Silencing dissent in MENA: How authorities are targeting exiles, journalists and prisoners of conscience

Egypt targets its critics abroad. New moves to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its human rights record. Heightened calls for the release of Bahrain’s prisoners of conscience. Authorities in Morocco charge critical journalists with sex crimes. Silencing coverage of a royal rift in Jordan.

A gag order in Jordan

Jordanian authorities banned media coverage of a public dispute within the royal family. Faced with international pressure, the media gag order was rescinded the next day. The royal rift between King Abdullah and his brother Prince Hamzah comes amidst news of numerous activists being arrested for marking the tenth anniversary of the country’s pro-reform demonstrations in a series of recent protests that have also been sparked by public outrage over the deaths of several Covid-19 patients in a government hospital that ran out of oxygen.

As news of the rift broke in US newspapers, Jordanians were left watching a domestic story unfold in international media amidst a total domestic media blackout – a glaring indicator of the country’s state of free expression.

Fake news trials and targeting exiles in Egypt

While the world’s attention turned to an oversized container ship stuck in the Suez Canal, Egypt’s climate of repression continued unabated. Rights groups and the activist community denounced the sentencing of human rights activist Sanaa Seif to 18 months in prison for protesting the state of Egypt’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons that have exposed prisoners of conscience, like her brother Alaa Abdel Fattah, to heightened risks of contracting Covid-19.

Seif was physically assaulted while protesting alongside her family outside Tora prison where Abdel Fattah is held, and was subsequently arrested outside the Public Prosecutor’s office after attempting to report the assault. Charged with insulting a police officer, disseminating “false news on the deterioration of the country’s health situation, and the spread of the corona-virus in prison” and “misusing social media”, Seif’s jailing underscores the worrying trend of citizens being jailed for their online commentary regarding Egypt’s Covid-19 situation. Countless activists, doctors and journalists have been arrested during the pandemic and falsely accused of disseminating misinformation.

In the last month, the country has drawn international condemnations for its abhorrent human rights record, including a joint statement by 31 member states during the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which drew specific attention to increasing restrictions on freedom of expression.

Egypt’s crackdown on its community of journalists, dissidents, and regime opponents living in exile has drawn special attention from rights groups recently. One reason has been the growing number of cases of academics and journalists living abroad being detained upon their return to the country.

Rights groups like the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) have pointed to cases like Central European University researcher Ahmed Samir Santawy as exemplary of the situation. Weeks after returning to Egypt from Vienna, Santawy was forcibly disappeared after being summoned to a police station. He has since been held in arbitrary detention, and faces charges of joining a terrorist group, financing terrorism, and spreading false news on social media.

“Unfortunately, he is just one of many academics and critics to be imprisoned and face so-called terrorism charges upon returning from abroad,” said deputy MENA director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) Joe Stork, noting a pattern of Egypt punishing independent voices.

Patrick George Zaki, a gender researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and graduate student at the University of Bologna, was also arrested in February 2020 upon returning from studies in Italy. Zaki was reportedly threatened, beaten and tortured with electric shocks during interrogations, and has since remained in pretrial detention at Tora prison where he faces up to 25 years imprisonment for a Facebook post.

Weeks after Santawy’s arrest, self-exiled journalist and Sisi critic Gamaal El-Gamal was detained upon returning from Italy, where he had been living for five years. He too faces charges of spreading false news and joining a terrorist organization, in addition to inciting public opinion against state institutions.

The warming of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Turkey in recent weeks has seen Egyptian journalists living in exile in Turkey raising concerns over the impact on their work and freedom of expression.

Since Egypt’s 2013 military coup, the two countries have been in a political standoff, with Turkey becoming a safe haven for Egyptian critics and opposition members. In a sign of closening relations, Turkish authorities asked popular Egyptian opposition TV channels Mekameleen and Al-Sharq to tone down their direct criticism of President Sisi. Three days later, pro-Sisi media channels in Egypt were told to stop discussing Turkish affairs.

Meanwhile, Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan’s US lawsuit against former Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi for his alleged role in the activist’s torture hit a legal hurdle as the Biden administration declared that el-Beblawi held diplomatic immunity “at the time when the suit was commenced.” Soltan was arrested during Egypt’s brutal crackdown in 2013, and accused el-Beblawi in the 2020 lawsuit of ordering his arrest, torture, and attempted assassination, according to the lawsuit.

“The Biden State Department has erred in its interpretation of the law, policy, and moral judgment,” Soltan said in a statement. “And in doing so, it has further endangered my life here in the US, and the lives and wellbeing of my family in Egypt.”

Days after filing the lawsuit last year, five of Soltan’s relatives were detained by Egyptian authorities for 144 days, in what Amr Magdi of HRW says is part of “broader thuggish tactics against families of critics and opponents who now live abroad.”

Saudi Arabia: Mounting pressure for accountability

In the wake of the Biden administration’s release of an intelligence report pointing to Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) as responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and treatment of critics has come under increasing scrutiny on the world stage.

Despite a reported investment of over $1.5 billion to host international sporting events as part of efforts to sports-wash its deteriorating human rights record, the country has seen that image eroded in the face of growing pressure for accountability.

“The Crown Prince must face meaningful personal consequences for having directed a gruesome crime that shocked the conscience of the world,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel in a congressional testimony last month. “Otherwise, the shroud of untouchability shielding not just him but other abusive autocrats with whom the US does business will stiffen, with grave implications for global press freedom, free expression, and human rights.”

While the Biden administration received widespread criticism for not going far enough in holding MBS directly responsible, the inaction prompted US lawmakers to advance two bills to hold Saudi Arabia accountable over Khashoggi’s assassination, deter further harassment and violence against activists and dissidents by the Saudi authorities, and prohibit arms sales to the country’s security forces until it meets certain human rights conditions.

Several days later, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court sentenced humanitarian worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan to 20 years in prison plus a 20-year travel ban, on charges of allegedly running an anonymous, satirical social media account. The shocking sentence came weeks after Al-Sadhan, who had been in detention without charges for three years, informed his family in a phone call that Saudi officials said he was to be released soon.

Bahrain: Sports-washing, and the fate of political prisoners

Bahrain also saw continued attempts to sports-wash its human rights record clashing with on-the-ground realities. In a joint letter led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), IFEX joined rights groups in calling on Formula One (F1) CEO Stefano Domenicali to investigate human rights violations connected to the company’s activities in Bahrain, as well as its role in whitewashing campaigns. While Domenicali rejected calls for an investigation, F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton kept the conversation alive after publicly stating the company could no longer ignore human rights abuses in the countries they visit.

On the long list of abuses, the ongoing mistreatment of political prisoners has been of particular concern in recent weeks. The fate of Bahrain’s prisoners of conscience amidst a Covid-19 outbreak in its overcrowded prisons sparked a series of protests calling for their release.

With several inmates infected, rights groups including IFEX member the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) called special attention to the more than 60 political prisoners over the age of sixty that remain behind bars and suffer from chronic health problems.

The shocking news of the recent passing of political prisoner Abbas Malallah only underscored the urgency of the situation. Authorities announced Malallah’s death in an online statement, which cited a heart attack as cause of death but failed to mention the chronic diseases he suffered from during his ten years of imprisonment, the medical treatment he was denied, and the torture he faced. A new report by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) details how torture has become an intrinsic part of the Bahraini justice system, and has been regularly used to extract forced confessions as evidence in unfair trials.

Highlighting the abuse, torture, and lack of adequate access to medical care political prisoners were already subjected to prior to the pandemic, Bahraini rights group Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) submitted a written statement during the 46th UNHRC session, saying “the onset of the  pandemic has greatly worsened their current situations and has made their immediate release of paramount importance.”

Prisoners whose health is at risk during the pandemic also include human rights advocate Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who marked his 60th birthday as well as the ten-year anniversary of his unjust imprisonment in the same week. Rights groups around the world, including IFEX, joined together to call on Bahrain to release Al-Khawaja and all imprisoned human rights defenders immediately and unconditionally.

In Brief

In Morocco, prominent journalist Maati Monjib was released after a 20-day hunger strike threatened his health. Rights groups, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), kept the pressure on Moroccan authorities, calling attention to the historian and columnist’s case in a joint letter to the European Union and holding a protest outside the Moroccan embassy in Paris days before his release.

Journalist Soulaiman Raissouni, who has been in pretrial detention for nearly a year on sexual assault allegations, launched a hunger strike to protest his continued detention without trial. Investigative reporter Omar Radi, who has also been in pretrial detention for nine months on similar charges, launched a hunger strike after he was denied a provisional release and saw the trial in his case postponed. The accusations brought against Raissouni and Radi are what the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says are trumped up “sex crime” charges that have been increasingly employed to retaliate against and discredit journalists for their critical reporting.

Radi’s colleague, independent journalist Imad Stitou, has also been the target of judicial harassment. After being brought in as a defence witness to support Radi’s claim, Stitou is now also being tried on charges of allegedly participating in the crime.

Authorities have arrested at least 20 teachers during a protest in Rabat. They include Nouzha Majdy, a Moroccan teacher who “exposed the reality of oppression, abuse and sexual harassment” that she faced during protests last month. Her violent arrest was documented in a video widely shared on social media.

Also Noteworthy

  • New aspects of human rights crises during the Covid-19 pandemic: an insightful analysis of human rights trends in the region by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
  • New research from IFEX member 7amleh examines how digital rights policies and practices in Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia are impacting freedom of expression and the right to information, and highlights the need to improve people’s access to a safer online environment.

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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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