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Weekly roundup of human rights violations

[Middle East] Map.

This week saw a number of human rights violations throughout the region, including illegal detentions and allegations of mistreatment.

In Egypt, a newly amended Press Law was approved by parliament on 10 July despite protests by hundreds of journalists from both the official and the independent press.

In contravention to promises issued by President Hosni Mubarak in the run-up to Egypt’s first contested presidential election in September 2005, the law continues to criminalise criticism of government leaders, both domestic and foreign. Under the legislation, journalists found to be critical of government officials are liable to receive up to five years in prison or a fine of up to US $5220, while editors can be fined up to US $3480.

While some human rights groups welcomed Mubarak’s decision to scrap a controversial article criminalising allegations of official corruption, activists say the amended law still features articles that will negatively affect press freedom. “This new law tells Egyptian journalists that they risk jail if they’re serious about covering foreign affairs or their own leaders,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Middle East and North Africa division.

On 9 July, authorities referred 18 leading members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood for trial, among them leading politburo member Essam al-Eryan, along with hundreds of other brotherhood members arrested during recent protests in support of judicial reform.

Group members were detained for belonging to an illegal organisation and for disturbing public order, according to the interior ministry. On 8 July, an additional 27 brotherhood members were arrested, according to the group’s website.

On 5 July, the state security prosecutor extended the detention of “Youth for Change” activists Mohamed al-Sharqawi and Karim al-Shaer. Political blogger Alaa Seif al-Islam, meanwhile, who has visited al-Sharqawi in jail, has alleged that the detained activist arrested 25 May has received numerous death threats in prison.

HRW on 12 July criticised what it called the Syrian authorities’ “amplified” crackdown on civil society, noting that a number of activists had been prevented from travelling outside of the country this week.

Suheir Atassi, head of the Atassi Forum, a political discussion group closed by security forces in May, was prevented from travelling to France, according to HRW. The rights group also reported that Waleed al-Bunni, a founder of the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, and Samar al-Labwani, the wife of jailed human rights activist Kamal Labwani, were also prevented from leaving the country.

According to head of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria Ammar Qurabi, a total of seven activists have been banned from leaving Syria. These include himself; Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies; lawyer Habib Issa; and Fawaz Tello, a former political prisoner.

On 10 July, the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS) called on authorities to investigate an attack on their offices by unknown assailants. An HRSA statement noted that the offices belonged to Haithem Maleh, former HRSA chairman. “I ask the Syrian authorities to investigate,” said Maleh. “I’m seventy five years old and this is the first time anything like this has happened.”

On the same day, activists called on authorities to allow Ghalib Amer – an activist arrested in May for his public support of a declaration calling on Damascus to improve ties with Beirut – to receive medical attention. According to lawyer Hassan Abdel Azim, Amer urgently needs heart surgery. He is being held in Adra prison, along with nine other activists including writer Michel Kilo and lawyer Anwar al-Bunni.

On 8 July, chairman of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights Mohannad Hassani said the authorities had released 13 Syrians that had been imprisoned for more than 20 years on charges of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. His statement, however, has not yet been confirmed by any other local rights organisation.

In Jordan this week, the circumstances of four Islamist MPs – arrested in June after offering condolences to the family of the slain Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – came back into the spotlight. On 10 July, the state security prosecutor renewed the detention of the MPs in what was described by judicial sources as “a routine procedure”.

Islamic Action Front MPs Ali Abu-al-Sukkar, Muhammad Abu-Faris, Ibrahim Mashukhi and Ja'far Horani were first detained on 11 June, but had their detentions renewed for a further 15 days on 26 June. While Mashukhi was released on 11 July, the other three were referred to the state security court on charges of “fuelling national discord and inciting sectarianism”. State Security Prosecutor Ra'id Izmiqna's decision came following remarks made by the deputies in which they praised al-Zarqawi as a “martyr” and a “holy warrior”.

In response to a letter by the four MPs to the prosecutor decrying poor prison conditions, government spokesman Naser Judah insisted that the treatment given to the MPs was “decent and proper”.

On 7 July, security forces detained 10 Muslim Brotherhood members following a demonstration in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza – currently besieged by a major Israeli offensive – after Friday prayers at Jordan University. They were reportedly released the following day.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni Observatory for Human Rights harshly criticised the state of local human rights in its 2005 report, particularly in regard to local vendettas and illegal detentions.

The report registered 3,320 deaths as a result of deliberate acts of revenge between 2002 and 2005. Conflicts with Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, a religious guerrilla leader from the Zaidi Shi’ite community, have also led to hundreds of deaths in the northern governorate of Sada.

The report also notes that dozens of citizens were shot at, while others were injured and detained, during massive, nationwide protests against fuel price hikes in July 2005. The report also referred to the illegal detention of citizens by security authorities.

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