Image-laundering, shrinking spaces, and words that escape prison walls

A decade has passed since an impoverished street vendor in Tunisia named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in response to constant harassment and humiliation at the hands of authorities. His death ignited a series of widespread popular protests across the Arab region as people sought to carve out a future free from repression, inequality, and lack of accountability.

Ten years later, and the region’s prisons are filled with tortured dissidents, journalists are systematically targeted, citizens are regularly tried for their online free expression, and amongst the governing class, impunity reigns. Even in Tunisia, where significant progress has been made since the Arab Spring, citizens still face severe repercussions for their free expression.

Events over the past few weeks alone have served as a stark reminder of the devastating status quo of human rights and civil society in the region.

Elusive justice in Egypt’s shrinking civic space

In Egypt, the month began with a glimmer of optimism when dissident Mohamed Soltan’s family members were released, after being held for several weeks in an effort to put pressure on the US-based activist. The news came in the wake of the US election result and the perceived threat a Biden presidency poses to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia whose human rights record has deteriorated rapidly, and with total impunity, during the Trump era.

Just days later, authorities arrested three members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), after the group hosted a meeting with Western diplomats to discuss the country’s human rights situation

Considered one of the few remaining Egyptian rights organizations left operating in the country’s eroded civic space, rights groups say the arrest of EIPR staff marks an escalation in the regime’s targeting of human rights defenders.

EIPR executive director and veteran human rights defender Gasser Abdel Razek, as well as his colleagues Mohamed Basheer, Karim Ennarah, and Patrick George Zaki – who has been in detention since last February – have seen a predictable array of unfounded charges leveled against them, including “joining a terrorist organization” and “spreading false news”. Facing a degrading situation in detention, Abdel Razek was reportedly placed in solitary confinement and denied access to a mattress and basic necessities. Rights groups, including 33 IFEX members, have called for their immediate release.

Within the walls of Egypt’s overcrowded prisons, thousands of political prisoners face unsanitary and demeaning conditions, which local activists and rights groups have repeatedly called attention to. Many are denied access to warm clothes, beds, and hygiene supplies, creating a health crisis that has already claimed lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Veteran journalist Mohamed Monir and filmmaker Shady Habash died of medical negligence. Others are kept in solitary confinement, where they are denied access to sunlight and communication with their families.

In a region where words struggle to escape prison walls, a recent song by Egyptian artist and activist Ramy Essam called ‘El Amiis El Karoo’ (The Flannel Shirt) shines a spotlight on prison conditions and feelings of isolation. The song’s verses are from a poem written by imprisoned poet Galal El-Behairy, who has been in Tora prison since 2018 for writing a poetry book the army deemed provocative. 

Meanwhile, hope that EIPR’s staff and other prisoners of conscience may receive fair trials is undermined by a judiciary system that has increasingly served as a repressive tool of the state. Many of the country’s imprisoned dissidents are in pre-trial detention and have seen court dates regularly postponed, and new charges filed against them in an effort to retain their silence by keeping them indefinitely behind bars.

Last month an Egyptian court placed 28 people on a state terror list, including former presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Aboul Fotouh and human rights activist Alaa Abdel Al-Fattah. The terror list has been another repressive tool under the Sisi government, with the notorious designation used to impose severe restrictions, including travel bans, passport confiscations, and the freezing of financial assets, on mostly peaceful activists.

Justice remains elusive in the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student brutally killed in Cairo four years ago, as Egypt’s public prosecutor has temporarily closed the file. However, prosecutors in Rome say they have sufficient evidence to move forward with their case, indicting five members of Egypt’s National Security Agency in the researcher’s murder, in a move likely to impact the relationship between the two countries.

Image-laundering and a tale of two Saudi Arabias

As human rights abuses have proliferated throughout the region over the past decade, countries like Saudi Arabia have spent billions to whitewash their abysmal rights record. From hosting high-profile sporting events like the Dakar Rally, to professional wrestling and concerts featuring international pop stars, Saudi Arabia has sought to present a progressive image of itself to the world that sits in ugly juxtaposition to the glaring reality.

In recent weeks alone, the ‘kingdom of silence’ hosted a series of international events, including the G20 summit and a European women’s golf tournament – whose promotional hashtag #LadiesFirst only served to highlight the tragic irony of a country that continues to jail women’s rights activists like Loujain Al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani. Rights organizations, including IFEX members the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) launched a #FreedomFirst campaign to provide a counter-narrative to Saudi propaganda on women’s rights, and raise awareness about those detained.

Meanwhile, the G20 summit was also met with aggressive campaigning from rights groups. PEN America hosted a live counter-summit highlighting Saudi’s egregious rights record, while Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the public to hijack the official #G20SaudiArabia hashtag with messages in support of the country’s 34 unjustly jailed journalists.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called on G20 leaders to not let their host get away with jailing critics “Instead of signaling its concern for Saudi Arabia’s serious abuses, the G20 is bolstering the Saudi government’s well-funded publicity efforts to portray the country as ‘reforming’ despite a significant increase in repression since 2017,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

In perhaps further demonstration of the country’s irreconcilable duality, Saudi’s UK ambassador dangled the possibility of clemency for activists like Al-Hathloul during a Guardian interview ahead of the summit. Three days after the summit ended, Al-Hathloul – whose health has deteriorated after a recent hunger strike protesting her ill-treatment – appeared in court for the first time in months, only to see her case moved to a terrorism court notorious for unfair trials

Rights groups have also noted Saudi Arabia’s recent appointment of Amal Al-Moallimi as ambassador to Norway – only the second Saudi woman to become ambassador – as further illustration of its duplicitous efforts to portray itself as a state furthering women’s empowerment. Al-Moallimi has been criticized for having visited Al-Hathloul in prison, where she was told by the rights defender of her torture, and having ignored her pleas to intervene.

‘Sportswashing’ and mass trials in Bahrain

Neighboring Bahrain has also actively engaged in efforts to launder its image, promoting its achievements in women’s rights, while continuing to imprison women human rights defenders for their free expression

Last month saw the country host the Formula One (F1) race amidst heightened concern over its disastrous human rights record. In a letter sent to the organization, 16 rights groups emphasized the role F1 plays in ‘sportswashing’ human rights abuses, saying that by “increasing F1’s presence in the country at this volatile time” they are “performing  invaluable PR for Bahrain’s government and risk further normalizing the violation of human rights in the country”.

Recent weeks have seen 51 people convicted in absentia during a mass trial marred by due process violations, including confessions obtained through torture. The trial came amidst a recent escalation in an ongoing crackdown by authorities that rights groups say has targeted dissidents, activists, as well as religious and cultural figures. Several people, including children, were also arrested for their online expression following last month’s death of the country’s long-serving prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa. 

Lebanon: Military trials and protecting LGBTQI+ speech

While demands for accountability over the deadly Beirut blast and the shooting of protesters in the days that followed remain unmet, anti-government protesters continue to face arrests and court summons. According to Muhal – an observatory for freedom of expression – political figures and parties have filed dozens of complaints, mostly against journalists and activists, over the past year of anti-government protests. At least 90 civilians have also been referred to military courts where they face secondary charges, primarily for their critical social media posts.

Lebanon’s refusal to sign a recent statement by the Global Media Freedom Coalition was a blow to both freedom of expression and association. The statement from the partnership of countries advocating for media freedom expressed the need for members to defend free expression and protect journalists, especially those from marginalized groups like the LGBTQI+ community who are facing unprecedented risks and threats exacerbated by the global health pandemic

In a recent Universal Periodic Review submission to the United Nations, rights groups expressed their deep concern over the “legal and extra-legal restrictions on freedom of association and, in particular, the systematic targeting of associations and activities by the LGBTQI+ community.”

In brief

Algeria: The European Parliament issued its second urgent resolution on Algeria in a year, calling attention to the rapid deterioration of civic space and freedoms in the country. This comes amidst an ongoing crackdown on free expression and a growing list of those imprisoned for exercising it, including Hirak activists, and journalists like Khaled Drareni and Anis Rahmani.

Libya: Prominent lawyer and rights activist Hanan Al-Barassi was assassinated in Benghazi last month in a brazen act that sent chills throughout the activist community. According to rights groups, her killing follows “a disturbing pattern in recent years of violent attacks against prominent women activists who are critical of the authorities and affiliated militias.” 

Iraq: Bloggers and journalists are facing defamation cases against them for their criticism of the government’s COVID-19 response. As defamation cases rise, HRW says ongoing efforts to introduce a cybercrime law would give authorities yet another tool to suppress dissent in an already shrinking civic space.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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