Amnesty slams Arab treatment of human rights advocates

But NGO hails successes of Israeli, Palestinian activists.

Nour 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Nour 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Amnesty International published a report on Wednesday that highlights the plight of human rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa and commends the work done by Israeli and Palestinian rights groups. Titled "Challenging Repression," the report cited the success Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have had in challenging Israeli policies by petitioning the High Court of Justice, which had led to "a landmark ruling which effectively outlawed the use of torture by the IDF." According to the report, human rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa still face imprisonment, torture, persecution and repression. Activists are intimidated, harassed, threatened, arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or death after unfair trials. Some rights advocates are held without access to the outside world for days or weeks, without charge or trial, and tortured, the report said. "Some have been subjected to repeated arrest or to assault in the street apparently to deter them from continuing their activities; others have been detained and tried on trumped-up charges for daring to express dissent or for exposing government abuses," Amnesty said. Some are forced to sign confessions to crimes they say they have not committed, or pledges to stop their human rights activities. Using Iran as an example - where authorities can draw on at least nine laws, many of which are vague and overlapping, to penalize criticism or alleged insult or defamation of state officials and others - Amnesty said national laws were routinely used to silence activists and penalize their activities. They are often charged with offences such as "insult," "slander," "dissemination of false information" and "anti-state propaganda." In other countries, such as Egypt and Syria, decades-long states of emergency are also invoked to hand down severe punishments after unfair trials, Amnesty said. "Across the region, those who stand up for human rights and expose violations by state authorities often incur great risks by doing so," said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program. "Governments should be heralding the crucial role of human rights defenders in promoting and defending universal rights. "Instead, too often, they brand them as subversives or trouble-makers and use oppressive means to impede their activities. People are languishing in jails across the region simply for peacefully exercising their right to expression, association or assembly," Smart said. Since the US-led war on terror began, the environment for human rights defenders in the region had generally worsened, as it has provided an additional pretext to silence dissent and to adopt counterterrorism laws, Amnesty said. The UAE Decree Law on the fight against terrorist crimes penalizes even nonviolent attempts to "disrupt public order, undermine security, expose people to danger or wreak destruction of the environment." Similarly, the Anti-terrorism Law adopted in 2003 in Tunisia contains a very broad definition of terrorism, extending it to cover acts such as illegitimately "influencing state policy" and "disturbing public order," which could seriously impinge upon the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, the report said. Despite the repression and hardships, the persistence of activists in combating human rights violations has slowly led to change, Amnesty said. In Iran, campaigning by women's movements, including the Campaign for Equality, led to the removal of two controversial articles from a draft Family Protection Law under discussion by the parliament in mid-2008. Bloggers in Egypt have been instrumental in exposing torture and other ill-treatment in police stations. They posted several videos, taken on mobile phones, of torture and other ill-treatment, Amnesty said.