Middle East and North Africa 2017/2018
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Middle East and North Africa 2017/2018

Journalists and human rights defenders were targeted in government crackdowns, and online expression was heavily controlled in several countries. Civil society activists managed to halt further tightening of restrictions on free expression in some places. Freedom of religion and belief came under attack from armed groups and governments alike. The struggle of women’s rights movements successfully led to the amendment of laws that had entrenched discrimination and violence against women in some countries. However, systematic discrimination remained in law and practice across the region and women were still inadequately protected against gender-based violence. Authorities arrested and prosecuted people for their real or perceived sexual orientation in some countries, and consensual same-sex sexual relations were still criminalized in many, in a handful of cases punishable by death. There were severe restrictions on trade unions in some countries, and migrant workers continued to face exploitation and abuse. However, reforms in a couple of countries gave migrant workers greater employment protections. Armed conflicts took a heavy toll on beleaguered civilians and were characterized by serious violations, including the use of banned weapons, unlawful sieges, and direct attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Death sentences were imposed in a number of countries across the region, and hundreds of executions were carried out. Impunity persisted for historical and recent crimes; however, some progress was made towards securing truth and justice for victims.

Freedoms of expression, association and assembly

Governments across the Middle East and North Africa repressed civil society both offline and online in an attempt to prevent or punish reporting on human rights violations or other criticism directed at them or their allies, often on the pretext that they were combating threats to national security or corruption. They also used excessive force in an attempt to quell protest movements that had taken to the streets.

Crackdowns in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

In some countries, increased clampdowns accompanied a global trend that saw political strongmen attempting to establish their credentials in the eyes of the international community. In President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, the authorities continued to curb the work of human rights defenders in an unprecedented manner, shutting down or freezing the assets of NGOs; they enacted a draconian new law that gave them broad powers to dissolve NGOs and provided for five years’ imprisonment for publishing research without government permission. The Egyptian authorities also sentenced at least 15 journalists to prison terms on charges related solely to their writing, including publication of what the authorities deemed “false information”; they blocked more than 400 websites, including those of independent newspapers and human rights organizations. Meanwhile, security forces arrested hundreds of individuals based on their membership or perceived membership of the Muslim Brotherhood. To punish political dissidents, the authorities used prolonged pre-trial detention, often for periods of more than two years, placed those imprisoned in indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement, and subjected many of those released to probation periods in which they were forced to spend up to 12 hours per day in a police station, amounting to arbitrary deprivation of liberty.

Saudi Arabia witnessed the promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to the role of Crown Prince in June as part of a broader re-engineering of the political landscape. In the months that followed, the authorities intensified their crackdown on freedom of expression, detaining more than 20 prominent religious figures, writers, journalists, academics and activists in one week in September. They also put human rights defenders on trial on charges related to their peaceful activism before the Specialized Criminal Court, a tribunal set up to try terrorism-related cases. At the end of the year, despite the image the palace wished to portray of a more tolerant country, the majority of Saudi Arabia’s human rights defenders were either in prison or facing grossly unfair trials.

Attacks on journalists and human rights defenders

Elsewhere, human rights advocacy and journalistic reporting, as well as criticism of official institutions, led to prosecution and imprisonment and, in some cases, smear campaigns orchestrated by the government or its supporters.

In Iran, the authorities jailed scores of peaceful critics including women’s rights activists, minority rights and environmental activists, trade unionists, lawyers, and those seeking truth, justice and reparation for the mass executions of the 1980s.

In Bahrain, the government arbitrarily detained human rights defenders and government critics and subjected others to travel bans or the stripping of their nationality, dissolved the independent al-Wasat newspaper and the opposition political group Waad, maintained a ban on demonstrations in the capital, Manama, and used unnecessary and excessive force to disperse protests elsewhere.

In Morocco and Western Sahara, the authorities prosecuted and imprisoned a number of journalists, bloggers and activists who criticized officials or reported on human rights violations, corruption or popular protests, such as those that took place in the northern Rif region, where security forces conducted mass arrests of largely peaceful protesters, including children, and sometimes used excessive or unnecessary force.

The Kuwaiti authorities imprisoned several government critics and online activists under legal provisions that criminalized comments deemed offensive to the Emir or damaging to relations with neighbouring states.

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a number of journalists and online activists were subjected to arbitrary arrest, death threats and smear campaigns, a pattern that escalated in the run-up to an independence referendum in September called by the region’s president.

In Yemen, the Huthi armed group arbitrarily arrested and detained critics, journalists and human rights defenders in the capital, Sana’a, and other areas they controlled.

Meanwhile, the Israeli authorities banned entry into Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories to individuals supporting or working for organizations that had issued or promoted a statement which the authorities deemed to be a call to boycott Israel or Israeli entities, including settlements, targeted both Palestinian and Israeli human rights NGOs through harassment and campaigns to undermine their work, and deployed forces that used rubber-coated metal bullets and live ammunition against Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, killing at least 20 and injuring thousands.

Online repression

Governments other than Egypt also made efforts to increase their control of expression on the internet. The State of Palestine adopted the Electronic Crimes Law in July, permitting the arbitrary detention of journalists, whistle-blowers and others who criticize the authorities online. The law allowed for prison sentences and up to 25 years’ hard labour for anyone deemed to have disturbed “public order”, “national unity” or “social peace”. Several Palestinian journalists and human rights defenders were charged under the law.

Jordan continued to block access to certain websites, including online forums. Oman blocked the online publication of Mowaten newspaper, and the effect of trials against Azamn newspaper and some of its journalists continued to reverberate following its publication in 2016 of allegations of corruption in the government and the judiciary. In Iran, judicial officials attempted to block the popular messaging application Telegram, but failed because of opposition from the government; other popular social media websites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were still blocked.

Gulf political crisis

The political crisis in the Gulf triggered in June, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt severed relations with Qatar and accused it of financing and harbouring terrorists and interfering in the domestic affairs of its neighbours, had an impact beyond the paralysis of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced that they would treat criticism of the measures taken against Qatar, or sympathy with Qatar or its people, as a criminal offence, punishable by a prison term.

Civil society fight-back

Civil society did, however, make significant efforts to stem the tide of measures attempting to restrict freedom of expression. In Tunisia, activists put the brakes on a new bill that could bolster impunity for security forces by criminalizing criticism of police conduct and granting officers immunity from prosecution for unnecessary use of lethal force. In Palestine, the authorities agreed to amend the Electronic Crimes Law following huge pressure from civil society.

Freedom of religion and belief

Abuses by armed groups

Armed groups targeted religious minorities in several countries. The armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) and other armed groups killed and injured scores of civilians across Iraq and Syria in suicide bombings and other deadly attacks that targeted Shi’a religious shrines and other public spaces in predominantly Shi’a neighbourhoods. The UN reported in January that nearly 2,000 Yazidi women and children remained in IS captivity in Iraq and Syria. They were enslaved and subjected to rape, beatings and other torture. In Egypt, IS claimed responsibility for the bombing of two churches which left at least 44 dead in April, and unidentified militants launched a bomb and gun attack at a mosque in North Sinai during Friday prayers in November, killing more than 300 Sufi Muslim worshippers – the deadliest attack by an armed group in Egypt since 2011.

In Yemen, the Huthis and their allies subjected members of the Baha’i community to arbitrary arrest and detention.

Restrictions by governments

In Algeria, the authorities were engaged in a new clampdown against the Ahmadi religious movement; during the year more than 280 Ahmadis were prosecuted because of their religious beliefs and practices.

Elsewhere, government restrictions followed a familiar pattern. In Saudi Arabia, the authorities discriminated against members of the Shi’a Muslim minority because of their faith, limiting their right to religious expression and their access to justice, and arbitrarily restricting their right to work and access to state services. Shi’a activists continued to face arrest, imprisonment and – in some cases – the death penalty following unfair trials.

In Iran, freedom of religion and belief was systematically violated, in law and practice. Widespread and systematic attacks continued to be carried out against the Baha’i religious minority. These included arbitrary arrests, lengthy imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment, forcible closure of Baha’i-owned businesses, confiscation of Baha’i properties, bans on employment in the public sector and denial of access to universities. Other religious minorities not recognized under the Constitution, such as Yaresan (Ahl-e Haq), also faced systematic discrimination, including in education and employment, and were persecuted for practising their faith. The right to change or renounce religious beliefs continued to be violated. A number of Christian converts received prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.

Women’s rights

Long-term struggles by women’s rights movements resulted in some positive developments during the year.

Laws were amended in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia to stop rapists escaping prosecution (or benefiting from reduced penalties) if they married their victim. However, legislation in many other countries retained such a loophole. Jordan also struck out a provision that allowed reduced sentences for men found guilty of killing a female relative in a “fit of rage caused by an unlawful or dangerous act on the part of the victim”, but kept one that granted leniency for “honour” killings of female relatives found in an “adulterous situation”. Tunisia’s parliament adopted the Law on Eliminating Violence against Women, which brought in several guarantees for the protection of women and girls from gender-based violence, and its president repealed a decree prohibiting marriage between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim man.

In Qatar, a draft law was approved to provide permanent residency rights for the children of Qatari women married to non-Qataris, but discrimination persisted, with women unable to pass on their nationality and citizenship to their children.

In Saudi Arabia, a royal order was issued in September allowing women to drive from mid-2018, although there were questions about how it would be implemented in practice. In April, another royal order had instructed all government agencies that women should not be denied access to government services if they did not have a male guardian’s consent, unless existing regulations required it. However, the order appeared to keep in place regulations that explicitly require a guardian’s approval, such as for women to travel abroad, obtain a passport, or marry.

Despite the positive developments, entrenched discrimination against women in law and in practice, notably in matters of marriage and divorce, inheritance and child custody, remained in these and many other countries in the region. Women were inadequately protected against sexual and other gender-based violence, as well as forced and early marriage.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people

While sexual orientation and gender identity issues were increasingly on the agendas of mainstream human rights movements in the region, governments continued to heavily limit the enjoyment of the rights of LGBTI people in law and practice.

In Egypt, in the worst crackdown in over a decade, the authorities rounded up and prosecuted people for their perceived sexual orientation after a rainbow flag was displayed at a concert in Cairo in September performed by Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, who had been banned from playing in Jordan earlier in the year. Security forces arrested at least 76 people and subjected at least five to anal examinations, a practice which amounts to torture. Courts sentenced at least 48 people to prison terms of between three months and six years on charges that included “habitual debauchery”. In October, parliamentarians proposed a deeply discriminatory law explicitly criminalizing same-sex sexual relations and any public promotion of LGBTI gatherings, symbols or flags.

Countries including Morocco and Tunisia continued to arrest people and sentence them to terms of imprisonment under laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual relations. In Tunisia, while the police subjected men accused of such relations to forced anal examinations, the government accepted a recommendation under the UN Universal Periodic Review process in September to end their use. Elsewhere, in countries including Iran and Saudi Arabia, some consensual same-sex sexual conduct remained punishable by death.

Right to work

Trade unions

Some governments heavily curtailed trade union rights.

In Egypt, the authorities subjected dozens of workers and trade unionists to arrest, military trial, dismissal and a range of disciplinary measures solely for exercising their rights to strike and to form independent trade unions. In December, parliament passed a law tripling the number of members (from 50 to 150) that independent trade unions need to obtain legal recognition.

In Algeria, the authorities continued to deny registration to the independent, cross-sector General Autonomous Confederation for Algerian Workers – it first filed its application in 2013 – and banned the National Autonomous Electricity and Gas Trade Union by withdrawing its recognition.

Migrant workers’ rights

Across the Gulf and in other countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, migrant workers, including those in the domestic, construction and other sectors, continued to face exploitation and abuse. However, there were some positive developments. In Qatar, the government passed two new laws in August. One established a labour dispute mechanism, which could address some of the barriers to migrant workers accessing justice. The other provided legal protections for domestic workers’ labour rights for the first time, including paid holidays and a limit to working hours. However, the law was open to abuse of a provision allowing domestic workers to work beyond the legal limit if they “agreed”. In October, the Qatari government announced new reform plans, including a minimum wage and a fund to pay unpaid workers, and the International Labour Organization published details of a package it had agreed with Qatar to reform the kafala sponsorship system, which prevents migrant workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without their employers’ permission.

In the UAE, a law came into effect in September limiting working hours and providing paid leave and the right to retain personal documents.

Rights to housing, water and health

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

The year marked the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the 10th anniversary of its illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israeli authorities intensified the expansion of settlements and related infrastructure across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and carried out a large number of demolitions of Palestinian property, forcibly evicting more than 660 people. Many of these demolitions were in Bedouin and herding communities that the Israeli authorities planned to forcibly transfer.

Israel’s air, land and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip continued the long-standing restrictions on the movement of people and goods, collectively punishing Gaza’s entire population of approximately 2 million inhabitants. Combined with Egypt’s almost total closure of the Rafah border crossing, and the West Bank authorities’ punitive measures, Israel’s blockade triggered a humanitarian crisis with power cuts, reducing access to electricity to a few hours per day, affecting the supply of clean water and sanitation and reducing access to health services.

Elsewhere in the region, Palestinian refugees, including many long-term residents, remained subject to discriminatory laws. In Lebanon, they continued to be excluded from many types of work, owning or inheriting property and from accessing public education and health services.

Water, sanitation and health

Civil society raised a number of cases before the Lebanese judiciary related to violations of the rights to health and clean water, including cases related to the sale of expired drugs in public hospitals and to waste mismanagement.

In Tunisia, water shortages became acute. The government admitted it did not have a national strategy for water distribution, thereby making it impossible to ensure equitable access. Marginalized regions were disproportionately affected by water cuts, leading to local protests throughout the year.

Counter-terror and security

Serious human rights violations accompanied counter-terrorism measures in several countries.

In Egypt, where more than 100 members of the security forces were killed in attacks by armed groups, mostly in North Sinai, the National Security Agency continued to forcibly disappear and extrajudicially execute individuals suspected of political violence. The Ministry of the Interior claimed that more than 100 individuals were shot dead in exchanges of fire with security forces throughout the year. However, in many of these cases the people killed were already in state custody after having been forcibly disappeared. Torture and other ill-treatment remained routine in official places of detention and was systematic in detention centres run by the National Security Agency. Hundreds were sentenced, including to death, after grossly unfair mass trials.

In Iraq, suspects prosecuted on terrorism-related charges were routinely denied the rights to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defence, to not incriminate themselves or confess guilt, and to question prosecution witnesses. Courts continued to admit into evidence “confessions” that were extracted under torture. Many of those convicted after these unfair and hasty trials were sentenced to death. Iraqi and Kurdish government forces and militias also carried out extrajudicial executions of men and boys suspected of being affiliated with IS.

Complaints of torture in custody against defendants accused of national security-related offences were reported in countries including Bahrain, Israel and Kuwait. In general, the allegations were not investigated. Saudi Arabia introduced a new counter-terrorism law that allowed for the death penalty for some crimes. In Tunisia, the government continued to restrict freedom of movement through arbitrary and indefinite orders that confined hundreds to their governorate of residence, justifying this as a measure to prevent Tunisians from travelling to join armed groups.

Death penalty

Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia remained among the world’s most prolific users of the death penalty, carrying out hundreds of executions between them, many after unfair trials. In Iran, Amnesty International was able to confirm the execution of four individuals who were under 18 at the time the crime was committed, but several executions of other juvenile offenders were postponed at the last minute because of public campaigning. The Iranian authorities continued to describe peaceful campaigning against the death penalty as “un-Islamic”, and harassed and imprisoned anti-death penalty activists. In Saudi Arabia, courts continued to impose death sentences for drugs offences and for conduct that under international standards should not be criminalized, such as “sorcery” and “adultery”. In Iraq, the death penalty continued to be used as a tool of retribution in response to public outrage after attacks claimed by IS.

Bahrain and Kuwait both resumed executions in January, the first since 2010 and 2013 respectively; the death sentences had been imposed for murder. Egypt, Jordan, Libya and the Hamas de facto administration in the Gaza Strip also carried out executions. Except for Israel and Oman, all other countries in the region continued a long-standing practice of imposing death sentences but not implementing them.

Armed conflict

Fuelled by the international arms trade, conflict in the region continued to blight the lives of millions of individuals, particularly in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq. In each conflict, multiple parties committed war crimes and other serious violations of international law, including indiscriminate attacks that killed and injured civilians, direct attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure. In Syria and Yemen, government and allied forces used internationally banned weapons such as cluster munitions and, in the case of Syria, chemical weapons.

Yemen conflict

The situation in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa even before the outbreak of conflict in March 2015, became the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN, with three quarters of its population of 28 million in need of help. The country faced the biggest cholera epidemic in modern times, exacerbated by a lack of fuel for water-pumping stations, and was on the verge of the world’s most severe famine for decades. The conflict has shattered the water, education and health systems. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition supporting the internationally recognized Yemeni government held up shipments of food, fuel and medicine. In November it cut off Yemen’s northern ports completely for more than two weeks. The coalition’s air strikes hit funeral gatherings, schools, markets, residential areas and civilian boats. Huthi rebel forces, allied with forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh until splits between them led to his killing in December, indiscriminately shelled civilian residential areas in Ta’iz city and fired artillery indiscriminately across the border into Saudi Arabia, killing and injuring civilians.

International response to Islamic State

In both Syria and Iraq, a US-led international coalition refocused its attention on combating IS, which was responsible for gross abuses. Hundreds of civilians were killed as a result. In Mosul, Iraq’s second city, IS forcibly displaced thousands of civilians into zones of active hostilities in an attempt to shield their own fighters, and deliberately killed civilians fleeing the fighting and hung their bodies in public areas as a warning to others. In the battle to drive IS out of west Mosul, Iraqi and coalition forces launched a series of disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate attacks to devastating effect; hundreds of civilians were killed. Iraqi forces consistently used explosive weapons which affected a large area, such as improvised rocket-assisted munitions, which cannot be precisely targeted at military objectives or used lawfully in densely populated civilian areas.

In Syria, IS lost control of Raqqa governorate following a military campaign by the Syrian Democratic Forces, consisting of Syrian-Kurdish and Arab armed groups, and the US-led coalition. IS prevented residents from fleeing and used civilians as human shields, as well as carrying out direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks, killing and injuring civilians. The coalition’s air strikes also caused hundreds of civilian casualties. Syrian government forces, supported by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters on the ground and Russian air power, captured other areas previously held by IS and other armed groups. In doing so, they killed and injured civilians in indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, including homes, hospitals and medical facilities.

Sieges and displacement of civilians in Syria

The Syrian government continued to maintain lengthy sieges of predominantly civilian areas, depriving some 400,000 people of access to medical care, other basic goods and services and humanitarian assistance, while subjecting them to repeated air strikes, artillery shelling and other attacks. Armed opposition groups were also responsible for besieging thousands of civilians and carrying out indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks on government-controlled neighbourhoods, killing and injuring civilians. Thousands of civilians experienced the harsh impact of forced displacement following “reconciliation” agreements in the second half of 2016 and early 2017. They were only some of the 6.5 million people displaced within Syria between 2011 and 2017. More than half a million people fled Syria during the year, taking the total number of Syrian refugees to more than 5 million.

Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Government forces responded to the referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq by launching an operation that quickly retook the disputed city of Kirkuk, as well as most of the territory captured by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the fight against IS. In October, tens of thousands of civilians were forced to flee their homes after fierce clashes erupted between Iraqi government forces, supported by affiliated militias, and Peshmerga forces in the multi-ethnic city of Tuz Khurmatu; at least 11 civilians were killed in indiscriminate attacks.

Lawlessness in Libya

Three rival governments and hundreds of militias and armed groups continued to compete for power and control over territory, lucrative trade routes and strategic military locations in Libya. Militias and armed groups carried out indiscriminate attacks in heavily populated areas leading to deaths of civilians; executed captured fighters from rival groups; and abducted and unlawfully detained hundreds of people, including political and human rights activists, because of their origin, opinions, perceived political affiliations or perceived wealth. Up to 20,000 refugees and migrants were held arbitrarily and indefinitely in overcrowded, unsanitary detention centres and exposed to torture, forced labour, extortion and unlawful killings at the hands of the authorities and militias who ran the centres. The assistance provided by EU member states, particularly Italy, to the Libyan Coast Guard and migrant detention centres made them complicit in the abuses.


Impunity for grave violations of the past remained a live concern.

Victims of crimes committed in recent and ongoing conflicts generally faced entrenched impunity at a national level. In Iraq, the authorities announced investigations in response to some allegations of serious violations committed by Iraqi forces and pro-government militias – such as torture, extrajudicial execution and enforced disappearance. However, they consistently failed to make any findings public. In Libya, the judicial system was hamstrung by its own dysfunctionality, with magistrates often failing to pursue accountability for abuses because of fears of reprisal. In Syria, the judicial system lacked independence, and failed to investigate and prosecute crimes by state forces. In Yemen, the National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations of Human Rights, established by the government, failed to conduct investigations consistent with international standards into alleged violations committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen.

Slow progress

The region’s only ongoing national transitional justice mechanism, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission mandated to address human rights violations committed between July 1955 and December 2013 held 11 public sessions during which victims and perpetrators testified on a range of violations including election fraud, enforced disappearance and torture. However, there was no progress on an agreement to refer cases to specialized judicial chambers, and security agencies continued to fail to provide the Commission with the information it requested for its investigations.

At the international level, some significant initiatives continued but moved slowly. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court continued its preliminary examination of alleged crimes under international law committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 13 June 2014, including during the 2014 Gaza-Israel conflict. In Libya, it broadened its investigations from political and military leaders to consider the wider systematic mistreatment of migrants.

Other initiatives had positive aspects, but were tarnished or undermined. The UN Security Council passed a resolution in September that was aimed at ensuring accountability for war crimes and human rights abuses committed by IS in Iraq, but crucially failed to include any provisions to ensure accountability for crimes committed by Iraqi forces, militias and the US-led coalition. The Joint Investigative Mechanism of the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons made progress on determining accountability for chemical weapons use in Syria, but an extension of its mandate was vetoed by Russia at the Security Council.

Two developments raised particular hope in the longer term for truth and justice for victims of violations in two seemingly intractable ongoing conflicts. The International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria since March 2011 took shape during the year after its formal establishment in December 2016 by the UN General Assembly. And the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution in September to establish a panel of experts to investigate abuses by all parties in Yemen. Both developments followed concerted advocacy by human rights organizations.

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