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Shawkan finally free, Hakeem returns to Australia, and Bedoon activists persecuted

In Egypt, photojournalist Shawkan remained in prison throughout February despite the passing of his release date passing (he was finally freed, under strict conditions, on 4 March); Bahraini refugee-footballer Hakeem al-Araibi was allowed to return to Australia after two months in detention in Thailand; In Iraq, Kurdish journalist Sherwan Amin Sherwani was arrested by security forces associated with a political party he's criticised; In Kuwait, activists who support the rights of the stateless Bedoon community face arrests; In Saudi Arabia, activist Israa Al-Ghomgham is no longer facing the death penalty.

Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as 'Shawkan', gestures inside his home after being released, in Cairo, 4 March 2019
Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as 'Shawkan', gestures inside his home after being released, in Cairo, 4 March 2019

Mohamed El Raai/picture alliance via Getty Images

Freedom of expression continues to be attacked in Egypt as the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pursues its ongoing crackdown on activists. Award-winning photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (aka Shawkan) was supposed to be released in early February, but he remained in prison throughout the month with no explanation (he was finally released, under strict conditions, on 4 March). In response to the delay in releasing Shawkan, the International Press Institute (IPI) renewed their call to the Egyptian government for his immediate release. Meanwhile, social media users have been using the hashtags #FreeShawkan and #SkyForShawkan to highlight the issue.

Around the same time, on 20 February 2019, New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick was detained at Cairo airport and expelled from the country, an event which prompted quick condemnation by human rights groups such as the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also reported that Egyptian photojournalist Ahmed Gamal Zyada was arrested by airport security in Cairo at the end of January. His family was then forced to wait for two weeks without hearing from him and without the authorities confirming that he had been detained. As has become common throughout Egypt since al-Sisi's rise to power in 2014, Zyada was accused of "spreading false information on social networks."

Finally, with Egyptian blogger and political activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah's release date expected to be soon, activists have launched the "100 days for Alaa" website with a countdown to 17 March. Abd El-Fattah is still serving a five-year prison sentence for his activism.

IFEX took the opportunity of the anniversary of the Bahraini uprising on 14 February to highlight the issue of impunity in the kingdom in an article entitled "In Bahrain, the two-faced nature of impunity: Oppressors rewarded, activists suffer". Through the story of the king's son, Nasser bin Hamad, known as the 'torture prince' by dissidents, the analysis reveals the widespread Bahraini practice of rewarding officials with promotions after they are accused of serious rights violations. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), which IFEX consulted for the piece, have documented the promotion of 12 senior commanders implicated in such violations across the top eight most abusive units.

The other side of this phenomenon is the attitude of the Bahraini government towards human rights defenders, dissidents and journalists. Here the policy is even clearer: no form of dissent is allowed. In an associated piece, ADHRB's Executive Director Husain Abdulla explained the urgent need to use the US Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act to tackle impunity in Bahrain. Abdulla stressed that the legislation can target "perpetrators within 'friendly' governments, and can be used to hold wrongdoers accountable" despite the fact that "there may be a lack of political will to hold entire governments or systems to account."

The case of Bahraini footballer and refugee Hakeem al-Araibi made headlines again in February, as he was finally permitted to leave Thailand after being imprisoned in Bangkok for over two months. Thailand arrested Al-Araibi while on holiday from Australia, where he has refugee status and is a permanent resident, after the Bahraini government used Interpol's 'red notice' to request his arrest. This was done without making a formal extradition request and, in fact, Bahrain withdrew the red notice shortly after making it. ADHRB described it as an arbitrary detention and Al-Arabi as a torture victim. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also took the opportunity to argue that this case reveals widespread practices in Bahrain that have seen all forms of dissent effectively outlawed. HRW also emphasized the need for governments like Australia's to "make it clear" that the Bahraini government "cannot get away with torturing and silencing everyone who courageously speaks out against abuse."

In Iraq, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the arrest of Kurdish journalist Sherwan Amin Sherwani by Kurdish Democratic Party-affiliated security forces in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Dohuk on 28 January. He is still currently being detained and is accused of "committing acts against the security of the state", which can lead to a lifetime prison sentence. HRW also released an article in which it documented how authorities in Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul are undermining the work of aid workers by harassing, threatening and arresting them and "even bringing bogus terrorism charges against them". The article explains that authorities are using charges of ISIS affiliation to force some organizations to "divert aid to corrupt local authorities" or even to stop assistance to families accused of having relatives with ties to ISIS.

As for Israel and Palestine, CPJ reported on 28 February that a UN independent commission of inquiry believes that Israeli snipers intentionally shot Palestinian journalists Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein in April 2018. This would amount to a violation of international humanitarian law as both Murtaja and Abu Hussein were clearly marked as journalists. CPJ is calling on the Israeli government to hold those responsible for the killings to account.

The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) launched their Press Freedom Index, "the first to be issued locally". Using a points system, they noted that both the West Bank and Gaza Strip scored a low rating with 492 and 475 points respectively, out of a maximum of 1000 points. To tackle attacks on freedom of the press, MADA recommended that a higher media council "independent of the government" be established to ensure the respect of press freedom rights; a law on the right to access information be passed; and complaints by media professionals regarding assaults be taken seriously by the authorities. This is in addition to requesting that media professionals be permitted to exercise their right to freedom of the press without the risk of arrest and imprisonment.

In Kuwait, the cause of the Bedoon community was once again highlighted as authorities targeted a group of human rights defenders who support Bedoon rights. The Bedoon (literally 'without' in Arabic) are a social class in Kuwait of stateless people, numbering over 100,000, who continue to be denied citizenship decades after the country's independence. According to a statement by the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) on 13 February, the government is targeting a group of human rights defenders who participated in four sit-ins in defense of Bedoon people's human rights, as well as people who expressed their support on social media. These activists, some of whom are Bedoon themselves, are continuing to demand that the community gets its right to Kuwaiti citizenship. The GCHR also reported earlier in the month that human rights defenders Abdulhakim Al-Fadhli and Hamed Jameel, both of whom are involved in the Bedoon struggle, were summoned by Kuwait's Electronic and Cyber Crime Combatting Department (ECCCD) for their Twitter activity.

In Saudi Arabia, GCHR announced on 1 February that Israa Al-Ghomgham, who was up until then the first Saudi woman risking the death penalty, was no longer facing a potential death sentence. Although she has yet to be released, GCHR noted that it was international pressure that saved her life. Al-Ghomgham took to Twitter to remind supporters that her husband and activist Mousa Al-Hashim is still risking the death penalty. The couple were arrested on 6 December 2015 for participating in peaceful demonstrations during the 2011 Arab Spring. They were charged along with four other defendants, three of whom are still facing the death penalty.

Finally, HRW said that although the Saudi government ended its 'anti-corruption campaign' at the end of January 2019, there are still people it rounded up who remain in prison "without a clear legal basis".

In Brief

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution of 1979, RSF announced that a file from the justice department was leaked. In it, RSF were able to determine that at least 860 journalists and citizen journalists were prosecuted, arrested, imprisoned and, in some cases, executed - between 1979 and 2009.

In Morocco, ANHRI reported that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has concluded that charges against Moroccan journalist Tawfiq Bouachrine are 'unfounded' and that they were in retaliation for his journalistic work and his criticism of the government. Bouachrine was sentenced on 9 November 2018 to 12 years imprisonment for "trafficking in human beings and sexual harassment."

In Tunisia, HRW released a statement on 26 February asking the government to stop its attempts to shut down a local LGBT association. In 2016, a court upheld the right to operate of the Tunis-based Shams association after the government tried to argue that the group was violating the Law on Associations. On 20 February 2019, the Tunisian government's head of state litigation appealed that decision and a hearing was scheduled for 1 March.

Meanwhile, in Oman, ADHRB released a report detailing how freedom of speech is "nonexistent" in a country where activists risk up to seven years in jail for criticising the government.

If you enjoyed this, check out all the February regional roundups!

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