Challenging repression and brutality in the Middle East and North Africa

Human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa faced an array of threats from governments and armed groups in 2018, but they have also been at the centre of stories of hard-won change. Women human rights defendershave been prominent on the front lines of resistance, challenging entrenched gender discrimination and other patterns of human rights violations.

In 2019 the work of human rights defenders will continue to be vital to stemming crackdowns by governments across the region and pressing for accountability for abuses.

Samah Hadid, Deputy Director of Campaigns in the Middle East

The Saudi Arabian authorities’ endless harassment of women’s rights defenders is entirely unjustifiable.

Women at the forefront of the challenge to a climate of repression

On 24 June Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving, just one of a range of discriminatory policies against women in the Kingdom. Long overdue, the step was a testament to the bravery of women human rights defenders who, for decades, drew international media attention to the ban.

It was bitterly ironic then that the authorities subjected some of those who campaigned for the change to arbitrary detention and smear campaigns. Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef are among a group of activists held without chargesince their arrest in May, a month before the ban was lifted, and sinisterly accused of being “traitors”.

Their plight reflects that of human rights defenders more generallyin the country, nearly all of whom have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, placed under travel bans or forced to leave the country.

Women’s rights activists in Iran have also been courageously protesting against an entrenched manifestation of a broader set of discriminatory practices against women. Dozens removed their headscarves in public to challenge forced hijab (veiling) and disrupt Iranian society’s apparent acquiescence in this abusive and degrading practice.

The authorities’ violent crackdown forms part of a wider wave of repression against human rights defenders. Dozens of women have been beaten and arbitrarily detained and, in some cases, prosecuted and imprisoned for their peaceful campaigning. One of them, Roya Saghiri, began serving a 23-month prison sentence in August for “disturbing public order”

Their lawyers and supporters have also been harassed. For example, Nasrin Sotoudeh, an award-winning human rights lawyer, was arrested in June and charged with serious national security offences.

In Egypt, human rights defenders also felt the full force of a government intent on crushing challenges to its legitimacy. While moments of victory, like the releases of woman human rights defender Mahienour el-Massryin January and human rights lawyer Haytham Mohamdeenin October, punctured the climate of repression, too many others remain behind bars on ludicrous terrorism or security-related charges.

Amal Fathy was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in September for posting a video on Facebook condemning sexual harassment and the government’s failure to address it. Ezzat Ghoniem, co-founder and director of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, and Azzoz Mahgoub, a human rights lawyer in the same organization, remain in incommunicado detention despite a court order to release them on 4 September.

Thirty human rights defenders and staff of civil society organizations are under travel bans; 10 of them have had their assets frozen.

Attempts to silence protesters

Human rights defenders in the region have acted as a vital check on government excesses, exposing abuses by the security forces in the Maghreb, challenging half a century of Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory and speaking truth to power in the Gulf.

Nawal Benaissa, one of the leading voices of Hirak, a popular movement, spoke out for social justice and better health care in the Rif region of Morocco. Like hundreds of other peaceful protesters, she has been arrested and held in custody. In February, she received a 10-month suspended sentence and a fine for “inciting to commit an offence”.

In an attempt to silence criticism of the security forces’ handling of the Hirak protests, the authorities also went after those defending the protesters. In February, Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to 20 months in prison and fined for his online posts.

The Israeli authorities have long displayed brutality against those protesting against military occupation of Palestinian territory and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, a pattern manifested in its lethal response to the Great March of Return, in which the army killed over 150 Palestinian protesters. In some cases, the authorities used military courts to persecute Palestinian human rights defenders. Munther Amira was sentenced to six months in prison in March on charges relating to his peaceful participation in protests.

In May, the government decided to expel Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Country Director, for allegedly supporting boycotts of Israel. He challenged the decision and is awaiting a ruling.

Palestinian human rights defenders have also been actively challenging the Ramallah-based Palestinian government’s sanctions on the Gaza Strip, which is administered by Hamas. They were among dozens of protesters violently dispersed by Palestinian security forces on 14 June. Amnesty International staff member, Laith Abu Zeyad, was among over 50 demonstrators arrested and beaten in custody.

Prosecuted for speaking out

In May a state security court in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sentenced Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights defender, to 10 years in prison on charges including “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols”.

In Bahrain, Nabeel Rajab’s five-year prison sentence was upheld on appeal in June. He had been convicted of offences related to his peaceful online comments about torture allegations in Jaw prison and the killing of civilians in the conflict in Yemen by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

Shedding light on abuses in armed conflict

In Yemen human rights defenders have shed light on horrendous abuses and successfully advocated for the UN Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts in Yemen, despite opposition from the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni governments.

Consequently, they have been subjected to enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and death threats.

In Hodeidah, Kamal al-Shawish, a human rights defender, was released in September after being held incommunicado by Huthi forces for over a month in an unknown location. In Ta’iz, Yemeni government authorities and militias targeted those deemed opposition voices. Akram al-Shawafi, founder of the Watch Team, a human rights monitoring group, was forced to relocate five times during the year because of intimidation and online threats he received after he documented local authorities’ poor treatment of civilians in the city.

In Libya, women human rights defenders have been at the forefront of those speaking out against corruption by officials, and abuses by the Libyan National Army and militias. They were subjected to gender-based violence, and smear campaigns on social media.

In January, Mariam al-Tayeb, who criticized militias responsible for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture, was abducted and beaten by a militia from the Bab Tajoura district of the capital, Tripoli.

In Syria, the persecution of human rights defenders in both government and rebel-controlled areas remained endemic. In spite of this and the fact that their colleagues Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada and Nazem Hamadi (known as the Douma Four) are still missing five years after their abduction, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria is one of several organizations which continue to document human rights violations across the country.

In the Syrian diaspora, 2018 saw the rise to prominence of Families for Freedom, a women-led movement working to find or obtain the release of all who have been arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared or abducted by the Syrian government and other parties to the conflict.

Their resilience and courage in the face of the human rights catastrophe that has befallen their country are an inspiration to activists around the globe.