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Journalists and rights defenders under fire, Pride cancelled: MENA in May

Celebrated human rights defender receives 10-year prison sentence in UAE; Saudi and Bahraini governments continue crackdown; Palestinian journalists face most violent month in years at the hands of Israeli forces; Egyptian authorities 'reduce country to almost complete silence'; Tunisia sees guarantees on freedom of expression and access to information at risk; Pride event in Beirut forced by authorities to cancel.

Bahraini protestors hold placards depicting portraits of Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Al-Wefaq opposition movement, to protest his arrest, in the village of Sitra, south of the capital Manama, 29 January 2016
Bahraini protestors hold placards depicting portraits of Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Al-Wefaq opposition movement, to protest his arrest, in the village of Sitra, south of the capital Manama, 29 January 2016

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), well-known human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In response, dozens of NGOs called for his immediate and unconditional release. Mansoor is the 2015 Laureate of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, a member of the GCHR Advisory Board and HRW's Middle East Advisory Committee. Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience. He is also the subject of the most recent Faces of Free Expression profile by IFEX.

In addition, 34 NGOs are asking Manchester mayor Andy Burnham to support the campaign to release Mansoor and to name a street after him in Manchester. Manchester City Council has commercial links with figures in the UAE government, and Manchester City Football Club is owned by the deputy Prime Minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement on the dramatic increase in detentions without trial in Saudi Arabia. Specifically, the government has detained 2,305 people "who are under investigation for more than six months without referring them to a judge". This is alarming especially considering the fact that there were 293 people held under investigation during that period in May of 2014. This puts the widely reported 'reforms' by the new ruler Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, in a new light.

Regarding these reforms, one aspect particularly covered in the press has been that of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. While women are set to be allowed to drive (Saudi Arabia remains the last country in the world where that is not the case) at the end of June 2018, Saudi authorities arrested 10 prominent human rights activists - seven women and three men - for their work to promote women's rights, according to ADHRB. These arrests were accompanied by vilification campaigns over state media, where the activists were called 'traitors' and 'foreign agents'. Those detained are veteran campaigners of women's rights in the kingdom: Loujain al-Hathloul, Dr. Aisha al-Mana, Madeha al-Ajroush, Professor Aziza al-Youssef, Professor Iman al-Nafjan, Hessah al-Sheikh, Dr. Ibrahim al-Modeimigh, Mohammad al-Rabae and Abdulaziz al-Meshaal.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) joined several human rights organisations in calling for the release of Saudi journalist Alaa Brinji, who has been in prison since 2014, and noted that "at least 11 journalists and citizen-journalists are officially imprisoned while around 15 other professional and non-professional journalists are being held without any official confirmation."

In Bahrain, renowned photographer for 'National Geographic' Sayed Baqer Al-Kamel and online blogger Sayed Ali Al-Durazi were sentenced to prison in what seems like an endless crackdown on dissent. This comes as well-known human rights defender Nabeel Rajab appealed a five-year sentence "for tweeting about the war in Yemen and torture in Bahrain's notorious Jaw prison", according to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), of which Rajab is a founding director. Rajab, who is also the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), is reportedly "being held in close, dirty conditions with six other prisoners who are treated poorly because they are transgender." During the first appeal on 23 April 2018, it was announced that Rajab could face "as many 14 additional cases that have yet to go to court."

On 21 June, Bahrain's High Criminal Court (HCC) announced that it will issue a verdict against three leading members of Bahrain's now-dissolved and largest opposition group, the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, on politically motivated charges, according to ADHRB. The three figures are opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman and his two in absentia co-defendants, Sheikh Hassan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mehdi Ali Al Aswad. Among these charges are establishing "intelligence links with Qatar", charges which were added in the context of the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in 2017.

The charges are likely in reference to a mediation attempt originally encouraged by the United States during the 2011 Arab Spring which "resulted in preliminary communications between Qatar - as a potential mediator - and the Bahraini government and opposition". Despite this mediation being known since 2011, it was only after the crisis with Qatar that the Bahrain government announced these charges. Alarmingly, Bahrain's Public Prosecution Office has called on the HCC to use the 'maximum penalty' which would be the death sentence. Meanwhile, the Bahraini government is set to receive $911.4 million worth of weapons from the USA.

In Egypt, where General Sisi recently won 97% of the votes in a widely-criticised election that saw no real opposition, authorities used various means to crack down on all forms of dissent in the months before the elections. In a report entitled 'forces of evil', the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) documented widespread arrest campaigns, including enforced disappearances, against journalists and photographers. RSF also reported that popular bloggers Shadi Abu Zeid, Sherif Gaber and Mohamed Radwan Mohamed, better known as "Mohamed Oxygen", are among the latest victims of the government. Accusations include "publishing lies" and "membership of a banned group" (Abu Zeid) and "advocating atheism" (Gaber). RSF ends its statement with a worrisome note: "By reining in the traditional media and blocking access to independent online media, the Egyptian authorities have reduced the country to almost complete silence."

In Israel and Palestine, Israel's deadly crackdowns on Palestinian protesters culminated in over 60 people killed in a single day on 14 May, as well as hundreds more injured. As of the end of May, Israeli forces have killed at least 116 Palestinians and wounded over 12,300 since 30 March when Palestinians launched the 'Great March of Return'. The 'return' refers to the fact that at least 1.3 of the 1.9 million people living in Gaza are refugees from the lands that are now part of the State of Israel. As those killed and injured included journalists, many NGOs working on press freedom expressed their outrage as well. On 15 May, RSF officially asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) "to investigate what it regards as war crimes by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) against Palestinian journalists covering protests in Gaza since 30 March". In a statement, PEN International strongly condemned "the excessive use of force by Israel” and called for an independent investigation.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) repeatedly condemned "the use of gunfire by Israeli forces against journalists covering protests [...] in the Gaza Strip". On 31 May, CPJ noted that it documented at least 22 times where live rounds fired by the IDF hit journalists, "two of whomYaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein – later died from their injuries."

In another statement, 95 civil society organizations, including the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), called on the UN Human Rights Council "to urgently launch a 'Commission of Inquiry' to investigate violence against protesters in Palestine".

On 2 May, the East Jerusalem office of the Palestinian Elia Youth Media Foundation was closed by Israeli forces, an action condemned by CPJ.

Tunisia has also been in the news. On 3 May, ARTICLE 19 reported that Tunisian civil society was seriously concerned that legislation attempts risked reversing "the constitutional achievements and guarantees on freedom of expression and access to information since the revolution." These guarantees, which touch on freedom of expression, media regulation and access to information, were "the first of their kind in the MENA region". In addition, journalists have reported that police unions regularly threaten press freedom, according to Global Voices Advox. To make matters worse, there is a controversial draft law supported by both the interior ministry and the police unions which would "create a new layer of protection for security forces, shielding them from criticism and accountability mechanisms."


Gender and free expression

In Lebanon, HRW reported that a prominent LGBTQI+ activist was arrested by the Internal Security Forces and forced to cancel Beirut Pride Events. Nine days of activities surrounding sexual health, LGBTQI+ identities and other relevant themes had been planned. In a statement, Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at HRW, said that "official interference with Beirut Pride is an outrageous step backward in a country where the judiciary and some politicians seem to be moving forward on LGBT rights".

To mark the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), CPJ spoke with a number of journalists and news outlets from around the world. The interviewee from Iran said that: "On paper, being homosexual is not permitted, however being transgender is accepted and in fact, Iran has the second highest sex reassignment surgery after Thailand. Still, the government tries to avoid anything that brings attention to the subject matter. Working on this project has cost me my work permit in Iran. I cannot work in the country that I am living in. I cannot take on assignments. I work in all countries, except Iran".


In Brief

In Algeria, blogger Touati Merzoug was sentenced to 10 years in prison. According to RSF, Merzoug was convicted of "complicit relations with a foreign power" and "inciting rebellion" in connection with the Skype interview he posted on social networks on 9 January 2017. In that Skype interview, a person identifying himself as an Israeli diplomat claimed that there was an Israeli liaison office in Algiers in the 1990s.

Also in Iran, Telegram, which serves around 40 million Iranians, was blocked by the government. In response, a number of organisations including ARTICLE 19, CPJ and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said that the decision appears: "to have been chiefly motivated by the perceived role of the platform during the January 2018 protests."

In Oman, the Omani Coalition for Human Rights, which consists of the GCHR, the Omani Association for Human Rights, the Omani Center for Human Rights and Muwatin Center for Press Freedom, mourned the death of detained Internet activist Hassan Al-Basham. Lebanon's Social Media Exchange (SMEX) also said that "social media activists are mourning" Al-Basham's death.

In Kuwait, GCHR urged the government to drop all charges "against Sulaiman Bin Jassim and other prisoners of conscience, and revoke the prison sentences" and to guarantee that "the Court of Cassation's Prosecutor and the judiciary in general are meeting the international standards of fair trial and due process". It also asked the government to allow human rights defenders to exercise their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly without fear of reprisals.

In Libya, RSF called for the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord in Tripoli to withdraw a decree "that would turn a militia guilty of abuses against journalists into an anti-crime unit with very broad surveillance powers."

In Qatar, prominent human rights lawyer Dr. Najeeb Al-Nuaimi has complained about a travel ban imposed on him, according to GCHR.

Finally, a cyber espionage campaign active since at least June 2015 was revealed to be stealing private data from Android mobile devices in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Iran, as this statement by SMEX explains.

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