This document is not available at this time.

Human rights activists still face repression in the Middle East and North Africa

Activists from the Iranian women’s rights initiative, Campaign for Equality, 1 January 2008

Activists from the Iranian women’s rights initiative, Campaign for Equality, 1 January 2008

© Campaign for Equality, photo by R. Asgarizadeh


11 March 2009

Human rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa still face persecution and repression, more than 10 years after the United Nations (UN) called on all states to support the work of people defending human rights.

A new Amnesty International report, Challenging Repression, details numerous cases that highlight the precarious situation of human rights defenders. They face intimidation, harassment, threats, detention without trial or long prison terms after unfair trials or death because of their efforts to uphold human rights.

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.

Others are prevented from travelling abroad. Tunisian authorities stopped human rights lawyer Mohamed Abbou from travelling to Europe on 6 March. This was the seventh time he had been stopped since he was released from prison in 2007.

The head of the Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights NGO al-Haq, Sha’wan Jabarin, has been prevented from travelling outside the Israeli-occupied West Bank for the past three years under an administrative order imposed by the Israeli authorities.

"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, Amnesty International's Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

"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."

National laws are routinely used to silence human rights defenders and penalize their activities. They are often charged with offences such as "insult", "slander", "dissemination of false information" and "anti-state propaganda". In Iran, the 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.

Decades-long states of emergency are also invoked to hand down severe punishments after unfair trials before exceptional courts such as in Egypt and Syria. In Egypt, the authorities have used far-reaching state of emergency powers to detain some human rights defenders without charge or trial, for prolonged periods. Musaad Abu Fagr, an activist defending the rights of the Bedouins of Sinai, has been held in administrative detention since he was arrested in December 2007.

The environment for human rights defenders in the region has generally worsened since the US-led "war on terror", which provided an additional pretext to silence dissent and to adopt counterterrorism laws.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) Decree Law on the fight against terrorist crimes penalizes even non-violent attempts to "disrupt public order, undermine security, expose people to danger or wreak destruction of the environment".

People working in the media, legal professionals and women activists face particular risks because of their profession or the cause they are defending. Media workers are closely scrutinized because of the potentially wide impact of their work. Women human rights defenders frequently face reprisals in a region in which traditional, conservative and patriarchal values continue to dominate. Legal professionals face harassment because of their proximity to defendants, with authorities often associating them with the cause of their clients.

In Syria, lawyer and prominent human rights defender Anwar al-Bunni, is serving a five-year prison sentence for statements he made in 2006 to a Qatar-based newspaper in which he said that the death in custody of Muhammad Shaher Haysa in Syria had been “as a result of ill-treatment possibly amounting to torture”.

Malcolm Smart said that in a region where governments persistently fail to respect human rights, the role of human rights defenders is all the more crucial. In order to continue their work, human rights defenders must be able to count on the support of the international community until their campaigns are acknowledged and their aspirations realized.

"It is high time that governments across the region recognize the crucial contribution of human rights defenders and take steps to support their work," said Malcolm Smart.

"They must immediately end the persecution of defenders and also remove the legal and other obstacles that are used to block or restrict their legitimate activities to promote and protect universal human rights."

How you can help

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL WORLDWIDE