A roundup of key free expression news in the Middle East and North Africa, based on IFEX member reports.
The Saudi Arabian government arrested several prominent women’s rights just weeks before women were granted the right to drive. Those arrested included Loujain Al-Hathloul, a well-known women’s rights defender on social media; Dr. Eman Al-Nafjan, founder and author of the Saudiwoman’s Weblog, who had previously protested the driving ban; Aziza Al-Yousef, a prominent campaigner for women’s rights; Dr. Ibrahim Al-Modaimegh, a lawyer and human rights defender; and writer Mohammad Al-Rabea. Meanwhile, according to Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), state media outlets “have publicly declared seven women’s rights defenders and supporters of the women’s rights movement as traitors”, and two more women human rights defenders, Nouf Abdulaziz and Mayya Al-Zahrani, have since been arrested.
While Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the lift of the ban, they continue to have concerns about gender inequality, explaining that, “While it represents a step forward for Saudi women, we remain deeply concerned about ongoing and periodic intimidation, harassment, and detention of women’s rights activists, restrictions to women’s activities stemming from the system of male guardianship, and broader structural gender inequality.” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said, : “The Saudi authorities accuse the bloggers and journalists they jail of giving the kingdom a bad image but it is these waves of arrests that harm Saudi Arabia’s image.”
In Bahrain, the High Court of Appeal upheld a five-year sentence against well-known activist Nabeel Rajab for tweeting about the war in Yemen and torture in Bahrain’s notorious Jaw Prison, according to GCHR. In response, various groups, including IFEX, called for his immediate release. In a statement, IFEX Executive Director Annie Game said that “the entire IFEX network (of 119 organisations) stands united in calling for the release of our colleague Nabeel Rajab.” IFEX also reported that Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary-General of Bahrain’s largest political opposition society, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, “has been serving a four-year prison sentence for charges in response to political speeches he delivered in 2014, and who is now facing a potential death sentence in a groundless new trial on politically motivated charges”. Various NGOs called on the Bahraini authorities to drop all charges, including Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Social Media Exchange (SMEX), MARCH, Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) and Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
Both Rajab’s and Salman’s cases reflect the Bahrain government’s growing employment of so-called ‘anti-terror’ legislation to crush dissent. In a report, BCHR explained that since the 9/11 attacks, many of these laws, which claim to fight terrorism, are in fact “repressive against peaceful dissidents and carrying within a hidden agenda against human rights activists, politicians and civil society organisations.” This has often been taken to extremes, such as when Najah Ahmed Yousef was sentenced on 25 June after being accused of using her social media accounts to “promote and encourage people to overthrow the political and social systems.” Yousef’s social media posts criticised holding the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain, given the widespread repression in the country. As a result, the National Security Agency (NSA), notorious for its use of torture according to ADHRB, interrogated her..
Meanwhile, in Egypt, the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continues its crackdown on all forms of dissent through its latest in a series of repressive laws. According to Global Voices Advox: “On June 5, Egypt’s parliament approved a cybercrime law that will dictate what is and is not permissible in the realms of online censorship, data privacy, hacking, fraud and messages that authorities fear are spreading ‘terrorist and extremist ideologies.'”
The Egyptian government also moved to ban YouTube for 30 days. As SMEX explains, “this ruling came in response to YouTube’s alleged refusal to remove a video, first published in 2012, which the court has found to be denigrating to the Prophet Muhammad.” However, Amro Gharbiya, technical and human rights officer of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told SMEX that that this change might not be permanent, explaining that it is “a big decision, so the government may be subject to pressure to shelf the ruling, which is what the coming days will show.”
ANHRI published a report in English and Arabic that showed that since 2013, the majority of politically charged criminal trials have been held in police headquarters instead of public courts. The government defends this move citing security reasons, but in effect it “violates constitutional rights guaranteed to the defendants, primarily the right of litigation and defense and the imperative of non-discrimination between defendants and their equal access to such rights.”
Egyptian Nubian citizens, members of an ethnolinguistic minority, have faced repeated discrimination by the government. A peaceful protest held on 3 September 2017 when dozens of Nubians demanded their ‘right of return’ to their ancestral lands, “a right enshrined by Article 236 of the Egyptian Constitution.” was followed by a brutal crackdown and mass arrests. On 7 June several organisations, including ANRHI and Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), demanded that the government “immediately suspend the trial of Nubian protesters, guarantee their right to compensation pursuant to international law, and comply with Egypt’s constitutional obligations toward its Nubian citizens”.
In Iran, the well-known activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was once again arrested. Sotoudeh’s husband said that she was being taken to prison to serve a five-year sentence she received in absentia, “although the Iranian authorities had neither previously informed her about nor publicly announced the conviction or sentence.” Sotoudeh has been arrested several times before, and in 2010 spent three months in solitary confinement. In January 2011, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but was unexpectedly released in September 2013. She has faced several other obstacles, including when the Iranian Bar Association banned her from practicing for three years.
The Iranian government has also threatened Hamidreza Amini with the death penalty if convicted of “insulting the Prophet” in the content of his Telegram app channel, according to Advox. As the Center for Human Rights in Iran noted, Amini merely owned the channel, it was others who commented, so (in their words) is “being prosecuted for what 3,000 other people did.”
When the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sentenced prominent activist Ahmed Mansoor to ten years in prison on 29 May, it sent shock waves throughout activist communities. Mansoor had built a reputation as one of the Gulf’s best-known activists for his work in defence of democracy and freedom of speech. In response to the news, 34 NGOs wrote to the mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, to call for Mansoor’s release and join the campaign to name a street in the city after him. These NGOs included GCHR, ADHRB, Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), CIHRS, CRNI, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Maharat Foundation, MARCH, Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), RSF, AMARC, Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), and Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State. Activists chose Manchester because of the city’s close business ties to several figures in the UAE government. The ‘street naming’ ceremony, a symbolic protest, was held on 1 June.
In Israel and Palestine, another Palestinian journalist, Mohammed al-Baba, was shot by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) while covering protests in Gaza. Al-Baba, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, was hit by a live round below the knee in the right leg. In response, Committee to Protect Journalist’s (CPJ) Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said: “The use of live ammunition against journalists covering the Gaza protests shows how little regard Israel has for their safety.” CPJ also reported that Palestinian reporter Nahed Dirbas, a journalist for the London-based news website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, was assaulted by an Israeli policeman while covering a protest in Haifa against Israeli actions in Gaza. CPJ added that since the protests in Gaza began, it “has documented that live rounds fired by the Israel Defense Forces have hit at least 22 journalists, two of whom – Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein – later died from their injuries.”
This comes as the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, started considering a bill which “aims to criminalize filming or recording Israeli soldiers while on duty or publishing the resulting video or audio recordings on social networks or in the media”, according to RSF. Based on a distinction between harming “morale” or harming “security”, such crimes would be punishable by up to 5 or 10 years in prison.
In Iraq, journalists who cover corruption are routinely exposed to harassment. RSF highlighted the case of Mostafa Hamed, a reporter based in Fallujah, who “was arrested at his home at 2 a.m. on 9 June by policemen who did not tell him what he was charged with, and was finally released today without being charged.” They also cited the case of Hossam al Kaabi, a reporter based in Najaf, “who has repeatedly been harassed in connection with his coverage of an alleged corruption case involving the Najaf provincial airport’s former governing board.”
In a statement release on 13 June, HRW said that authorities in Kuwait have arrested and extrajudicially deported a young dual Qatari-Saudi national. Nawaf al-Rasheed, 29, was deported to Saudi Arabia on 12 May, during a visit to Kuwait, and has been held incommunicado since.
In Syria, RSF reported that the radical islamist militant group Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), released citizen-journalist Hossam Mahmoud as part of an amnesty on 6 June, after holding him for six months. But HTS still holds his colleague Amjad al Maleh who was captured at the same time as Mahmoud, on 10 December 2017.
In Algeria, blogger Touati Merzoug was sentenced to 10 years in prison after more than a year in pre-trial detention, RSF reported. Merzoug was convicted of “complicit relations with a foreign power” and “inciting rebellion” in connection with a Skype interview he posted on social networks on 9 January 2017.
In Tunisia, HRW stated that “lax enforcement of a new law in Tunisia granting detainees prompt access to a lawyer has weakened the impact of this landmark legislation.”