(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Weekly roundup of human rights violations

[Syria] Leading human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni has been on hunger strike in prison since May 17. [Date picture taken: 06/04/2006]

This week saw a number of reported human rights violations in different countries of the region. Violations included the arrest of political activists in Syria, the detention of critical journalists in Egypt and the continued use of torture in Lebanese prisons.

Respect for human rights in Syria has reached “its lowest point” since President Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, according to a report by the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee released this week.

The report highlights what it calls the “unprecedented” sentencing by the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) of members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the detention of “hundreds of Islamists of all orientations” and the “unabated” arrest of Islamists returning from abroad.

According to the Syria-based National Organisation for Human Rights (NOHR), a security court sentenced a member of the Brotherhood to death on 25 June, but later commuted the sentence to 12 years in prison. Amnesty International condemned the move, pointing out that the defendant, Mohammad Osamah al-Sayyess, 30, had been deported from the UK in 2005 despite the awareness of UK authorities that his membership in the Brotherhood put him at risk of persecution. Affiliation with the Brotherhood has been illegal in Syria since 1980.

On 27 June, the NOHR reported that a court had sentenced another three Brotherhood members to death, but that their sentences were again commuted to 12 years in prison. According to the NOHR, the three men, all from the northern Idleb province, left Syria for Iraq in 1980 but returned in 2005.

Two days earlier, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR) reported that Mohammad Mahmoud Qatreeb, a dockworker in the port of Tartous, had been arrested for alleged employment by the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Syria has a long history of persecuting members of the former Iraqi Ba'ath Party. The AOHR released a statement demanding Qatreeb be tried in a civilian court.

In an interview with Pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, published on 26 June, al-Assad defended the detention of several human rights activists and intellectuals who signed the “Damascus-Beirut Declaration”, which calls on Syria to improve relations with Lebanon. “They were warned,” said al-Assad. “The declaration harms Syrian national security and was issued in collaboration with anti-Syrian Lebanese personalities… They violated the law, and it’s natural that the law be applied to them.”

The 10 activists arrested for supporting the declaration – including writer Michel Kilo and lawyer Anwar al-Bunni – remain in detention at Adra prison, according to NOHR head Ammar Qurabi.

In Egypt most of the pro-democracy activists who were released on 22 June participated – with about 300 others – in a 26 June demonstration demanding the release of detained colleagues. Although many activists were released in the past two weeks, a number still remain in detention, including Mohammed al-Sharqawi, who was allegedly tortured by police, and some 700 members of the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.

On 26 June, the London-based Arab Press Freedom Watch published an alert condemning the Ministry of Education’s decision to fail secondary-school student Alia Farag Megahed for criticising President Hosni Mubarak and US President George W. Bush in a final-exam paper. After turning in her essay, 15-year-old Megahed was summoned to the ministry for a three-hour interrogation in which she was asked about her membership in “secret organisations”. After concluding that the girl was not affiliated with any clandestine political groups, the ministry failed her and forbade her from taking second-term final exams.

The same day, Ibrahim Issa, editor in chief of independent weekly Al-Dustoor, and Sahar Zaki, a reporter for the same paper, were each sentenced to one year in prison on charges of insulting the president and the Egyptian people. The journalists, who currently remain free on bail pending appeal, were also fined the equivalent of US $1,750 each. The sentences directly contradict Mubarak’s promise in February 2004 that an unpopular 1996 press law would be amended, with the aim of abolishing jail terms for so-called “publication offences”.

In Yemen, meanwhile, the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD) on 28 June condemned death threats levelled at its executive director, lawyer Khalid al-Anesi, for defending the editor-in-chief of English-language newspaper The Yemen Observer in court. The paper stands accused of defaming the Prophet Muhammad by republishing the notorious Danish caricatures that appeared in February. After two men threatened to kill al-Anesi if he did not withdraw from the case, they confessed to the crime and were referred to the public prosecutor for investigation.

Also, three days earlier, HOOD requested – for the second time –that the attorney-general look into the case of Suhaib al Dhabhani, who has been detained in Taiz governorate’s Political Security prison for three years. HOOD considers the detention a violation of the law.

On the same day, editor-in-chief of Al-Diyar newspaper, Abd al-Mahdari, told the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate that he had been attacked by armed men. Al-Mahdari, known for criticising the regime in his articles, had been abused by members of the Political Security apparatus on 11 June.

Torture is systematically committed at the main police and military detention centres in Jordan and steps should be taken to amend the legal system in order to fight such practises, Manfred Nowak, the UN special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, said on 29 June. He was on an official visit to the country this week.

At a press conference in Amman, the Special Rapporteur cited the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Abdali, central Amman, as the two detention centres where “torture is systematically practised”. Nowak based his statement on evidence gathered, including serious allegations substantiated by forensic-expertise, and efforts by both authorities to obstruct the fact-finding mission.

The UN Special Rappourteur concluded that there is general impunity for torture and ill-treatment in Jordan given the country’s legal system where the criminal jurisdiction concerning torture committed by police services rest with special police and intelligent courts.

The Lawyers Committee in Lebanon issued a statement last week in which it noted the various torture methods inflicted upon inmates at Lebanese prisons. According to a committee statement, practices include sleep deprivation, electric shocks and threats of sexual assault.

The head of the Lawyers Committee, Nabil Halabi, pointed out that 45 detainees had been held without charge since February.

Officials in Beirut say investigations are ongoing.


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