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Soutoudeh receives heavy sentence, Shawkan and Alaa Abd El-Fatah complete theirs, plus Bahrain's Formula One v. human rights

In Egypt, well-known activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah was released on 29 March after five years in prison; in Iran, human rights lawyer Nasrin Soutoudeh was handed a heavy sentence of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes; F1 accused of complicity in Bahraini abuses of protesters and athletes; 2018 index reveals increase in online incitement against Palestinians in Israel; some Saudi women rights activists were freed, but most remain behind bars.

Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, shoots with a camera at his home in the capital Cairo, 4 March 2019
Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, widely known as Shawkan, shoots with a camera at his home in the capital Cairo, 4 March 2019


In Egypt, human rights defenders celebrated the release of photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, on 4 March 2019. As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported, Shawkan spent over 5 years in prison "on anti-state" charges. These are related to his documenting of the Egyptian military's violent dispersal of a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square in 2013, commonly known as the Rabaa massacre. Happiness over Shawkan's release, however, was soon tempered over news that he has to spend 12 out of every 24 hours in a police station for the next five years of his life, as well as being banned from traveling, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The well-known activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah was also finally released on 29 March after serving a five-year sentence. Global Voices Advox responded with a #WelcomeHomeAlaa piece, noting that Alaa's sister, activist Mona Seif, announced the news with a simple "Alaa is out" tweet, followed by a photo of Alaa and their dog. Alaa is a leading pro-democracy figure in Egypt and a critic of current ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

In Iran, the well-known human rights lawyer Nasrin Soutoudeh was handed a harsh sentence of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes, which was confirmed in a Facebook statement by her husband on 11 March 2019. According to ARTICLE 19, the sentence is related to her legal defense of women involved in protests against the compulsory hijab and represents "a new low for the country's repressive judiciary". Soutoudeh had already been sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2011 for giving interviews to the international media "in the aftermath of protests against the disputed presidential election in June 2009", as her profile on IFEX's Faces of Free Expression details. Notably, she was barred from practising law and banned from traveling for 20 years, both later reduced to six years.

Bahrain was once again in the spotlight for its ongoing repression of human rights activists. This has been especially relevant given the yearly Formula One (F1) Grand Prix race taking place in March despite the kingdom's notorious treatment of athletes. Various IFEX members have called upon both the Bahraini government and the F1 to respect human rights, culminating in a statement signed by 25 NGOs including Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), ARTICLE 19, Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) and Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State.

In response to a statement by The F1 Group, Human Rights Watch (HRW) declared that the group has been disregarding its human rights commitments even though "some of the abuses appear to be directly related" to its activities in Bahrain. ADHRB noted that the F1's response to a previous statement by seventeen NGOs sent on 6 February "was ultimately lackluster". Referring to the case of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf, who was detained and tortured for her social media activity criticising the 2017 Grand Prix in Bahrain, ADHRB said that the F1 merely cited the government's "reassurance that Yusuf's charges were unrelated" to the yearly F1 grand prix. HRW also said that such claims are false "given the spate of arrests and convictions ahead of the races every year". As for BCHR, they listed the cases of Ali Marhoun and Mohammed Khalil, two Bahraini athletes who have been arrested since January 2019. They join another two athletes who have also been persecuted, apparently for their political views, since the beginning of the year.

In Israel and Palestine, 7amleh - Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media released its 2018 index of racism and incitement on Israeli social media against Palestinians. It found an average of an inciting post every 66 seconds, or 474,250 during the year. This represents an increase from 2017 (up from every 71 seconds). 7amleh also released its "Hashtag Palestine 2018" report. In it, they describe how the Israeli government systematically targeted Palestinians and their right to freedom of expression online. This includes the arrest of 350 Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank on charges of "incitement" due to their social media activites.

As for Hamas, which rules the Gaza strip, it has arrested at least three journalists according to CPJ. The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) noted that the journalists were covering protests against the high cost of living in Gaza.

As for Saudi Arabia, GCHR released a statement on 23 March calling on the authorities to drop all charges against and free Saudi human rights defender Dr Mohammed Al-Qahtani who is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Al-Ha'ir criminal prison.

The kingdom has been under continuous pressure to release women's rights activists from prison, including Loujain Al-Hathloul, Aziza Al-Yousef, Eman Al-Nafjan, Nouf Abdelaziz, Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Mohammed Al-Bajadi, Amal Al-Harbi, and Shadan Al-Anezi. On 8 March, over 50 human rights groups called on the Saudi government to release these activists.

On 13 March, two journalists, Eman Al Nafjan and Hatoon al-Fassi, appeared in court on charges under the infamous cybercrime law. According to CPJ, they are among four female journalists who were critical of the ban on women driving, and who were arrested shortly before the ban was lifted. On 17 March, GCHR reported that nine women human rights defenders had the first hearing of their trial in Riyadh. Finally, on 29 March GCHR reported that three of them, Aziza Al-Youssef, Eman Al-Nafjan and Dr. Rokaya Mohareb, were freed, although the first two only 'temporarily'. At the time of writing, the others were still behind bars.

GCHR honored women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in the region and beyond on International Women's Day on 8 March. In addition to celebrating their achievements and remembering those who have died, GCHR highlighted the gender-specific challenges WHRDs face and reiterated its calls to enable more protection and support for them.

In Brief

In Algeria, ongoing protests against the government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika have led to the use of teargas as well as arbitrary arrests, according to HRW. In power since 1999, Bouteflika declared his intention to run again on 10 February 10. He has not given a speech since 2012, when he suffered a stroke. Journalists, having been prevented from covering the protests, decided to organise their own. In an interview with CPJ, Algerian journalist Lynda Abbou explained why the protests "were a pivotal moment for journalists frustrated at censorship."

In Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, GCHR urged the authorities to uphold their commitments to public freedoms, including refraining from targeting journalists and activists, following a crackdown by Dohuk's intelligence agency, or Asayish, as well as the National Security Directorate in Najaf. CPJ also sent its Middle East and North Africa representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado to the cities of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Duhok to speak to journalists who say they are vulnerable against attacks and harassment linked to the "partisan divide" in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In Lebanon, Social Media Exchange (SMEX) launched 'Muhal' on 1 March, an online freedom of expression case database which "aims to raise awareness about these issues" and in particular "regarding defamation and libel", the two main causes of arrest of journalists and activists.

In Libya, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) in cooperation with the Libya Platform (LP) coalition released a "roadmap for human rights and restoring the rule of law in Libya" which includes a call to respect freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

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

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