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Women on protest frontlines in Lebanon, critics kidnapped in Egypt, and the weaponisation of teargas in Iraq’s protests (Demo)

What’s happening in Lebanon?

In the weeks following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, protests in Lebanon have not subsided. As the country looks for new leadership, anti-government demonstrators have sought an overhaul of the political system and its ruling class, which they blame for the current economic quagmire. Groups have taken to blocking roads in an effort to pressure the system, while protecting the emerging power vacuum from being filled undemocratically by sectarian forces.

Protests have been largely peaceful, aided in part by the army’s neutral position, which launched immediate investigations into protester deaths. However, November saw tensions rise as supporters of the Hezbollah and Amal parties – both of whom were part of Hariri’s coalition government and opposed his resignation – clashed with anti-government demonstrations in Beirut and Tyre, and have even targeted reporters on the ground.

On the frontlines, underrepresented groups have been voicing their issues in the unfolding civic space, including LGBTQI+ activists seeking to combat homophobia, and women who are advocating for a wide range of issues, including combating discriminatory laws and gender-based violence. Women’s groups and young activists have organised flash mobs calling for an end to harassment, and even positioned themselves on the protest frontlines, standing between security forces and male demonstrators in an effort to keep the peace.

Emphasizing the need to protect women human rights defenders, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) underscored the importance of their role, stating: “the women who have filled squares and roads have acted as a buffer between the security forces and the protesters, their fearless participation has given the protests a strong feminist dimension.”

On the state of free expression…

Despite Lebanon’s regional reputation for having a comparatively wider space for freedom of expression, protesters seeking to unseat the ruling political class continue to be faced with repercussions. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) examined the use of defamation laws by “powerful political and religious figures” in silencing critics. According to the report, Lebanon’s Cybercrimes Bureau initiated a total of 3,599 defamation cases between January 2015 and May 2019, representing a staggering 325 percent increase in defamation cases for online speech during that period. The findings concur with conclusions drawn in a report published by SMEX last month that looked at how authorities use articles in the Penal Code, Military Justice Code, and Publications Law to silence dissent on social networks.

Meanwhile, in Egypt

The crackdown on activists, journalists and human rights defenders in the weeks following September’s protests continued, with at least 3,000 people reportedly arrested. While many have been released, an estimated 1,500 remain in prison, and critics continue to face a state of suppression at the hands of authorities. These include activist Radwa Mohamed, who was kidnapped by security forces last month after posting a series of viral videos accusing President Sisi’s wife of being complicit in state corruption.

“Mohamed, the Central Security Forces are here. I am in the north coast. I am terrified,” said Radwa in a voice message sent to activist Mohamed Ali shortly before her arrest. Ali, whose videos helped spark protests in September, drew attention to the case by publishing her message and launching a social media campaign that saw the #WheresRadwa hashtag (in Arabic) trending on Twitter.

Egyptian authorities have also demonstrated that the actions of critics living abroad are not immune from reprisals. In a recent HRW report a total of 28 cases were documented in which activists living in exile have seen family members back home face repercussions for their exiled relatives’ activism, including harassment, threats, and extrajudicial punishments.

According to the rights organization, the reprisals appear to be “widespread, organized, and increasing. In at least 13 of the documented cases, authorities have accused or charged relatives, including in one instance a child, with joining “terrorist” groups and disseminating “false news.”

Targeting independent media

Egypt’s prominent independent media outlet Mada Masr was raided by security forces last month, following the news site’s reporting that President Sisi’s son, Mahmoud al-Sisi, had been removed from his position as a senior officer in the General Intelligence Service. Mada Masr editor Shady Zalat was arrested in his home in the middle of the night and briefly detained by authorities the day prior to the raid, before being released on the side of Cairo’s Ring Road highway.

The following day, security forces in civilian clothes broke into the media outlet’s offices, confiscating laptops and phones, and detaining its staff before escorting its editors and two foreign journalists to a police station where they were abruptly released hours later.

“We were told that someone high up, whose name we don’t know, intervened at the last minute to suspend our imminent detention,” wrote editor-in-chief Lina Attalah on the ordeal. “We don’t know exactly what made this person intervene. We know that pressure might have played a role, or a moment of wisdom might have snuck into the timelines of the decision makers, but we also know that no one has been coming back from detention these days. Two days after our release, journalists Solafa Magdy, her husband Hossam al-Sayyad, and Mohamed Salah were arrested from a cafe in Dokki.”

Glaring contradictions in Saudi Arabia

Authorities arrested at least seven journalists, bloggers and columnists, including former blogger Fuad al-Farhan who had spent 145 days in prison before being released in 2008. The recent crackdown follows a similar wave of arrests in April, when several writers were imprisoned for criticizing the arrest of women’s rights defenders.

Several previously detained activists also continue to face severe harassment inside prisons,  including being continually moved around while held incommunicado for extended periods, having books and medication withheld, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement, as in the case of women’s rights activists Nassima al-Sadah and Loujain al-Hathloul.

Amidst on-going efforts to promote the Kingdom as a tourist destination, Saudi authorities have continued their clampdown on dissent with impunity sustained by local and international silence. According to GCHR, while the Saudi government has been pushing for more cosmetic freedoms, such as allowing concerts and sporting events, the recent arrests are indicative of the authorities unwillingness to move forward on more substantive reforms to the status of freedom of expression.

Violent Repression in Iraq

With the death toll surpassing 400 last month, security forces continued their brutal suppression of ongoing protests as rights groups and IFEX network members called for an end to the use of excessive force.

Water cannons, live bullets, as well as smoke and sound grenades have all been used to quell public dissent across the country, while abductions and killings by unidentified armed groups have been rampant. The weaponising of teargas canisters for crowd control has received particular condemnation, with at least 16 cases of people being shot in the chest with tear gas documented.

Despite Prime Minister Abd Al-Mahdi – who publicly resigned on 24 November and is currently overseeing a caretaker government – issuing official orders for security forces to stop targeting demonstrators, the rising death toll seems to indicate either a breakdown in command or contradictory orders being issued.

Palestine: #MuathEye, deportations, and digital rights

Photojournalist Moath Amarneh lost his left eye due to shrapnel from a bullet fired by an Israeli sniper while covering a protest organized by local residents attempting to stop the building of new Israeli settlements near Hebron. Two days later, a peaceful sit-in organized by Palestinian journalists in Bethlehem in solidarity with Amarneh was violently suppressed with gas bombs by Israeli forces.

Meanwhile, human rights defender and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Omar Barghothi had his residency status revoked and was subsequently deported from Israel. Barghouthi has long been targeted by Israel, and has been repeatedly denied travel to the US and UK, without justification.

HRW’s Israel director Omar Shakir was also deported last month for allegedly supporting the boycott movement. Shakir’s expulsion fell under a controversial 2017 law that empowers Israel to deport people who support the BDS movement or the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“If the Israelis can deport somebody documenting rights abuse without facing consequence, how can we ever stop rights abuse?” said Shakir during a press conference prior to his deportation.

Digital Rights in Palestine

In a new report examining violations committed against Palestinian media workers for their online publishing, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) documented a total of 294 reported violations against journalists and media outlets between 2017 and the end of October 2019. These encompass 123 violation committed by the Palestinian authorities, and 157 violations committed by Facebook at the behest of Israeli authorities.

While social media networks have become a space for free expression in the past years, Palestinians face several challenges, including: “the intervention of governments and their attempts to impose certain policies on social media companies, through pressuring them or through reaching certain agreements with them (as Israel’s understandings with Facebook), is considered to be the most dangerous to freedom of expression.”

In Brief

In Iran: over 4,000 people across the country were arrested during protests sparked by a 50% fuel hike, with news reports putting the death toll at over 140. While demonstrators called for an end to corruption, unemployment and inequality, Iranian authorities responded with systematic suppression, shutting down the Internet and targeting journalists. The widespread Internet shutdowns and network disruptions saw 95% of the population deprived of access between 16 and 21 November. According to a United Nations statement, Iran’s Internet shutdown “clearly has a political purpose: to suppress the right of Iranians to access information and to communicate at a time of rising protest.”

In Jordan: at least seven activists have been detained since September in an effort by authorities to limit protests by targeting leaders, participants, and other critics for harassment and arrest. According to HRW, most of those detained face charges related to social media posts that show them participating in protests or criticizing the country’s leadership. Moayyad al-Majali, a Ministry of Justice employee and independent researcher, was among those arrested for publishing an online article about his inquiry into state property registered under the King’s name. Majali has been accused of slandering the king, and “inciting strife”, while other activists have been accused of “undermining the political regime”, which is deemed a terrorism offense under Jordanian law.

In the UAE: rights groups have called for the release of human rights defender, Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, arbitrarily detained since 2012. The prominent lawyer has been held in appalling conditions at the notorious Al-Razeen prison in Abu Dhabi, and continues to face arbitrary disciplinary measures, such as solitary confinement, deprivation of family visits, and random body searches.

Bread, Internet, and a digital rights revolution
More than 250 participants gathered in Beirut last month for Bread&Net, a three-day regional unconference organized by SMEX that focuses on digital rights in the Arab region. This year, given the political situation in Lebanon particularly, topics of discussion centred on relevant themes that included attacks on freedom of expression online, Internet shutdowns and network disruptions, digital security, and the role of fake news in shaping public opinion. Be sure to check out this recap of the issues discussed at this year’s gathering.

Finally, to mark the sixth International Day to End Impunity last month, rights organisations called for immediate actions during an event in Beirut on impunity for crimes committed against journalists in the Arab region. A report from GCHR examined the stories of 37 journalists killed with impunity over the past 12 years in the region, and highlighted the need to identify, expose and hold accountable those responsible for past crimes in order to prevent future crimes and protect journalists in the region.

The post Women on protest frontlines in Lebanon, critics kidnapped in Egypt, and the weaponisation of teargas in Iraq’s protests appeared first on IFEX.


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