Amnesty International labeled 2019 a “year of defiance” across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in a report released on Tuesday.
The study focuses on mass uprisings and human-rights abuses. It equates the IDF’s use of “excessive, including lethal, force against demonstrators” in the Gaza Strip with the violent suppression seen during protests in Iran and Iraq.
“The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent,” wrote Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for MENA. “Meanwhile, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel’s policy of using excessive, including lethal, force against demonstrators there continued unabated.”
It agreed with the International Criminal Court’s decision to charge Israel with war crimes committed against Palestinians.
“The announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that war crimes had been committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and that an investigation should be opened as soon as the ICC’s territorial jurisdiction has been confirmed, offered a crucial opportunity to end decades of impunity,” the report said. “The ICC indicated that the investigation could cover Israel’s killing of protesters in Gaza.”
The report largely centers on Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria, noting that many civilians participated in protests calling for social justice and political reform. Many of these protests were met with “brutal crackdowns” by governments that are attempting to silence the aggravated public, the report said.
“In Iraq and Iran alone, the authorities’ use of lethal force led to hundreds of deaths in protests; in Lebanon, police used unlawful and excessive force to disperse protests; and in Algeria, the authorities used mass arrests and prosecutions to crack down on protesters,” Amnesty wrote. “Across the region, governments have arrested and prosecuted activists for comments posted online, as activists turned to social media channels to express their dissent.”
As many as 550 demonstrators have been killed in Iraq since protests began in October – with many of these killings allegedly being carried out by Iranian-backed militias. At least 304 people were killed in Iran during the anti-government unrest that broke out in November, which began with hundreds of young and working-class Iranians taking to the streets to protest against fuel-price increases.
The protests immediately turned political, with demonstrators burning pictures of senior officials and calling on clerical rulers to step down.
“In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments,” Amnesty International MENA director Heba Morayef said in the report.
Iranian authorities acknowledged that some “rioters” were shot and killed by security forces. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced the unrest as a “very dangerous conspiracy” by Iran’s enemies. Experts say he was referring to the United States.
Iranian authorities carried out a “wide-scale clampdown designed to instill fear and prevent anyone from speaking out about what happened,” the report said.
Luther said: “The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go to in order to silence all forms of dissent.”
In Egypt, during a rare public display of dissent, hundreds took to the streets in the capital and other cities in response to calls for protests against alleged government corruption in September. Egyptian authorities rounded up more than 400 people in response to these protests, the report said.
In Lebanon, protests broke out in October, eventually leading to the resignation of the government. Demonstrations that began peacefully – with an almost party-like atmosphere – quickly turned violent. The protesters were met with “unlawful and excessive” force, Amnesty said, adding that government security forces failed to protect the citizens from clashing in the streets with rival political groups such as Hezbollah.
In Algeria, mass protests led to the resignation of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika after having held the office for 20 years. The protests were met with arbitrary arrests, prosecuting “peaceful demonstrators.”
“Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully,” Morayef said. “Instead of launching deadly crackdowns and resorting to measures such as excessive use of force, torture, or arbitrary mass arrests and prosecutions, authorities should listen to and address demands for social and economic justice as well as political rights.”
In addition to suppressing protests on the streets, governments across MENA are detaining and silencing “prisoners of conscience” for expressing opposing opinions against the government online – be it dissident journalists, bloggers or social media users.
According to the report, 136 people in 12 countries across MENA were arrested for their comments and activity on the Internet. However, this was not the only method of crackdown. Amnesty recorded 367 human-rights defenders who were subjected to detention – 240 arbitrarily detained in Iran in 2019 and 118 who were prosecuted for their dissidence.
In Iran, an almost total shutdown of the Internet was implemented to stop updates about the protest from spreading. Even in times of calm, citizens have no access to Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube, since the applications are blocked from the state-run national Internet.
In Egypt, the government disrupted online messaging applications. Egyptian and Palestinian authorities often resort to censoring news websites.
“The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives,” Luther said. “Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders.”
Amnesty said there were reasons for hope. They include: the ICC’s charging Israel for Gaza war crimes; Tunisia prosecuting security forces for human-rights abuses; improved protection for migrant workers in Qatar, Jordan and the UAE; and the limited advancement of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
“Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights,” Morayef said. “Instead of ordering serious violations and crimes to stay in power, governments should ensure the political rights needed to allow people to express their socio-economic demands and to hold their governments to account.”
Reuters contributed to this report.