Keeping power in check: This week in Human Rights

Keeping power in check: This week in Human Rights
Blog: War, despotism and occupation blight much of the Arab world and cripple the amazing potential of its people. No government, leader or movement will be spared in this new weekly review.
6 min read
30 Jan, 2015
Too many people across the region are still denied even their basic freedoms [Getty]
Here at al Araby al Jadeed, we are deeply committed to the principles of human rights and we champion those who risk their freedom, safety - and even their lives - to hold to account those powers who trample on the dignity of ordinary people.

This new, weekly blog will give a voice to those across the region standing up to injustice.

Killing Egypt's dreams

Last weekend, Shimaa Sabagh went to lay a wreath in Cairo's Tahrir Square to mark the fourth anniversary of the revolution that deposed President Hosni Mubarak. On the way there, she was shot dead by masked police.

The devout mother and socialist activist was one of at least 20 protesters killed, alongside more than 80 injured.

We are all Shimaa el-Sabagh now. Read the views of Shimaa's friend, Gigi Ibrahim, and watch our exclusive report

President Sisi had only days earlier announced the anniversary's celebrations would be postponed or cancelled, to be replaced by a week of mourning for the death of a foreign monarch who had bankrolled the return of the old guard to power.

Irony and hypocrisy ultimately converged into a bloody tragedy on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria as protesters clashed with the security forces.

"Four years after Egypt's revolution, police are still killing protesters on a regular basis," said Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson.

Punishing FGM

Several days later, a rare piece of news marking a positive digression from the status quo emerged from Egypt.

A court convicted a doctor of manslaughter after a 13-year-old girl died from a female genital mutilation (FGM) operation gone awry. Dr Raslan al Faidi was sentenced to more than two years in prison.

The campaign group Equality Now called the ruling a "monumental victory" as it is the first conviction since the procedure, which is widely accepted as a gross violation of women and girls' human rights, was made illegal in 2008.
     Female Genital Mutilation is still widespread across Egypt.

However, the practice is still widespread across Egypt and campaigners are pressuring the authorities to clampdown on FGM "doctors" and not only act once a young girl has been killed.  

Money for lashings

World leaders had hardly finished patting themselves on the back after marching for free speech on the streets of Paris when they found themselves in the rather awkward situation of lauding praise on an absolute monarchy that routinely imprisons and flogs deviant journalists or bloggers.

With the scars still fresh on the back of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, the great and the good flocked to not only offer legitimate condolences but also to praise the "reformist and steadying hand" of the powers that be in Riyadh.

Rarely is the disconnect between espoused commitments to human rights and the dictates of realpolitik and commercial interest so clearly on display.

The UK government is under particular scrutiny for its apparent duplicity due to a deal in the pipeline worth almost $9 million that would see the commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice advising Saudi Arabia on how to run its justice system.

Comment: Corruption remains the cornerstone of UK-Saudi relations. Read Richard Brooks' analysis here

That is the justice system that imprisoned Badawi to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes, regularly locks up journalists, human rights activists and opposition figures and last year lopped the heads off 84 people.

Officials in London will find arguing this as a case of "positive engagement" a particularly hard sell. Amnesty International has warned that, if the deal is signed off, it could "give the British seal of approval" to human rights abuses in Saudi jails.  

Workers rights... yeah right

"Workers Not Slaves" read the sign held by domestic workers at a march in Beirut.

Not yet, it would appear.

On Monday, the country's Ministry of Labor flatly rejected a proposal calling for the creation of a union for migrant domestic workers, which it neatly labelled as "an illegal syndicate".

The day before, around 200 women from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other countries attended the founding conference for their hoped-for union.

The government clearly has no intention of playing ball.

Around quarter of a million domestic workers are locked into the notorious kafala system, and reports of human rights abuses at the hands of their employers - read "owners" - are ubiquitous.
     Lebanon flatly rejected a proposal calling for a union for migrant domestic workers.

Suicides are disturbingly common.

The Labor Ministry says it is attempting to improve working conditions for migrant workers with a new law submitted to the cabinet for approval.

Considering "submitted to the cabinet for approval" in Lebanon is more often than not synonymous with laws being "kicked into the long grass", the workers may be in for quite a wait before they see any change in their lot.

'Mowing the lawn'

Subjecting one of the most densely populated strips of land in the world to seven weeks of intense artillery and aerial bombardment alongside ground invasions is always going to exact a brutal death toll.

The Israeli human group B’tselem, however, has concluded that Israel adopted a deliberate policy of launching airstrikes on homes that killed hundreds of civilians during last year's Gaza war.

Not so much collateral damage, more like fish in a barrel.

A hallmark of the campaign was "the numerous strikes on residential buildings, destroying them while their occupants were still inside," the 49-page report said, adding it was "the result of a policy formulated by government officials and the senior military command".

The investigation examined 70 raids on residential buildings in the besieged Palestinian territory - and in these cases alone, 606 people were killed, nearly three quarters of whom were under 18 or over 60.

The killing of these children and elders during Israel's most recent foray to "mow the lawn" in Gaza was not the result of "an illegal punitive policy", according to the Israeli military - but rather an effort to combat the "systematic unlawful use made of such structures by the terror organisations in Gaza".

A descent into chaos

Abductions and summary executions have become the daily norm in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi.

"The city has been ripped apart by spiralling violence waged by rival groups and their supporters seeking vengeance," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International in a new report from the embattled port city.

Tit-for-tat attacks by rival forces in the city continue to escalate, while chaos and misrule have become the modus operandi of rival militias. Assassinations of lawyers, human rights activists and journalists are commonplace.

The birthplace of the 2011 uprising against Muammar Ghaddafi is fast becoming the burial ground for Libyan aspirations.

Amnesty found fighters from the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR), a coalition of Islamist militias and armed groups, and forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar's Operation Dignity campaign, routinely carrying out human rights abuses in the city.

The front lines

The list of human rights defenders locked up or missing across the region is too extensive for us to do justice to in this blog alone. However, there are several cases that have been raised this past week that we can shine a light on.

The National Committee for Monitoring Violations in Kuwait announced that the secret police arrested prominent rights and online activist Mohammad al-Ajmi in the middle of the week - for alleged comments made about the late king of Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights said Hendal was being targeted "in order to intimidate him and others from working as defenders of human rights".

In Oman, Amnesty International has warned that the health of imprisoned pro-democracy advocate Saeed Jadad is "seriously deteriorating".

Jadad has a long-standing heart condition and is now refusing liquids or his medication in protest at his ongoing detention. 

We'll be keeping our eye on human rights transgressions across the region and bringing you another weekly digest next Friday. If you want to share any information or bring our attention to any campaigns please Tweet us at @alaraby_en.