Middle East and North Africa

Human Rights by region

In Lebanon in 2010, Amineh ‘Abd al-Husri holds a picture of her son, Ahmed Zuhdi al-Sharqawi, who disappeared in 1986.

© Dalia Khamissy

“We want both: the freedom to work and the freedom to speak. Instead, I got beaten.”

Walid Malahi, who was beaten by Tunisian riot police during an anti-government protest, speaking to Amnesty International researchers in Tunisia.

2010 dawned with Yemen an unusual focus of international attention following an alleged terrorist incident. It closed with many eyes transfixed by the emergent people’s power in Tunisia and the chain reaction it was setting off elsewhere in the region. Both involved suicide – the first, an alleged suicide bomber aiming to kill passengers on a commercial jet; the second, the self-immolation by a young man in despair at his lack of work or opportunity and worn down by political repression.

These events were not simply the bookends of a year. Both also illuminated key currents affecting the states of the Middle East and North Africa – governments’ preoccupation with their political security but neglect of their people’s human security and failure to uphold the human rights on which that depends.

In January, Yemen was in the grip of a bloody conflict in its impoverished northern Sa’dah region and the government faced a swelling secessionist movement in the south. Yet it was neither of these, despite the human rights abuses that they spawned, that moved Yemen up the international political agenda. The cause, rather, was an incident that happened on 25 December 2009, thousands of miles away, when a Nigerian man said to have received training from al- Qa’ida in Yemen allegedly tried to blow up an airliner over the US city of Detroit. That act cast an immediate spotlight on Yemen as a potential base for al-Qa’ida at Saudi Arabia’s southern border and just a short Red Sea crossing from the conflict-ridden state of Somalia, particularly after reports of the formation of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula as a merger of al-Qa’ida forces in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Yemen, the poorest country in the region, was already suffering acute social, economic and political ills – a predominantly young population facing increasing poverty and unemployment; a country whose oil reserves and water supplies are nearing exhaustion; a government headed by a President in power since 1978 exhibiting increasing intolerance of dissent. This, together with the Sa’dah conflict and the growing calls for secession in the south, implied that Yemen could soon become again the focus of international attention, as concerns mounted that any further deterioration in such an extensively armed tribal country could lead to a total breakdown of law and order.

That it had already become such, to some extent, became clear during a visit to the country by Amnesty International researchers in March. They saw evidence of the weaponry used to attack an alleged al-Qa’ida camp in December 2009. That attack, carried out just over a week before the Detroit airline bomb incident, killed 41 Yemeni civilians, mostly women and children. Markings on the weapon remnants indicated that they came from a Tomahawk cruise missile carrying cluster bombs and that the attack must have been carried out by US forces, probably from a US warship off Yemen’s coast, rather than by Yemeni security forces. US government files subsequently confirmed this; a record of a meeting between Yemen’s President and a senior US official revealed the President ruefully acknowledging that he had lied to his own people by telling them that Yemeni forces had been responsible for the attack to cover up what he saw as a politically damaging truth – that the deaths of Yemeni civilians had resulted directly from a US attack.

In Tunisia, 24-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of despair on 17 December – he set himself alight after a local official in the town of Sidi Bouzid prevented him from selling vegetables from his handcart and reportedly assaulted him – was a lone and ultimately fatal expression of protest that struck a chord with thousands of his fellow Tunisians and hundreds of thousands more in Egypt, Algeria and other states across the region. It unleashed a surge of protests that spread like wildfire across the country. Mohamed Bouazizi’s act screamed out the frustration felt by so many of his generation at the abusive nature of governments across the Middle East and North Africa in which a few monopolize virtually all political and economic power – unaccountable, repressive, intolerant of dissent and content to rely on brutal, omnipotent and ubiquitous security and intelligence forces to maintain their grasp on the state and its resources, as they have in many cases for decades. True to form, faced with popular protests, the Ben ‘Ali government resorted to force, shooting down demonstrators as they had done in Gafsa in 2009. This time, however, the demonstrators would not be cowed and became even more determined to achieve their aim of ridding their country of President Ben ‘Ali.

Please see State of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, January to mid-April 2011 for information about recent events in the region' 

Conflict and insecurity

Yemen’s largely unreported Sa’dah conflict, which had seen Saudi Arabian jets pound towns and villages and contributed to some 350,000 people fleeing their homes, ended with a ceasefire in February. The conflict in Iraq, however, raged on as US troop numbers were scaled down and the USA completed its handover of prisons and thousands of untried detainees to Iraqi government control. They did this despite continuing revelations about the Iraqi government’s use of secret prisons and Iraqi security forces’ use of torture on an epidemic scale. The US government simply preferred to look away rather than meet its obligation to protect detainees at risk of torture. It also consigned around 3,400 Iranian exiles living at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, to an uncertain and insecure future after US forces handed control of the camp to Iraqi authorities.

Armed groups in Iraq continued relentlessly to detonate bombs that killed and maimed civilians. Shi’a pilgrims and Christians were among those targeted by Sunni armed groups determined to show their muscle and to sow further sectarian division, intensifying their attacks during the months of political limbo that followed the inconclusive outcome of Iraq’s national elections in March.

The Iraqi government’s riposte was to sweep up suspects, torture them to extract “confessions”, cart them before the courts and sentence scores to death after grossly unfair trials. Continuing attacks by suicide bombers defied assertions of the death penalty’s deterrent effect.

The other regional pivot of conflict remained the continuing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. Unusually, one round of this was played out on the high seas when Israeli soldiers intercepted in May a six-ship flotilla seeking to break Israel’s military blockade of Gaza to bring humanitarian relief to the 1.5 million Palestinians confined there. Nine people were killed aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara after it was boarded by Israeli troops, provoking an international outcry so strong that Israel felt obliged to slightly relax the Gaza blockade. A UN investigation concluded that at least six of the nine deaths appeared

to be “extra-legal, summary and arbitrary executions” by Israeli forces. The outcome of Israel’s own domestic investigation was still awaited at the end of the year; it lacked independence.

December saw the second anniversary of the launch of Operation “Cast Lead”, Israel’s 22-day military assault on Gaza that killed nearly 1,400 Palestinians, over 300 of them children. In 2009, a UN fact- finding inquiry headed by Justice Richard Goldstone had accused both Israel and the Palestinian side of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, and called for investigations and accountability.

Yet, by the end of 2010 the victims were still waiting for justice and reparation. Israel’s domestic investigations were flawed, lacking independence and even acknowledgement of the extent of civilian casualties that Israeli forces had caused, while Hamas failed to conduct even the semblance of an investigation maintaining, against all evidence, that it had targeted only military installations when firing indiscriminate rockets and other weapons into Israeli civilian areas. The matter was due to come before the UN Human Rights Council in March 2011 for decision on whether to allow the abusive parties yet more time to ignore the claims of their victims or to turn the matter over to international justice mechanisms.

Repression of dissent

Freedom of expression, a cornerstone right vital for its own sake and for accessing other human rights, was everywhere curtailed by governments across the region. So too were the closely related rights to freedom of association and assembly, with state authorities impeding the development of human rights NGOs and a vibrant civil society and seeking often to prevent public expressions of dissent.

In countries including Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria, those who dared speak out in favour of greater freedoms, against their government or in defence of human rights, did so at their peril. In these and other states, the forces of repression – the shadowy, all-powerful and unaccountable secret police – were never far away. Government critics were harassed and intimidated, arrested and detained, and sometimes tortured or tried and jailed on trumped-up charges to silence them and to send a message to others who might have the temerity to speak out. In Iran, several ethnic minority activists were summarily hanged in reprisal for an armed attack carried out when they were already in prison. In Syria, the national bar association appeared to have been co-opted to target and strike off a leading human rights lawyer who had reported on trials before Syria’s unfair special security court. In the West Bank, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority targeted suspected supporters of Hamas, while in Gaza, the Hamas de facto administration similarly turned the screw on supporters of Fatah. In the Western Sahara, under Moroccan administration since 1975, Moroccan authorities targeted Sahrawi human rights defenders and advocates of self-determination for the territory’s people. In Bahrain, a leading human rights NGO was effectively taken under government control after it spoke out about the alleged torture of leading members of the Shi’a community detained in August and September.

Freedom of expression and the media

State authorities strove to maintain their control over the free flow of information using methods both familiar and time-worn, but faced an increasing challenge from the rise and accessibility of social media and a populace increasingly determined to have their say. In Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, bloggers were arrested and detained. In Iran, Tunisia and elsewhere governments blocked access to the internet and cut mobile phone lines in their efforts to staunch protests. In Yemen, a leading journalist was abducted from the street and detained, and a press court targeted editors and journalists who failed to toe the government’s line. There, as elsewhere in the region, the authorities resorted to criminal defamation prosecutions to chill debate and deter journalists from exposing human rights abuses or corruption in high circles.

But, as the protests in Tunisia showed, governments who obstructed access to the internet or cut mobile phone networks were doing no more than sticking a finger in the dyke. Activists turned in increasing numbers to social networking sites to keep one jump ahead of the authorities and to publish damning evidence of state abuse. One very positive sign emerging in 2010 was that the battle for control of access to information was finally turning in favour of the citizen activist.

Public ‘security’

Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained an abiding feature across the region. The victims frequently were political suspects who were detained, often at undisclosed locations where they were subject to interrogation and held incommunicado for weeks at a time, or even longer. Police violence against ordinary criminal suspects was also endemic in Egypt and other countries. Where there were trials, international fair trial standards were routinely ignored, especially in cases involving dissent or outright opposition to those in power.

In Iran, “show trials” continued of people who had protested against the official result of the 2009 presidential election leading to at least two executions. In Saudi Arabia, trials of security suspects continued to be held behind closed doors amid the tightest security. In Egypt, civilian political activists and other suspects continued to face trial before military or emergency courts at the direction of the country’s President.

Egypt’s 30-year national state of emergency was again renewed by a compliant parliament in May; similarly, the Algerian and Syrian governments maintained long-running states of emergency under which their security forces, like those in Egypt, were equipped with extraordinary powers of arrest and detention, which were used to suppress legitimate political activities and expression of human rights.

Several governments maintained and made extensive use of the death penalty and other cruel punishments, such as amputation and flogging. Indeed, it was ironic given the mutual antipathy of their leaders and governments that the twin Gulf superpowers of Iran and Saudi Arabia were at one in their continuing devotion to the death penalty and other cruel punishments, which they justified in the name of Shari’a (Islamic law) but utilized in a manner that often suggested a more cynical, political motivation. This was particularly so in Iran, where the authorities carried out more executions than in any country other than China and did so with evident intent to terrorize. Some 252 executions were recorded in Iran, though the true total may have been far higher. So great was the wave of international revulsion against the planned stoning to death of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, however, that she was still alive at the end of the year though facing an uncertain future as various Iranian authorities went through contortions to try and justify her execution. The anger that her case prompted both at home and abroad provided a telling sign of the impact that international public opinion can have in averting a serious human rights violation.

In Saudi Arabia, at least 27 prisoners were executed, although this marked a significant reduction on the previous two years and hopefully augured a long-term positive trend, though this was by no means assured. Hard-line governments also continued to carry out executions in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and Hamas carried out five executions in Gaza, but increasingly these appeared out of step with the worldwide trend towards abandonment of this most cruel expression of state violence, a trend reflected by the maintenance of moratoriums on executions in the states of the Maghreb, Jordan and Lebanon.

Economic concerns – housing and livelihoods

The 1.5 million Palestinians who live crowded into the Gaza Strip endured another year of extreme hardship under an Israeli military blockade that constituted collective punishment, a breach of international law, and effectively confined them to the tiny, war- ravaged enclave. Twice Israel announced some easing of the blockade, but with little effect. Some 80 per cent of Gaza’s people continued to rely on international humanitarian assistance and food aid for their survival.

Elsewhere in the region, there was severe impoverishment in many communities as the global recession bit deep, exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure and other development, official corruption and plain misgovernment. It was reflected in high rates of unemployment, especially among the young, fuelling a sense of marginalization and demands for change, the driving forces of the Tunisian uprising in December. So often, it was those forced to the margins of society who felt the full force of police brutality or official unconcern.

In Egypt, workers and others continued to stage protests against rising living costs and to demand better wages and working conditions. Among the millions of people living in the country’s sprawling informal settlements (slums), thousands in Cairo faced forced eviction from areas declared “unsafe” or because their “shack areas” had been earmarked for development and gentrification. All too frequently, those to be removed were not consulted in advance or allowed a voice in official decisions about their relocation, and some were left homeless. They were made to feel that they had no rights by the very authorities whose responsibility it is to uphold and respect their human rights.


2010 saw little improvement in the status of women and girls who, across the region, continued to face discrimination and violence, including within the family. Men remained superior under family and personal status laws in matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, and women continued to be accorded inferior status under the criminal law. Particularly in more traditional areas, girls were subject to early and forced marriage and women who challenged strict dress codes or were seen by male relatives as not conforming to their particular notions of family “honour” risked violent reprisals and even murder at the hands of their fathers, brothers, husbands or other male relatives. In all too many cases, men who cited “honour” as a mitigating factor escaped any or appropriate punishment for crimes of violence committed against female members of their families.

While virtually all women were at risk of gender-based violence, women migrant domestic workers were particularly exposed. Mostly, these were women from poor and developing countries in Asia and Africa who worked in countries in the Gulf as well as in Jordan and Lebanon. They were generally excluded altogether from local labour laws, where these exist, and were triply vulnerable – as foreigners, as migrants and as women – to exploitation and abuse, including sexual and other violence, at the hands of their employers. Two of the most disturbing cases that came to light in 2010 involved women employed as domestic servants in oil-rich Saudi Arabia: one, a Sri Lankan national, alleged that her employer had driven more than 20 nails into her hands, leg and head after she complained that she had too much work to do; another, an Indonesian national, was cut on the face with scissors, burned with a hot iron and beaten to the point were she required admission to hospital.

Migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who sought to find work in North Africa or to transit them and gain entry to European states were liable to summary arrest and detention or deportation. Those at risk included refugees and asylum-seekers. In Egypt, border guards continued their policy of shooting migrants attempting to cross the country’s border into Israel, killing at least 30. In Libya, thousands of suspected irregular migrants, including refugees and asylum-seekers, were held in severely overcrowded and unhygienic detention centres and faced habitual abuse, sometimes amounting to torture.

Members of ethnic and religious minorities also faced discrimination, as in Iran, or were targeted for attack by armed groups, as in Iraq. In Egypt, Coptic Christians were attacked. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees continued to be barred from various professions and prevented from accessing other basic rights. In Syria, Kurds faced continuing discrimination and restrictions on use of their language and cultural expression. Life in the region was hard, especially hard, for migrants, refugees and members of minority groups.

Accounting for the past

The long-running truth and reconciliation process launched with some fanfare in Morocco and Western Sahara in 2004 continued its snail-like progress and continued to disappoint. From the outset, the process explicitly omitted any consideration of justice as a means to remedy the gross violations committed by government forces between 1956 and 1999 and, in practice, it largely failed even to provide the truth about what happened to those who disappeared or suffered other grave abuses. On top of this, the Moroccan authorities showed little sign of implementing the far-reaching legal and institutional reforms that had been due to flow from the process, to hold the security forces accountable under the law and eradicate the use of secret detention and torture. Underscoring this failure, in 2010 new reports emerged of torture of suspects by Morocco’s secret police.

Meanwhile, the work of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), set up under UN auspices in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, provoked a political storm that threatened the coalition government headed by the late Prime Minister’s son. Tension mounted after reports that the STL intended to indict several members of Hizbullah, Lebanon’s most powerful political force and a partner in the coalition government, leading Hizbullah to accuse the STL of being politically driven. At the end of 2010, the facts were still to emerge, but it was hard to escape the conclusion that the STL had been from the outset an exercise in selective justice. Its mandate and jurisdiction were limited, covering only the Hariri assassination and some associated attacks. Few or no steps have been taken by any Lebanese government to investigate the thousands of disappearances, abductions, killings and other abuses that were committed during the bitter 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, nor even to adequately protect mass graves, despite the pleas of the now ageing relatives of the thousands of missing people. The legacy of that darkest of periods in Lebanon’s recent history has yet to be addressed. As a reminder of this, each day a solemn group of people gather quietly in a Beirut park clutching precious but yellowing photographs of their long-lost but not yet forgotten loved ones, to ask what became of them and where their remains lie. It is a poignant sight. Sadly, 20 years on, there has still been no UN Security Council demand, nor barely any international pressure, to provide them with the answers that are their due.

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