“Shock and anger must translate into real action”: UN Secretary-General condemns cases of reprisals in report presented to Human Rights Council
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
(Geneva, September 19, 2018) – On September 19, 2018, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, presented the annual report on reprisals against individuals who cooperate with the UN to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva.
Human Rights Council resolution 12/2, adopted on October 1, 2009, invited the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) to publish an annual report on the issue of reprisals against individuals cooperating with UN mechanisms. His report on “cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights” was first published in 2010.
Of the 29 countries in which new cases of reprisals were raised in the 2018 report, six were in the Middle East and North Africa, namely Bahrain, Egypt, Djibouti, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. The UNSG also followed up or presented updated information on cases of reprisals in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In May 2018, Alkarama submitted a report to the UNSG, providing information on 13 of the 23 cases raised across the MENA region.
“[W]e should all be deeply shocked and angered by the extent to which civil society actors suffer reprisals because of their work, including when they cooperate with the UN,” Gilmour said following the publication of the report. “But shock and anger must translate into real action. Governments can do much more to stop reprisals, ensure that they do not recur, and hold those responsible to account for their actions.”
In his 2018 report, the UNSG followed up on the case of Rafik Belamrania, a founding member of Mish’al, an association defending the rights of the children of the disappeared in Algeria. Belamrania is the author of a complaint submitted to the Human Rights Committee (HR Committee) in 2012 on behalf of his father, Mohammed, who was arrested, tortured, and summarily executed by the Algerian army in 1995.
On February 20, 2017, three days after posting the HR Committee’s decision on his father’s case to his Facebook page, Belamrania was summoned to the Central Security Police Station in the province of Jijel. After being interrogated over the post as well as his complaint to the HR Committee and his activism with Mish’al, Belamrania was charged with “supporting terrorism” by the Public Prosecutor of the Jijel Criminal Court, and, on November 15, 2017, in the absence of any material evidence, Belamrania was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, and a further three years’ deprivation of his civil and political rights.
After submitting an appeal, on February 5, 2018, Belamrania was sentenced to one year in prison followed by a two-year suspended sentence. He was subsequently released on February 16, 2018, but has not been granted any reparation or rehabilitation.
In the report, the UNSG highlighted “an ongoing trend of harassment and intimidation against Bahraini civil society representatives seeking to cooperate with the United Nations, the sweeping imposition of travel bans on around 20 individuals and the arrest, detention, sexual assault and torture and other forms of ill-treatment of targeted individuals.”
Over the reporting period, the UNSG noted a number of travel bans which prevented civil society members from participating in the UN Human Rights Council, as well as threats of violence and psychological intimidation as a result of previous participation in the Council and to discourage individuals from speaking out again.
The UNSG highlighted the case of Sayed Ahmed Al-Wadaei of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, whose family members were sentenced on terrorism-related charges in October 2017 after being arrested in March 2017 while Al-Wadaei was attending the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The UNSG also followed up on the case of Ebtesam Al-Saegh of SALAM for Democracy and Human Rights, whose case was addressed in the 2017 reprisals report. In 2017, the UNSG reported that Al-Saegh had been subjected to a number of measures of reprisals, including a travel ban, arbitrary arrest and torture as a result of her participation in the HRC and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). In the 2018 report, the UNSG provided details of further acts – including threatening messages received by Al-Saegh – that had occurred over both reporting years.
More information was provided on the case of Nabeel Rajab of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was arrested on June 13, 2016 for “spreading false news and rumours about the internal situation in a bid to discredit Bahrain”, after having been subjected to a travel ban since 2015. On June 5, 2018, the Court of Cassation upheld a five-year sentence against Rajab. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had previously condemned the sentence against Rajab “simply for exercising his right to freedom of expression and opinion.”
The UNSG followed up on the case of Nedal Al-Salman, also a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was prevented from leaving Bahrain on a number of occasions – including while on her way to the Human Rights Council in Geneva – due to travel bans.
The UNSG reported that Kadar Abdi Ibrahim, a professor, journalist and human rights defender from Djibouti, was prevented from attending the UPR of Djibouti in May 2018.
According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Ibrahim travelled to Geneva in April 2018 to conduct advocacy ahead of the UPR. Upon his return to Djibouti, he was detained by Secret Service agents and had his passport confiscated by the authorities, preventing him from participating in the May review.
Ebrahim Metwally Hegazy, a lawyer and General Coordinator of the Association of the families of the disappeared in Egypt, was travelling to Geneva to meet with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) on September 10, 2017 when he disappeared at Cairo International Airport. Metwally had previously submitted a complaint to the WGEID on behalf of his son, who has remained disappeared since his 2013 arrest.
Metwally was charged with, among other things, “founding and leading an illegal terrorist organisation” and “spreading false information”, and he remains in solitary confinement in pre-trial detention to date. The WGEID has expressed concern that the charges against Metwally relate to his documentation of cases of enforced disappearance and his submissions to the WGEID.
The UNSG also raised the case of Hanane Baderraddine Adbalhafez Othman, a human rights activist working with families of disappeared persons who documented a number of cases for the WGEID. Othman was arrested on May 6, 2017 at the Al Qanater Al Khayriyah Prison, where she had gone to enquire about the fate and whereabouts of her husband, who disappeared on July 27, 2013 following his arrest. She was subsequently charged with “belonging to a banned group” and “forming a women’s organisation”. The UNSG raised concern over Othman’s prolonged pre-trial detention as well as allegations that she has been denied medical care.
Additionally, the UNSG followed up on the case of Ahmed Shawky Abdelsattar Mohamed Amasha, who was abducted, detained, tortured and ill-treated as a result of his human rights work, as detailed in the 2017 reprisals report. In November 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted an Opinion declaring that Amasha’s detention arbitrary and calling for his immediate release.
The 2017 report also addressed the measures of reprisals against members of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), including Mohamed Zaree and Bahey El-Din Hassan. The UNSG expressed concern over Egyptian legislation that enables the restriction of civil society space in the country, including by limiting the ability of civil society actors to participate with the UN.
In the 2016 reprisals report, the UNSG highlighted the acts of reprisals against Imad Amara and Faisal al-Tamimi, volunteers at Al Wissam Humanitarian Assembly, an NGO that documents cases of enforced disappearances in Iraq. In the 2018 report, the UNSG raised more recent acts of reprisals against Amara and al-Tamimi, including reports of death threats and attempted killings, which were addressed by three UN Special Procedures in April 2018.
The UNSG raised the case of Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, who had his work permit revoked by the Israeli authorities on May 7, 2018 over his alleged support of boycotts against Israel, and was subsequently ordered to leave the country. A number of UN experts called upon the Israeli government to revoke its decision, which they said “appears connected solely to his human rights research and advocacy” and “not to any allegation of wrongdoing”. The first court hearing took place in June 2018, and at the time of publishing of the UNSG’s report, the case was under the review of a district court.
On November 15, 2016, the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) found that Morocco had violated the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT) – which it ratified in 1993 – in the case of Ennaâma Asfari, a Sahrawi human rights defender. The UNSG reported that Asfari had faced reprisals following this decision; not only has his treatment in detention deteriorated, including placement in solitary confinement, but his wife has also been denied entry into Morocco repeatedly.
In the 2017 report, the UNSG expressed concern over the prolonged detention of Abdul Rahman Alhaj Ali, which the CAT considered to be linked to the complaint submitted on his behalf in 2015. Alhaj Ali, a Syrian national, was arrested on October 30, 2014 and detained pending extradition to Saudi Arabia. In its decision, the CAT urged the Moroccan authorities to either release Alhaj Ali or try him if charges were brought against him in Morocco. In the 2018 report, the UNSG cited information received by the CAT stating that Alhaj Ali had been notified that his detention had been extended as a result of his action before the CAT. Alhaj Ali was released on May 16, 2018, putting an end to three and a half years of arbitrary detention.
The UNSG also followed up on the case of Ghalia Djimi, a member of the Association Sahraouie des victimes des graves violations des droits de l’homme commises par l’État du Maroc (ASVDH). Acts of reprisals against Djimi were raised in both the 2016 and 2017 reprisals reports. The UNSG reported that in 2018, after participating in a session of the WGEID, Djimi was subjected to online defamation. Additionally, the UNSG reported that Mina Baali, also a member of l’ASVDH, was subjected to reprisals at her place of work after participating in the June 2017 Human Rights Council.
In Saudi Arabia, the UNSG raised the case of human rights defender Essa Al Nukheifi, who was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on February 28, 2018. Al Nukheifi was arrested in December 2016 and questioned about his about his activities on social media and contact with international human rights organisations as well as the UN Special Procedures. Al Nukheifi had been consulted by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights prior to his visit to Saudi Arabia in January 2017. In August 2017, Al Nukheifi had been charged with, among other charges, “seeking to destabilise the social fabric and national cohesion”. He is currently detained at Mecca General Prison, where he has been repeatedly threatened with torture and denied family visits.
The UNSG also raised the case of Salim Abdullah Hussain Abu Abdullah, who was the subject of an Opinion by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention following his December 2014 arrest. Since the issuance of the Opinion in April 2017, Abu Abdullah has been placed in solitary confinement repeatedly and denied regular contact with his family as a measure of reprisal.
In 2017, Issa Al-Hamid, a member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), was arrested in the context of an ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. The UNSG’s 2017 report highlighted the fact that Al-Hamid had been sentenced to 11 years in prison – after which he would banned from travelling for an equivalent period of time – and fined 100,000 Riyals (USD 26,662). In 2018, the UNSG noted that three special procedures had raised concerns over allegations of reprisals against Al-Hamid for his cooperation with the UN. The government subsequently responded, but did not address the allegations of reprisals.
United Arab Emirates
The UNSG raised the case of Mohamad Ismat Mohamad Shaker Az, the subject of WGAD Opinion No. 21/2017, which found his detention to be arbitrary. Following the issuance of the Opinion, Az was transferred to solitary confinement, and told that the prosecutor would request that his sentence be increased from 15 years to life imprisonment. On October 4, 2017, two special procedures expressed concern over these measures of reprisals to which Az was subjected in retaliation for the Opinion.
Reprisals against renowned human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor were highlighted previously in the 2017 report. The UNSG described allegations that – as a result of his cooperation with a number of UN mechanisms – Mansoor had been subjected to a series of reprisals including physical assaults, death threats, government surveillance and a travel ban. In March 2017, Mansoor was arrested, and, on May 29, 2018, he was sentenced to ten years in prison followed by three years’ surveillance upon his release, as well as a fine of one million Dirhams (USD 272,294).
The UNSG also followed up on the case of blogger and human rights defender Osama Al Najjar, who was subjected to reprisals after meeting with UN Special Rapporteur Gabriela Knaul during her visit to the UAE in 2014. Al Najjar was arrested, tortured and held incommunicado in 2014, and was due to be released in March 2017. Al Najjar’s case featured in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 reports of the UNSG. The UNSG reported that in March 2017, the Federal Supreme Court refused to release him, and instead transferred him to a “counselling centre”, which the government described as consisting of “psychological, social and religious sessions to uproot terrorist and extremist ideologies”. This transfer was subsequently renewed twice in June and December 2017.
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