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Middle East/North Africa: Human rights activists operate in 'environment of fear'-new report

Human rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa operate in “an environment of fear”, facing imprisonment, torture, persecution and repression for trying to uphold the rights of others, Amnesty International said today, as it released a new report on the issue.

Only days ago (Friday 6 March) Mohammed Abbou, a leading Tunisian lawyer and former Amnesty prisoner of conscience, was prevented from leaving Tunisia to attend an Amnesty conference in London. The Tunisian authorities gave no reason for restricting Abbou’s freedom of movement and Amnesty believes he is being persecuted for his human rights work.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Programme Director Malcolm Smart said:

“Across the region, those who stand up for human rights and expose violations by state authorities often incur great risks by doing so.

"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.”

In a comprehensive 94-page report, Challenging Repression: human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa, Amnesty International draws on numerous cases to highlight the precarious situation of human rights defenders who have been intimidated, harassed, threatened, arrested and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or death after unfair trials.

Amnesty’s report notes that the environment for human rights defenders in the region has worsened since the US-led “war on terror”, which has provided an additional pretext to silence dissent and to adopt counterterrorism laws.

For example, the United Arab Emirates’ “Decree law on the fight against terrorist crimes” penalises even non-violent attempts to “disrupt public order, undermine security, expose people to danger or wreak destruction of the environment”. Similarly, Tunisia’s “Anti-terrorism Law” (2003) contains a very broad definition of terrorism, extending it to cover acts such as illegitimately “influencing state policy” and “disturbing public order” - serious potential impingements on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Meanwhile, notes Amnesty, particular kinds of human rights defender - especially those working in the media, legal professionals and Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights activists - face specific risks because of their profession or the cause they are defending. Media workers have been closely scrutinised because of the potentially wide impact of their work, legal professionals have faced harassment because of their proximity to defendants (with authorities often associating them with their clients’ causes), while Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights human rights defenders have frequently faced reprisals in a region in which traditional, conservative and patriarchal values still dominate.

However, Amnesty’s report also points to some successes. In Iran, for example, campaigning by the Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights’s movement, including the Campaign For Equality (itself often targeted by the Iranian authorities), led to the removal of two controversial articles from a draft “Family Protection Law” in 2008. In Egypt bloggers, while themselves often persecuted, have also been instrumental in exposing torture and other ill-treatment in police stations - having posted online several mobile phone videos of torture and other ill-treatment.

  • read the report

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