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'Instagram celebrities' arrested; death certificates of Syrian activists released; and a step forward in LGBTQI+ rights: MENA in July

Members of human rights NGO Amnesty International hold up portraits of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and human rights activist and lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair as they demonstrate in front of the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Berlin, 8 January 2016
Members of human rights NGO Amnesty International hold up portraits of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and human rights activist and lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair as they demonstrate in front of the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Berlin, 8 January 2016

TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

July has been a particularly difficult month for many Syrian families, as the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad released the death certificates of at least 151 activists who died in detention. Among them, the Palestinian-Syrian photographer Niraz Saied, who fled his home in Syria's Yarmouk Camp in 2015 following threats from ISIS. He is believed to have died under torture in a regime prison around 18 months ago, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Saied was a prominent photographer who won first prize in a photography competition organized by UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestinian refugees) and the European Union (EU) in December 2014. His wife, Lamis Alkhateeb, whom he met while helping filming the well-known documentary Letters from Yarmouk, confirmed his death on Facebook on 16 July 2018. In response, RSF said that "the confirmation of Niraz Saied's death constitutes yet another example of how the Syrian regime systematically targets journalists."

Other names include renowned advocates of non-violent resistance who played pivotal roles in the 2011 revolution. These include Yahya Al-Sharbaji and his brother Muhammad, as well as Islam Dabbas. The death certificates of both Al-Sharbaji brothers were given to their families on 23 July 2018, according to the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM). As for Dabbas, his death was confirmed on 16 July. Yahia Al-Sharbaji was one of the co-founders of the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), a network of local groups that organise and report on protests as part of the Syrian uprising, and, along with Dabbas, co-founded the "Peaceful Youth of Darayya" movement.

In Saudi Arabia, July saw the continuation of the government's crackdown on human rights activists launched that began in May 2018, and, notably, the arrest of nearly a dozen women's rights activists just weeks before it lifted the ban on women driving, according to Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). On 1 July, Saudi security forces detained activist Khalid al-Omair for questioning about a complaint he had filed alleging security officials had tortured him while he was previously imprisoned. The crackdown has become so widespread that ADHRB declared it "impossible to assess the totality of the campaign or tell how many arrests the government has made."

On 4 July, human rights groups marked four years since activist Waleed Abu Al-Khair was arrested by the Saudi government and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was among the first of dozens of activists arrested under the then-new 2014 counter-terror law.

In Lebanon, prominent journalist Fidaa Itani was sentenced in abstentia to four months in prison and a fine of 10 million Lebanese lira (roughly USD $6,660) for 'defaming' the foreign minister Gebran Bassil in a Facebook post. Itani is well-known for supporting refugee rights and for his vocal opposition of the Assad regime in Syria and its influence in Lebanon.

An appeals court in Lebanon ruled that same-sex relations are 'not illegal' – a rare victory for LGBTQI+ rights in the country. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the ruling follows similar judgments in four separate rulings between 2007 and 2017, and "is the first such ruling from an appeals court and moves Lebanon further toward decriminalizing homosexual conduct." In a statement, HRW's Neela Ghoshal said that "the court has effectively ordered the state to get out of people's bedrooms."

Iran has been arresting 'instagram celebrities' since May 2018, including high-profile Instagram users Maedeh Hojabri, Elnar Ghasemi, Shadab Shakib and Kami Yousefi. Article 638 of Iran's Islamic Penal Code states that dancing is considered a "sinful act" and can be punished with two months imprisonment and 74 lashes.

Hojabri, who is 18 years old, had been inactive online since May. Her whereabouts were unknown until she appeared with others on a forced confession video broadcast on 9 July by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) TV network.

An ARTICLE 19 post points out that these latest threats represent "yet another attack on online freedoms" in a country where the judiciary has been threatening "to filter Instagram within Iran since the beginning of July." The organisation has produced a 2018 guide to making information requests in Iran, in the context of increasing pressures on Iranians working on environmental issues.

ARTICLE 19

In Morocco, two prominent journalists were arrested and sentenced to prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Mohamed al-Asrihi and Hamid al-Mahdaoui were sentenced to five and three years, respectively, in late June. Al-Asrihi was convicted alongside 52 activists involved with the al-Hirak Al-Shaaby movement, which is based primarily in Morocco's northern Rif region and protests social and economic injustices. HRW noted that al-Mahdaoui was already serving a one-year sentence when he was sentenced again.

Bahrain was once again the subject of heavy criticism at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. On 2 July, ADHRB condemned the Bahraini government for ignoring the plight of women activists detained in Isa Town Women's Prison where "many of the women were tortured, including through sexual assault, and have been denied access to adequate healthcare." The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) issued a statement on Nelson Mandela International Day on 18 July, and called on prisoners and detainees to be treated according to the Nelson Mandela Rules.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws are being increasingly used to crackdown on all forms of dissent, according to HRW. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) released a report on 2 July describing internet censorship in the country as having become more “dynamic and pervasive."

On 10 July, CPJ called on Egyptian authorities to drop all charges against a group of journalists accused of "spreading false news". They include: Wael Abbas, Mohamed Abu Zeid, Fatma Diaa Eddin, Shorouk Amgad, Moataz Wadnan, Adel Abdel-Rahman al-Ansari and Hassan al-Banna.

In other advocacy news, on 26 July over 25 NGOs called for the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned Lebanese tourist Mona el-Mazbouh, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for a Facebook video during which she complained about alleged sexual harassment and which, according to the sentence, included "profanity against Egypt and Egyptians". Signatory NGOs include IFEX members AFTE, 7amleh, BCHR, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Maharat Foundation, MARCH, SMEX, Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State and Visualizing Impact (VI).


In Brief

In Israel and Palestine, the release of Palestinian child activist Ahed Tamimi on 29 July prompted HRW's Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakira to tweet:


In Yemen, three current and former journalists – Iyad al-Wasmani, Abdulsalam al-Doaiss, and Abed al-Jaradi - were detained by the Houthis between 27 June and 7 July, 2018.

RSF noted that, in Libya, the Government of National Accord, which took office under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in March 2016, has been severely restricting access to foreign media, particularly since CNN's now-infamous Novermber 2017 report on migrants sold into slavery in Libya.

In Iraq, journalists have told RSF that they have received warning messages or direct threats by people appearing to be linked to security forces or pro-government militias. The country also saw a sudden blocking of the internet on 14 July, with many believing that the government was responsible.

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