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Freedoms of peaceful assembly and association are enshrined in article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), as well as articles 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Freedom of peaceful assembly is the individual right to take part in peaceful gatherings such as a demonstrations or public meetings. The right to freedom of association is the right of everyone to meet, form or join societies, clubs, unions or political parties in order to pursue a specific interest.
Both articles 21 and 22 of the ICCPR state that: “No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Despite the fact that international law provides for a strict interpretation for these limitations of freedom of assembly and association, Arab States often use “national security”, “public order” or the “protection of morals” as a pretext to completely deny these rights by passing restrictive laws. Peaceful demonstrations are either forbidden or violently repressed and protestors arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted. Moreover, the creation of associations is often closely controlled by governments through restrictive laws and procedures. Associations or NGOs established in order to protect the rights and interests of citizens are routinely forbidden and their members prosecuted.
The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (SR FPAA) monitors the respect of those rights in all countries and ensure that laws and restrictions applicable on the creation of associations and organisation of demonstrations are in line with international standards.
On 14 February 2017, on the sixth anniversary of the 2011 popular uprising in Bahrain, a number of protests were held all over the country including in the village of Samaheej, north eastern Bahrain, where mass arrests were conducted by the riot police. Among those arrested was 16-year-old Abbas Aoun Faraj, commonly known as Abbas Aoun, who had not taken part in the protests and who was a few meters from his house when the riot police violently apprehended him.
Bahraini authorities have reached a new low in the arrest and torture of a young man suffering from intellectual disabilities. On 13 December 2017, 18-year-old Kumail Hamida was arrested from his home in the village of Al Sanabis at 4:30 am by masked men in civilian clothing, held incommunicado for three days and subjected to torture to force him to confess to the charges of “participating in demonstrations” and “filming protests”. Kumail was also forced to sign written statements despite the fact that he is unable to read or write.
On 5 and 6 December 2016, five young men from the town of Bani Jamrah in north-western Bahrain were arrested from their homes by masked men in civilian clothing between 2 and 6 am. The men, including two minors, were repeatedly beaten all over their body, shackled and forced to stand up for two whole days before being forced to confess to the charge of “participating in demonstrations”.
On 5 January 2017, Ahmed Maher Ibrahim Tantawy, founder of the 6 April Youth Movement, was released after having served a three-year sentence. However, he remains under judicial supervision for three more years, a measure which entails that the activist must spend every night in police custody at his district police station from 6 pm to 6 am.
On 25 October 2011, Syrian political activist Mahmoud Al Merhi was arrested at an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint in Homs and remains disappeared since.
Alkarama is deeply concerned by the ongoing crackdown against peaceful opposition politicians and demonstrators in Khartoum, Sudan. This repression led to the arbitrary arrest and detention of dozens of political opponents by the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) in November 2016.
On 1 December 2016, Essa Al Hamid’s sentence was increased on appeal to 11 years in prison, a fine of 100.000 Riyals and a travel ban of 11 years for his peaceful human rights activism within the Saudi Civil and political Rights Association (ACPRA). Alkarama, concerned about the pattern of criminalisation of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, thus solicited the urgent intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders (SR HRD), Michel Forst.
On 28 July 2016, the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) of Riyadh sentenced Abdelkarim Al Hawaj to death after a flawed trial in which, confessions made under torture were admitted as sole evidence. On 24 November 2016, Alkarama raised his case with the Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions (SUMEX), calling for her intervention with the Saudi authorities to demand the repeal of Abdelkarim’s death sentence.
Ten years ago, on 1 November 2006, Jordan enacted the "Prevention of Terrorism Act", in response to the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman that left 60 people dead. In 2014, faced with threats stemming from the spillover of the Syrian war, the law was amended and broadened to include nonviolent acts, in an attempt to legitimise the government's crackdown on peaceful expression and assembly. Journalists, political opponents, freedom of expression advocates and human rights defenders have since been put to trial under the pretext of "terrorism".