The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged Human rights
UAE Activists on trial

The piece below has been contributed by Jenifer Fenton, a freelance journalist based in the UAE, formerly with CNN.

Five activists charged with opposing the government and insulting the country’s leadership returned to court on Monday in the United Arab Emirates. Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent Emirati human rights activist and blogger, and four others - who face up to five years in prison if convicted - have pleaded not guilty.

Behind closed doors in Abu Dhabi’s Federal Supreme Court the prosecution called two more witnesses who testified about the activists’ internet articles and blogs. There was a gathering of about 50 pro-government demonstrators outside the courthouse who protesting against the five: Emiratis Mansoor, Nasser bin Ghaith, Fahad Salim Dalk and Hassan Ali Al Khamis; and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, who does not carry identification papers.

Earlier this year, Mansoor was among 133 Emiratis who signed a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Supreme Council of the seven Emirates asking for the country to have direct elections.  The group also asked that the Federal National Council (FNC) be granted legislative powers; the body is only an advisory one.

Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University who knows the five activists said he does not think calling for reforms is a crime but that the case should be left with with the judicial system. Hopefully, the fairness of the trial is guaranteed and the men will be thought of innocent until proven guilty, he said.

The activists’ trial comes as the UAE is preparing for its second FNC elections on September 24, in which almost 130,000 Emiratis will be eligible to vote. Previous elections were held in 2006, when just more than 6,500 Emiratis were allowed to take part. There are 40 members of the FNC. Half of its members are elected by the electoral college and the other half are nominated by the rulers of their Emirate. 

The FNC’s second elections are an improvement on 2006, however they fall short of universal suffrage, said Abdullah, who is not eligible to vote in September. “I don’t see any reason for delaying universal suffrage in the UAE and granting the FNC full legislative power.”

The UAE has not experienced the unrest that is sweeping the region, but it appears to be feeling the pressure to reform. The country is investing in water and electricity supplies in the northern Emirates, building thousands of homes to distribute to Emiratis and creating jobs for its citizens.

The UAE leadership is sensitive on a couple of levels, said Christoper Davidson, a Middle East expert at Durham University. Domestically, the wealth gap between the poorer and wealthier emirates is growing and there is resentment building in the northern emirates, he said. And the illusion of stability for the Gulf monarchies, with the events in Bahrain and Oman, is gone, Davidson said. The UAE has shown they are aware of problems in the Emirates, however given the arrest of the activists and clamp down on other institutions, the UAE is saying to its citizens “that we are not willing to talk to you while we are fixing them.”

The five activists have been detained and held in preventative custody since April. On the heels of their arrests, the UAE also dissolved the elected board of the Jurists Association and the Teachers’ Association replacing both boards with state appointees.

The Jurist Association was said to have violated the UAE’s Law on Associations, which bans NGOs from interfering “in politics or in matters that impair State security and its ruling regime,” according to Human Rights Watch. Sunday, dozens of Arab intellectuals, academics and human rights activists, among others, released a statement of solidarity with the five men in detention and have called on international organizations to “work on releasing prisoners of conscience and opinion.”

The petitioners mirrored an earlier call by four rights groups, including Amnesty International and HRW, to end the trial. “The UAE government is using defamation as a pretext to prosecute activists for peacefully expressing their beliefs about the way their country should be run,” Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International, said in a press release. The UAE has ratified Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and expression, according to HRW.

While the Emirati leadership does not seem in real danger of losing power, the changes the UAE are making show that no one in the region is immune to the calls for political reform, said Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center. “This is a trend that has started. It has a very long way to come. How a regime, family, leadership responds sets the tone for what comes next.” The trend in the UAE has been for greater political say, but given the angst of the region, stability is valued, Shaikh said. A few weeks before he was detained, Mansoor tweeted “I wish to see UAE moving toward constitutional monarchy as a formula balancing between current situation and prospected reform.”

His trial continues at the end of September.

Morocco vs. solidarity: Kamel Jendoubi

I was shocked, although not altogether surprised, to learn about Kamel Jendoubi yesterday. I was in Morocco most of the summer and just flew back as Jendoubi, a renowned Tunisian human rights activist, was being prevented from entering the country. Jendoubi had been invited by Moroccan rights groups, who wanted to honor his activism. The authorities gave no official reason for him being barred, but it appears pretty clear that it's to appease the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, perhaps in exchange for a modicum of support on the Western Sahara or in Morocco's spat with Libya over the same issue. 

Jendoudi heads the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, which has its name indicates links activists across the region. Meetings like the ones in Morocco, perhaps the country of the south Mediterranean with the strongest civil society groups and experience, are essential to lend a hand to those in more repressive countries like Tunisia. Rather than let a meeting that would have highlighted Morocco's relative openness and record of progress on human rights, the authorities decided to block Jendoubi's entry. That decision is not only nasty, it's stupid.

Morocco just hosted, about 10 days ago, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs who oversees MEPI and democracy initiatives. In a few weeks, it will be reviewing its human rights records as part of its advanced status negotiations with the EU. Both the US and the EU have been generous donors, giving funds in part on the condition of better human rights governance. It is true that, a decade ago, some impressive improvements were made in womens' rights and human rights more generally in Morocco. But these donors, as well as all Moroccans, should ask themselves whether the constant celebration of these improvement is warranted. 

The Jendoubi affair comes as torture — and even more worryingly, impunity for torture — is making a return in the kingdom's police stations. [If you read French, then Ibn Kafka's recent long post on torture in Morocco, the first in a series, is a must-read.] This has been in part because of the War on Terror and the encouragement to torture from patron-states, but also because whatever transition took place in Morocco over the past decade has been — constitutionally, legally, administratively, culturally — quite shallow, often engaged in theatrics rather deep reform.

One of the striking things, having spent a couple of months in Morocco every year for the past five years, is that this lack of progress / regression is becoming palpable. The disappearance of media outlets like Le Journal or Jarida al-Oula and abundance (or hegemony) of shallow magazines and newspapers constantly engaging in regime propaganda is starting to suffocate the atmosphere for those interested in politics. Whatever dynamic existed at the beginning of Muhammad VI's reign, at least when it came to politics, is rapidly losing momentum. It's still a freer country than Tunisia or Algeria, but you feel some form of limit has been reached. Preventing an act of solidarity with a Tunisian activist, a petty act, might be a symbol of this.

Time reports on Israeli abuse of Palestinian children
Israeli Prisons: Are Palestinian Children Abused? - Yahoo! News:

"Walid Abu Obeida, a 13-year-old Palestinian farm boy from the West Bank village of Ya'abad, had never spoken to an Israeli until he rounded a corner at dusk carrying his shopping bags and found two Israeli soldiers waiting with their rifles aimed at him. 'They accused me of throwing stones at them,' recounts Walid, a skinny kid with dark eyes. 'Then one of them smacked me in the face, and my nose started bleeding.'
According to Walid, the two soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed him, dragged him to a jeep and drove away. All that his family would know about their missing son was that his shopping bags with meat and rice for that evening's dinner were found in the dusty road near an olive grove. Over the course of several days in April last year, the boy says he was moved from an army camp to a prison, where he was crammed into a cell with five other children, cursed at and humiliated by the guards and beaten by his interrogator until he confessed to stone-throwing. (See pictures of Israeli soldiers sweeping into Gaza.)
Walid says he saw his parents for only five seconds when he was brought before an Israeli military court and accused by the uniformed prosecutor not only of throwing stones but of 'striking an Israeli officer.' The military judge ignored the latter charge and chose to prosecute Walid only for allegedly heaving a stone at soldiers.
The boy got off lightly: he spent 28 days in prison and was fined 500 shekels (approximately $120). Under Israeli military law, which prevails in the Palestinian territories, the crime of throwing a stone at an Israeli solider or even at the monolithic 20-ft.-high 'security barrier' enclosing much of the West Bank can carry a maximum 20-year-prison sentence. Since 2000, according to the Palestinian Ministry for Prisoner Affairs, more than 6,500 children have been arrested, mostly for hurling rocks."

Read the rest. This report is partly based on the research of the Swiss NGO Defense for Children International's Palestine Section. Their report is here.
Human Spin Watch
Rather confused reactions from HRW on the Obama speech:

HRW's reaction to the Obama speech at 11:15pm Cairo time on June 4 (comment below - after the long excerpts):

US/Egypt: Obama Dodged Rights Issue
Generalities Failed to Send Tough Message on Mideast Repression

(Cairo, June 4, 2009) – President Barack Obama’s speech on June 4, 2009 failed to advance the promotion of human rights in the Muslim world, Human Rights Watch said today. In a much-anticipated address, Obama spoke bluntly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but kept to generalities when it came to the pressing need for human rights and democratic reforms in the region.

“If Obama wanted to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the US, he should have taken on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed, including his hosts,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt and others will interpret his bland generalities as a signal they have nothing to fear from their friends in Washington.”

Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama addressed democracy as a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world. His choice of Cairo for this much-anticipated speech was controversial because of Egypt’s record of stifling the opposition, holding tainted elections, and imprisoning dissidents.

Obama said that all people yearn for “the rule of law and administration of justice,” but did not criticize the state of emergency that has undermined respect for human rights in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, among other countries. President Hosni Mubarak in 2008 renewed the Emergency Law, in force since 1981, which allows authorities to suppress demonstrations, detain opponents arbitrarily, and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards.

On freedom of expression, Obama spoke of the importance of the “ability to speak your mind” but missed the opportunity to criticize the imprisonment of dissidents, journalists, and bloggers in Egypt and elsewhere.

On torture, Obama spoke only in the context of post 9/11 practices by the United States, noting that the United States has “unequivocally prohibited” its use. But he failed to speak of the practice of torture in the Middle East and of US complicity in the renditions to countries where torture is systemic, including Egypt, or of the need for measures to bring accountability for such practices.

Coming four years after then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s pro-democracy speech in Cairo, which some contend helped to widen space for democratic activism in Egypt, Obama’s comments on democracy had been eagerly awaited. In that speech, Rice said that in Egypt “peaceful supporters of democracy – men and women – are not free from violence,” and that “the day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees – and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.”

In contrast, Obama’s argument that “governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful, and secure,” and his reiteration that “you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion,” will not make the Egyptian government or any others in the region feel particularly uncomfortable.

“Obama failed to address the dire state of human rights in the region and the past US practice of ‘rendering’ persons to countries like Egypt for torture,” said Whitson. “His Cairo speech brings us no new beginning in terms of promoting human rights.”

HRW's follow-up message 50 minutes later:

Dear all,

Apologies, but please do not use the news release headlined “US/Egypt: Obama Dodged Rights Issue,” which was sent in error at 4:15 p.m. EDT. We will send a corrected version shortly.

HRW's final release over three hours after that:

Obama Mid-East Speech Supports Rights, Democracy
But US Needs Stronger Message for Repressive Regional Allies

(Cairo, June 4, 2009) – President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated June 4, 2009, speech to the Muslim world avoided confronting authoritarian governments directly, but sent a welcome message that Washington would not let the prospect of empowering Islamist parties deter it from supporting democracy in the region, Human Rights Watch said today.

Speaking before 2,500 invited guests at Cairo University, Obama said the issue of democracy and human rights was a major source of tension between the United States and Islam around the world, in part because of the Bush administration’s use of democratic rhetoric to justify the war in Iraq. He pledged, however, that the United States would continue to support human rights and democratic principles in the region.

“For the US to regain credibility, it will have to follow through even when voters in the Middle East elect governments Washington doesn’t like,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Obama wants to tackle the issues that cause Muslim ill-will toward the United States, he should take on the region’s repressive regimes, many of them US-backed – including his hosts.”

Obama’s choice of Cairo for the speech was controversial because of Egypt’s record of stifling the opposition, holding tainted elections, and imprisoning dissidents. Obama said that all people yearn for “the rule of law and the equal administration of justice,” adding, “Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” Obama stressed that the US would “respect the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them” and “welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people,” an apparent reference to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Obama missed an important opportunity to criticize the state of emergency that has undermined respect for human rights in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, among other countries. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2008 renewed the Emergency Law, in force since 1981, which allows authorities to suppress demonstrations, detain opponents arbitrarily, and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards.

On freedom of expression, Obama rightly spoke of the importance of the “ability to speak your mind,” but failed to criticize the imprisonment of dissidents, journalists, and bloggers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere.

Obama spoke about torture in the context of post-9/11 practices by the United States, noting that his administration has “unequivocally prohibited” its use.

“Obama told his Middle Eastern audience that the US has ended torture, but it would have been better had he also urged governments of the region, including Egypt’s, to do the same,” Whitson said.

Acknowledging the suffering of both Israeli and Palestinian people, Obama pressed both sides to take steps to end their conflict. He said the US did not support “continued Israeli settlements” in the Occupied Territories, and urged Hamas to stop the use of violence. Obama implicitly called on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, noting “the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security.”

But Obama did not mention the upcoming UN Human Rights Council mission, led by Judge Richard Goldstone, to investigate abuses by both sides in the recent conflict in Gaza. Human Rights Watch said Obama should have used this opportunity to push Israel to cooperate with the international investigation.

“Obama’s made a start in restoring America’s image in the Middle East, affirming US support for human rights principles,” said Whitson. “He’s laid out general principles, but now he needs to be more specific about what Washington expects from its authoritarian allies – that they free political prisoners, end torture, allow a free press and tolerate genuine political opposition.”

It's not that the final release is that bad, although the initial one was better as far as HRW's remit -- human rights -- are concerned. But the initial one had a lot more info about the problematic nature of having Egypt, a serial abuser, as host and also raises the bilateral issue of rendition, an ongoing program Obama did not cancel. Basically the first release was an Egypt-focused one, centered on the relegation of democracy and human rights to a distant concern for the Obama administration. The final release tones down that criticism and adds, rightly, that Obama should have called on Israel to comply with the Goldstone Enquiry and highlighted the most recent massive abuse of human rights in the region, Israel's Operation Cast Lead. Worth noting the initial release had nothing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wonder what brought about the change of mind. Both releases make valid points, I wish they had made both the points about Egypt and the relegation of human rights promotion in Obama's foreign policy as well as his need to take a stronger stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after Gaza. (Although I do think the point in the final press release about the US sending the signal that will not shirk from empowering Islamists by respecting their democratic elections is wrong -- after all, if this was so Hamas would be recognized as the legitimate government of Palestine.)
Morocco's Le Journal: "We are all Shia"
My friend Abou Bakr Jamai, publisher of Morocco's Le Journal weekly now in forced into exile because of bogus lawsuits against his magazine, sent me this week's cover highlighting Morocco's new religious crusade for "the right Islam" that must be followed.

This campaign is aimed at asserting the "Sunni malekite nature" of "Moroccan Islam"; its aim is to buttress the pro-monarchy traditionalism of very Morocco-specific institutions such as the "Commandership of the Faithful" (specific in that it argues that the king has the same role as a Caliph, but only for Moroccans), Sherifism (high respect for descendants of the prophet, a very Shia tradition that has since Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th century been a key part of governance through a ethno-religious aristocracy) and the prominence of apolitical Sufi tariqat. The campaign to reimpose these traditionalist values is partly a not-so-badly thought out attempt to limit the spread of salafism (I applaud that) but has also spread into paranoia about Iran-funded Shia conversion and as a way to put pressure on Islamic parties, legal and unrecognized. But it's the kind of thing that the Moroccan regime has long done - asserting a Moroccan Islam that is nice and fluffy vs. the Islam of its opponents - and, moreover, the foreigners usually lap it up.

[caption id="attachment_3928" align="aligncenter" width="450" caption=""We are all Shia, Sunni, Jewish, Christian, atheist, agnostic..." "]"We are all Shia, Sunni, Jewish, Christian, atheist, agnostic..." [/caption]