FOCUS: Reprisals Continue in the Arab World as Civil Society Space Shrinks


On 14 May 2015, Alkarama has provided the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon with a report on the state of reprisals in the Arab world and in particular on individuals who have suffered from harassment and intimidation for their cooperation with the UN, especially in Oman, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Despite repeated calls to end reprisals, Arab States continue to relentlessly attack all Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) cooperating with the UN and systematically seek to undermine the work of UN experts and Special Rapporteurs, leaving a shrinking civil society space behind them.

In 2009, concerned with "the continued reports of intimidation and reprisals against individuals and groups who seek to cooperate or have cooperated with the United Nations" and "the fact that victims suffer violations of their human rights, including the rights to life, liberty and security of the person, as well as the right to freedom from torture," the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted Resolution 12/2 inviting the UNSG to annually report on alleged reprisals against HRDs, and in particular persons who seek cooperate with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms, as well as relatives of victims of human rights violations and all those who have provided assistance to victims.

In September 2013, the HRC adopted another resolution on reprisals (Resolution 24/24) calling upon States to enact laws and policies to protect HRDs at the national level, to prohibit all forms of intimidation or reprisal against HRDs, and to appoint a UN focal point to whom people who have suffered from retaliation for their cooperation with the UN could turn to. Out of the five Arab States members of the HRC at the time, only Libya voted in favour of the Resolution, while Kuwait, Mauritania, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates abstained.

Alkarama raises new cases of reprisals with the UN Secretary-General in Oman and Syria...

In Oman, where the retaliation against human rights defenders has become systematic, Said Jadad, a prominent activist and advocate for democracy in his country was arrested in December 2014, three months after meeting with the Special Rapporteur on the rights and freedom of peaceful assembly and association (SR FPAA), Maina Kiai during his visit to the country in September 2014. After 12 days in secret detention, during which he was questioned about his "ties with international NGOs working for the protection of human rights", Jadad was set free only to be arrested again on 21 January 2015. On 8 March 2015, he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment for "harming the State's prestige," despite a public call from UN experts for his immediate release.

Jadad is not the only HRD to have suffered reprisals from his meeting with Kiai. In August 2014, Omani journalist and human rights activist Mohammad al Fazari was summoned by the Royal Police, for "reasons that concern him personally". He was subsequently detained in secret for five days, before the authorities confiscated his identity documents and imposed a travel ban in December, a tool of repression increasingly used by the Omani authorities to silence dissident voices.

In Syria, two human rights defenders, Jadia Abdallah Nawfal, Director of the Syrian Centre for Democracy and Civil Rights, and Omar Al Shaar, Editor-in-chief of the Day Press News' English section, were arrested on 31 October upon their return from Beirut where they attended human rights conferences and workshops. After numerous UN Special Procedures holders intervened with the Syrian authorities on their behalf in November, they were both set free on 18 December 2014.

... And expresses concerns over continued cases of reprisals in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria

In Egypt, the case of Alkarama's Country Representative Ahmed Mefreh, which was raised by the UNSG in his 2014 report, saw new developments. In September 2013, an arrest warrant was issued accusing him of "being a member of an armed organisation," as a reprisal for his work as a human rights defender documenting then the killing of 985 peaceful demonstrators in Rabaa Adawiya and Nahda squares in Cairo. Today, Mefreh is being prosecuted in absentia with 49 other people on trumped-up charges including: "joining an illegal group aiming at impeding the enforcement of the Constitution and the law; disrupting institutions; hampering personal rights guaranteed by the Constitution; damaging national unity and social peace while pursuing terrorist goals to overthrow the authorities; assaulting police forces and public facilities; and disrupting the public order."

In Saudi Arabia, where the authorities continue to crackdown on human rights activists, Alkarama updated Ban Ki-moon on the cases of Fawzan Al Harbi, Abdullah Al Hamid and Mohammad Fahad Al Qahtani, all founding members of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Associations (ACPRA) on behalf of whom the UNSG had raised concerns in both his 2013 and 2014 reports. ACPRA, an NGO founded in 2009 to document cases of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, suffered from reprisals by the authorities for having provided the UN with information, often via Alkarama. On 19 November 2014, after having been accused of "spreading false information about the Saudi government," Fawzan Al Harbi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and subjected to a 10-year travel ban. Abdullah Al Hamid and Mohammad Al Qahtani, who were sentenced in March 2013 respectively to 10 and 11 years of imprisonment by the Criminal Court of Riyadh for having provided "false information as evidence to official international apparatuses such as the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council," continue to be detained despite a call from several UN Special Procedures for their release. Finally, Alkarama informed the UNSG that Fadhel Al Manasif, a Saudi human rights defender whose case was raised in the UNSG's 2011 report, on 17 April 2014 was sentenced by the Specialized Criminal Court to 15 years plus a travel ban of the same length after his prior sentence, and a fine of 100,000 Riyals (US$ 26,666) for charges that included "breaking allegiance with the king" and "being in contact with foreign news agencies in order to exaggerate news and harm the reputation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people".

In Syria, Alkarama informed Ban Ki-moon of the 23rd postponement of the hearing of Mazen Darwish, President of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression and his colleagues, Hussayn Gharir and Hani Zitani before the Anti-Terrorism Court, despite the call from both the UNSG (in 2013 and 2014) and other UN Special Procedures (in 2013 and 2014) for their release. What is more, on 9 June 2014, a presidential amnesty was issued pardoning all individuals charged with "promoting terrorist acts," but Mazen Darwish and his colleagues were excluded from the pardon, as highlighted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein in February. Finally, Alkarama reported the continuous secret detention of Khalil Matouk, a human rights lawyer – who defended, amongst others, Mazen Darwish and his colleagues – and Director of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research, whose case was raised by the UNSG in 2014. Arrested in October 2012, he has been, since March 2013, detained incommunicado at an Air Force Intelligence Branch, despite a UN call for his release.

"It is important to recall that, because not all victims are able to advocate their own case, or because they fear further reprisals, we should never forget that these cases are only the tip of the iceberg, as Ban Ki-moon highlighted in his last reprisals report," says Inès Osman, Legal Coordinator at Alkarama. "The international community needs to stand by these women and men and fight against impunity for these unacceptable acts of reprisals. These individuals do not only 'cooperate with the UN,' they embody the fight for a world in which all people can demand their rights without fear." Today, Alkarama also urges all Arab states to ensure that all voices, including dissenting ones, can be heard without fear from reprisals.

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