General: GCHR events highlight violations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the deteriorating state of human rights in the Gulf region & Neighbouring Countries at UNHRC 37

21.03.18

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) was heavily involved in the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) held in Geneva between 26 February 2018 and 23 March 2018. GCHR coordinated two UN side events on Bahrain and the links between Egypt and the Gulf, and participated in a third side event on Saudi Arabia, while holding various meetings with UN missions and partner NGOs.

Among the many meetings was an important gathering held in the office of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), which was attended by civil society representatives in addition to Ambassador Antje Leendertse, Germany’s Permanent Representative to the UN, and Ambassador Janis Karklins, Latvia’s Permanent Representative to the UN. The focus of the meeting was on reforming the HRC, and GCHR stressed that reforms shouldn't negatively affect the contributions of civil society NGOs in the various activities of the HRC including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

On 13 March, GCHR organised an event on “HRDs & journalists in Bahrain imprisoned on fabricated charges facing show trials”, with partners the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), CIVICUS, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch (HRW), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), PEN International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), International federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and International Organisation against Torture (OMCT).

The moderator, Husain Abdulla, ADHRB’s Executive Director, presented an overview of the new military courts in Bahrain and the new "State of Military Law", then he introduced the speakers.

Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, called on the authorities in Bahrain to immediately release all human rights defenders who are currently in prison. GCHR’s Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim echoed his call, noting that Bahrain has a “functional system of injustice.”

Maytham Al-Salman of BCHR’s Advisory Board said the conviction of Nabeel Rajab and his sentencing to seven years in prison in two cases for exercising his freedom of speech “demonstrates that there is no space for criticism in Bahrain.” Antoine Madelin of FIDH pointed out that, in the latest case, Rajab was sentenced on 21 February to five years in prison for documenting torture in prison and the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Other rights defenders have also been targeted with restrictions, torture, sexual assault, or lengthy prison sentences in Bahrain, many for their work at the UN HRC, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Nedal Al-Salman, Ebtisam Al-Saegh and Naji Fateel.

Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch said the HRC “must take action on Bahrain to address systematic human rights violations of institutional repression,” noting that “these violations are not individual acts, but a system of abuse.” She highlighted the use of travel bans against human rights defenders as part of this pattern of repression.

CPJ’s Justin Shilad discussed journalists who have been targeted in Bahrain, through methods such as arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings, including Kareem Fakhrawi of “Al-Wasat”, who died from torture in detention in 2011. Shilad added, “It is indicative of the level of repression in Bahrain, that no human rights defenders and activists are able to travel and participate in the Council, due to the crushing weight of a repressive judiciary.”

Then on 15 March 2018, GCHR organised another side event on “The link between the deterioration of human rights in Egypt and the massive violations in the Gulf States” with partners ALQST for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CIVICUS, CPJ, ISHR, FIDH and OMCT. This event discussed Middle East governments’ coordinated efforts to target human rights defenders and journalists across the region. Panelists including Egyptian academic Nardine Al-Nemr drew connections between state mechanisms meant to suppress free expression in Egypt, and in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, which make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

GCHR’s Khalid Ibrahim, who moderated the event, said in his opening remarks, “around the GCC, civic space has been effectively closed, with human rights defenders facing travel bans and prison on spurious terror charges.” GCHR’s Annual Report, which was launched at the UN HRC 37, details violations in 12 Gulf and neighbouring countries, with regional analysis. Ibrahim called on the international community to support human rights defenders and their organisations in Egypt and the Gulf.

Sara Brandt of CIVICUS focused attention on the fact that women human rights defenders face “double challenges” around the region. 

Yahya Al-Assiri, Director of ALQST, pointed out the interconnectivity in the region - Saudi Arabia jailed journalist Alaa Brinji for five years in March 2016, as well as human rights defenders from the Civil and Political Rights Association in Saudi Arabia (ACPRA) because of their support for the peaceful protests in Bahrain. He added, “The Saudis use overly broad counterterror law to criminalise free expression.”

Also, at the side event on 15 March, CPJ’s Justin Shilad said, “We are seeing what we can term ‘censorship without borders’ where GCC states target journalists across borders.” He concluded, “Today may be the worst time to be a journalist in Egypt. This is echoed in increasing suppression of free expression around the GCC.”

Finally, on 07 March, GCHR co-sponsored an event on the “Persecution of Activists in Saudi Arabia”, organised by ADHRB, where a statement from GCHR was read out. GCHR announced, “In view of the systematic use of the judiciary by the Saudi authorities to imprison human rights defenders, including journalists and Internet activists, on fabricated charges; and due to the lack of accountability and the impunity enjoyed by top officials, GCHR is studying with its human rights partners the possibility of lodging a court case against Saudi officials who have committed and continue to commit these grave violations. GCHR has the opportunity to bring a case against Saudi officials using the independent judiciary in another country.”

In the meantime, GCHR calls on the Saudi authorities to:

  • Immediately repeal the sentences against all human rights defenders and drop all charges against them;
  • Immediately release all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia whose arrests concern only peaceful and legitimate action in the promotion and protection of human rights;
  • Immediately release all women prisoners who are being detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression, particularly those resisting the guardianship system;
  • Allow all citizens to express themselves freely in relation to the rights of women, including public discussion of campaigns designed to gain freedom from the guardianship system; or discuss the legitimate civil and political rights of the people; and
  • Ensure in all circumstances the ability of human rights defenders and Internet activists in Saudi Arabia to carry out their legitimate human rights work without fear of retaliation and without any restrictions, including judicial harassment.