Sun, 18 Aug 2019

In Iran, the government is continuing its crackdown on civil society by arresting and sentencing to prison journalists and protesters - including teachers and labour activists - according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The charges often involve invoking the rhetoric of national security to 'justify' the arrests, a method frequently used by authoritarian states. The Iranian government convicted at least 24 of the 50 people arrested on 2 August and charged them with "assembly and collusion against national security" due to "participating in a protest without a permit that disrupted public order", as HRW highlighted.

In the case of Egypt, one of the many laws issued by the government for this purpose is the new media regulation law that began to be implemented on 23 October, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Under this law, online newspapers have to apply for permission to operate - which seems impossible for those already blocked by the government, of which there are almost 500, according to AFTE. RSF also points out that just to start the application process, the equivalent of 2,450 euros is needed, which is "much more than independent websites can afford".

Since late October 2018, Egyptian police and National Security Agency (NSA) forces have rounded up at least 40 people, many of whom were arrested for providing humanitarian and legal support to families of political detainees. As Michael Page of HRW points out, this is a cruel twist, as many of these men and women were themselves working to protect the forcibly disappeared. Page says: "The Egyptian security agencies' repression now extends to disappearing those brave men and women who have been trying to protect the disappeared and to end this abusive practice".

Finally, the case of Mahmoud Abou Zeid, the Egyptian photojournalist also known as Shawkan, continues to catch human rights defenders' attention. Shawkan has been in prison for the past five years due to his role in documenting the 2013 Rabea massacre and should have been released on 14 August. However, as RSF recently wrote, he remains in prison. Inexplicably, the prosecutor's office has extended his detention to mid-February 2019, with no real guarantee that he will be released even then. After being released, he won't really be free. It will be conditional for five years, "which could mean having to spend nights in a police station," according to RSF.

In Lebanon, a Syrian journalist who writes for the Syrian pro-opposition news website Zaman al-Wasl was arrested, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Abdel Hafez al-Houlani was taken by the police on 21 November 2018 in the northeastern Lebanese city of Arsal after writing a piece for the website claiming that 20 Syrian refugee women living there "had miscarried after drinking polluted water that allegedly carried a deadly virus". Al-Houlani had already been arrested in May of 2018, reportedly for his media activities, and released a day later without any charges filed against him.

As for digital rights in the country, Social Media Exchange (SMEX) reported that Lebanon's internet remains only 'partly free', a conclusion they've reached in coordination with Freedom House.

HRW has reported on horrific abuse in Tunisia. It relates to the infamous 'anal tests', based on 19th century science and designed to harass and humiliate LGBTQI+ people, and especially homosexual men. HRW spoke with six men who were prosecuted in the past two years under Tunisia's article 230, which punishes consensual same-sex conduct; of these six men, two had reported being raped to the police. These 'tests', which consist of doctors or other medical personnel "forcibly inserting their fingers, and sometimes other objects, into the anus of the accused", are used to prove that same-sex intercourse was performed previously. The examination can even include the antiquated practice of 'conversion therapy' - long-discredited by the medical profession - which one 17-year-old had to endure. HRW reported that a least three of these men have since left the country to apply for asylum in Europe. Besides Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt are countries with a documented recent record of using these 'tests'.

There is ongoing outrage over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on 2 October. The outrage is part of the story, as we noted in the October MENA round-up. However, despite the pressure, it seems that the Saudi government is doubling down on its abuses of human rights activists at home. On 20 November, HRW revealed that three of at least nine Saudi women activists detained in May of 2018 were tortured by the authorities. HRW urged major car companies to call on the Saudi authorities to unconditionally release the women.

As Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) continues to try to sell a more liberal image of Saudi Arabia to outsiders, Sarah Al-Otaibi, a Saudi-Lebanese writer, has referred to this hypocrisy as "reformist talk, repressive action". In an article for IFEX, Al-Otaibi argues that although the Saudi government never truly tolerated dissent, "under MBS, the dangers that dissidents face have worsened considerably". This includes going after Saudi activists. They use a relatively simple method: "Profile activists gaining traction on social media, monitor their activity, and attack when and where they are vulnerable". These tactics have so far been effective: the well-known exiled Saudi activist Manal Al-Sharif, known for her campaign against the ban, deactivated her Twitter account of over 270,000 followers.

Other troubling stories came out in November with implications for the Khashoggi case. RSF reported that Ali Al-Ahmed, a Washington-based expert on terrorism and the Gulf states, received many "interview requests" from accounts posing as journalists, including as Khashoggi, a few months before his murder. Omar Abdulaziz, a well-known exiled activist, was approached by the Saudi embassy in Canada. When he refused what he believed was an attempt to lure him to the local embassy, the Saudi authorities "arrested two of his brothers and several of his friends in Saudi Arabia". Abdulaziz also learned that his conversations with Khashoggi had been intercepted by hackers linked to the Saudi government, as confirmed by the Citizen Lab and reported by The Guardian. As for Khashoggi's importance, and therefore threat, to Saudi politics, Abdulaziz told The Guardian that, "The Washington Post columns were frightening [to MBS]. It's like Mohammed bin Salman writing on a blackboard and Jamal Khashoggi would erase it in the night, with one column".

In Morocco, a country which often gets overlooked in the region, 53 activists related to the Hirak, a socio-economic protest movement which originated in the country's northern Rif region in 2016, were convicted on 26 June 2018 and handed heavy sentences in a mass trial that had lasted over a year, according to HRW. The judiciary ignored allegations of torture at the hands of the police, and threats of rape. Although Morocco's King Mohammed VI pardoned 116 already-sentenced Hirak activists, he did not include any of the leaders. Nasser Zefzafi, an unemployed man who became a protest leader, has been in jail since June 2017, when he was arrested and severely beaten in police custody.

Another case, that of Taoufiq Bouachrine, the publisher of the daily Akhbar al-Youm, has also made the news. RSF reported that Bouachrine was handed a 12-year jail sentence on 12 November on sexual assault charges - charges that he denies. The verdict is viewed by many as highly political, and a number of aspects of the story contribute to doubts about the case, as RSF points out. Among them, the fact that "plaintiffs were pressured by the authorities", with some even denying making complaints against Bouachrine; another, that one of these plaintiffs was actually a government official that he had criticized. In addition to this, the court refused to accept defence requests for alternative expert evidence.

Activists from Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara are routinely abused by the state. Speaking to Ivar Fersters for Global Voices Advox, Mohammed, who preferred to keep his surname secret, spoke of his friend Bashir Khadda, a 32-year-old Sahraoui activist who was arrested in 2010 and convicted in 2013 for "complicity in violence". Khadda is now in solitary confinement and began a hunger strike on 18 September 2018. Sahraouis have routinely borne the brunt of the Moroccan state's brutality. As Fersters wrote in a previous piece for Advox: "Local journalists and media activists reporting on the occupation and Moroccan abuses face legal obstacles and risk lengthy jail sentences in order to make their voices heard".

In Bahrain, human rights defender Naji Fateel began a hunger strike shortly after being imprisoned on 12 November 2018. He had been placed in solitary confinement immediately after he leaked an audio recording to human rights organisations, urging them to intervene in his case. As the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) reported: "[Fateel] requested help from the international community to ask the authorities to provide him with appropriate treatment and end the attacks on him in Jaw Prison, where he is serving 25 years in combined sentences." As of 19 November, Fateel's family has had no update about him, as he has not been able to call them as scheduled.

Furthermore, a report by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) examined the laws of the country, including those restricting freedom of the press, and concluded that they routinely violate international treaties, covenants and agreements. The report also focuses on violations of the rights of media workers since the 2011 Arab Spring.

A curious story linking Oman with Israel and Palestine surfaced. On 6 November 2018, GCHR wrote that they'd received reports "that [Oman's] Internal Security Service (ISS) has started a new campaign against bloggers and Internet activists who are supporters of the Palestinian cause". The arrest of Sultan Al-Maktoumi, an internet activist who writes for Al-Raya newspaper and the magazine Al-Shabab Al-Toufahim, came just days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman in the last week of October. This led to many suspecting that the arrest was linked to the visit, especially as another internet activist and vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause, Salem Al-Arimi, was also arrested on 27 October.

As for Palestine, 7amleh Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, in cooperation with the Swedish Kvinna til Kvinna Foundation, released a report on the phenomenon of gender-based violence in social networks and the internet throughout Palestinian communities in historic Palestine (meaning present day Israel and Palestine). One of the main findings of the research is that gender-based violence in virtual space mirrors the violence in public space.

In Syria, two journalists were injured by Turkish troops near the Syrian-Turkish border, according to CPJ. Gulistan Mohammad and Ibrahim al-Ahmed, who write for the Hawar News Agency (ANHA), were reportedly shot while reporting on Turkey's shelling of the northern Syrian city of Tell Abbyad on the Turkey-Syria border on 2 November 2018. Local journalist Heybar Othman, as well as Mohammad himself, and ANHA, blamed Turkish snipers for the journalists' injuries.

The story of Joudy Boulos (a pseudonym), a freelance journalist living in Damascus, Syria, was described by Lucy Westcott in a blog post for CPJ. Boulos' work is published in both Syrian and Arabic media, as well as by Liberated T - a project run by the international non-profit Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), which aims to "improve and broaden the portrayal of Syrian women in the media". Westcott took the opportunity to remind readers that Syria continues to be one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists. Since 2011, at least 123 journalists have been killed, most of them Syrians, making the country the second worst on CPJ's Global Impunity Index. In July 2018, CPJ reported that at least 70 journalists were trapped in southwestern Syria, where pro-Assad forces threatened their safety.

Finally, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was hosting the first ever 'World Tolerance Summit', HRW researcher Hiba Zayadin noted that the summit's website "conveniently makes no mention of the UAE's sustained assault on freedom of expression since 2011". She mentions the case of Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning Emirati human rights activist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his activism. She also mentions: Nasser bin-Ghaith, the academic who was forcibly disappeared in August 2015 and sentenced to 10 years for his activities; Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar, in jail for nearly three years for writing posts on Facebook criticizing Egypt and the Gulf over Israel's war on Gaza in 2014; Sheikha Latifa, daughter of the summit's patron, ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, who was forcibly returned after she tried to flee the country; and Matthew Hedges, a British academic who was arrested and put in solitary confinement in April 2018 and kept there until he was sentenced for 'spying' before being pardoned a few days later.

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