Keeping power in check: This week in human rights

Keeping power in check: This week in human rights
7 min read
06 Mar, 2015
Blog: A weekly digest of the main human rights issues across the Arab world for the week 27 February - 6 March 2015.
The men in blue are all too often still trampling on Egypt's common man [Getty]

Deadly detentions

Last week, 28-year-old lawyer Karim Hamdy died in an Egyptian police station just 48 hours after his arrest.

Head of the forensic authority confirmed his body bore marks consistent with torture, and an eyewitness told Amnesty International his corpse was covered in red and brown bruises with blue marks around his eyes and a broken right arm.

Hamdy is not alone in his apparently violent demise while in police custody, with a string of detainee deaths revealing the prevalence of torture and horrific detention conditions in Egyptian police stations.
     The Egyptian security forces have effectively been granted the green light to continue torturing.

The most notorious police station is in Mattareya district, Cairo, in which at least nine detainees have died since April 2014 according to information gathered by Amnesty International.

Amidst a culture of almost complete impunity among the police and security services investigations have been half hearted and nobody has been held accountable.

"The Egyptian security forces have effectively been granted the green light to continue torturing and otherwise ill-treating detainees without facing any consequences," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.

Few Egyptians are immune from the violent whims prevalent in the police forces. Last May a 46-year-old officer at the ministry of finance, Ezat Abdel Fattah, was tortured to death in Mattareya police station.

What for?

According to his family his crime was nothing more than arguing with neighbours who have strong ties to officers based at the station.

According to a list compiled by local activists and the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms organisation, there have been at least 121 deaths in custody in Egypt since the beginning 2014. The causes of death vary between deprivation of medical care, natural deaths and torture.

After the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 the police and security services largely stepped back from the public sphere and allowed disorder and chaos to fill the void.

With the success of the counter-revolution and the restoration of the military the police and security services are now more emboldened than ever.

Egypt is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

That will provide little succor to those still suffering from police brutality in Egypt's chronically overcrowded police stations or to the loved ones of those who never made it out to greet another day.

Dogs and occupation

A video showing Israeli occupation forces setting dogs on a Palestinian teenager has bought back to the fore the use of hounds against unarmed civilians.
Israeli soldiers set dogs on Palestinian youth. Warning graphic content.

The young Palestinian had allegedly been involved in protests in the 'Special Security Area' (SSA) surrounding the settlement of Carmei Tzur in the occupied West Bank.

Land for the settlement and the SSA was appropriated from the Palestinian village of Beit Ummar and demonstrations and clashes with the occupation forces in the area are common.

The Israeli military has promised "an immediate internal inquiry", and assured that once it has been completed its investigation "conclusions will be drawn" and the "necessary steps will be taken".
     All too often women, religious minorities and peaceful political reformers have faced major obstacles.

Israeli human rights organisation B'tselem notes, however, that the use of dogs is standard practice by the army and previous internal inquiries into such incidents have only focused on how the dogs were used, and not on whether they should have been used at all.

It is not only protestors who have had dogs unleashed upon them, but also Palestinians from the occupied territories who have dared to travel into the 1948 borders without a work permit.

The Israeli army said it would stop using dogs on unnarmed civilians after similarly embarrasing footage was leaked in the past. It appears however that the practice still remains among the humiliations that Palestinians living under occupation have to endure. 

A long way to go

On the eve of US Secretary of State, John Kerry's, visit to Saudi Arabia this week, 67 representatives from the US House of Congress signed a letter addressed to King Salman in which they urge him to: "act as an advocate of human rights and democratic reforms within your country."

The signatories noted that: "all too often, women, religious minorities and peaceful political reformers have faced major obstacles."

That is putting it mildly.

Human rights abuses abound within the kingdom.

In the letter from US congressmen to their steadfast ally they refer to the blogger Raif Badawi who has been sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for daring to vocalise his opposition to the puritanical clergy and its stranglehold on Saudi society.

He is far from alone in his suffering for daring to speak his mind. Dozens more activists are behind bars and the authorities have targeted the small but dedicated human rights community active in the country.

There is zero room for dissent and all public gatherings remain prohibited under an order issued by the interior ministry in 2011. Those who fall foul of this archaic law face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as "inciting people against the authorities".

This year alone 40 people have been executed, systemic discrimination against women prevails, torture is commonplace in prisons and religious discimination is entrenched.

With that track record the king is some way off being anything close to an, "advocate of human rights and democratic reform".

A cry baby army

Tunisia has been hailed as a success story of the "Arab Spring" but it appears the military is still so sensitive to criticism it has bloggers who dare criticise it sent to prison.

Prominent blogger Yassine Ayari was sentenced to six months behind bars for allegedly "defaming the army" and "insulting military commanders" in comments he posted on Facebook in September last year.

Tunisian blogger gets six months for defaming army.

On his Facebook post he had condemned Tunisia's defence minister for weakening military institutions, and refusing to appoint a new head of military intelligence.

Hardly the most scathing criticism you could imagine but wounded egos can kick back hard, and within no time the military had Ayari's card marked.
     It's just one part of the legal system that is still regularly used to charge bloggers, journalists, and artists.

Despite the passing of Tunisia's new constitution in January 2014, which went some way to protecting human rights and establishing the rule of law, there are still some repressive legacies from the Ben Ali era.

The new authorities are not hesitating to exploit this unsavoury legal inheritance to quell unwelcome inspection, as Ayari's case illustrates.

His prosecution was brought under Article 91 of the military code, one of the relics of the dictatorship. It is just one part of the legal system that is still regularly used to charge bloggers, journalists, and artists with vague accusations of "defaming", "insulting" or "harming" somebody in power, or some exulted institution. 

The fact that Ayari was tried and sentenced by a military court, which lacks independence and is directly linked to the Ministry of Defence, indicates that this "success story" still has some way to go.

UAE 94

This week witnessed the second anniversary of the mass "UAE 94" trial, which climaxed with the imprisonment of dozens of government critics and reform activists in the UAE.

Among those tried were prominent human rights defenders, judges, academics and student leaders.

To mark the anniversary of the start of the trial a coalition of 13 international organisations signed a joint letter calling on the UAE government to release "immediately and unconditionally" all those imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association.

The authorities have always maintained the accused "ran an organisation seeking to oppose the basic principles of the UAE system of governance and to seize power", and that they were aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The rationale has gained little traction among outside observers, including the UN, but for now at least the fate of the imprisoned critics looks unlikely to change. 

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