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Ahmed Mansoor in isolation, Bahrain accelerates targeting of human rights defenders, Egypt tests new censorship law: MENA in May (Demo)

Bahrain continues crackdown on rights defenders

Bahrain is accelerating its years-long targeting of human rights defenders, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR). The Bahraini Ministry of Interior launched campaigns of defamation and slander on 19 May 2019 against Sayed Yousif Al-Muhafdah and Hussein Al-Satri, who are in exile in Germany and Australia respectively, accusing them of “running fake Twitter accounts with the aim of inciting sedition and threatening public order in the country.”

The head of the Bahrain Press Association (BPA) was also accused by the Anti-Cyber Crime Unit of “encouraging sedition between members of society” on 21 May. Abdullah Hashim, a lawyer and online activist, was summoned and arrested on 15 May under the accusation of “publishing false and unfounded news” – among others. He was released on 21 May while his case is still pending.

Earlier in the month, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation rejected the final appeal of two men sentenced to death for allegedly committing terrorist crimes, Ali Al-Arab and Ahmed Al-Malali. On 21 May, five UN experts called on Bahrain to halt the executions.

Both of these men were stripped of their nationality, a practice which the government has been regularly using in the past seven years. Since 2012, at least 990 Bahrainis were denationalized. May marked two years since a brutal police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in in Duraz in support of Shia religious leader Sheikh Isa Qassim, who had been denationalized in June 2016. In April 2019, the king reinstated the citizenship of 551 people; as of today, however, the legal status of 439 remains unknown, including that of Qassim.

There have been unconfirmed reports that United Arab Emirates (UAE) dissident Ahmed Mansoor ended his hunger strike on 4 May 2019. GCHR, on whose advisory board Mansoor sits, emphasised the difficulties in getting accurate information due to Emirati authorities preventing regular family visits.

Up until the night of his arrest on 20 March 2017, Mansoor was the only remaining human rights advocate working freely in the UAE. At the time of writing, Mansoor remains in solitary confinement, which UN human rights experts concluded may constitute torture.

Egypt tests news censorship law

In Egypt, the government is testing its new censorship law when it blocked the Al-Mashhad website, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Mandi Shandi, the website’s editor, intended to send 30 journalists to polling stations to cover the constitutional referendum. Due to the new law, however, he wasn’t sure whether his reporters would be arrested and ultimately ordered them to stay away.

A few weeks before the referendum, in early April, thousands of web pages were “suddenly unavailable” in Egypt due to an apparent “collateral damage from the latest government censorship order”. Notably, the blocked sites had shared an online petition urging voters to vote against amending the constitution. One side registered tens of thousands of “no” votes before being blocked, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The referendum, which passed with over 90% of “yes” votes, extended President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s eligibility for office until 2030.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) reported that human rights defender Mohamed Soltan has been the victim of a defamation campaign by the Egyptian government. Soltan, who is also an American citizen, was falsely accused of being a convicted “member of the Muslim Brotherhood and working on behalf of foreign agents”, based on his work with the Washington-based organisation The Freedom Initiative. Soltan had spent two years in prison in Egypt following politically-motivated charges in 2014-2015. He was allowed to return to the US after pressure from the US State Department, which found no credible evidence against him.

In an apparent coordination campaign with Saudi authorities, the new accusations were published in government-sponsored media outlets in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Husseini was expected to be released, conditionally, but Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that Egypt’s judicial authorities reversed their decision on 29 May.

Syrian regime targets journalists

In Syria, as the regime and Russian bombardments of northern cities such as Idlib continues, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) reported on the use of universal jurisdiction laws to fight torture under Assad. Using a Swedish case in which nine Syrian torture survivors launched a complaint against senior officers of the Assad regime as an example, SCM reported that the authorities can prosecute “serious human rights violations regardless of where they were committed or the nationality of the victims and perpetrators.”

Meanwhile, the violence in the north of the country is putting journalists at risk, with CPJ reporting at least three journalists injured in attacks by pro-regime forces in the northwestern Syrian governorate of Hama.

Also in May, Global Voices Advox reported on the struggles faced by the Syrian Archive, which is trying to navigate corporate censorship while preserving footage of the Syrian war. The Archive’s public database contains more than five million images and video files from the war.

Two foreign journalists held in Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, RSF confirmed that authorities have been holding Yemeni and Jordanian journalists Marwan Al Muraisi and Abdel Rahman Farhaneh since June 2018 and February 2019, respectively. Saudi human rights defender Mohammed Abdullah Al-Otaibi, who is serving a 14-year sentence, is being prevented from contacting his family during Ramadan, and is allowed only one visit every six weeks, according to GCHR.

The country’s infamous guardianship laws were also addressed during the month of May. This is the system whereby a woman has to seek permission from a “male guardian”, usually a close male relative, in order to access basic services including education, report crimes, travel, health services or employment. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) reported that UN Special Procedures highlighted the inherent human rights abuses in this system.

HRW reported on how “male guardians” can use an mobile app called Absher, sold via Google and Apple, to grant or deny permission for women and children to travel abroad and obtain a passport under a subsection on “dependent services.”

Finally, IFEX contributor Sarah Al-Otaibi penned an article entitled “Beheading truth: How Saudi Arabia is steering the narrative of its recent executions“, highlighting how the government is weaponizing language and socia media to defend abuses and stifle critical voices.

In Brief:

The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) released its first Quarterly Report on the Situation of Freedom of Expression in Egypt “in order to assess the general policies of state institutions […] towards the right to freedom of expression and freedom of information.”

In Israel and Palestine, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) destroyed a building in Gaza in which the bureau of the Turkish state news agency Anadolu occupied the first floor, according to RSF. CPJ joined the widespread condemnation of this act, adding that this endangers the lives of journalists, “who are civilians and guaranteed protection under international law.”

In Lebanon, HRW released a report on corporal punishment of children in schools. Despite being against the law, this ban is rarely enforced. The 64-page report is entitled “‘I Don’t Want My Child to Be Beaten’: Corporal Punishment in Lebanon’s Schools.”

In Qatar, the government closed the Dohar Centre for Media Freedom, leading GCHR to conclude that the authorities feel “threatened by the existence of a center that defends media freedom.”

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