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Ethiopians protest consular neglect, Alem Dechessa’s death

4 Apr

A photograph of Alem Dechessa’s family has been published on Facebook.  I reported last month that Ethiopian national Alem had committed suicide in a Lebanese hospital following the broadcasting of amateur footage showing a Lebanese man, Ali Mahfouz, abusing the 33-year-old migrant worker.

The photo, taken by Michael Fassil, originally appeared on Facebook after Zewdi Reda, founder of the Have Hope Foundation, posted it to her account.

Last Sunday (usually the only day many Ethiopians and other migrant workers have off), a few dozen members of the Ethiopian community in Lebanon gathered outside their consulate in Beirut to protest its apathy towards their treatment in Lebanon.

According to an article in The Daily Star newspaper:

“The assembled expressed their frustration with consular officials’ perceived callousness, saying that when Ethiopians contact their consulate in Lebanon via telephone they are often ignored or hung up on.

“We are living here,” said a woman named Berti, adding that “the [consulate] should help us, but they only want money.”

One woman told the newspaper she didn’t believe Dechessa had killed herself: “Nobody helped her,” said another woman named Sarah, who wore a blue keffiyeh: “How did she die? She didn’t kill herself. She’s not crazy.”

Ali Mahfouz has been charged with contributing to and causing the suicide of Dechessa, but he is reportedly not currently in custody.

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Ethiopian woman commits suicide in Lebanon

16 Mar

I recently posted footage showing an Ethiopian migrant woman in Lebanon being dragged and assaulted by a Lebanese man (two at one stage). It is with absolute disgust that I can now tell you that the woman in the video, 33-year-old Alem Dechasa, committed suicide earlier this Wednesday.

Ethiopia’s consul general broke the news to Reuters: ‘”I went to the hospital today and they said that she hanged herself at 6 o’clock this morning,” Asaminew Debelie Bonssa told Reuters. Dechasa had been taken to hospital in order to recover from her forcible abduction.’

According to the Daily Star newspaper, the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon has now filed a lawsuit against Ali Mahfouz, the man who was videoed beating Dechasa. I can only hope that the suit will actually go somewhere, rather than just sitting in a file on a judge’s desk for years. The Lebanese government has singlehandedly failed in its duty to protect Dechasa and other migrant workers facing abuse. Home countries, in this case Ethiopia, have also failed to properly inform women seeking domestic work abroad of the difficulties they may face.

When a man beats a migrant woman (in public)

10 Mar

Lebanon has been lambasted in the international media in recent years for mistreatment of migrant domestic workers. When a man can beat and drag a woman in public without reprimand from onlookers, you feel Lebanon deserves that notoriety. On Thursday, a local television channel broadcast amateur footage showing a Lebanese man attacking an Ethiopian woman in front of the Ethiopian Embassy. According to Al-Akhbar newspaper, the man was filmed “pulling at the woman’s hair, and dragging her into his car, as she screamed and wailed.”

“The attack occurred in broad daylight, with no bystanders coming to the woman’s aid.” You can watch the incident above.

This disgraceful act comes at a time when the Lebanese parliament is purposefully sabotaging a law to protect women from violence. It only reinforces the urgent need for the enactment, enforcement and respect of laws that criminalize racism, sexism and violence. This man needs to be brought before a court of law, but something tells me it is unlikely to happen.

There are around 200,000 women, mostly from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Madagascar, who work in Lebanon as domestic helpers. While many are treated well, many women report being confined to their employers houses, having their passports confiscated or wages withheld, and can be subject to horrific emotional, physical, sexual and economic violence.

If you want to get involved in migrant rights activism in Lebanon, take a look at the Migrant Worker Task Force website, a volunteer-run initiative to tackle racism and promote integration in Lebanon. Also look at the Anti Racism Movement, which does some great work too. In the year 2012, it is quite appalling that such incidents are allowed to go unpunished.

US rights report: corruption still plagues Lebanon

14 Mar

Penalties present, but seldomly enforced
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, March 13, 2010

BEIRUT: The Lebanese government is riddled with corruption and while human-rights abuses are not as flagrant as elsewhere in the Arab world, they continue largely unabated, according to the US State Department.

The Lebanon section of the 2009 report on human-rights practices, which was released late Thursday, also noted substandard detention facilities, arbitrary detention, lack of rights for women, refugees and other minorities, privacy infringements and restrictions on freedoms of speech and press as major issues hindering the enjoyment of human rights in the country.

“The government provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but the penalties were seldom enforced, and government corruption was a serious problem,” the report said, noting a lack of transparency and public access to government documents or information about the financial assets of public officials. It reiterated reports by local organizations Transparency Lebanon and the Lebanese Transparency Association, which noted systematic clientelism, judicial failures, electoral fraud, and bribery among politicians.

The Lebanese government was unable to exercise total control over its affairs because of impunity and armed presence of Hizbullah, the report said. “It remained difficult to distinguish politically motivated crimes … from simply criminal acts or disputes, as the government did not exercise control over all its territory and investigations of suspicious killings rarely led to prosecutions,” the report added.

Parliament’s Human Rights Committee made little progress over the course of the year, mainly because of the absence of a government for five months. “At year’s end there was no evidence that the committee had begun implementing the existing national action plan calling for legal changes to guide ministries on protecting specific human rights.”

The Lebanese people suffered “limitations” on their right to change their government peacefully, the report said, noting a continuation of politically motivated killings and disappearance of a Lebanese citizen, Joseph Sader, which may also have been politically driven.

The whereabouts of Sader, an MEA official, have remained unknown for over a year.

Conditions in prison and detention centers remained below minimum international standards, with facilities packed to almost twice their capacity. The report said three cases of prisoner-on-prisoner rape occurred in Roumieh prison during the year and quoted an unidentified non-governmental organization as saying 27 prisoners had died “primarily due to authorities’ negligence and failure to provide appropriate medical care.” Arbitrary imprisonment and illegal detention of refugees was also pervasive, with charges against officials responsible for prolonged arrest rarely filed.

 

There was evidence that government officials tortured detainees and forced them to sign forged confessions. The Lebanese government continued to deny the use of torture, though authorities did acknowledge “violent abuse sometimes occurred during preliminary investigations … where suspects were interrogated without an attorney.” The report added that while security agencies and the Lebanese police force are subject to laws prohibiting bribery and extortion, enforcement of those laws were weak.

Flouting national laws, Lebanese authorities “frequently interfered with the privacy of persons regarded as enemies of the government,” the report said, noting phone tapping and other monitoring by the security services.

Freedom of speech and of the press also came under fire, with the report noting political violence and intimidations lead journalists to practice self-censorship. Most media outlets have political affiliations, sometimes hindering their “ability to operate freely in areas dominated by other political groups and affected the objectivity of their reporting.” A number of journalists also received threats against them and their families for their work, and officials instigated libel and other lawsuits against journalists in an effort to suppress criticism.

Lebanon continued to discriminate against women in a number of issues including personal status and citizenship, and was a transit point and destination for trafficked persons. “The government provided legal assistance to domestic violence victims who could not afford it, but in most cases police ignored complaints submitted by battered or abused women.”

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has published country reports on human rights practices in 194 countries and territories for the last 34 years. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the annual reports provide a fact-base for American diplomatic, economic and strategic policy-making. “These reports are an essential tool … to craft effective human-rights policy, we need good assessments of the situation on the ground in the places we want to make a difference,” she said in the report’s preface.

Lebanese prisons teetering close to disaster

26 Feb

Rights group demands closure of two ‘unacceptable’ detention facilities
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

BEIRUT: Lebanese prisons are crowded to almost twice their capacity and are dangerously neglected and mismanaged by the authorities, a damning report said on Tuesday.

The authoritative report, entitled, “Prisons in Lebanon: Legal and Humanitarian Concerns,” released by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (LCHR), also demanded the swift closure of two “unacceptable” detention facilities. The 108-page document, researched over a ten-month period, found that while Lebanon’s 20 prisons have an official capacity for 3,653 inmates, the real number incarcerated was 5,324.

In the notorious Roumieh prison alone, about 3,500 inmates are sardined into a facility with a capacity for 1,500.

It added that as most prisons had a capacity that did not match the minimum surface requirements stipulated in the 1977 Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the “actual capacity” of Lebanese prisons was 2,714 inmates.

“Prisons are a major problem in Lebanon but it’s more a management problem than because there are too many crimes,” Wadih al-Asmar, secretary general of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told The Daily Star.

He called the prison system a “vicious circle” in which stifling living conditions led to further criminal behavior amongst incarcerated persons and thus longer sentences. “It’s getting worse and worse,” Asmar said.

“This overcrowding of Lebanese prisoners is an issue that should be addressed and solved urgently, not by building new prisons, but by tackling its roots at the administrative, legal and judicial levels,” CLDH said.

The reason for such cramped conditions is largely because 66 percent of those detained are awaiting trial and 13 percent are detained arbitrarily beyond their sentence, the report found. Foreigners count for 100 percent of those held arbitrarily after completing their sentences, with 81 percent having been convicted of illegal entry and/or stay.

“In Iraq, I had a house and a good job,” the report quoted one incarcerated refugee as saying. “The war forced me to leave my country and I am punished for it.”

CLDH said that because most of those detained arbitrarily were poor and without family support, they had to resort to “begging” within the prison.

“As I have nothing, no one to support me, and to earn a little food, I began to serve inmates in my cell. I wash the toilets and prepare tea. They call me the slave,” it quoted a Bangladeshi inmate as telling researchers.

“There are a lot of simple and very easy things that we can do in Lebanon to avoid more prisoners,” Asmar said, drawing attention to the need for an improved legal aid system to assist inmates who cannot afford lawyers. It also noted the lack of commitment by lawyers provided through current legal assistance programs. Because of a lack of incentive, they often don’t bother to meet their clients or show up for hearings.

The report also noted that despite an unofficial de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2004, 61 men and one woman were given capital punishment sentences between April and September 2009.

CLDH called for the urgent need to close the Defense Ministry Prison, notorious for widespread torture, and the General Security Retention Center, where foreigners are “held” underground for months. Not considered an official prison, the Retention Center’s poor management is the second leading cause of overcrowded prisons, the report said. The facility has no hot water and in contravention to Lebanese law, “aggressive and brutal” male guards are tasked with supervising women detainees. “We cannot accept to put people underground like animals,” Asmar said. The report calls for the facility to be closed immediately and replaced by another retention center “built and managed in compliance with international standards.”

Addressing the Defense Ministry prisons, Asmar said intelligence officials continued to torture and detain suspects. “For decades the intelligence services have appeared to be out of control, showing no respect for legal procedures.” CLDH noted that whistle-blowers are also targeted, citing the case of former detainee Adonis Akra. In November 2009, Akra was ordered to pay a fine of 10 million Lebanese pounds for undermining the army’s reputation by detailing his experience of torture in the book, “When I Became Number 16.”

CLDH’s report corroborates conclusions reached by General Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces, who submitted assessed Lebanon’s prisons conditions in August 2009.

Among other points, Rifi’s report warned that 280 Islamists in Roumieh are allowed to mix freely with other prisoners. Despite being a high-security facility, Roumieh lacks electronic surveillance equipment and a professional administration, he said, adding the situation could “explode” and cause a “catastrophic” tragedy.

“Jails in Lebanon need renewal, rehabilitation, utility and social services,” Asmar said. “The role of jails as a social rehabilitative institution is not being taken into serious consideration.” – Additional reporting by Wissam Stetie

Filipina worker cuts arms, jumps 7 floors, left on street more than hour

6 Jan

The first Monday of the new year was a grim day here in Lebanon. My friend and fellow journalist Matthew Cassel tweeted about a commotion (warning: graphic photos) near his house in Sanayeh, Beirut. Without even seeing what had happened, he said he already knew: a migrant domestic worker had killed herself. Sadly, this is all too common- since October, at least 30 migrant women (and one man) have reportedly died, mostly by suicide.

Following Cassel’s tip-off, I traveled to the scene, where more than one hour and a half later after jumping to her death, the crumpled body of 28-year old Filipina Theresa Otero Seda was still lying face-down on the pavement, covered with a thin white plastic sheet. It had taken an ambulance around one hour to reach the scene, where a crowd of curious bystanders, four officials from the Philippine Embassy and three policemen had gathered. According to Cassel, the street of the incident wasn’t cordoned off for some time, with cars speeding along the street and almost running over Theresa’s corpse, unaware of what lay under the bag (though of course if they respected the speed limits it would have been clear). One woman driving a school bus apparently stopped almost next to the body to ask for directions. “Someone’s just died here,” she was told. “Huh,” she replied. “So how did you say I am supposed to get to destination X?”

Theresa landed on a slight incline, and her blood had trickled down the pavement. Her right hand poked out from under the sheeting, slightly curled inwards. In full view of the public, the forensic team removed the plastic sheeting and turned her over. Her face had been smashed into an unrecognizable collection of bone and blood: a sickening sight that seems to have been burnt into my mind. Forensics let her lie on the road for a while, taking photos and allowing photojournalists to take a few snaps and giving the public a good look. I felt humiliated for her.

After a while the ambulance staff placed her crumpled, tiny body on a stretcher (without wheels) and carried her towards the entrance of the building, I’m assuming to investigate in a more discreet environment. They reversed the ambulance into the area to try to block off the site. But as they put Theresa on the ground and began to remove her shirt and trousers, I could see everything. I watched with horror as they wiped her face and arms down with Kleenex tissue, and I saw more than I should have been allowed when they turned her over and removed her bra. Again I felt humiliated for her: even in death, she wasn’t treated with due respect . She was practically stripped naked for the world to gawp at.

I managed to speak to her employer, who was standing around at the scene fiddling with his mobile phone. At times he seemed concerned, but at one point he shared a laugh with another man. About what, I don’t know. After telling me the insurance and embassy would take care of everything (aka, repatriating Theresa’s body), he said:  “This is the point- I used to leave my two children with her.” What does that mean, I thought. “So, you won’t be doing that again with future employers?” I asked him. “No way,” was his response.

Unfortunately, it appears Theresa arrived in Lebanon illegally (please excuse the error in first sentence), defying a deployment ban by Manila to work here. “Responsibility will have to be borne by those who brought her here,” Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Gilberto Asuque told me later, mentioning the Lebanese agency that recruited the young woman.

Theresa arrived two months ago and leaves behind a partner and three young daughters. Even though she had no dignity even in death, I hope she now has the peace she deserved in life. Let her miserable and wholly avoidable demise be the long-awaited wake-up call to the Lebanese authorities that they must protect women like Theresa from the isolation, desperation and, in many cases, the rights abuses that push them over the edge.

Nepal bans migration to Lebanon amid abuse fears

30 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Monday, November 30, 2009

BEIRUT: Nepal reintroduced last week a work deployment ban for Lebanon, highlighting growing international concern over the treatment of migrant domestic workers following a wave of suicides over the last two months.
According to a report published Saturday by Nepalese newspaper The Himalayan Times, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment reintroduced the ban, lifted in May, because of the recent suicides of two female nationals.
Sunit Bholan, 22, allegedly committed suicide October 8, and Mina Rokaya, 24, died in hospital on October 23. A police report seen by Human Rights Watch (HRW) says she died from a heart attack. The women are among at least 10 migrant domestic workers to have died since October.
“The ban … is a necessary emergency step in the face of an alarming rise in the number of suicides by domestic workers in Lebanon,” said Fatima Gomar, editor of Migrant-Rights.org. “There is a growing understanding among Asian governments that they need to step up and bar their citizens from working in countries where their rights are not protected.”
Still, Gomar doubted the ban would halt Nepalese workers travelling to Lebanon illegally.
Nepalese workers, the majority of them women, count for some 17,000 out of approximately 200,000 migrant workers in Lebanon.
While many are treated  with respect by employers, a number encounter abuse. Studies by the American University of Beirut and HRW have shown many women are forcibly confined to their employer’s house, made to work without a day off, subject to sexual or psychological abuse, have their passports confiscated and their salaries withheld. Migrant workers are not protected under Lebanese labor law.

“Passport retention can be a tool to hold workers in exploitative and/or difficult work conditions,” said Azfar Khan, senior migration specialist at the International Labor Organization’s Regional Office for the Arab States. “Despite our best efforts the situation seems to be going from bad to worse.”

The Himalayan Times said the ban was also influenced by the failure of Nepalese recruitment agencies to fulfill promises to establish shelters and to monitor their clients’ treatment by calling them every fortnight. It added nine Nepalese migrants had committed suicide in Lebanon since March this year.

Recruitment agencies often target women in poor rural areas and give misleading information about what to expect abroad, said Nadim Houry, senior researcher at HRW. One Nepalese woman who broke her leg trying to escape her employer, told him “she saw the snow on the mountains and thought if she could cross the mountain, she’d be in Nepal.”
“What is needed is a better management of … the conditions of work and better protection structures,” said Khan. “Institutionally embedding better management regimes is the only way we can ensure a better protection of rights.”
The ban follows on from similar deployment restrictions enforced by Sri Lanka, Philippines, Ethiopia and Madagascar.