GCC summit: Systematic clampdown on freedom of expression in Gulf
The appalling human rights records of states in the Gulf must not be swept under the carpet when member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gather in the Bahraini capital, Manama, this week (6-7 December) for their annual summit, said Amnesty International today.
Human rights will be notably absent from the agenda at the annual meeting when the six GCC states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – come together to discuss trade and security cooperation, with no mention of the widespread crackdown witnessed across the region on the grounds of security.
“In recent years across the Gulf we have seen human rights activists, peaceful political opponents and government critics systematically targeted in the name of security. Hundreds have been harassed, unlawfully prosecuted, stripped of their nationality, arbitrarily detained or in some cases imprisoned or even sentenced to death after unfair trials, as part of a concerted effort to intimidate people into silence,” said Randa Habib, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The use of such ruthless tactics to trample all over the rights of people in the GCC has to end now.”
UK Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to attend the GCC summit and has a unique opportunity to raise concerns over a pattern of recurring human rights violations throughout the region.
“For years western allies of GCC states including the UK and USA have been reluctant to speak out about the rampant human rights violations in the Gulf. In doing so they are turning their backs on countless victims of human rights violations across the region. It is high time for allies of the GCC to stop putting business and security cooperation before human rights and Theresa May must not squander this opportunity to raise key rights issues,” said Randa Habib.
In the years since the 2011 uprisings across the Arab world, a number of Gulf countries have introduced repressive laws on counterterrorism, cybercrimes and peaceful gatherings, in a bid to restrict freedom of expression and punish those who criticize government policies, their own leaders or those of other GCC states.
A clear pattern has emerged across the GCC states of relying on vaguely worded and broad national security laws to convict peaceful activists and critics after blatantly unfair trials.
“Tension is high across the region following the rise of the armed group calling itself Islamic State and the risk of deadly attacks, but this is not an excuse for lashing out by crushing all signs of peaceful dissent. GCC governments must stop using security as a veil to sanction repression,” said Randa Habib.
Those targeted in the relentless crackdown have included human rights activists, opposition leaders, journalists, lawyers and academics among others.
Among them is the Saudi Arabian lawyer and human rights defender Waleed Abu al-Khair, whose case is an iconic example of how the country’s draconian counterterrorism legislation has been used as a tool to punish people exercising their right to freedom of expression. He is currently serving a 15-year-prison term after being convicted in an unfair trial, under the 2014 counter-terror law on a range of offences in relation to his human rights work, and for a conduct which should not be criminalized in the first place. He has defended many peaceful activists and has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s terrible human rights record.
Just last week the counter-terror court in Riyadh, after an unfair trial increased the sentence of Issa al-Hamed, a Saudi Arabian human rights defender from nine to 11 years in prison following an appeal.
In an emblematic case from the UAE, the human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Roken is serving a 10 year prison sentence after being convicted of national security charges following a blatantly unfair mass trial of 94 people widely known as the “UAE 94” trial.
Across the region people have found themselves also serving lengthy prison terms simply for daring to express their opinions freely on social media. The prominent Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab is among several activists in the GCC to have been unlawfully prosecuted for comments posted on Twitter.
In Kuwait Abdallah Fairouz, a human rights activist detained in November 2013 is serving a total of five and a half years’ imprisonment for tweets expressing his view that no one should have immunity from prosecution because they reside in a royal palace. He is a prisoner of conscience.
Speaking out freely to criticize government policies and call for peaceful reform also saw Sheikh Ali Salman, head of Bahrain’s main opposition party, al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, sentenced to nine years in prison in a shocking attack on freedom of expression. The al-Wefaq party was also shutdown.
In Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait hundreds of people have been unlawfully stripped of their nationality in recent years often rendering them stateless and depriving them of key rights, marking an alarming regional trend of using this as a tactic to punish dissent.
“In the GCC today exercizing your fundamental rights or speaking your mind freely can very easily land you in jail. GCC states need to stop branding independent human rights activists and peaceful critics as criminals. Instead of locking such people away for long periods under the false pretence of defending national security they should welcome scrutiny of their human rights records,” said Randa Habib.
Human rights violations in the GCC extend beyond the crackdown on freedom of expression to issues such as arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment in detention, unfair trials, failing to adequately protect the rights of migrant workers and use of the death penalty. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition which includes a number of GCC states, has also launched a series of unlawful attacks in Yemen including some that may amount to war crimes.