Reprisals against human rights defenders must end and stronger action should be taken to protect them

Reprisals_23_May_14Human rights defenders undertake legitimate and peaceful human rights work under continuous threats to their safety and security and often that of their families. Attacks and reprisals against human rights defenders in the Gulf Region are rising as a result of their cooperation with the International human rights community and organisations including the United Nations as they strive to promote human rights, and to expose and ensure accountability for human rights violations.

Such reprisals ‘take many forms, ranging from smear campaigns, threats, travel bans, harassment, fines, the closing of organisations, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and lengthy prison sentences through to torture, ill-treatment and even death.[1]

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, Dr. Mohammed Al- Qahatani, lawyer and one of the co-founders   of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), was publicly convicted for his co-operation with the UN system.  He is currently serving a 10-year jail term to be followed by a 10-year travel ban. He has featured in numerous reports of the UN Secretary General on this matter in which the UN has demanded that charges against him are dropped and that he be released. (For further information see the following GCHR appeal http://gc4hr.org/news/view/601).

Human rights defender and academic, Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamid is also a co-founder of ACRPA and the Legitimate Rights Defense Committee. He has been arrested and jailed on a number of occasions for his human rights work, including in 2004 when he was imprisoned and released two years later following a clemency and in 2008 when he served a six-month sentence.

In March 2013 Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamid was sentenced at the Criminal Court in Riyadh to a total of 11 years in prison- five years based on 12 alleged charges including “refusing to submit to the will of the king”, “incitement” and “communicating with foreign entities” and a further six years for a sentence that he did not serve earlier in 2004 after a pardon, for allegedly breaching the conditions of his release, despite the fact that the pardon was unconditional. A travel ban of 11 years, to take effect, on his release was also imposed.  The charge of ‘communicating with foreign entities’ includes his engagement with the UN. In one particular hearing the presiding judge in the Criminal Court in Riyadh, specifically accused him of informing the International community that there are 30,000 detainees in Saudi Arabia.

In detention he has been subjected to continuous harassment and he commenced a hunger strike on 25 July 2013 after which he was placed in solitary confinement. He has been denied access to his lawyer and was told by the authorities that he must change lawyers. (For further information see GCHR appeals, http://gc4hr.org/news/view/473 and http://gc4hr.org/news/view/601).

Human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair is also currently in detention. He has been subjected to ill-treatment in prison and is being denied access to his family.  He was arrested and detained following his appearance before the Special Criminal Court in Riyadh on 15 April 2014. The charges brought against him relate to inter alia, his co-operation with the International community and human rights organisations including the UN. He was significantly involved in writing the GCHR’s joint submission to the UN for the UPR session in Geneva and the GCHR believes that his arrest and ill-treatment are related to his engagement with the UN human rights mechanisms. (For further information see the following GCHR appeals http://gc4hr.org/news/view/645, and http://gc4hr.org/news/view/513).

Human rights defender and journalist Mikhlif Al-Shammari was also targeted as a result of his engagement with International human rights bodies. He faces charges which include communicating with suspicious organisations and attempting to discredit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the eyes of internal and external public opinion. (For further information see GCHR appeal http://gc4hr.org/news/view/601)

Kuwait

In Kuwait human rights defenders Nawaf Al-Hendal and Hadeel Buqrais were targeted following their communication with International human rights organisations.  Both activists were involved in monitoring and documenting human rights violations in Kuwait including during Bedoon demonstrations, which are often targeted by state security forces.  They have been accused, in State Security reports, of acting as spies for foreign bodies. (For further information see GCHR appeal http://gc4hr.org/news/view/589)

Bahrain

 In Bahrain many human rights defenders have suffered reprisals as a result of engaging with the International community and human rights organisations including the UN. Examples include co-founders of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab both of whom have been targeted as a direct consequence of their human rights work and communication with International human rights organisations and the UN. The Secretary General’s report 2012, cites both their cases[2] as examples of reprisals for co-operation with the UN.

Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja worked for over twenty years for the promotion of human rights and civil liberties in Bahrain and is the founder and former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR).  He worked regionally and internationally, engaging with the UN systems on a regular basis, bringing cases of human rights violations to their attention.  He was sentenced to life in prison in June 2011. He remains in detention and has been subject to torture on many occasions, a fact which has been acknowledged and condemned by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)[3]. In September 2012 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that his arrest was due to his exercise of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. According to the Working Group, the charges against Mr. Al-Khawaja—including membership in a terrorist organization— were “vague” and “raise doubts as to the actual purpose of detention.” (For further information see http://gc4hr.org/news/view/631)

Nabeel Rajab, President of the BCHR and General Secretary of GCHR, has been arrested and detained on many occasions on baseless charges. He was released on 24 May 2014 having been in prison since July 2012. He was subjected to discrimination and ill-treatment in prison, including being placed in solitary confinement with a dead animal, being isolated from other political detainees for his entire detention period and being prevented from contacting his family after he reported violations that he had witnessed in prison. He was due to appear before the Human Rights Council as part of  Bahrain’s Universal Periodic Review in 2012, but was arrested just weeks before. His appeal was rejected in October of that year. (For further information see http://gc4hr.org/news/view/578, and http://gc4hr.org/news/view/537)http://gc4hr.org/news/view/631

The Secretary General 2012 report acknowledges the reprisals faced following his, and others, engagement with the UN and the UPR process[4]:

“reprisals against human rights defenders took place in the context of the universal periodic review of Bahrain on 21 May 2012. Reportedly, a number of Bahraini newspapers, including El Watan and the Gulf Daily News published articles labelling human rights defenders in Geneva who had provided information for the consideration of Bahrain in the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review as “traitors”.… One prominent lawyer and human rights defender was subjected to a smear campaign upon his return to Bahrain from the session of the Working Group. Another human rights defender was injured by riot police while peacefully demonstrating in Bahrain; allegedly he was targeted because of his previous attendance at the universal periodic review session.”

Similarly the 2013 report refers to the fact that following the twenty-first session of the Human Rights Council, the newspaper Al-Watan published, on 25 September 2012, the names and photographs of participants in the universal periodic review of Bahrain, including Mohammed Al-Maskati, Maryam Al-Khawaja, Dr. Nada Dhaif, Dr. Mondher Alkhoor, Jalila Al-Salman and Said Yousif, who were accused of “discrediting Bahrain in Geneva”[5].

As highlighted in the Secretary General’s most recent report[6], co-founder and president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) Mohamed Al-Maskati has also been a victim of reprisals including acts of judicial harassment following his appearance at Bahrain’s UPR. Most recently in October 2013 he was summoned and interrogated on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime”. He has actively cooperated with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in recent years and has visited the Special Rapporteurs affiliated with it in August 2013. He also met several diplomatic missions in Geneva in coordination with many regional and international Human Rights organisations. (For further information see http://gc4hr.org/news/view/510).

UAE

In the UAE prominent blogger and human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, as well as others have been subjected to reprisals.  Ahmed Mansoor, is one of the UAE 5 and a former member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Advisory Committee and has contributed to many International human rights forums and events. In the past year he has been subjected to physical attacks and harassment.  He has been targeted by authorities and has endured smear campaigns particularly following the UAE 94 trial and after his participation at the 21st session of the UN Human Rights Council. He is now subjected to an on-going travel ban as a direct result of his peaceful human rights activities.

The above are merely examples of the consequences that human rights defenders face for engagement with International human rights organisations and mechanisms. In other Gulf countries such as Oman, human rights defenders are also being targeted as a result of their communication with organisations outside of their native country. Their identities, however, cannot be disclosed as they fear further retaliation by state authorities.

Conclusion and recommendations

While the GCHR acknowledges that there have been attempts at an International level to address the issue of reprisals, for example by the reports of the Secretary General and the adoption of a resolution on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, at the 22nd Session of the Human Rights Council[7], the situation is worsening.

It is clear from the reprisals suffered by human rights defenders in the Gulf Region that their engagement with the International community and human rights mechanisms places them in significant danger of being further targeted. Such engagement is however, essential to ensure awareness of human rights violations, and to ensure that they are not met with impunity. Furthermore, reprisals, often go unreported which increases the likelihood that those responsible are never held accountable for such injustices and breaches of human rights law.

The GCHR urges all UN human rights bodies, including the Human Rights Council, and UN member states to investigate thoroughly and take immediate and decisive action to combat reprisals and to ensure that human rights defenders and all those engaging with the UN can do so without fear of such reprisals. The GCHR believes that the membership of and participation in the Human Rights Council of a member state, should be seriously examined following reprisals at the hand of state authorities.

The GCHR recalls the recommendations set out by the Secretary General of the need to ensure that persecution and intimidation are systematically condemned, and that legal action is taken by those responsible. As well as that action should be taken at the national level, including through the adoption of appropriate legislation, by publicly condemning acts of reprisal and intimidation, ensuring accountability in relation to the majority of reported cases of reprisals, conducting effective and impartial investigations and bringing perpetrators to justice, and providing victims with remedies.

The GCHR urges state authorities in the Gulf Region to ensure that all human rights defenders, and all citizens, are free to avail of and engage with the UN and the International human rights community. The GCHR urges all Gulf States to ensure that human rights defenders are free to carry out their legitimate and peaceful human rights work without fear of reprisals and free from all restrictions including judicial harassment. The GCHR respectfully reminds state authotrities that the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998, recognises the legitimacy of the activities of human rights defenders, their right to freedom of association and to carry out their activities without fear of reprisals. We would particularly draw your attention to We would particularly draw your attention to Article 5 (c): “For the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels: (c) To communicate with non-governmental or intergovernmental organizations.


[1] United Nations General Assembly Report of the Secretary General “Cooperation with the United Nations, its  representatives and mechanisms in the field of  human rights “  A/HRC/24/29 available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session24/Documents/A-HRC-24-29_en.pdf

[2] A/HRC/21/18 (par 51-54) available at http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session21/A-HRC-21-18_en.pdf

[3] For more information and to access the report visit http://www.bici.org.bh/

[4] A/HRC/21/18

[5] A/HRC/24/29

[6] Ibid

[7] United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/22/L.13 available at http://daccess-ddsny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/LTD/G13/120/26/PDF/G1312026.pdf?OpenElement  Article 14 states “To refrain from, and ensure adequate protection from, any act of intimidation or reprisals against those who cooperate, have cooperated or seek to cooperate with international institutions, including their family members and associates;(b)To fulfill the duty to end impunity for any such acts of intimidation or reprisals by bringing the perpetrators to justice and by providing an effective remedy for their victims;”

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