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Iran goes after lawyers, Bahraini and Emirati activists' sentences upheld, Syrian activists remembered

Appeals of rights defenders Nabeel Rajab and Ahmed Mansoor rejected; UN Working Group recognises two Egyptian journalists, Hussein Gomaa and Hisham Gaafar, as arbitrarily detained; Iran continues crackdown on lawyers; Report on Lebanon reveals concentration of power in media sector; prominent activist Dr. Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani placed in solitary confinement; Syrian 'Douma Four' activists remembered; and Iraq urged to reopen probe into Kurdish editor's murder.

Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab (R) walks with his daughter Malak Rajab to attend his appeal hearing at court in Manama, 11 February 2015
Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab (R) walks with his daughter Malak Rajab to attend his appeal hearing at court in Manama, 11 February 2015

REUTERS/Hamad Mohammed

In Bahrain, the year ended with Nabeel Rajab's five-year prison sentence – for tweeting – upheld by the Bahraini Court of Cassation. Rajab, who is the co-founder of IFEX members Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), has been detained since June 2016 on a combined seven-year prison sentence. The majority of his sentence, five years, is for social media activity in which he documented allegations of torture in Bahrain's prisons and human rights violations in the war in Yemen.

An open letter signed on 16 December 2018, by over 50 human rights organisations, called for his immediate and unconditional release. It noted that the scheduled date of the hearing was suspicious in itself, given that most of the world's media attention would be on end-of-year celebrations. Their concerns, which turned out to be well-founded, were also based on the fact that another Bahraini opposition figure, Sheikh Ali Salman, who was arrested on 28 December 2014 and sentenced to four years following an unfair trial, had his sentence increased to life in prison at his appeal hearing in November.

Rajab's case is yet another reminder of the lengths taken by the Bahraini government to crush all forms of dissent. This saw the form of a drastic increase in death penalties issued by the Bahraini judiciary. Between 2011 and 2018, 35 people were sentenced to death, according to BCHR. Of these, over half were issued in 2018.

As part of their ongoing advocacy work, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) chose four new 'profiles in persecution' for the month of December 2018. They are: Faten Ali Naser, a 41-year-old mother of four who is serving a five-year sentence for "allegedly harboring a fugitive" and whose appeal is scheduled for 28 January 2019; Mohamed Abdulla AlSankis, a 53-year-old former laboratory technician who was arbitrarily arrested and detained in 2012 and is currently serving a 12.5-year prison sentence; Sayed Saeed Isa, who has been repeatedly arrested and harassed by the government and is the father of 15-year-old Sayed Hashem, who died on 31 December 2011 after being shot at with a teargas canister; AbdulHadi Saleh AlMeshaimea, father of 27-year-old Ali AlMeshaimea, who was also shot and killed by riot police in 2011. Both Hashem and AlMeshaimea were among 10 individuals arrested on 12 October 2018 "prior to a march in protest of the upcoming Parliamentary elections", according to ADHRB.

IFEX published a feature article in December that looks at how the government of Egypt has been manipulating fears over national security as part of its widespread crackdown on activists, lawyers and journalists, and noted that, in order to crush dissent, "all that's needed is a subservient and weakened judicial system, backed by a government-controlled media". To highlight the seriousness and urgency of the topic, IFEX also interviewed Amira Abdelhamid, International Advocacy Officer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). She explained how "human rights defenders and activists are attempting to counter these practices and discourses, whether through direct litigation on the unconstitutionality of the recently enacted laws, or through circumventing the restrictive enforcement of these laws" and expressed her personal hope that the lessons of 2011 will succeed in changing Egyptian society in the long-term, despite government repression.

In a report published on 30 December 2018, AFTE explored how Egyptian telecom companies handle the personal data and information of their customers. All four telecom companies studied - Vodafone, Orange, Etisalat and Telecom Egypt - were found to be sharing user data "with third parties, whether for law enforcement, marketing, or debt collection purposes."

Whether or not the months and years to come bring human rights improvements in Egypt, many activists and human rights defenders have yet to see it for themselves. Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa, a journalist who worked for Al Jazeera, has been in provisional detention for just over two years now, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared his detention to be arbitrary. RSF also noted that Egypt is currently ranked 161st out of 180 countries in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, with at least 38 professional and non-professional journalists currently held in connection with their reporting, adding that "independent journalism is dying in Egypt".

On 17 December 2018 Hisham Gaafar, another Egyptian journalist and human rights defender held since October 2015, was also found to be arbitrarily detained. He is accused, without evidence, of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, which is illegal under the current Egyptian government. Gaafar has been denied family visits for over a year and his health has been declining for the past few months.

Unless postponed, the trial of journalist Ahmed Ali Abdel Aziz will take place on 31 January 2019. According to AFTE, he is being prosecuted for asking President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to refrain from running in the 2018 presidential election. He has also been accused of belonging to "an illegal terrorist group, promoting its ideologies, and publishing false news" and has been held in detention for over a year. El-Sisi ran virtually unopposed and 'won' in March of 2018 with over 97% of the votes in what was widely described as "farcical elections", according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Finally, Egypt's civil society could at least count on one good news item before the end of 2018. Popular blogger Wael Abbas, who blogs at Misr Digital, was finally released on 12 December after spending seven months in prison, according to RSF. His release followed that of documentary filmmaker Momen Hassan, the day before. In yet another example of how the rhetoric of national security is being used to silence critics, both Abbas and Hassan are accused of allegedly belonging to "Muslim Brotherhood media cells". The charges against them have not been dropped.

As for Iran, the government's record in December continued a now-familiar pattern. Indeed, the country saw an escalation of the government's crackdown on lawyers involved in human rights-related cases between November and December 2018, with at least three lawyers sentenced to long prison terms and another one arrested, according to HRW. The three lawyers are Qasem Sholehsadi and Arash Keykhosravi, arrested on August 18 to six years in prison, and Mohammad Najafi, who was already serving a three-year sentence when the revolutionary courts sentenced him to an additional 13 years. As for Amir Salar Davoudi, he has been detained since 20 November 2018. As HRW noted, these cases are not isolated but rather part of the same pattern of arresting dissidents, human rights defenders and labor leaders, as well as the lawyers defending them.

Furthermore, Iranian authorities used the vaguely defined word 'infiltration' to justify the arrest of Meimanat Hosseini Chavoshi and the order given to Mohammad Jalal Abbasi to report to police. These two Australia-based Iranian academics are researchers in the field of family planning in Iran, which the government chose to interpret as "infiltrators in the field of population control", according to HRW. This is in reference to Ayatollah Khamenei's 2014 decree reversing the country's family planning program which, until then, had been one of the most successful in the region. Since 2014, the Iranian government has been "restricting public family planning programs" and therefore has been treating family planning researchers with suspicion.

Long viewed as the most liberal and open media landscape in the region, Lebanon is actually tightly tied to "domestic and foreign powers vying for control", according to a database released by RSF and the Samir Kassir Foundation. The database, entitled Media Ownership Monitor, exposes how audience shares in all sectors - print, radio, television and online - are actually "concentrated among a handful of key political players and families, creating a highly polarized landscape", a matter made worse by a widespread lack of transparency.

IFEX interviewed Azza Masri, Campaign Manager at Social Media Exchange (SMEX), about their successful action, launched in collaboration with the Lebanese band Al-Rahel Al-Kabir, to make the band's songs, which had been censored from iTunes Middle East, available again. The songs, which mock religious fundamentalism, political oppression and military rule, had been deemed "inappropriate for the Arab world". SMEX also asked that iTunes Middle East release their transparency report, which they have yet to do.

Saudi Arabia's Dr. Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani, a prominent human rights defender, was placed in solitary confinement in Riyadh between 18 and 19 December, according to GCHR. Dr. Al-Qahtani is serving a 10-year sentence for his peaceful human rights activities. He co-founded the Association for Civil Rights and Political Rights (ACPRA) along with Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamid, who is also in prison. Both Dr. Al-Qahtani and Dr. Al-Hamid, as well as Waleed Abu Al-Khair, also in prison, received the 2018 Right Livelihood Award.

Several organisations, including GCHR, HRW and RSF, proposed to the Saudi Arabian government eight specific human rights initiatives "to end the human rights crisis". They include "freedom of expression, association and assembly” and ending "the use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment", as well as complying with international humanitarian law in Yemen.

As December marked five years since well-known Syrian activists Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Nazem Hamadi and Wa'el Hamada were kidnapped in Douma, Syria, human rights organisations remembered the 'Douma Four' and called on all actors, including the United Nations, to find out what happened to them. These include Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), GCHR, Maharat Foundation, PEN International, RSF and Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM).

Finally, the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) threatened to execute Amjed Al-Maleh, a freelance journalist whom the group had been holding captive for nearly a year in Idlib, Northern Syria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). This came two weeks after the assassination of prominent radio host Raed Fares and photographer Hamoud al-Jnaid in Kafranbel, also part of Idlib.

In Brief

As with Nabeel Rajab, the UAE's Ahmed Mansoor also ended his year with a rejected appeal by a court of last resort, according to GCHR. Mansoor, a prominent human rights defender, had his ten-year prison sentence confirmed on 31 December 2018. He is in Al-Wathba prison where he has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest on 20 March 2017. Mansoor is a GCHR Advisory Board member.

Iraq should reopen the probe into the murder of Kurdish editor Kawa Germyani, RSF said. Founder and editor of the magazine Rayal, Germyani was shot to death in Kalar, southwestern Iraqi Kurdistan, on 5 December 2013. As RSF noted, Germyani was investigating political corruption and had received threats from members of the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Three Palestinian photojournalists - Rashid Rasheed, Saber Nureldine and Attiya Darwish – have been injured by Israeli forces while covering the Gaza protests, according to CPJ. Since the Gaza protests began on 30 March 2018, CPJ and other organisations have documented at least 20 Palestinian journalists hit by live rounds shot by the Israeli Defense Forces. Two - Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein - lost their lives.

In Jordan, publisher and editor Mohammed al-Wakeel was detained over a retouched publication of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper", which was deemed offensive to Jordanian Christians, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) noted that while Libya is a party to most conventions on women's rights such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), it lacks "mechanisms to protect women, which has compounded women's hardships in the recent period".

With the December arrest of blogger Hatem Al-Maliki, Oman continues its practice of detaining online activists. On International Human Rights Day, 10 December, GCHR, along with Omani Human Rights Association (OHRA), called on the government to end this practice.

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