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Women in the headlines – for all the wrong reasons, plus a round-up of MENA's latest free expression news

Two high profile Iraqi women assassinated by unknown gunmen; Nasrin Sotoudeh’s hunger strike; Iran escalates targeting of dual citizens, foreign nationals; campaigning for Saudi women’s rights activists; plus Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and Syria.

An Iraqi woman recites a prayer by the grave of slain model and Instagram starlet Tara Fares in the central holy shrine city of Najaf, 2 October 2018
An Iraqi woman recites a prayer by the grave of slain model and Instagram starlet Tara Fares in the central holy shrine city of Najaf, 2 October 2018

HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images

In deeply disurbing recent developments, two high profile women have been assassinated in Iraq. Human rights defender Dr. Su'ad Al-Ali was gunned down in Basra, and instagrammer Tara Fares in Baghdad.

Dr. Al-Ali was gunned down on 25 September by an unknown assailant who also shot and injured her driver Hussain Hassan. According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), it is likely that Dr. Al-Ali was involved in recent demonstrations in Basra protesting unemployment, the lack of public services and wider corruption. As for Tara Fares, who was only 22 and with millions of online followers, she was gunned down two days later. Prior to her death, Fares had been receiving death threats regularly from religious extremists.

Saudi Arabia's repression of women's rights defenders continued into September with such figures as Samar Badawi, Naseema Alsada, Loujain al-Hathloul, Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi, Dr. Aziza al-Yousef, Dr. Iman al-Nafjan, Mohammed al-Bajadi, Omar al-Said, and Ibrahim al-Modeimigh still in prison. As was noted at the time, the Saudi government arrested most of these figures just days before lifting the ban on women's driving, which symbolised for many the Saudi government's unwillingness to committ to structural reforms such as freedom of speech and women's rights.

In response, Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched a campaign on 11 September calling on major car companies to pressure the Saudi authorities to release the activists. HRW argues that car companies will profit now that Saudi women are allowed to drive and become car owners, and that, conseqently, they should campaign for the very women's rights activists who have made this possible. By 2020, the market could be worth almost 30 billion Saudi Riyals (about US$8 billion) according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers figures cited by HRW.

The Maharat Foundation has released UNDERrepresented: Media Monitoring of Lebanese Parliamentary Elections 2018 from a Gender Perspective an animated report detailing the many shortcomings in women's rights in Lebanon, from gender representation in the workforce to the lack of a unified civil code. The report focusses on women in politics, and argues that female candidates should be made more visible in the media to increase their chances of getting elected.

In Iran, September marked one month since renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Soutoudeh started her hunger strike. GCHR reported that Soutoudeh went on hunger strike while in prison on 25 August 2018 "to protest poor treatment of family and friends since her arrest in June". Soutoudeh was forcibly taken from her home in Tehran on 13 June 2018 and was reportedly told that the charges against her include allegedly being a member of LEGAM, an NGO opposed to the death penalty, which the Iranian government described as "propaganda against the state", as well as "assembly and collusion against national security". The charges could result in a five-year sentence.

The story doesn't end there. Sotoudeh's husband Reza Khandan was also arrested on 4 September 2018. Khandan's arrest was yet another example of the Iranian authorities' practice of harassing, threatening and arresting relatives of well-known activists.


More on Iran

The Iranian government has been accused by HRW of escalating its targeting of Iranian dual citizens and foreign nationals "whom they perceive to have links with Western academic, economic, and cultural institutions".

But by no means is the Iranian government's repression limited to what it claims to be 'foreign' elements, or citizens with 'foreign' affiliations. Indeed, Iranian journalists, lawyers and activists continue to be the main recipients of the government's repressive security apparatus. For example, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), on 22 August, Amir Hossein Miresmaili, a journalist with 'Jahan Sanat' (Industry World) was sentenced to ten years in prison for a tweet "indirectly criticizing" a "fundamentalist mullah" close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Other targeted journalists according to RSF include Ejlal Ghavami, an independent journalist and human rights defender in the northwestern province of Kurdistan, Shoja Hossein Zadeh, a citizen-journalist also in Kurdistan, and Hengameh Shahidi, "a journalist who has been in the justice system's sights for the past 18 months".

In related news, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) hosted the first meeting of Iranian journalists based in Europe on 14 September 2018. The stated goal was "to identify common concerns and develop joint actions in the future".


Will Bahrain ever concede the need for reform?

Ali Mushaima, the Bahraini campaigner and son of 70-year-old opposition figure Hassan Mushaima, who has been in prison since 2011 for participating in the pro-democracy movement, returned to protest in front of the Bahraini embassy in London shortly after being hospitalised, according to Index on Censorship. He was joined shortly after by activist Zainab al-Khawaja who is in exile for, among other things, protesting the life sentence of her father and founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Mushaima was hospitalised again on 23 September 2018 for ill health.

Another member of BCHR, its president Nabeel Rajab, who has been in prison since 2012, was shortlisted for the 2018 Václav Havel Prize alongside Rosa María Payá and Oyub Titiev.

All in all, it seems clear that the Bahraini authorities are still not willing to concede basic reforms in support of human rights. The BCHR released a written statement in which it expressed concern for the "poor conditions of detention in Bahrain's notorious Jau Prison", the prison where Rajab, al-Khawaja, Mushaima and many others are currently detained.

Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) highlighted a number of horrific abuses over the past few weeks in its 'profiles in persecution' series. It told the story of Haidar Ebrahim Hasen, a 18-year old Bahraini activist who was only 15-years old when arrested. His young age however didn't stop the authorities from forcibly disappearing him, torturing him into a forced confession, stripping his citizenship away and sentencing him to 23 years in prison. As a result of being tortured, Hasen has been suffering from a number of health problems such as diminished vision in one eye, total loss of hearing in one ear, and respiratory problems due to his broken nose.

ADHRB also wrote a profile of Sheikh Hasan Isa, the 47-year-old Bahraini Shia cleric whose religious background has made him the target of government persecution, in addition to his political activities. Sheikh Hasan was elected as a Member of Parliament for the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, with 92% of the votes in 2010, but resigned after the government's brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters at the Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. He was arrested in 2015 without the authorities providing reasons, and was transfered to Jau prison in 2017, where he currently remains.

Other names included in the profiles for September 2018 include 31-year-old former bus drivers Abdulelah Sayed Ahmed and Husain Abdulla Khalaf as well as 32-year-old former guard Husain Mohsen Al-Meftah.


Journalists, activists arrested in Syria – and where are the Douma 4?

In September, IFEX produced a Face of Free Expression profile of Syrians Razan Zeitouneh, Wa'el Hamade, Samira Al Khalil and Nazem Al Hamadi, collectively known as "the Douma Four". Shortly after the initial 2011 protests in the country, Zeitouneh had co-founded the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) to "help organise demonstrations and document the protests as well as the brutal crackdown inflicted upon protesters by regime forces". Soon after, she co-founded the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) to help document "all kinds of human rights violations in Syria". They have been missing since December 2013.

On 5 September 2018, CPJ called on the Syrian regime to release Kurdish journalist Omar Kalo. He was arrested by military intelligence forces at a checkpoint between the northern Syrian cities of Mambij and Aleppo on 25 August. Kalo was separated from his wife and two children at the checkpoint and was told that he would be released after being asked a few questions. He was then transferred to the military intelligence prison in Aleppo, and has remained there since.

Some weeks later, in the morning of 22 September 2018, human rights lawyer Yasser Al-Saleem and activist Abdelhamid Al-Bayoush were arrested by an armed group, according to GCHR. The armed group stormed Al-Saleem's house and reportedly took them both to Al-Eqab prison, some 40km south-west of Idlib city. While it is not entirely clear why they were targeted, it is thought that it was due to Al-Saleem being a known human rights activists in the city of Kafr Nabl. Indeed, he participated in protests the day before calling for the release of Syrians from Sweida kidnapped by ISIS recently.


Egypt: Legislation repeal and reform, and Shawkan… to be released…?

Meanwhile, in Egypt, several NGOs including the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), RSF, Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, BCHR, Article 19, SMEX, ADHRB, 7amleh and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) called for the repeal of the "Anti-Cyber and Information Crimes Law" as well as the review and reform of the "Media Regulation Law" on 6 September 2018. They argued that these are tools are being used by the Egyptian government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to "impose full control over the flow of information online" as part of a wider policy of cracking down on all forms of dissent.

Two days later, it was announced that Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, would be released after spending five years in jail. He was sentenced by a Cairo Criminal Court to five years in prison for covering the 2013 clashes of Rab'aa El Adawerya sit-in dispersal, which led to the Rab'aa massacre by the Egyptian government, according to Global Voices Advox. As he had already been in detention for more than five years, Shawkan's lawyer announced that "he will be able to walk free in the next few days". Unfortunately, at the time of writing, Shawkan was still in jail.



In Brief

In Iraq, security forces were filmed using tear gas and even live bullets against protesters in the city of Basra, GCHR reported, where at least 27 protesters were killed between July and early September. On 12 September, HRW released a statement condemning the Iraqi authorities' threats against and even arrests of lawyers providing legal assistance to ISIS suspects and families perceived to be related to ISIS members. As a result, lawyers have fear for their lives and the suspects and their families end up with no legal representation.

Several human rights groups including GCHR, Index on Censorship and RSF called on authorities to release Yemeni writer and online activist Marwan Al-Muraisy who was forcibly disappeared in Saudi Arabia on 1 June 2018. Al-Muraisy had moved to Saudi Arabia in 2003 and has had a prolific journalism career since. He has over 100,000 followers on Twitter, is behind over 30 television programmes, and regularly comments on such topics as technology and social media. Saudi authorities have yet to provide an explanation to Al-Muraisy's family, but it is widely believed to be part of a wider crackdown on human rights activists.

In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition launched an airstrike on 17 September 2018 against Al-Maraweah Radio Broadcasting Center radio station in Al-Maraweah District in Hodeida Governorate, killing three employees as well as a civilian who was nearby, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The civilians killed were engineer Omar Azi, two guards, Obaid Heba Ali and Jama'i Abdullah, and a farmer, Ayish Mohammed Yousif. In happier news, Mwatana for Human Rights reports that its field research assistant Kamal Al-Shawish was released from Houthi control on 23 September 2018.

Also on Yemen, Social Media Exchange (SMEX) released a report regarding the launching of a new Aden-based Internet Service Provider (ISP) by the Saudi coalition-backed government of President Abeb Rabbo Mansour Hadi, called 'Aden Net'. Up until recently, Yemen Net, which is currently controlled by the Houthis, was the only ISP. In their report, SMEX ask whether this would improve the status of communication and digital liberties in Yemen or whether it would "throttle the network, block access to information, and restrict freedom of speech".

Regarding Libya, Advox released a report examining Facebook's role in the ongoing conflict. In the first week of September it was reported that Facebook was blocked in Tripoli and surrounding cities during fighting between armed militias. Advox argued that Facebook was an essential component of the ongoing conflict as virtually every armed group had a Facebook page.

In Tunisia, the president of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) received death threats on social media after comparing the Ennahda Party's Shura Council to that of ISIS, according to IFJ. This was after the Shura Council refused to support a presidential initiative to establish full equality between men and women in inheritance, according to HRW.

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