Middle East and North Africa

OVERVIEW

Space for human rights activism in the Middle East and North Africa continued to shrink in 2014. With few exceptions, HRDs operate under policies that limit their right to freedom of association, assembly and expression. As in other regions, the use of arbitrary arrest and legal proceedings were the most common way of silencing HRDs. Ill treatment and torture against them were also reported. The influence of militant groups was increasingly evident and placed HRDs at further risk. The optimism around the political transitions which began in 2011 has all but evaporated: an oppressive regime established itself in Egypt and civil wars continued in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Only in Tunisia was there progress – albeit slow and inconsistent – towards the goals of the revolution.

HRDs in countries affected by armed conflicts faced serious threats from all sides in the conflicts. Front Line Defenders documented grave violations including enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, prosecutions, intimidation and death threats. The rapid expansion of armed militias and the weakness of authorities in Iraq, Libya and Yemen increased risks for HRDs. The Islamic state of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) gained effective control over territory in Iraq and Syria, and HRDs who spoke against abuses committed by ISIS were deemed apostates and killed. In Iraq, human rights lawyer Samira Saleh Al-Naimi was publicly executed by ISIS in Al Mosul for criticising its militias.

In Syria, HRDs who remained in the country found themselves in a critical situation. Human rights lawyer Gihan Amin, member of the Committee for the Defence of Prisoners of Conscience, was arrested in February. On the same day, the security services raided the home of Khalil Ma’touq of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research – who has been held in incommunicado detention since 2012 – and arrested his daughter. Terrorism charges were brought against Mazen Darwish, Hani Zaytani and Hussien Ghrer, after two years of arbitrary detention. The whereabouts of Razan Zeitouneh and other HRDs remains unknown since their abduction in 2013 by armed opposition groups.

In Libya, armed militant groups maintained a black-list with the names of HRDs, judges, religious clerks and others opposing their ideology and seen as legitimate targets. Human rights lawyer Salwa Bugaighis was assassinated in June, and two youth activists, Tawfik Bensaud and Sami Elkawafi, were killed in September. In Yemen, clashes between armed groups and the authorities or Houthi rebels and Al-Qaeda affected HRDs, who remain exposed to intimidation and travel bans. In March, Ali Al-Dailami of the Yemeni Organisation for the Defence of Rights and Democratic Freedoms was held for 12 hours in Sana’a airport and prevented from travelling to a meeting in Jordan; in August, his vehicle was shot at in front of his home.

In Palestine, HRDs suffered attacks by the Israeli military and arbitrary detention by Israeli occupation authorities. Further violations were committed by settlers as well as Civilian Security Coordinators, in charge of guarding illegal Israeli settlements. In February, the Israel army evicted the entire village of Ein-Hijleh and declared it a closed military zone, detaining 19 people including HRDs, journalists, representatives of local committees and youth movements, and assaulting several of them. In June, human rights defender Badia Dweik was beaten up and threatened with death in Hebron while trying to access a building to document attacks on local residents.

HRDs remained under strict scrutiny in states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Since the adoption by its members (except Kuwait) of a security agreement in 2012, Gulf states have investigated and prosecuted HRDs within their borders for criticising other GCC states. In Oman there were reports of the arrest and incommunicado detention of HRDs and media activists. In Qatar, two British researchers investigating the living conditions of migrant labourers were detained for nine days and deported. Blasphemy laws were used in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, while the prosecution of social media activists continued in Bahrain. Disturbingly, on 9 December, Human Rights Defenders Day, the European Union presented a human rights prize to the government-controlled Bahraini National Institution for Human Rights and the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior, while HRDs continued to be imprisoned and those responsible for torture continued to enjoy impunity.

In Saudi Arabia, lengthy prison sentences were handed down, accompanied by bans on travel, on using social media or other media platforms, as well as corporal punishment. Human rights blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, 1,000 lashes, a fine of one million Saudi Riyals, a ban on using the internet, and a ten-year travel ban in May. Other HRDs, including Mikhlif Al-Shammari, Waleed Abu Al-Khair and Fadhel Al-Manasef, received prison sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years. Women HRDs were detained for continuing the campaign to allow women to drive.

A new cybercrime law, adopted in Qatar in September, contained provisions that may be used to restrict freedom of expression and press freedom. Under the law, jail terms may be imposed on anyone who publishes content deemed to be harmful to the country’s “social values” or “general order”. The anti-terrorism law passed in the UAE in August contained a very vague definition of terrorism, which could potentially cover peaceful acts of dissent or expressing opposition to government policy.

HRDs who had to relocate to neighbouring countries due to serious security concerns remained at risk and faced challenges in the host countries. Syrian HRDs continued to face risks in Jordan and Lebanon, where there were reports of surveillance. A prominent Iranian HRD, Sayed Jamaal Hosseini was killed in Turkey on 4 August. There was a suspicion that his death was connected with his human rights work in Iran. Libyan HRDs in Tunisia struggled to continue their human rights work, in part due to regulations prohibiting them from working on ‘political issues’.

In Morocco, the year witnessed increased restrictions on human rights groups, including bans on sit-ins and demonstrations, conferences and trainings. In May, human rights group Freedom Now was prevented from registering officially. In July, the Ministry of the Interior accused NGOs of having foreign agendas and damaging the reputation and security of the country. In the Moroccan-administered Western Sahara, restrictions on peaceful protests and the targeting of HRDs continued, and local organisations continued to operate as unregistered groups. In October, authorities banned a peaceful demonstration organised by the Al-Ayoun branch of the Association Marocaine des Droits Humains. In Algeria, HRDs continued to suffer harassment and international human rights groups were prevented access to the country.

Tunisia remains the only country in the post-uprising context offering hope of a successful transition to democracy. While concerns remain in relation to the reform of the security sector and the judicial system, a new constitution with strong human rights guarantees was adopted in January and a transitional justice law mandated an investigation into grave human rights violations committed between 1955 and 2013. However, there were reports of harassment of journalists and of repeated physical attacks by police and prosecution of HRDs. In August, the authorities suspended more than 157 NGOs for alleged links to terrorism, in violation of the procedure provided for in the law on associations.

2014 was marked by an assault on Egyptian civil society on a scale unseen even under the Mubarak regime. HRDs faced an extremely challenging situation in light of the restrictions imposed on civil society, the arrest and sentencing of HRDs, bloggers, journalists and protesters as well as an ongoing smear campaign against human rights groups.

URGENT CASES

2015/04/13

Imprisoned human rights defender Majid Moghadam began a hunger strike on 6 April 2015 and was consequently taken to solitary confinement. Moghadam, a civil activist arrested on 3 December 2014, began his hunger strike to protest his sentencing and the inhumane...

2015/04/5

On 4 April at 3:00 pm Egyptian police raided the headquarters of Radio Horytna in central Cairo, searched its premises, confiscated three computers and arrested the chief editor of Horytna, human rights defender Mr Ahmed Samih...

2015/04/3

Palestinian human rights defender Mr Abdullah Al Khateeb has received notice of threats upon his life. The threats coincide with the raid of his residence in the Yarmouk refugee camp, 8 kilometers from Southern Damascus, by Islamist State (IS) militias on 1 April...

2015/03/26

On 23 March 2015, Kuwaiti security forces arrested human rights defender Mr Nawaf Al Hendal in Al-Erada square while he was monitoring peaceful protests. Reportedly, security forces beat the human rights...

Photo: Ashoka Innovators for the Public
2015/03/25

On 23 March 2015, legal representatives of human rights defender Ms Azza Soliman obtained information on the formal charges being brought against her. On 4 April 2015, Azza Soliman will face trial before the Abdeen Misdemeanour Court on charges including...