the biggest factors, a new report has found.  

Political rights and civil liberties deteriorated for more than one-fifth of the population, the non-profit group Freedom House found. And only one-fifth of the 210 countries and territories the research group analyzed was found to be “free.” 

Released on Thursday, the Freedom in the World report assesses political rights and civil liberties, then ranks countries or territories as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”  

Researchers looked at issues including how effectively governments work, political pluralism, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and whether marginalized groups are given full rights.  

Much of the decline in 2023 is attributed to cases of election manipulation, according to report co-author Cathryn Grothe. The report found electoral issues in almost half of the countries designated as being in decline.  

“While the findings of the report are certainly grim, they are coming at an especially important moment in time,” said Grothe, noting 2024 will be a critical year with national elections scheduled in about 40 countries.  

Report finds manipulation, intimidation

Grothe told VOA her group’s research found widespread election manipulation and intimidation before, during and after elections.  

She noted that “billions of people around the world are going to be heading to the polls.”  

The report highlighted Cambodia, Guatemala, Poland, Turkey and Zimbabwe as places that experienced attempts to control, hinder or interfere with elections. 

And in Ecuador, Nigeria, and Taiwan, elections were disrupted by either violence or interference by foreign regimes.  

In Guatemala, however, attempts to block a peaceful transfer of power failed. Bernardo Arevalo assumed office in early 2024 after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Congress must accept his inauguration, despite its previous refusal to acknowledge elected members.  

Group watches US races

The United States — which Freedom House ranks as free — is among the countries holding significant elections.  

Grothe said that Freedom House is paying attention to issues in the U.S., including congressional dysfunction such as delayed appropriations bills and internal disputes over the speakership of the House of Representatives.  

Freedom House is also watching closely for intimidation and threats of violence as tools of political influence in the U.S, especially during the last few months before the election.  

Reports of threats against elected officials and local election administrators have “proliferated “in recent years, Grothe said. 

“When a democracy such as the U.S., those with kind of large influence on the world stage grow weaker internally, it makes it a lot more difficult to counter this kind of global authoritarianism,” said Grothe. “It makes it very imperative that we at home in the United States need to address our own domestic shortcomings.” 

The Freedom House report includes several recommendations, including calls for governments and other actors in civil society to “immediately” and “publicly” condemn manipulation efforts, coups and refusals to honor electoral outcomes.

“Democracies need to commit to free and fair elections, both at home and need to stand up for the same abroad,” said Grothe. 

The biggest decline in freedom was registered in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory which sparked conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

The region saw an overall 40-point reduction. The decline follows a mass displacement of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians amid fighting in September 2023. 

The second-largest point reduction came in Niger, where military forces ousted the government in July 2023.  

Conflict resulted in major declines in other areas too. Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to affect basic rights for those in occupied parts of Ukraine and brings a rise in repression inside Russia. The report also notes the effect on civilians of the Israel-Hamas conflict and Myanmar military rule. 

Other countries saw improvements. Fiji gained seven points due to a “smooth” transfer of power after elections in 2022. And Nepal is recognized in the report for amendments to its Citizenship Act, which allowed 400,000 stateless people born in the country to receive citizenship.  

While the past year faced obstacles, Grothe said there are “beacons of hope” in the countries pushing back against those declines.  

“It’s important to remember that people in every sort of political environment, from the most-free countries to the most repressive, are continuing to fight to uphold their rights, their dignity and this offers some kind of level of hope even in these very kind of discouraging times.” 

She added that the report should serve as a reminder of the stakes for democracy and as a call to reverse the decline of global freedoms.  

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Gang Violence Flares Up in Haiti as Prime Minister Visits Kenya

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A wave of panic swept through downtown Port-au-Prince on Thursday, with an outburst of violence marked by heavy gunfire and improvised barricades. A gang leader took responsibility saying it was a demonstration against the authorities.  

The violent events took place on the same day Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry arrived in Kenya for talks on the deployment of a multinational security mission in the country backed by the United Nations. 

By midday, most institutions and businesses in the city had closed and thousands of people commuted home in public transit or walked to seek shelter, according to local witnesses.  

Haitian airline Sunrise Airways halted flights, a company spokesperson said, adding shootouts near the capital’s airport had put people in danger.  

Special police units were deployed throughout the city to respond to the violent events, a police spokesperson told a local radio station.  

“We have chosen to take our destiny in our own hands. The battle we are waging will not only topple the Ariel [Henry] government. It is a battle that will change the whole system,” said former cop and gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, also known as Barbecue, in a video shared on social media. 

Henry, who came to power after the assassination of the country’s last president in 2021, had pledged to step down by early February, but later said security must first be re-established in order to ensure free and fair elections. 

Gang violence has flared in Haiti since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise. The U.N. estimates the conflict killed close to 5,000 people last year and has driven some 300,000 from their homes. 

Kenya has pledged to send 1,000 troops and Benin another 2,000 to help national police fight armed gangs. 

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UN Rights Experts: Eritrea Maintains Iron Grip Through Repression, Systematic Impunity

Geneva — Human rights experts warn Eritrea maintains an iron grip on its people through repression and widespread, systematic impunity for grave human rights violations.  

At the U.N. Human Rights Council Wednesday, the experts presented what they call “credible reports” of grave human rights violations by the Eritrean ruling elite.  

“The state of human rights in Eritrea continues to be dire with no signs of improvement,” said Ilze Brand-Kehris, assistant secretary general of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  

She said her office continues to receive credible reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and restrictions of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.  

“Impunity persists for these egregious human rights violations,” she said.  

She accused the government of silencing dissenting voices through systematic repression and the detentions or enforced disappearance of “thousands of religious leaders, activists, journalists, and those evading mandatory and indefinite military service.”  

The U.N. special rapporteur on Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, told delegates on the council that there was no evidence the government has taken any steps “to prevent, investigate or redress the grave human rights violations” documented by a variety of monitoring groups.  

“The complete lack of action by Eritrean authorities over the last two decades to address their country’s troubling human rights situation is a matter of governmental policy.”  

He said, “The prevailing impunity has enabled the recurrence of human rights violations and silenced the victims. The identified practices and patterns of gross violations continue unabated.”  

In response to the criticisms of his country, the charge d’affaires of the permanent Mission of Eritrea in Geneva, Habtom Zerai Ghirmai, accused those testifying at the council of presenting baseless, unfounded allegations.  

He said Eritrea has been a victim of politicized and selective mandate for the last 12 years. Rather than being a violator of human rights, he said, “Our commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights lies at the heart of our nationhood, a nationhood that was realized after a long drawn armed struggle for the human rights of the Eritrean people.”

U.N. rapporteur Babiker said Eritreans have been stripped of their civic rights, noting that no elections have been held in over 30 years. “Eritreans do not have any avenues to participate in decision-making in their own country…No political groups are allowed to organize outside the ruling party, and independent media and civil society are not allowed to operate.”  

Additionally, he said no action has been taken to reform Eritrea’s compulsory national service. Because of the country’s indefinite military service, he said Eritreans continue to be subjected to gross and horrific abuse, including forced labor and sexual violence.  

“I routinely receive information regarding individuals who have been conscripted for the past 20 years, who have been deprived of their civic, social, and economic rights including the right to work, the right to life, family life, freedom of movement and the right to education. Further, severe, and collective punishments are inflicted on draft evaders, their families, and their communities,” he said.  

As of June 2023, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says Eritrea’s indefinite national service had driven an estimated 345,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers to flee the country. This out of a global number of more than 580,000 Eritreans who have sought safety abroad.  

“Eritrea suffers from an acute lack of rule of law with no independent judiciary or other accountability mechanisms,” observed Assistant Secretary-General Brands-Kehris, noting that Eritrea has not enacted any legal reforms that could foster the promotion and protection of human rights.  

“Impunity abounds for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including those committed in the context of the Tigray conflict by Eritrean Defense Forces or EDF,” she said.  

Despite an agreement signed by Eritrea to withdraw its forces from Ethiopia, Brands-Kehris said, “Our office has credible information that the EDF remains in Tigray and continues to commit cross-border violations, namely abductions, rape, looting of property, arbitrary arrest and other violations of physical integrity,” she said.  

Civil Society Representative Hanna Petros Solomon has a harsh perspective of life under Eritrea’s repressive regime. “I am a child of heroes who served their country honorably and yet now languish in solitary confinement.”  

She said her father, Petros Solomon, played a prominent role during the struggle for independence and post-independent Eritrea, as did her mother, Aster Yohannes.  

“The last I have seen or heard of my father was the morning of September 18, 2001, 22 years ago. The last I have seen or heard of my mother was December 11, 2003, 20 years ago.  

“They have not committed any crime to warrant such punishment. They have not been convicted or sentenced in a court of law,” she said.  

“The U.N. considers it torture, inhuman and degrading to hold a prisoner in indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement for over 15 days,” she said. “My parents’ indefinite solitary confinement has now stretched to over two decades.”

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Chad Opposition Leader Yaya Dillo Killed in Shooting, Prosecutor Says

N’DJAMENA — Chadian opposition politician Yaya Dillo was killed on Wednesday during an exchange of fire with security forces, state prosecutor Oumar Mahamat Kedelaye said Thursday.

Heavy gunfire was heard Wednesday in the capital N’Djamena near the headquarters of Dillo’s opposition party, a Reuters witness said. Several people had been killed in earlier clashes near Chad’s internal security agency building.

The violence flared amid tensions ahead of a presidential election set for May and June that could return the Central African state to constitutional rule three years after the military seized power.

Calm had returned to the capital by Thursday morning and residents were going back to work, though internet access, which was blocked a day earlier, had still not been restored, the Reuters witness said.

On Wednesday, the headquarters of the opposition Socialist Party Without Borders, led by Dillo, were cordoned off by security forces. But accounts of the incidents given by the government and the party differed.

A government statement said the security agency was attacked by representatives of the party, resulting in several deaths.

Detailing a separate incident, the government said a member of the party, Ahmed Torabi, had carried out an assassination attempt against the president of the Supreme Court, Samir Adam Annour. Torabi was arrested, it said.

The opposition party’s general secretary told Reuters the deaths near the security agency occurred when soldiers opened fire at a group of party members.

He said Torabi had been shot dead on Tuesday and his body was deposited at the agency’s headquarters. On Wednesday morning, party members and Torabi’s relatives went to look for his body at the agency and soldiers shot at them, which resulted in multiple deaths, the general secretary said.

Chad’s Supreme Court in December approved the vote on a new constitution that critics say could help cement the power of junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby.

Deby’s military government is one of several juntas currently ruling in West and Central Africa, where there have been eight coups since 2020, sparking concerns about a backslide from democracy in the region.

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Pakistan Swears In New Parliament After Marred Elections

Islamabad — Pakistan’s National Assembly swore in newly elected members Thursday amid protests by allies of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who say the general elections were marred by widespread rigging. 

The polls for the 336-seat lower house of parliament and four provincial assemblies occurred on February 8 amid hopes they would lead to political and economic stability in Pakistan, a country of about 241 million people. 

The outgoing National Assembly speaker, Raja Pervez Ashraf, administered the oath to incoming lawmakers. He announced that elections for his successor would take place on Friday morning and adjourned the session until then. 

In the months preceding the vote, Khan was sentenced to prison terms of 10 years, 14 years, and seven years on disputed charges of leaking state secrets while in office, corruption, and fraudulent marriage. 

The convictions came amid a military-backed crackdown on Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI party. Authorities arrested hundreds of its leaders, candidates, and supporters, including women, with many of them allegedly tortured while in custody. 

The campaign eventually forced PTI-nominated candidates to run as independents and barred them from using their party’s iconic cricket bat symbol on the ballot. Khan’s supporters defied the crackdown and won more seats than any other party. The PTI-backed independents also swept the polls in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

But the rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif is set to form a minority coalition government in Islamabad together with the Pakistan People’s Party , paving the way for him to take office again.

Doubts about the results’ credibility have triggered calls for a thorough investigation by both domestic critics and foreign countries, including the United States.

Several Pakistani political groups and independent election watchdogs have declared their support for the PTI’s claims that they were on the path to a sweeping victory but were prevented from doing so due to alleged electoral fraud that favored army-backed rival parties, including Sharif’s PML-N.

While addressing the newly elected assembly after being sworn in, the PTI’s acting chief, Gohar Ali Khan, detailed the crackdown his party faced in the run-up to the vote.

“Our symbol was taken away, our leader was convicted in three cases, but the nation has shown that the country’s most popular leader is the one and only Imran Khan,” he stated. He reiterated the PTI assertions that the PML-N and PPP legislators took control of parliament on a “stolen mandate,” and that they did not have the public trust.

On Wednesday, a group of 31 U.S. Congress members sent a letter to President Joe Biden, expressing concerns about electoral fraud in the recent parliamentary elections.

“Given the strong evidence of pre- and post-poll rigging, we urge you to wait until a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation has been conducted before recognizing a new Pakistani government,” the letter stated. “Without taking this necessary step, you risk enabling anti-democratic behavior by Pakistani authorities and could undermine the democratic will of the Pakistani people.”

The PTI also wrote to the International Monetary Fund on behalf of Khan this week, asking that lending to Islamabad be tied to an independent audit of the elections. The letter stated that the polls cost Pakistan $180 million, but they “were subjected to widespread intervention and fraud in the counting of votes and compilation of results.” 

The document read that an “audit of at least 30% of the national and provincial assemblies’ seats should be ensured.”

The letter drew criticism of the PTI from the PML-N and other rival parties that claimed it was an attempt to damage an already-fragile national economy.

Last summer, Pakistan secured a much-needed $3 billion bailout from the IMF. The program is due to expire in April, with analysts saying the country needs a new financial package to address record inflation, stabilize local currency, and shore up its foreign exchange reserves.

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ICC Awards $56 Million in Reparations to Victims of Convicted Ugandan Rebel Commander 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Judges at the International Criminal Court on Wednesday granted reparations of more than 52 million euros ($56 million) to thousands of victims of a convicted commander in the shadowy Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The nearly 50,000 victims covered by the order included former child soldiers and children born as a result of rapes and forced pregnancies.

Dominic Ongwen was convicted three years ago of 61 offenses, including murders, rapes, forced marriages and recruiting child soldiers in 2002-2005. An ICC appeals panel upheld his convictions and 25-year sentence in late 2022, setting the stage for an order for reparations.

“Tens of thousands of individuals suffered tremendous harm due to the unimaginable atrocities committed” as rebel fighters led by Ongwen attacked four camps for displaced people in northern Uganda, said Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.

“Similarly, over 100 women and girls and thousands of children, boys and girls under the age of 15 suffered profound, multifaceted harm as a result of being kidnapped. Many were later subjected to sexual and gender based crimes and/or forced to serve as LRA soldiers, being kept in captivity with cruel methods of physical and psychological coercion,” he added.

Ongwen was not in court for the reparations hearing. While he is considered liable for the reparations, the court ruled that he is indigent and said the reparations will be paid by a trust fund for victims set up by the court’s member states.

Schmitt urged “states, organizations, corporations and private individuals to support the trust funds for victims’ mission and efforts and contribute to its fundraising activities.”

He said victims would each receive 750 euros ($812) as a “symbolic award” while other reparations would come in the form of community-based rehabilitation programs.

Evidence at Ongwen’s trial established that female civilians captured by the LRA were turned into sex slaves and wives for fighters. The LRA made children into soldiers. Men, women and children were murdered in attacks on camps for internally displaced people.

“The chamber concludes that the direct victims of the attacks, the direct victims of sexual and gender based crimes and the children born out of those crimes, as well as the former child soldiers, suffered serious and long-lasting physical, moral and material harm,” Schmitt said.

The LRA began its attacks in Uganda in the 1980s, when one of the court’s most-wanted fugitives, Joseph Kony, sought to overthrow the government. After being pushed out of Uganda, the militia terrorized villages in Congo, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan.

Ongwen was among those abducted by the militia led by Kony. As a 9-year-old boy, he was transformed into a child soldier and later a senior commander responsible for attacks on camps for displaced civilians in northern Uganda in the early 2000s.

Defense lawyers portrayed him as a victim of LRA atrocities. But the judge who presided over his trial called Ongwen “a fully responsible adult” when he committed his crimes.

Activists welcomed his convictions for offenses against women, which included rape, forced pregnancy and sexual slavery.

Kony, whose whereabouts are unknown, faces 36 charges, including murder, torture, rape, persecution and enslavement. Prosecutors are seeking to hold a hearing into the evidence against him at the court in Kony’s absence.

The LRA leader was thrust into the global spotlight in 2012 when a video about his crimes went viral. Despite the attention and international efforts to capture him, he remains at large.

ICC cases against three other LRA leaders were terminated after confirmation that they had died before they could be arrested.

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UN ‘Appalled’ by Taliban-Ordered Public Executions in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD — The United Nations is urging the Taliban government in Afghanistan to immediately cease “inhuman” public executions and floggings of individuals convicted of murder and other crimes.

The condemnation comes as Taliban authorities put to death three men by gunfire in Afghan sports stadiums across several cities in the past week in the presence of hundreds of onlookers.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Office, or OHCHR, said that it was “appalled” by the public executions, decrying them as “a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The Taliban have publicly executed five convicted killers since they seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021 and have also flogged hundreds of people, including women, for committing crimes such as theft, robbery, and adultery.

The U.N. statement noted that the latest public floggings took place this past Sunday when a 12-year-old boy and a man were publicly flogged for the crime of immorality in eastern Laghman province. On the same day, a woman and a man convicted of running away from home and adultery were flogged 35 times in public in northern Baluch province.

“Corporal punishment also constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which is prohibited under international human rights law,” the U.N. cautioned.

It urged the fundamentalist Taliban to ensure full respect for due process and fair trial rights, in particular access to legal representation, for anyone confronted with criminal charges.

De facto Afghan authorities have dismissed criticism of their criminal justice system, saying it is aligned with Islamic rules and guidelines.

The Taliban have imposed sweeping restrictions on women’s rights to education and public life, barring female visitors from parks and gyms and forbidding girls from attending schools beyond the sixth grade.

The international community has rejected the Taliban’s calls for granting their administration formal recognition, citing their treatment of Afghan women and other human rights concerns.

Richard Bennett, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, will unveil the findings of his new report at Thursday’s U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.

In an apparent preemptive reaction to the upcoming report, chief Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Bennett and other Western critics should stop “misusing” the Afghan human rights situation and instead focus on and stop rights abuses elsewhere in the world.

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