11.13.2006

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of the October issue of Arab Reform Bulletin Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Headlines:
  • Iraq: Parliament Passes Federalism Bill
  • Yemen: Presidential and Local Election Results
  • Bahrain: Run-Up to Elections
  • UAE: First Elections Coming; Crackdown on Human Rights Activists
  • Kuwait: MPs Blame Government for Electoral Violations
  • Jordan: King Pardons MPs; Parliament Approves Laws
  • Syria: Human Rights Developments
  • Libya: Verdicts by Abolished Courts Upheld; Prison Clashes
  • Upcoming Political Events

Iraq: Parliament Passes Federalism Bill

After months of deadlock, the Iraqi parliament passed a law on October 11 setting up a mechanism to implement a constitution provision allowing the formation of federal regions in Iraq, despite vehement opposition by the Sunni coalition and two Shiite parties. The bill was submitted by the largest Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, with the aim of creating a Shiite autonomous state in southern Iraq with broad powers over security and petroleum resources. The Sunni Iraqi Accord Front and the National Dialogue Front of Saleh Al Mutlaq boycotted the parliamentary session but a quorum was reached with 138 lawmakers (of 275) passing the 200 articles of the bill unanimously. On September 24, Sunni parties agreed to allow the bill to be presented for a vote after reaching a deal that the law would not come into effect for 18 months and that a 27-member committee would be created to review the constitution. Sunni Arab politicians fear that regional autonomy would deny other regions access to oil revenues and want to amend the constitution to strengthen the powers of the central government.


Yemen: Presidential and Local Election Results

After threatening to encourage its supporters to stage street protests, Yemen's opposition parties stated they would accept results of the September 20 presidential election “for the sake of peace and stability. ” The opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties that fielded former oil executive Faisal Bin Shamlan as its presidential candidate initially rejected election commission results giving incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh 77. 17 percent of the vote and Bin Shamlan just 21. 82 percent, claiming that the government had seized polling stations and stolen ballot boxes. President Saleh acknowledged “mistakes” in the elections and pledged to rectify them in the next one, but stood by his victory and thanked the opposition for giving him his first real challenge in 28 years in power.

In its preliminary report released on September 21, the European Union Election Observation Mission described the elections as “an open and genuine political contest” but cited shortcomings including underage voting, voter intimidation, arrest of opposition candidates, and the overwhelming use of state resources by the ruling party during the election campaign. Les Campbell, Director of the National Democratic Institute's Middle East Program, which assisted in monitoring the elections, said that “Having watched democratic developments for 10 years in the Middle East, this may have been the most significant election so far.” A report by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information highlights restrictions imposed on freedom of the press.

The Election Commission on October 4 postponed the announcement of results of local elections also held September 20, citing a lack of final results from all districts. Allegations of fraud and election-related violence, including the deaths of candidates and election officials, have stalled the process. The commission reported that 90 percent of the vote count is complete and that initial results show a victory of the ruling General People Congress with over 80 percent of votes in the provincial councils and 70 percent in district councils. Approximately 65 percent of the 9. 2 million registered voters cast ballots. Click here for more details.


Bahrain: Run-Up to Elections

Protesters and opposition parties are accusing the Bahraini government of extending citizenship and voting rights to Sunni migrants from other Arab countries as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India in order to dilute the voting power of the Shiite majority in parliamentary elections scheduled for November 25. A report by former government advisor Salah Al Bandar describing a conspiracy by senior government officials to rig the upcoming elections to reduce the powers of Shiites has added to the tension. According to the report, this effort is led by the State Minister of Cabinet Affairs and head of the Central Informatics Organization Sheikh Ahmed bin Ateyatallah Al Khalifa. Sheikh Ahmed (who also heads the committee overseeing the November elections) denied the claim, saying that the report was an attempt by Al Bandar to erode national unity, sow doubts about the forthcoming elections, and undermine the credibility of officials preparing the elections. Click here to access the report.

Bahrain's largest Shiite political society Al Wefaq, which is planning to contest at least 19 seats in the 40-member lower house, has called for an independent probe into the report's allegations. Al Wefaq and four other political societies boycotted the 2002 elections to protest constitutional changes that granted the appointed upper chamber of parliament equal legislative powers to the elected lower chamber. Nine candidates, including former member of parliament Abdulnabi Salman, have established a new alliance called the National Unity Bloc. Its platform calls for promoting constitutional reforms that would place legislative power entirely in the hands of the elected lower house, allow for the establishment of political parties, and redraw electoral constituencies.

Bahrain's judicial authority announced that it will for the first time fully supervise the elections. The November elections will be only the second time that Bahrainis will elect fully representative municipal councils and the lower house of the National Assembly. The 2002 parliamentary elections were Bahrain's first since 1975, when former ruler Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament.


UAE: First Elections Coming; Crackdown on Human Rights Activists

The UAE government will hold its first-ever indirect elections for half of the members of the 40-member Federal National Council (FNC), the closest body the country has to a parliament, on December 16. The FNC serves in an advisory capacity and lacks legislative powers. Minister of State for FNC Affairs Anwar Gargash announced election procedures in September; click here for details. The ruler of each of the seven emirates has named members to the electoral colleges (6, 689 members in total, 1, 189 of them women), who will then elect half the FNC members from amongst themselves. The other half of the council's members will continue to be appointed by the leaders of the emirates. The UAE is the only country among the six Gulf Cooperation Council states that has yet to hold any form of elections. In the past months, security officials and the judiciary in the United Arab Emirates have targeted several prominent human rights defenders. A travel ban and arrest warrant was issued on June 17 against Muhammad Al Mansoori, president of the independent Jurists Association and a prominent lawyer and human rights activist. According to Al Mansoori, the warrant charged him with “insulting the Public Prosecutor” on the basis of his human rights advocacy. Security officials detained prominent lawyer and human rights defender Al-Muhammad Al Roken on July 27 for 24 hours and again on August 23 for three days on charges of “immoral behavior” and questioned him about his human rights activities and contacts. Also, the Ministry of Social Welfare has not replied to applications by two human rights groups for licenses since 2004. Under the Associations Law, the ministry should have replied within 30 days. In a letter to UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Human Rights Watch called on the UAE to halt the harassment of human rights defenders and allow independent human rights groups to operate legally. Click here to read the letter.


Kuwait: MPs Blame Government for Electoral Violations

A parliamentary committee established in July to investigate electoral violations in Kuwait declared on October 1 that it has evidence of government interference in the June parliamentary elections. The committee has not released details of its findings but has requested that the government ask the head of the Citizen Services Apparatus Sheikh Muhammad Al Abdullah Al Mubarak Al Sabah to step down for three months while the investigation unfolds. Government officials have responded that the constitution does not allow a parliamentary committee to make such requests.


Jordan: King Pardons MPs; Parliament Approves Laws

Jordan's King Abdullah pardoned on September 30 two Islamist MPs, Mohammad Abu Fares and Ali Abul Sukkar. The two were sentenced to 13-month prison terms on charges of fuelling national discord and inciting sectarianism after they attended the funeral of Al Qaeda militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in June. The Islamic Action Front (IAF) welcomed their release but insisted that the sentence had been unfair and that they should regain their parliamentary seats.

Relations between the government and the IAF have been further strained by legislation to tighten control over mosque preachers. On September 27, parliament approved the draft iftaa (Islamic verdicts) law that requires written approval from the religious affairs minister for new mosque preachers and anyone teaching the Quran in mosques. Under the law, violators face penalties of up to one month in prison and a fine of $142. On September 13 parliament approved a measure that allows only a state-appointed council to issue fatwas (religious edicts) and makes it illegal to criticize these fatwas. IAF MPs rejected the law on the basis that it curbs religious freedoms and freedom of expression.

Parliament also approved legislation on September 27 to fight corruption through the creation of a “financially and administratively autonomous” six-member commission tasked with investigating corruption, including suspects among current and former officials. To the dismay of many human rights activists, parliament endorsed a last-minute amendment to allow the Prime Minister to appoint the members.


Syria: Human Rights Developments

  • Journalist Ali Abdullah and his son, Muhammad, were released from prison on October 4 after completing six month-terms on charges including “broadcasting abroad false or exaggerated news which would damage the reputation of the state.” A further charge connected with allegations that he insulted the Syrian president was dropped. Click here for more details.
  • Khalil Hussein, Mahmoud Issa, Suleyman Shummar and Muhammad Mahfouz, considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, were released on bail of 1, 000 Syrian Lira (US $20) on September 25 after they were arrested for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration of 12 May 2006.
  • According to the National Organization for Human Rights, Abdo Khalaf Wlo, a former leading member of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic party, was released from prison after being arrested in mid-June.
  • Anwar Al Bunni and Michel Kilo (who have been held since 14 May) remain in prison, reportedly on charges including “weakening nationalist feelings and inciting racial or sectarian strife. ” There is no date as yet for their trial or information about which court will hear their case. Click here for more details.
  • Eight Syrian students from the University of Damascus arrested between January and March 2006 continue to be held incommunicado and without legal counsel. The charges are not known, but they were reportedly involved in developing a youth movement and in writing political articles for various websites. They were scheduled to appear before the State Security Court September 26, but the trial has been postponed until November 26. Click here for more details.

Libya: Verdicts by Abolished Courts Upheld; Prison Clashes

A court in Tripoli upheld on October 4 the decision of the now abolished People's Court to convict 190 prisoners arrested in the second half of the 1990s on charges related to membership of or links with an unauthorized organization, believed to be the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The court had been ordered to retry the cases by Libya's Supreme Court, which reviewed and overturned the original sentences following the abolition of the People's Court in January 2005. Violent clashes in which at least one prisoner was killed took place in the Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli on October 4, after some prisoners were brought back to the prison following the hearing. Hundreds of political prisoners have been detained there in recent years and the prison was the scene of a mass killing of detainees in June 1996, with estimated figures of those killed ranging up to 1, 200. Click here for more details.

Upcoming Political Events

  • Bahrain: Legislative and municipal elections, November 25, 2006.
  • Algeria: Referendum on constitutional revision, fall 2006.
  • United Arab Emirates: Elections to the Federal National Council, December 16, 2006.

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