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Murder in the Saudi consulate, Bahrain's jailed activists, Egypt's contempt for the law, and more

MENA in October: Jamal Khashoggi's murder and aftermath; under-age Bahrainis in prison; LGBTQI+ event cancelled in Lebanon; British academic jailed in the UAE and human rights defender appeals unjust sentence; Shawkan still in prison despite end of sentence; Palestine report offers damning evidence of widespread abuse by local authorities.

A protestor wears a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman while others hold images of journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, 25 October 2018
A protestor wears a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman while others hold images of journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, 25 October 2018


Focus on Saudi Arabia

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabian journalist, Washington Post columnist and critic of Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, sent shockwaves throughout the global community. Unusually for a story about an attack on a Saudi journalist or activist, of which there are many, it has prompted a worldwide reaction from mainstream news outlets and governments.

Rights-based civil society organisations responded quickly. Citing Khashoggi's murder, over 170 civil society organisations called on the United Nations (UN) on 26 October to "take immediate steps to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for grave human rights violations, and not allow impunity to prevail". The call followed a statement by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and RSF on 18 October calling on Turkey to request an official UN investigation "into the extrajudicial execution of Khashoggi." HRW also said that world leaders should reject the "Saudi whitewash" of the murder.

In the following days and weeks, with the pressure on, Saudi authorities released a number of contradictory stories via their media outlets, such as Al Arabiya, and other Saudi and Gulf-owned outlets such as Al Riyadh Daily, Al-Hayat, and the Saudi Gazette. These ranged from claiming that Khashoggi had actually left the consulate, to, following 'the Putin playbook', claiming that the Saudi operatives who flew to the country that day were just tourists. They also portrayed worldwide media coverage as a conspiracy by the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. Finally, in an attempt to stem global outrage, the Saudi authorities fired al-Qahtani and four other officials over the murder.

Online supporters of MBS joined with countless bots and took part in mass disinformation and smearing campaigns targeting Cengiz, some claiming that she wasn't really Khashoggi's fiancée.

They also targeted various Saudi activists in exile speaking out against the murder, calling them, among other things, 'enemies of the nation' and accusing them of being paid by Qatar and Turkey.

This led Manal Al Sharif, the well-known exiled Saudi activist better known for her campaign against the ban on women driving, to deactivate her Twitter account, which had over 270,000 followers, saying that the platform was controlled by "trolls, pro-government mobs and bots". Seven years after Twitter was widely credited, alongside Facebook, with facilitating the spread of the Arab Spring, Al-Sharif said that these spaces had become too dangerous for Arab activists. She also reported being sent threats by the Saudi authorities and, in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, said that the authorities tried to lure her to the embassy in Sydney, Australia.

Another activist in exile, Omar Abdulaziz, said he was approached by the Saudi embassy in Canada which tried to lure him as well. When he refused, they arrested two of his brothers and several of his friends in Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi scholar at Georgetown University and son of prominent cleric Salman al-Awda who is jailed and faces trial in Saudi Arabia, also reported a similar occurrence in 2017.

Meanwhile, Khashoggi's son Salah was banned from traveling by Saudi authorities, a practice regularly used against family members and friends of targeted dissidents. He was finally allowed to leave in late October, but not before he was made to shake hands with MBS himself in what was widely denounced as a tone-deaf publicity stunt.

Over two weeks of denials later, the Saudi authorities finally admitted that Khashoggi was dead, on 19 October. They then claimed that the death was accidental, before admitting that the murder was premeditated, but still fell short of naming the crown prince.

Soon after the disappearance, we learned through Khashoggi's editor at the Washington Post, Karen Attiah, that he had been aware of plans by the crown prince to lure him from his residence in Virginia (Khashoggi was a permanent resident of the United States) to Saudi Arabia, to arrest him. The plans were confirmed by the US State Department. Attiah recalled that Khashoggi understood how far MBS was willing to go, telling her that he "has absolute authority over what happens in the kingdom".

Khashoggi's final article for the Washington Post, What the Arab world needs most is free expression, published after his death, is seen as highly symbolic. As CPJ's Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney noted, "it is a cruel irony" that Khashoggi's last column was on press freedom given that "his homeland, Saudi Arabia, has spent the last three decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that never happens", culminating in Khashoggi's own murder.

The murder highlights the level of impunity with which the Saudi leadership acts against human rights defenders. As many commentators have since pointed out, it appeared that they believed they could get away with it. In an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the comedian asked "why would they be sure of that?" before exploring Saudi-US relations. It is relevant, of course. Of the $39.17 billion spent by Saudi Arabia on arms imports between 2007 and 2017, over $30 billion was bought from the US and UK alone. And this is not counting the 2017 United States–Saudi Arabia arms deal, which is supposed to be worth around $110 billion.

By the time Khashoggi's death was confirmed, many groups were using the attention brought to Saudi Arabia to highlight widespread human rights abuses in the country. RSF pointed out that the Saudi government has arrested more than 15 journalists and bloggers since September 2017. These include: Saleh al-Shishi, who 'disappeared' in December 2017 and sentenced to 5 years in prison just 3 months later; Esam al Zamel, whose arrest was only confirmed when his trial started in October 2018, after spending a year in prison; Turad Al Amri, who has been missing since November 2016; and Fayez ben Damakh, kidnapped in Kuwait and extradited to Saudi Arabia in September 2017, after which all news of him stopped.

In total, at least 28 journalists are currently detained in Saudi Arabia. In a series of portraits unveiled by RSF a number are featured, including: Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in 2012 for "insulting Islam"; the religious intellectual and blogger Salman al Awdah, sentenced to death in September 2018; the poet Fayez Ben Damakh, missing since September 2017; Eman al Nafjan, women's rights activist and founder of the Saudi Woman blog, imprisoned since May 2018; and Nassema al Sadah, women's rights activist and columnist, whose arrest was confirmed in August 2018, as well as many more.

Another woman activist, Israa Al-Ghomgham, has been sentenced to death, which is rare for women in Saudi Arabia. As Global Voices Advox reported, Al-Ghomgham was arrested alongside her husband, activist Mousa Al-Hashim, in 2015, over their roles in anti-government protests in 2011 during the Arab Spring. They also belong to the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia which, according to HRW, is regularly discriminated against. HRW concluded that the "government's regional competition with Shiite-majority Iran has fueled its treatment of Saudi Shiites". Although a second hearing took place on 28 October 2018, the couple did not appear in court. According to GCHR, the next hearing is scheduled for 21 November.

Suppression of dissent in the country isn't limited to Saudi citizens. As Global Voices Advox reported, Yemeni writer Marwan Almuraisy was arrested on June 1st and transferred to an unknown location. His whereabouts remain unknown to this day. In a statement, GCHR, RSF, Index on Censorship and PEN International have called for his immediate release.

Furthermore, the case of Munir Al Adam has received special attention from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). As ADHRB reported, Al Adam, who is currently at imminent risk of execution, was arrested and tortured by Saudi authorities in 2012. He was beaten so badly that he lost hearing in one ear. He stayed in pre-trial detention for more than three years, was denied legal counsel, and then was convicted and sentenced to death in a Specialized Criminal Court. His sentence was upheld on appeal in May 2017, and confirmed on 23 July 2017.

Bahrain's jailed activists

But Saudi Arabia isn't the only country with such abuses, with its loyal ally Bahrain continuing to imprison even children for politically motivated reasons. Three of ADHRB's four 'profiles in persecution' for October 2018 were between the ages of 15 and 20 when arrested, and they remain in New Dry Dock, the section of Jau Prison reserved for individuals under the age of 21 to this day.

In 2017, Ahmed Abdulla AlAjaimi was a first year student at Ahlia University, 20 years old, when he was arrested, disappeared and tortured, before being sent to Jau Prison. Ali Sayed Hashem was in high school before being arrested and then tortured by Bahraini security forces in July 2017. Since then, he has been serving a six-year sentence at Jau Prison where "he has again been tortured and denied access to healthcare." As for Sadeq Jaafar Ali, he was 16 years old when, on the morning of 5 October 2017, he was arrested by several men on his way to school. He was tortured until 'confessing' to committing state security crimes. He was subsequently sentenced to more than 20 years and stripped of his Bahraini nationality. For the 4th profile in persecution, ADHRB chose 30 year-old Redha Merza Mushaima. Mushaima was arrested in his house in the late hours of 4 March 2014 after a group of Bahraini security forces violently beat him and fired shotgun pellets at him. He was tortured on his way to prison and lost hearing in one of his ears after they inserted sharp objects into them. A year later, on 26 February 2015, he was sentenced to life in prison and stripped of his nationality, and is currently also in Jau Prison.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) released a report entitled "death courts", with damning information regarding the kingdom's use of military courts against civilians in recent years. On 15 March 2011, as Bahrain was having its own Arab Spring, the authorities declared by royal decree a three-month state of 'national safety', which included the formation of a military court with judges appointed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defence Force. 380 Bahrainis were sentenced. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), appointed by the government, recommended that all trials be transferred to the civilian court system. However, on 30 March 2017 military courts were authorised to have jurisdiction over civilians. Given this reality, BCHR's report concludes that the Bahraini judiciary "does not apply the principle of separation of powers" given that "the king is the head of the judicial, executive and legislative powers".

Shawkan in limbo, legal abuses and escalating death penalties in Egypt

In Egypt, well-known photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid, better known as Shawkan, was supposed to be released from prison in early September. A court had handed him a sentence of five years, but as he had already been jailed since 2013, the understanding of many was that he had served his sentence already. This hope led to organisations announcing that Shawkan would be released soon. However, nearly two months later, those hopes have turned into worried questions, with no information being released to the public.

Shawkan was arrested on 14 August 2013 and was among 739 other defendants in what became known as the "Rabaa Dispersal Case"; a euphemistic way to describe the 2013 Rabaa massacre which, according to HRW, saw over 1,150 people killed by Egyptian forces in a single day. Shawkan was a witness to the massacre as a photojournalist for Demotix.

Global Voices Advox noted that Shawkan's pre-trial detention of nearly four years already violated Egyptian law, which sets the maximum limit to two years.

Another case also testifies to just how widespread such abuses are in Egypt. In March 2018, prominent human rights defender and lawyer Ezzat Ghoneim was forcibly disappeared. His release was ordered by a court on 4 September. However, as of 3 October, he was still in jail. In a statement, HRW said that "disappearing a lawyer in the face of a judge's order explicitly authorizing his release reflects Egyptian security forces' contempt for the rule of law".

On 1 October 2018, nine civil society organisations, including CIHRS and AFTE, denounced Egypt's use of the death penalty, which they described as "escalating at an unprecedented rate". This came a week after Egypt upheld the death sentences of 20 defendants in connection with the 2013 attack on the Kerdasa police station. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had already condemned the sentencing of 75 people to death on 8 September 2018 in connection to the "Rabaa Dispersal Case" as a "gross and irreversible miscarriage of justice". This was preceded by a statement on 11 September which raised "serious doubts on the respect of due process" and called on Egypt to abolish the death penalty.

In Brief

Palestine: HRW released a 149-page report entitled Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent: Arbitrary Arrest and Torture Under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. In that report, HRW details more than two dozen cases where people were detained by the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. In the same month, 7amleh released a policy paper exploring Facebook's role in suppressing freedom of expression of Palestinians following Israeli government pressure on the company. Particularly alarming is Facebook's "continuous labelling of Palestinian content as hate speech". 7amleh said this supports claims that Facebook "partially relies on the U.S State Department's list of designated terrorist organizations" which includes Hamas.

On 21 October 2018, HRW reported that the UAE had jailed British academic Matthew Hedges since 5 May, held him in solitary confinement for months, and charged him with spying on 16 October. Shortly after, a UAE court agreed to review the evidence, and Hedges was released on bail on 29 October. As of the time of writing, he still can't travel back to the UK. Meanwhile, human rights defender Ahmed Mansour was remembered as the European Parliament issued a resolution condemning his arrest and the ten-year sentence issued on 29 May 2018, according to GCHR. Mansoor, who is on GCHR's advisory board, is appealing his sentence. Mansoor received the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015.

Lebanon witnessed yet another setback in the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in the country as security forces attempted to shut down a conference which has been occurring annually since 2013. In a statement released on 4 October 2018, HRW, which was participating in the conference, said that security forces tried to pressure Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality (AFE) director Georges Azzi into canceling it. When Azzi refused, they proceeded to shut it down themselves. This came just five months after security forces shut down 'Beirut Pride'.

The country was also under the spotlight thanks to a report by Maharat Foundation which contradicts Lebanon's reputation as relatively progressive on women's rights. In 'Under-Represented', Maharat Foundation explores various issues impacting women's rights in Lebanon, including but not limited to: the lack of a civil code regulating personal status and the existence instead of 15 different religious laws "steeply biased towards men"; the fact that women represent 23.9% of the labor force in Lebanon and yet occupy only 9% of senior roles; and the fact that just 6 out of 86 female candidates in the 2018 parliamentary elections won. Furthermore, Maharat Foundation noted that females make up 14% of all candidates, but receive only 5%-7% of representation in local media.

In Tunisia, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) welcomed the signing of a collective agreement between the Tunisian Radio Establishment, the Tunisian Television Establishment and the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) on journalists' safety.

In Syria, Social Media Exchange (SMEX) announced that Syria may begin blocking voice and video calls on WhatsApp and other Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. As SMEX explains, Whatsapp and other encrypted VoIP services are considered security measures in Syria. If censored, Syrians would be forced to use government-controlled services, making them more vulnerable to government spying.

In Yemen, journalist Zaki Al-Saqali, newspaper reporter for Al-Masdar press, was assassinated by unidentified gunmen on 8 October 2018 in Dhale city, according to IFJ.

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