Human Rights Developments
Human Rights Defenders
The Role of the International Community
The Work of Human Rights Watch
The lack of progress in ending the civil strife in Algeria, the on-off weapons inspections and comprehensive sanctions regime in Iraq, and the nearly moribund negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority dominated the headlines about the region and generated largely negative human rights consequences. But what went largely unnoticed was the steady erosion of freedoms of expression and association. In addition, other basic rights were not respected in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa and the pattern of violations persisted or worsened. There were disappointingly few discernible improvements in longstanding problems such as arbitrary arrest, torture, disappearances, and the death penalty.
The international attention that was finally paid to Algerias ongoing internal conflict did not prevent the killing of thousands of men, women, and children, and continued growth of the number of disappeared persons. In Iraq, sanctions combined with government policies continued to have a devastating impact on the welfare of civilians. In September, then-U.N. humanitarian aid Coordinator Denis Halliday stated that 4,000 to 5,000 children were dying unnecessarily every month due to the impact of sanctions because of the breakdown of water and sanitation, inadequate diet and the bad internal health situation. The military conflict in occupied south Lebanon again yielded violations of international humanitarian law and civilian casualties, as did the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied territories. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria remained civil society wastelands, where the exercise of freedom of association and expression was completely beyond reach. In Tunisia, the government sought not only to present its own version of human rights and democratization but employed repressive and sometimes brutal measures to muzzle Tunisian human rights activists who tried to portray a truer picture.
Palestinian refugees in the region and beyond continued to suffer from the consequences of the inability to exercise the right to a nationality. Palestinian refugees served by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) did not enjoy international refugee protection available to all other refugees because the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol specifically did not apply to those who continued to receive protection or assistance from other organs or agencies of the U.N. Over 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, many of them living in conditions of extreme poverty, experienced sharp restrictions on their freedom of movement and right to work.
Several positive developmentsincluding prisoner releases, governmental accountability for past abuses, and ratifications of international human rights treatiesprovided some reprieve from an otherwise bleak year. Perhaps the most encouraging highlights were the several instances when the local human rights community and civil society institutions mobilized in efforts to prevent the further shrinking of rights and hold those in power accountable for their actions. But governments themselves could also be credited for some encouraging developments.
Morocco took concrete action to resolve some of its longest-standing human rights problems. King Hassan II, in an October 9 address to parliament that was broadcast live, said, We are determined to close the human rights file finally within the next six months. Over the next two weeks, twenty-eight Islamists were released from prison. Also, official information was disclosed for the first time about more than one hundred Moroccans who had disappeared, some as long ago as the 1960s: it was announced that fifty-six of them had died. But Moroccos two largest independent human rights organizations insisted that much remained to be done in order to close the files on these issues, such as resolving additional cases of disappearances and political prisoners; returning the remains to families and compensating them; and prosecuting those responsible for disappearances and deaths in detention. The groups insisted that only an independent inquiry could credibly address the disappearances issue.
In Syria, several of the longest-held political prisoners in the region were released, including lawyer Riad al-Turk, who was detained without charge since 1980, and Mustafa Tawfiq Fallah, who was arrested in 1970 and held for thirteen years beyond the expiry of his prison term. Syrian authorities also released 121 Lebanese who had been held in Syria without charge or official acknowledgment of their whereabouts. During the year Iraq released a number of Egyptian and Jordanian prisoners and Iran and Iraq repatriated thousands of POWs held since the 1980s. Kuwait pardoned a number of Jordanian and Iraqi prisoners convicted in unfair trials in 1991, and announced in June that it would close its notorious Talha prison. In Algeria, the issue of disappearances finally captured public attention, thanks to persistent agitation by the families of the missing and their advocates, increased local press coverage, demarches by visiting delegations, and interventions by human rights organizations. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos made it possible for women to stand for election to the advisory Shura Council, broadening the participation of women in public affairs.
Two Gulf states ratified key international conventions. Saudi Arabia signed the Convention against Torture (CAT) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and Bahrain signed the CAT. Although both countries ratifications included important reservations, Bahrain, under the threat of a possible second critical resolution at the U.N. Sub-Commission on Human Rights, announced its willingness to allow a visit by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Many countries of the region experienced a further closing of the public space for free expression. This was brought about both by governments seeking to silence criticism and violent or intolerant political groups bent on quashing diverse views or departures from their own notions of religious orthodoxy. Despite this continuing and alarming trend, examples were plentiful, from Morocco to Iran, where independent media, professional associations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), political parties, and elected parliamentarians, often at some risk to themselves, called attention to rights abuses and official corruption, criticized existing or proposed restrictive legislation, and championed the human rights cause.
The Freedoms Committee of the Arab Journalists Union, meeting for two days in Beirut in July, noted the deteriorating conditions in some Arab countries regarding freedom of expression as well as political and legislative restrictions imposed on the press. The committee cited, in particular, tightening sanctions on journalists, including jail sentences, increased financial penalties, and mounting manifestations of intellectual terrorism by various forces and trends. Indeed, during the year authorities arrested journalists and closed newspapers and other media outlets in over half the countries in the region and for a variety of reasons.
For the first time in Egypt, six journalists were sentenced to prison terms as of October 22 following convictions for criminal libel, while the independent press continued to face censorship and other restrictions and the popular weekly al-Dustour was banned. In Iran, the authorities closed the leading independent newspaper Tous and jailed four of its editors. Other Iranian newspapers, journals, and magazines were also closed down as conservatives tried to stifle open debate which continued to flourish under the reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami. In Lebanon, a military court sentenced in absentia Pierre Attalah, a journalist with al-Nahar daily newspaper, to three years imprisonment and a fine for his published interviewwith Etienne Saqr, leader of a Lebanese militia who was sentenced to death in absentia for collaboration with Israel. A Kuwaiti court sentenced al-Qabas editor Mohammad al-Saqr in June to a fine and six months imprisonment for publishing a joke that the information ministry deemed offensive; an appeals court stayed execution of the prison sentence pending an appeal to the Constitutional Court.
Bahrain continued an effective ban on reporting by the local Arabic-speaking stringer for the BBC, and threatened to penalize a well-known local columnist, Hafedh al-Shaikh, if he published in Bahrain or elsewhere. In Tunisia, indirect controls on the press were so heavy that the private and governmental newspapers were virtually indistinguishable in their coverage of government policies. Foreign publications were plentiful on the newsstands but did not appear whenever issues contained material deemed unfavorable about Tunisia, such as the June issue of Le Monde Diplomatique .
In Jordan, forces of civil society campaigned vocally throughout the year against a proposed restrictive press and publications law, and continued their efforts after the law went into effect on September 1. In response, newly appointed Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh promised a soft implementation of the new law and an improved relationship with the press. But Jordan Press Association President Seif Sharif and others stressed that the law should be amended. We cant leave a law like this to the will of people in office, he said. Under the present law, journalists cannot feel at ease. Things have to be changed legally for us to feel secure.
In at least one instance, censorship was eased. The government of Algeria retired the committees that had exercised prior censorship on the print media, and enforced less rigorously the requirement that security-related items be cleared by the authorities before publication. Live coverage of parliamentary debates also gave state television a bit more political diversity. In another positive development, people in many countries of the region were able to watch European and Middle Eastern television via satellite, as most governments decided not to block this popular new medium. Also, governments that allowed public access to the Internet generally regulated it less than they regulated print and broadcast media. However, as of October public Internet access remained unavailable in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
In several countries the struggle between defenders of freedom of association and assembly and those seeking to restrict these rights was played out openly. In Bahrain, members of the Lawyers Society brought a court challenge to the minister of labor and social affairs March decree replacing the elected governing board with a handpicked slate of pro-government lawyers. The Iranian government continued to restrict independent associations, and violent vigilantes with ties to prominent conservative clerics continued to restrict freedom of assembly and expression. Human rights and other activists worked closely with the Palestinian Legislative Council to improve draft legislation governing NGOs working in the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Although the legislation was submitted to President Arafat for ratification in August, as of this writing it still had not been signed into law.
The human rights community in Egypt quickly mobilized to publicize the dangers of a draft law designed to restrict further the activities of all NGOs and give the state a significantly intrusive hand in the conduct of their affairs. Minister of Social Affairs Mervat Tellawi acknowledged in June that NGOs played an increasingly important role in Egypt, and said that the controversial and highly restrictive draft law designed to regulate their activities had emerged after six months of negotiations and several earlier drafts. In a reference to the long-maligned Law No. 32 of 1964, which the draft law was set to repeal, she said that one of the reasons for the new legislation was to remove the articles that have so often been a source of complaint from NGOs, especially human rights groups.
With respect to freedom of assembly, Jordan experienced further restrictions. On February 10, then-Interior Minister Nadhir Rashid issued a categorical ban on all demonstrations, which was followed by the polices use of force against Jordanians peacefully protesting the prospect of U.S. and British military strikes in Iraq. The day after the ban was announced, then-Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Abdallah al-Nusur said: Our people do not need demonstrations as a tool to express their opinion. The Jordanian people express their opinion through civilized means followed by civilized nations. Jordanian human rights organizations condemned the ban and the subsequent use of force by riot police against peaceful protesters. The Jordanian Society for Human Rights noted that the pattern of repression predated the pro-Iraq rallies, citing the use of force in 1997 to disperse journalists protesting restrictive amendments to the press law and university students demonstrating about the right to form a student union. The Jordanian branch of the Arab Organization for Human Rights called for prosecution of those responsible for beating peaceful demonstrators on February 13 at al-Husseini mosque in Amman.
In backhanded acknowledgment that governments were being judged on how well they were protecting human rights, officials increasingly used human rights terminology even when defending proposed restrictive legislation. For example, in Yemen, where a draft law governing demonstrations and assemblies was introduced in August, Minister of Legal Affairs Abdallah Ahmad Ghanim cited the democratic right to organize processions and demonstrations in an interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat (London) published on August 31, and noted that the proposed legislation did not aim at confiscating or restricting the right to express opinions. In Jordan, following the elected lower house of parliaments August 9 endorsement of the highly restrictive press law, Jordans then-Information Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abdallah Ensour termed the legislation an important step for press freedom. Ignoring the laws explicit bans on a wide range of subjects, he said that it upholds the right to investigate issues freely and express opinions at liberty.
Women faced systematic gender discrimination, particularly in states that maintained religiously based personal status laws and where blatantly discriminatory family codes granted husbands superior rights in terms of divorce, child custody, and inheritance. In Tunisia, where the family code provided for greater equality between the sexes, the independent Tunisian Association of Democratic Women reminded the government that womens rights included the political right to promote their cause publicly, something they were frequently blocked from doing. Israel made no provision for civil marriage, and Israeli law deferred to Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druze religious courts on issues of marriage, divorce, and child custody. Rulings by such courts were often highly discriminatory; for example, in cases where husbands refused to grant wives a divorce, Jewish religious courts allowed the husbands to remarry while prohibiting women from both divorcing and remarrying. Irans parliament attempted to silence campaigners for family law reform by passing legislation making it an offense to advocate equality between women and men in family law and respect for womens rights on the grounds that such advocacy created division within the society. In Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf states, women faced institutionalized discrimination, affecting their freedom of movement and association and the right to equality, employment and education.
The administration of justice remained problematic throughout the region. Impartial legal systems, free of corruption and fully independent, were as difficult to find as they were essential for the protection of basic rights. Emergency or exceptional laws, which international law permitted only in extreme circumstances and for limited periods, remained in effect and circumscribed basic rights in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Syria. Special security courts, whose procedures did not meet international fair-trial standards, continued to operate in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, and the territories under Palestinian control. Irans Islamic Revolutionary Courts and Special Court for the Clergy were grossly unfair while in Lebanon there was no right of appeal against sentences passed by the Justice Council, including death sentences. In 1995 Algeria disbanded the special courts set up under the anti-terrorist decree, but the latter was incorporated into the Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedures, thereby turning what had been an emergency decree into permanent legislation. In Israel the Supreme Court upheld the use of emergency law to detain indefinitely Lebanese nationals as bargaining chips for future negotiations, even while recognizing that the detainees were not themselves a threat to state security.
Courts continued to impose the death penalty, and executions occurred in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. In August Yemens President Ali Abdallah Salih announced the extension of the death penalty to cases of kidnapping. Also in August, the Palestinian Authority conducted its first executions, killing two men by firing squad the day after a summary trial by military court. At least thirteen other death sentences were pending.
Prisoners endured harsh conditions and treatment that did not meet minimum international standards. In Lebanon in April, attention was dramatically focused on prison conditions when inmates rioted for two days at overcrowded Rumieh Central Prison in Beirut, the countrys largest facility. All we are seeking is better, decent conditions, read banners that some protesting prisoners displayed. The disturbances, reportedly ignited after guards beat and burned one prisoner, prompted a visit by Interior Minister Michel al-Murr, who conceded that thirty or forty prisoners sharing cells was abnormal. In a press release, the Lebanese Association for Human Rights held authorities responsible for the violent outburst at Rumieh because it said that the problem has been known and recognized for a long time. In Egypt, two local human rights groups issued detailed reports throughout the year, focusing on extreme medical neglect of prisoners which led to inmate deaths. In Tunisia, political prisoners were subjected to extreme overcrowding, beatings, and other cruel disciplinary measures, and were shuttled incessantly among institutions, forcing families to travel great distances for visits.
Against this sobering backdrop, independent judges in several countries played a positive role and issued welcome decisions in a number of instances. Jordans High Court of Justice ruled in January that the controversial temporary amendments to the press and publications law, enacted in May 1997 while the elected parliament was in recess, were unconstitutional. In the wake of the decision, independent newspapers that had been forced to close were able to resume publishing. Egypts Supreme Constitutional Court in February found unconstitutional the first paragraph of Article 195 of the penal code, which held editors-in-chief criminally liable for the publication of material in their newspapers judged to violate broadly worded content bans. The Cairo-based Center for Human Rights Legal Aid, representing editors of five newspapers and magazines separately charged under Article 195, brought the appeals before the high court.
The Israeli Supreme Court ruled in August that the education ministry must extend electricity to eleven Bedouin schools in the so-called unrecognized villages of the Negev desert, where an estimated 50,000 Bedouin citizens lived. Israel had refused to provide services to the villages in an effort to force inhabitants to move to permanent towns. Judges under the Palestinian Authority showed great courage by ordering on several occasions the release of political opposition figures detained illegally. Such bravery was not without cost, as evidenced by the forced retirement of High Court Chief Justice Qusai al-Abadlah in January.
Israel, The Occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Palestinian Authority Territories
BACK TO TOP
Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch