General: MENA: Participants at Gulf and Neighbouring Platform call for immediate release of all detained human rights defenders in the Middle East
(Beirut, 24 January 2018) - On 22 January 2018, partners of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) called for the release of all detained human rights defenders in the Middle East. At the event, hosted in Beirut by GCHR and Media Association for Peace (MAP), human rights defenders were joined by Michel Forst, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, and representatives of Front Line Defenders, FIDH, CIVICUS and Amnesty International to make the public call to free their colleagues.
Host Khalid Ibrahim, GCHR's Executive Director, mentioned some of the many human rights defenders jailed across the region, including GCHR's two co-founders Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab in Bahrain, and GCHR Advisory Board member Ahmed Mansoor, jailed in the United Arab Emirates since March 2017. He noted that just as GCHR was being founded, Al-Khawaja was arrested, tortured and jailed in April 2011. He's serving a life sentence for his peaceful human rights activities. Rajab is also serving a two-year sentence and facing up to 15 years in another trial on 21 February.
Ibrahim also noted other cases from the Gulf region and neighbouring countries, including in Syria of Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Al-Khail, Wa'el Hamadeh, Nazem Hammadi, Khalil Ma'touq and Mohamed Thatha. He mentioned some of the many dozens of human rights defenders jailed in Saudi Arabia, including Dr. Mohammed Al-Qahtani, Issa Al-Nukheifi, Essam Koshak, Walid Abu Al-Khair and Raif Badawi. In Oman, Internet activist Hassan Al-Basham is in jail, and in Kuwait, Sulaiman Bin Jassim was sentenced to seven years. In Iran, there are also many human rights defenders serving long sentences such as Narges Mohammadi, Atena Daemi and Dr. Abdolfattah Soltani. There are many others in Bahrain including Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace.
The event's other co-host, Vanessa Basil, MAP's Director, supported the call for freedom, noting the impact on the region of having jailed human rights defenders in any country.
Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders, echoed the call to remember some of the lesser known rights defenders such as Naji Fateel, who was tortured and jailed in Bahrain after his advocacy work at the UN, in addition to his former colleague Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, and others.
One of the region's bravest and most well-known women human rights defenders, Zaynab Al-Khawaja, who is the daughter of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, spoke about her family's situation. Al-Khawaja has been in and out of prison and had over a dozen cases against her - forcing her into exile. She said, "Only my daughter was born before my father went to jail. But still, his four grandchildren ask when he is coming home. They have never known him before he went to prison yet they don't give up hope." She said, "We have to have hope" and not accept it as normal that human rights defenders are in prison in Bahrain.
Michel Forst noted that some of the cases raised will be highlighted in his upcoming human rights report, to be published in March, including "famous cases of human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab and Ahmed Mansoor, but also a number of human rights defenders who are not well known and therefore even less protected." He added, "It's important to name the names of those who are in prison and at risk." The Special Rapporteur would like to visit more countries in the Middle East but his visits must be authorised by the governments.
At a gathering before the event, he discussed the issue of reprisals against human rights defenders for their work, which is a worrying trend. He also noted "I learned things from women human rights defenders here that I did not hear in other regions, for example that they receive threats from their own families and their friends ask them why they are risking their safety by criticising the authorities.”
From the audience, human rights defenders talked about the difficult situation for human rights defenders and journalists in their countries.
Cathal Gilbert from CIVICUS said “We stand with all detained human rights defenders and call for their immediate release.”
Jasmine Laveille FIDH said "The countries of the EU and the US should think twice before doing business with governments that violate human rights, particularly in the Middle East."
The participants then joined together for a photo calling for the release of the many human rights defenders jailed in violation of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association in MENA region.