General: Special Report: On International Day to End Impunity, GCHR calls for investigations to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against human rights defenders

02.11.15

Today, 2 November, on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) calls for thorough investigations into unsolved attacks on human rights defenders, including journalists and online activists, in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Iraq.

The day, initiated as a response to a deadly massacre of 32 journalists in the Philippines in 2009, is marked internationally each year in an effort to draw attention to cases of all those who pay a heavy price for speaking out against human rights violations.

“So many human rights defenders, including journalists, online activists and lawyers, have been murdered, kidnapped or attacked with impunity in our region,” said Khalid Ibrahim, GCHR Co-Director. “We call for action to solve these crimes committed against human rights defenders, and ask governments in our region to ensure that critical voices are not silenced with violence.”

In one of the most brutal killings in the region last year, in September, a group of masked armed men who belong to Da’ash (ISIS) opened fire and killed human rights defender Samira Saleh Al-Naimi in a public square in the very heart of Mosul. She was kidnapped by Da’ash from her home after she described as “barbaric” the widespread damage that the terrorist group inflicted on ancient features of her city. Al-Naimi was a prominent lawyer famous for her activities that include defending detainees and supporting disadvantaged families in the city. Nobody has been brought to justice for her murder.

Over 100 journalists have been murdered with impunity in Iraq, in all areas of the country including Iraqi Kurdistan. In November 2013, Kawa Garmyani, editor-in-chief of the Kurdish magazine "Rayal" and correspondent for weekly magazine "Awene", was murdered in November 2013 by unidentified gunmen after he wrote several articles about corruption in the Kurdistan region. He faced many cases in the judiciary related to his anti-corruption writings raised against him by officials and others. He was threatened by a local politician who was briefly arrested but not charged. Another contributor to “Awene”, Sardasht Osman, who also wrote for “Hawlati” and the independent Kurdish magazine “Lvin” was abducted and fatally shot in May 2010 after receiving threats over a satirical poem he wrote. In July 2008, gunmen killed Kurdish journalist Soran Mama Hama in the disputed area of Kirkuk. He had written articles about corruption for “Lvin.” See GCHR’s report on Iraqi Kurdistan at https://www.gc4hr.org/report/view/28.

In Mosul, journalists have been murdered at an alarming rate since 2003, including Saad Zaghloul, killed in October 2013 by a group of unknown armed men who opened fire and killed him in front of his house. Zaghloul, a member of the Iraqi Association for Defending the Rights of Journalists, worked at several independent local newspapers and wrote about topics including corruption, human rights and law reform. In June 2013, the body of journalist Zamil Ghanam Al-Zoba'ie, a member of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, was found in Baghdad after being killed by an unknown terrorist group. The authorities didn’t conduct investigations into any of these killings, which have been perpetrated by "unknown" persons.

According to UNESCO, from 2006 to 2014, Iraq was ranked overall the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with 116 murdered. Syria is also in the top-ranked countries where journalists are murdered for their work, at least 60 so far - almost all of them with impunity. Syria has for the past few years held the dubious distinction of being the deadliest country for journalists. Almost 700 journalists have been killed worldwide as a result of their jobs since 2006 with less than 10% of the cases resulting in a conviction for the perpetrators, says a report by UNESCO's Director-General on “Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity”.  

Journalists and human rights defenders in Syria face many dangers.They have been murdered, jailed, tortured and kidnapped with impunity for daring to publish information about human rights violations on all sides. On 9 December 2015, friends and family will mark the second anniversary since human rights defenders Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, Samira Khalil, and Nazem Hammadi  were kidnapped by armed men in Duma, a city outside Damascus under the control of a number of armed opposition groups. Advocacy efforts have failed to free them.

Other rights defenders are being held incommunicado by the authorities in Syria, including human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant and friend Mohamed Zaza, believed to have been arrested in October 2012 at a government-operated checkpoint in Damascus. Syrian authorities denied arresting them but their families received news that they were seen in detention facilities. Their enforced disappearance is likely related to Ma’touq’s work defending political prisoners. UN Security Council Resolution 2139 of February 2014 demanded the release of all those arbitrarily detained, a call reiterated by a UN Security Council Presidential Statement issued on 17 August 2015.

In September this year, GCHR received the sad news that Syrian human rights defender and cartoonist Akram Raslan, the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)'s 2013 winner of the Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning, died under torture in a government detention center a few months after being arrested in October 2012 in Hama. He is only one of many prisoners of conscience who have died as a result of torture or poor conditions.

In Bahrain, detained human rights defenders Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Naji Fateel are among those who have been tortured in prison with impunity. Nobody has been brought to justice for the pain inflicted on them in jail, yet they are sentenced merely for their words. Al-Khawaja, founder of GCHR and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), was dragged unconscious from his home in April 2011 and badly tortured in prison before being sentenced to life in prison for his human rights work. Prior to his sentence for 15 years in prison, Fateel, a board member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), was tortured in detention in May 2013 - shocking photos of his back covered in lacerations were published, but the perpetrator remains unpunished.

Torture is used on detainees across the Gulf region and neighbouring countries, despite the fact that it is prohibited under the Arab Charter for Human Rights and international laws. Oman is a signatory to the Charter and also prohibits torture under Article 20 of its own constitution, yet torture is not uncommon. In its report, “Torture in Oman”, GCHR documented “the arsenal of torture methods in use in Oman including mock execution, beating, hooding, solitary confinement, subjection to extremes of temperature and to constant noise, abuse and humiliation.” These practices are allowed to flourish within a culture of arbitrary arrest and detention in secret institutions.

For example, Basima Al-Rajhi, the former presenter of a popular national radio current affairs programme called “Don’t Turn the Page” was kidnapped, arrested, tortured and subject to mock execution after being involved in peaceful protests in Oman. Following a protest in Muscat in April 2011, she and activist Said Al-Hashemi were kidnapped by security services and tortured including being subject to a mock execution. She described what happened: “They covered my eyes and mouth with their hands and I was put violently into the van. Said was already in there. I was kicked in the back and then hooded. Two men stayed in the back with us. It was difficult to breath with the hood on as I have asthma…. I thought they were killing Said and that I was next. I could hear beating and shouting. I didn’t want to die afraid; I wanted to be strong, honourable. I prayed and thought of my parents. I will never forget the sound of the sticks hitting him.” While she survived the kidnapping by unknown men, Al-Rajhi later spent four months in prison in 2012 after being convicted of illegal gathering.

Torture is rampant in detention in the UAE and GCHR has documented over 50 cases of prisoners of conscience who were tortured in secret detention centres in its report “Torture and Abuse in Prisons in the United Arab Emirates”. Many prisoners belonging to the UAE 94 group of activists, sentenced to various prison sentences in July 2013, reported torture. The group includes prominent human rights lawyers, judges, intellectuals, bloggers and political activists. GCHR’s report describes in detail the torture used to obtain confessions of detainees, who lodged a complaint against the UAE Federal State Security for falsifying official documents and failing to investigate crimes of torture. A list of the perpetrators was included in the report based on the detainees’ statements, yet there has been no investigation into the torture allegations.

In Kuwait, which has a reputation for being more open than other countries in the region, there is a semblance of tolerance for freedom of expression and of assembly. However, peaceful protests “have been met with a significant and a sometimes violent crackdown, which has seen activists, journalists and intellectuals being repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for expressing their views,” says GCHR’s report “Dignity has no Price in Kuwait”. Activists from the Bidoon community in Kuwait, an underclass of over 100,000 people, have been arrested and detained, and in some cases tortured. Bidoon activists such as Abdelhakim Al-Fadhli, who was arrested and tortured in October 2012 following protests, have been tortured in police stations, including being suspended in stress position.

In Saudi Arabia, state sanctioned torture is meted out as punishment for human rights defenders who carry out peaceful human rights activities. They are jailed for long periods of time, and can be executed or publicly lashed, following sentencing by an utmost politicised judiciary. In April 2015, prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair was beaten by another prisoner at Al-Ha'ir prison in Riyadh, believed to be acting on the authority of the prison administration. Yet when he submitted a formal complaint to the prison administration alleging harassment directed at him, his complaint was not considered and there were no ramifications. Abu Al-Khair is a founder and Director of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA) who was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year for his role in MHRSA and as a result of his international advocacy.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court in Riyadh ratified a heavy sentence against human rights defender and blogger Raif Badawi, co-founder and editor of the website Liberal Saudi Network. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes, a 10-year travel ban to start on expiration of his jail sentence and a fine of one million Saudi Riyals (about US$266,600). In January 2015, Badawi received 50 lashes in public outside Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah. GCHR welcomed the news that he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in October 2015.

"Too often when human rights defenders are tortured in prison, not only is there no accountability, but they are the ones to be punished for their human rights work” says Maryam Al-Khawaja, GCHR Co-Director. “When governments enjoy international impunity, it results in and drives a policy of local impunity. The first step to human rights reform is accountability; without it, there cannot be real human rights reform.”

Today GCHR reiterates its call to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states and the neighbouring countries, particularly Iraq and Syria, to respect UN Resolution A/RES/68/163 passed in 2013 to designate 2 November the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, and to implement definite measures countering the present culture of impunity.

Campaign Against Impunity:

As supporters of the movement to end impunity, GCHR invites you to add your voice to a campaign by UNESCO, who is encouraging its partners to tweet their support @UNESCO #EndImpunity. A sample tweet is: Impunity leads to self-censorship out of fear of reprisal, depriving society of significant information @UNESCO DG @IrinaBokova #EndImpunity. For more information, please consult UNESCO’s Impunity Day website at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/endimpunity

GCHR is also participating in the #NoImpunity campaign initiated by IFEX, a global free expression network which GCHR joined in 2015. Join the campaign and tweet your solidarity at #NoImpunity and change your profile picture to the No Impunity logo above or online. See: http://www.ifex.org/noimpunity

Background:

In November 2011, IFEX launched its inaugural campaign to end impunity, after the IFEX membership identified impunity as a major obstacle to free expression. The campaign drew global attention to unresolved cases of violence against those targeted for exercising their right to free expression. The campaign originally was marked on 23 November, the anniversary of the 2009 Maguindanao, Ampatuan massacre, when 32 journalists and media workers and 26 others were murdered in the Philippines with complete impunity. IFEX says, “It is a yearly global initiative to demand accountability for the journalists, media workers, activists, lawyers and many others who have been targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and empower organisations, government bodies and individuals to help dismantle systems of impunity around the world.”

GCHR works to provide support and protection to human rights defenders (including independent journalists, bloggers, lawyers, etc.) in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries by promoting freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. GCHR’s network covers Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Syria. GCHR works to bring about justice and to challenge the dominant environment of impunity in the region.