General: Alternative Human Rights Expo campaign calls on MENA countries to support women’s rights and free all rights defenders

31.03.22

As the Alternative Human Rights Expo comes to a close this year, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) reiterates the calls by over 80 rights groups, United Nations experts, Members of the European Parliament and hundreds of individuals to free human rights defenders detained in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

When the Dubai Expo opened in October 2021, GCHR and over two dozen partners launched a six-month campaign to highlight the repression in the country and counter the UAE’s false narrative of “tolerance” and “openness”. The campaign started with a cultural human rights event and a petition and letter to the UAE authorities to #FreeEmiratiActivists, continued to the #FreeBahrainiPrisoners campaign and culminated in March 2022 with an event to mark International Women’s Day.

At the Alternative Human Rights Expo, held online on 14 October 2021, 26 human rights groups and numerous writers and activists paid tribute to human rights defenders from the UAE and called for their release. The event, hosted by well-known activist and writer Iyad El-Baghdadi and GCHR’s WHRD Programme Manager Weaam Youssef, featured human rights defenders, poets, artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers from a dozen countries in the MENA region, and beyond.

The goal of the event was to highlight the work of creative talents from the region, as well as that of imprisoned activists, whose work was read during the event. They are Ahmed Mansoor from the UAE, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Bahrain, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee in Iran, and Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Sanaa Seif in Egypt. At the event, GCHR’s Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim read Mansoor’s poetry and paid tribute to Emirati Alaa Al-Siddiq, who died tragically in June 2021. We showed a video of her reading poetry, and called for the release of her father, Dr. Mohammed Al-Siddiq, from prison in the UAE. We also highlighted the case of Saudi WHRD Loujain Al-Hathloul, who remains under travel ban, and whose sister Lina Al-Hathloul has written a book with Uma Mishra-Newbery, who read from the book. Since the event, we were happy to hear that Sanaa Seif has been released, but GCHR continues to call for the other human rights defenders to be freed.

You can watch the Alternative Human Rights Expo video with English interpretation or original in both languages also on GCHR’s Youtube. Other small videos are on the Gallery Page at https://www.alternativehrexpo.org/?page_id=898. Over 1200 people participated or watched the event, through GCHR's YouTube channel and on the Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre (EDAC) twitter. #AltExpoHumanRights

As part of the Alternative Human Rights Expo campaign, on 22 October 2021 GCHR, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Amnesty International, the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE), the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and ALQST for Human Rights delivered a letter to UAE embassies in Geneva and London in which 81 NGOs called for activists imprisoned in the UAE to be freed. The letter, which highlights imprisoned human rights defender and GCHR Board member, Ahmed Mansoor, was delivered on the occasion of his 52nd birthday. GCHR Advisory Board member Melanie Gingell joined the action at the UAE Embassy in London, where she and partners filmed a birthday video for Mansoor. Follow #FreeAhmed #FreeEmiratiPrisoners.

GCHR and ICFUAE also created a petition which calls on the UAE government to release Emirati human rights defenders who are serving lengthy sentences simply for their human rights activities, specifically Ahmed Mansoor, academic Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, human rights lawyers Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken and Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansoori, and scholar Sheikh Mohammed Abdulrazzaq Al-Siddiq. Hundreds of people have already signed the petition to the UAE authorities to send a powerful message that Emirati defenders matter to people worldwide. The Dubai Expo comes to a close on 31 March 2022 but we ask people to keep signing and sharing the petition with the call to #FreeEmiratiActivists and #FreeAhmed.

As a follow up to the coalition work around the Alternative Human Rights Expo, ahead of Bahrain’s Independence Day on 16 December 2021, GCHR coordinated with over a dozen human rights NGOs to work together on a public campaign to #FreeBahrainiPrisoners and related advocacy for the release of prisoners of conscience. It was a bitter disappointment that no prominent HRDs were among the 105 prisoners released but the campaign helped raise awareness of the human rights violations in Bahrain. The ‘Ten Years On’ campaign highlighted the 10th anniversary of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, on 23 November 2021, with a united call to #FreeBahrainiPrisoners.

The campaign, coordinated by Maryam and Zaynab Al-Khawaja, GCHR’s Journalists Protection Coordinator, includes 10 videos about Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Naji Fateel, Husain Abdulwahab, torture, press freedom, women prisoners, sickle cell anemia, and Sayed Redha and other children in prison (also available on GCHR’s YouTube.) On the Free Bahraini Prisoners Instagram, over 8200 viewers saw the videos.

On 8 March, International Women's Day, GCHR co-sponsored an event on Women’s Solidarity in Human Rights Activism: Storytelling from the Arab Peninsula, hosted by the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR), with ALQST and the ICFUAE. GCHR’s WHRDs Programme Manager Weaam Youssef co-hosted this event with Julia Legner of ALQST. Speakers included three of GCHR’s Advisory Board members -Saudi WHRD and scholar Dr. Hala Al-Dosari, Yemeni WHRD Radhya Al-Mutawakel, President of Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights, Omani WHRD Habiba Al-Hinai, Founder and Executive Director of the Omani Association for Human Rights (OAHR) – as well as Emirati WHRD Jenan Al-Marzooqi. MEP Alessandra Moretti spoke at the beginning of the event about the need for EU member states to campaign for women’s equality in the MENA region, and stated that “business should not prevail over human rights and justice.”

Participants all spoke of the challenges of working in countries that do not protect women’s rights. Al-Hinai spoke of her campaign for the right for Omani women to pass on citizenship to their children, and how she didn’t shy away from speaking out, noting “I refuse to leave this planet quietly.” Dr. Al-Dosari spoke about the brave women’s rights activists who spoke up about the guardianship system, and criticised the use of sportswashing or artwashing to uplift Saudi Arabia’s image. She also mentioned the use of surveillance tools against WHRDs and HRDs in the region. Al-Mutawakel talked about challenges for Yemeni women surviving during war, insisting “the priority is to be alive.” She noted that women's rights to participate in public life and social protections against violence against women have been lost. Al-Marzooqi spoke of the persecution of herself and her family, leading her to flee the country. The panelists agreed that having online spaces have increased solidarity with each other, and that they felt a sense of sisterhood even if they have never met. You can watch the video at: https://youtu.be/pTbX3mOOdvw

As well, GCHR published a press release on International Women’s Day in the context of our campaign for the Alternative Human Rights Expo, which calls on MENA governments, including the UAE, to “take serious measures to end the use of sexual and gender-based violence, curb online harassment of women, stop the use of surveillance to persecute WHRDs, stop reprisals against them and their families, and remove travel bans among other restrictions.”

GCHR thanks the over 30 partners who coordinated and co-sponsored events, and the over 10,000 people who attended the events, signed the petition, circulated campaign materials on social media and watched the videos.