General: All human rights defenders in MENA must be freed as COVID-19 pandemic spreads


As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens worldwide, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) repeats its call for all human rights defenders to be freed in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA). Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries where prisoners are often held in crowded, dirty prisons with no access to clean water or proper medical care. While welcoming the release of some human rights defenders in Bahrain and Iran, GCHR regrets that some of the region’s most prominent defenders remain behind bars in those countries and elsewhere in the region.

GCHR further calls for all Internet restrictions to be lifted in the heavily-censored region, so people can communicate with their families.

Time is running out to save prisoners worldwide from succumbing to COVID-19, leading to calls from the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to free them. On 25 March 2019, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.”

Iran announced in early March that it was temporarily freeing 70,000 prisoners to stop the spread of COVID-19, but did not release human rights defenders. On 17 March 2020, British-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was temporarily released from Evin prison for two weeks, since extended to 18 April 2020. The Iranian prosecutor-general has been asked to consider clemency and release her permanently. She does not seem to have contracted COVID-19, contrary to previous reports. 

However, many women human rights defenders, including Narges Mohammadi and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, remain in prison and in poor health. On 16 March, Sotoudeh and other women started a hunger strike in Evin prison to protest the authorities’ refusal to release prisoners of opinion amid the outbreak.

In Bahrain, prisoners are kept in dirty, inhuman conditions with no access to clean water. They include GCHR’s Founding Directors, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who has repeatedly gone on extended hunger strike to protest poor conditions in Jaw prison, and Nabeel Rajab, who has repeatedly appealed for conditional release.

While Bahrain released 1486 prisoners starting on 11 March for “humanitarian reasons” related to COVID-19, under a royal amnesty that allows alternative sentencing, Al-Khawaja, Rajab, and other human rights defenders were not among those released, including those in poor health, such as Dr Abduljalil Al-Singance and Naji Fateel. Another prison release is expected this week and GCHR hopes these human rights defenders will be included.

In the Emirates, GCHR’s Advisory Board member Ahmed Mansoor has been held in Al-Sadr prison since March 2017 in an isolation cell with no bed or shower. GCHR has been unable to confirm the status of his health since receiving news that Mansoor was still on a liquids-only hunger strike in January 2020 after five months, leaving him unable to walk.

Another prisoner who suffers poor health, Sorbonne AD professor Dr Nasser bin Ghaith, has been denied his blood pressure medication. On 29 March 2017, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In Saudi Arabia, dozens of human rights defenders and activists are in prison simply for calling for women’s rights. While some of the women have been conditionally released since the mass arrests started in May 2018, others remain in prison awaiting trial, such as Loujain Al-Hathloul and Mayaa Al-Zahrani, who were scheduled to appear in court on 18 March 2020, and Samar Badawi, Nassima Al-Sadah, Nouf Abdulaziz and Mohammed Al-Bajadi.

On 18 March 2020, the hearing in the trial of Al-Hathloul and Al-Zahrani, as well as other women’s rights defenders, was postponed indefinitely following the closure of the courts due to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other human rights defenders remain at risk in prison in Saudi Arabia, including some who are ill or elderly. After being transferred out of solitary confinement, Walid Abu Al-Khair ended a two-month long hunger strike on 06 February 2020, which left him in poor health. Most of the 11 founders of the Association for Civil Rights and Political Rights (ACPRA) remain in prison, including Dr. Mohammed Fahad Al-Qahtani and Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamid, who received the 2018 Right Livelihood Award along with Abu Al-Khair.

In Kuwait, on 23 March 2020, a judge extended the detention of human rights lawyer Hani Hussain, who is held in the overcrowded Central Prison, for two more weeks on charges linked to broadcasting news about the area separating Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and allegedly violating the law of national unity. Hussain, a well-known defender of Bedoon rights, was arrested on 19 February 2020. Kuwait has imposed a curfew and closed schools to stop the spread of the virus.

In Egypt, hundreds of human rights defenders, academics, journalists, lawyers and activists are being held in violation of international law, including Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) staff lawyer Amr Imam, human rights lawyer Mahienour El-Masry, prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah,  journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah and journalist Solafa Magdy, who is in poor health. Many detainees have been tortured, refused proper medical care, and are kept in unsanitary conditions as COVID-19 spreads in Egypt.

On 18 March 2020, family members of Alaa Abdel Fattah and their friend were arrested and jailed overnight in Cairo while calling for the release of prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Writer Ahdaf Soueif, academic Leila Soueif, activist Mona Seif and academic Rabab Al-Mahdi face charges of illegal assembly, unlawful protest, and blocking traffic despite the fact that they did not violate restrictions surrounding protests.

In Syria, tens of thousands of detainees are kept in appalling conditions across the country, many held in unknown places of detentions that are beyond dreadful and extremely overcrowded, according to Syrian activists’ accounts. Many have been detained in Syrian government prisons for years for defending human rights, participating in peaceful protests or expressing dissenting opinions. Among them are prominent human rights lawyer Khalil Ma’touq and his assistant Mohamed Thatha, believed to be in government detention since October 2012.

GCHR also signed on to a joint appeal led by its partner the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), calling on the government and armed groups to release all human rights defenders and stop arresting people, in order to limit the spread of the virus. According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), there are 90,212 recorded detainees, but the true figure is likely to be greater. The statement notes that pardons issued to release prisoners have excluded prisoners of opinion, who are facing “systematic torture, denial of medical care, and detention in cramped, unhygienic and unventilated cells.” The statement concludes, “despite the government denying it has spread in Syria, the situation will be disastrous if the virus spreads inside a detention center.”

While people are confined to their homes, some countries continue to block communications tools that would help families, students and workers connect online. GCHR welcomes the lifting of restrictions on some apps such as Microsoft Teams, Blackboard, Zoom and Cloudtalk in the UAE; Skype for Business, Google Meet, WebEx and Zoom in Oman; and Zoom and WebEx in Qatar. However, Qatar and the UAE have Skype and WhatsApp restrictions enabled and Oman is blocking WhatsApp. Countries in the Gulf still have many restrictions on Voice over Internet protocols (VoIP) and apps such as Skype, WhatsApp and Facetime.

GCHR calls on the authorities across MENA region to show some humanity and help stop the spread of this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic by freeing all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience because they do not pose a risk to the public, but rather are at great risk themselves. While detained, the authorities must uphold the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as “the Mandela Rules”, and provide higher levels of cell hygiene, appropriate access to healthcare and sanitary facilities. It is important to allow visits from UN experts and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The authorities must also allow prisoners to communicate with their families immediately, and lift restrictions on online communications.

Join the call on twitter to #LetThePrisonersOut