Human Rights in the Middle East 2005

The Amnesty International has released its 2006 report , which covers events from January - December 2005. Here are some excerpts from the regional overview of the Middle East and North Africa:

At first sight, the pattern of widespread abuse that has long characterized human rights in the Middle East and North Africa remained firmly entrenched in 2005. Indeed, considering the appalling toll of abuses perpetrated by all parties to the conflict in Iraq, the continuing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, and some of the views expressed by Iran’s new President, the picture could have appeared very bleak.

Despite this and the persistence of grave violations across the region, there were some signs to suggest that 2005 might come to be seen as a time when some of the old certainties began to look less certain and a new dynamic began to take hold. The wall of impunity behind which so many perpetrators of torture, political killings and other abuses had sheltered for so long began to fracture. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussain was brought to trial on charges relating to executions of villagers in 1982, and an unprecedented UN Security Council-mandated inquiry implicated senior Syrian and Lebanese officials in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

In Morocco, the Arab world’s first truth commission shed important light on grave human rights abuses committed over a period of more than 40 years and brought acknowledgement and reparation for at least some of the victims, although not yet justice. In Libya, the authorities announced a belated investigation into the killing or “disappearance” of possibly hundreds of prisoners at Tripoli’s Abu Selim Prison in 1996.

Women, for so long subject to discrimination in both law and practice, finally won the right to vote in Kuwait and achieved greater recognition of their human rights in countries such as Algeria and Morocco. Even in Saudi Arabia, the exclusion of women from participation in the country’s first ever municipal elections sparked debate and growing pressure for change.

Only time will tell whether these were the first signs of real and overdue change or merely instances that bucked the trend. However, the emergence of an increasingly active and outspoken community of human rights activists was a further promising development. Using the Internet and the opportunities provided by the growth and popularity of satellite television, human rights activists were able increasingly to communicate information and share ideas unimpeded by national boundaries both within and beyond the region and to derive new strength and solidarity from the regional and global alliances to which they contributed.

However, 2005 also brought repression and misery to far too many people in the region as their human rights were abused or denied. Some were targeted because of their political views, others because of their religion or ethnicity, yet others for their sexual orientation. Throughout the region women were subject to varying degrees of discrimination and violence because of their gender. Countless others were unable to enjoy fully their economic, social and cultural rights.

Impunity, justice and accountability

With few exceptions, perpetrators of human rights abuses continued to benefit from impunity as governments failed to hold them to account and ensure justice for their victims. In many countries in the region, security and intelligence services were given free rein to detain suspects for long periods, often holding them incommunicado and without charge and exposing them to torture and ill-treatment, confident that they did so with official acquiescence and without fear of intervention by the courts. Detainees were frequently tortured in Syria in pre-trial detention. In Egypt, Iran and Tunisia, defendants frequently complained of torture when they were eventually brought to trial only for courts to dismiss their allegations out of hand without investigation.

The problem was exacerbated by the continued prevalence of exceptional courts, including military courts empowered to try civilians. In Egypt and Syria, such courts were maintained under long-standing states of emergency. Special courts were also used to try and sentence political suspects in Lebanon and Oman. In Libya, the General People’s Congress abolished the People’s Court, a notoriously unfair special court that had previously sentenced many critics and opponents of the government to long prison terms or death. Despite this, neither in Libya nor in most other countries in the Middle East and North Africa could it be said that there was an independent judiciary, especially in cases having a political or security aspect.Police and security forces also operated largely behind a shield of impunity when they used excessive force, causing deaths and injuries ….

Women’s rights

Women continued to suffer legal and other forms of discrimination throughout the region, although 2005 saw a quickening process of change. In Kuwait, women for the first time became eligible to vote in the country’s national elections. In Morocco, King Mohamed VI announced that citizenship would be granted to all children born of women with foreign spouses and that a discriminatory law severely limiting this right would be reformed. In Algeria too, amendments to the Family Code removed some aspects of discrimination, although not enough to give women equal status with men.

That such changes represented something of a breakthrough said a lot about how much further change is necessary before women truly achieve equal status in the region. Violence against women, including within the family, remained widespread and insufficiently addressed by governments and state authorities. In Iraq, where increasing religious sectarianism emerged as a feature of the political breakdown, women came under greater threat of violence because of how they dressed and behaved.

Economic, social and cultural rights

Many communities faced denial of or were hampered from accessing basic economic, social and cultural rights. Marginalized people were particularly vulnerable, including Bedouins in Israel, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, members of ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, and migrants, especially women migrant workers in Gulf countries and Lebanon. For Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli policies and controls made life especially harsh. Palestinians were left without shelter by destruction of their homes; without livelihood by the seizure of land and closures; and without access to adequate health care due to road closures and checkpoints. Access to scarce water resources increasingly emerged as a likely flashpoint for the future.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders continued to face a momentous task as they sought to promote wider understanding and ensure more effective protection of the rights due to all people in the region regardless of age, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or other defining characteristics. They faced many obstacles and in some cases put their lives on the line to defend their own and others’ fundamental rights.

Independent human rights organizations were active in a majority of countries, despite restrictive laws designed to regulate the operation of non-governmental groups. However, human rights defenders continued to be targeted for abuse or harassment, particularly in Iran and Syria. In Tunisia, the run-up to a UN-sponsored world summit in November was accompanied by an increase in state repression directed against leading human rights activists. The repression persisted through the summit itself which, ironically, aimed to advance international information exchange through the use of new technology. Sahrawi human rights defenders who documented abuses by Moroccan forces in confronting protests earlier in the year were jailed in Western Sahara.
(End of excerpts)


The Cartoon Controversy, a Report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

According to a new report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released on May 23, seven Arab governments have taken punitive measures against journalists and newspaper editors for running edited versions of the Prophet Mohammad's cartoons that created an international controversy. The report argues that these governments used the controversy as a pretext to retaliate against the press and to deflect public attention from domestic problems.

Here is a rundown included in the report on reprisals worldwide in the cartoon controversy. Except where noted, the actions came in response to publishing versions of one or more of the cartoons.

Worldwide, Arrests and Shutdowns

  • Countries where reprisals were reported: 13
  • Journalists criminally charged: 10
  • Newspapers suspended or closed: 9
  • Assault, harassment cases: 3
  • Censorship orders: 2

Algeria: Two editors criminally charged.
Belarus: One newspaper suspended.
Denmark: Jyllands-Posten threatened with bomb attack.
India: One editor criminally charged.
Jordan: Two editors criminally charged.
Lebanon: Journalists assaulted during demonstration against cartoons.
Malaysia: Two newspapers suspended.
Morocco: Government organizes demonstrations against newspaper.
Russia: Two newspapers closed.
Saudi Arabia: Newspaper suspended.
South Africa: Censorship orders issued against two newspapers.
Syria: Writer criminally charged for commentary.
Yemen: Three newspapers suspended. Four journalists criminally charged.

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