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Human Rights Developments

Independent citizens and locally-based organizations from Morocco to Iran challenged anachronistic laws and undemocratic systems of governance, monitored and publicized human rights violations, and demanded an end to impunity. There were setbacks as well as progress, but the voices of activists on the ground reached local and international audiences. In Algeria, the persistence of families of the "disappeared" and their advocates gave the issue visibility in the presidential race and put it on the agenda of the new head of state. Tunisia's beleaguered human rights community was increasingly active in 1999 despite continuing government harassment. Human rights organizations in Egypt received broad support from counterparts worldwide as they opposed passage of a deeply flawed law that appeared designed to restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Palestinian activists similarly rallied support to pressure the executive branch of the Palestinian Authority to implement a progressive NGO law that incorporated activists' input.

Palestinian and Israeli NGOs' strategy of flooding Israel's High Court of Justice with petitions yielded results. The court ruled in a landmark decision in September that the General Security Service's systematic use of torture during interrogations was illegal, and agreed in January and April to hear petitions challenging the legality of Israel's policies of holding Lebanese nationals hostage for future prisoner exchanges and revoking the rights of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to live there. Women's rights activists in Jordan were joined by other concerned citizens in an unprecedented nationwide campaign to raise awareness and eliminate the horror of "honor killings," which claimed the lives of twenty-two women in Jordan in 1998 and another sixteen in 1999 as of this writing. The campaign's grass-roots petition drive to abolish penal code provisions that sanctioned lenient punishment for family members who kill women relatives gathered some 8,000 signatures in the first month. Women's rights activists elsewhere in the region continued to challenge discriminatory laws and practices, and campaigned against domestic violence and genital cutting (see Women's Human Rights, below).

These local initiatives occurred in distinct counterpoint to the bleak and static situation in countries where authorities tolerated no form of political dissent. In Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, government-controlled Iraq, and Libya, the development of civil society remained hostage to punishing restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Following the releases in 1999 of Rachid Mesli in Algeria and Khamais Ksila in Tunisia, Syria was the only country in the region where human rights defenders continued to serve lengthy prison terms.

Major political events in the region included changes of the heads of state in Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Algeria, and Israel; and unsurprising landslide victories at the polls for the long-serving presidents of Syria, Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah Bin `Abd al-`Aziz served as de facto ruler in place of his ailing brother King Fahd, and his statements on the need for social and economic reforms reopened debate on the role of women. The political rivalry between factions of the leadership in Iran appeared to drive and even promote violations of human rights.

A new Lebanese government was installed in December 1998 following parliament's unanimous election of former army commander Gen. Emile Lahoud to a six-year presidential term in October 1998. The deaths in 1999 of King Hussein of Jordan, Amir Sheikh `Issa Bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain, and King Hassan of Morocco resulted in succession by their sons in unchallenged hereditary transitions. No-choice presidential referendums in Syria and Egypt produced endorsements of new terms of office for former air force commanders Hafez al-Asad and Hosni Mubarak, respectively. The presidential campaign in Algeria, which was characterized by lively debate and genuine choices among the seven candidates, was marred by the last-minute withdrawal of six candidates who charged election rigging to favor Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The region's only free and fair vote occurred in May in Israel, where prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was defeated by former IDF chief of general staff Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, who promised a speedy conclusion of final status negotiations with the Palestinians and withdrawal from south Lebanon. In September, Yemen's first direct presidential election resulted in an overwhelming victory for President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Leading opposition political parties boycotted the polls after parliament rejected the nomination of their candidate. On October 24, Tunisian President Ben Ali was reelected with 99.42 percent of the vote, according to the official count. The ruling party captured 92 percent of the vote for parliamentary seats; however, a new electoral law reserved 20 percent of the seats for other parties.

Most newly installed heads of state and some other appointed public officials pledged support for rights-related reform or took some encouraging steps to address long-standing human rights problems:

P Lebanon's new cabinet of ministers on December 21, 1998, lifted the controversial ban on demonstrations that had been in effect by decree since September 1993.

P Jordan's King Abdullah instructed newly appointed prime minister Abdel Raouf Rawabdeh on March 4 to form a government that would "entrench democacy" and "protect human rights." The king also endorsed the amendment of laws that inflicted "injustice" on women and undermined their rights.

P Qatar held its first municipal elections in March, in which citizens over the age of eighteen, including women, had the right to vote. Six women competed as candidates but none won seats. In July, Amir Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa al-Thani appointed a thirty-two member Committee for Preparing a Permanent Constitution. It was given three years to draft the document which will include provisions for an elected parliament.

P Saudi Crown Prince `Abdullah Bin `Abd al`Aziz spoke repeatedly on the need to expand women's role in society, saying in April that "we will allow no one, whoever they are, to undermine her or marginalize her active role in serving her religion and country."

P Amir Sheikh Jabr al-Ahmad Al Sabah of Kuwait issued a decree in May allowing women to vote in general elections beginning in the year 2003. The decree, issued after parliament had been dissolved, was subject to parliamentary review. Some parliamentarians who opposed the process by which the decree was issued nevertheless introduced separate legislation supporting women's sufferage.

P Israel's new minister of justice, Yossi Beilin, promised in July to push for an end to emergency regulations that Israel used to administratively detain Lebanese nationals as hostages for future negotiations.

P Egypt's new prosecutor general, Maher Abdel Wahid, pledged in August that his office would carry out closer oversight of prison conditions, a responsibility under Egyptian law that had long been systematically neglected by his predecessor.

P Algerian President Bouteflika discarded the prevailing official discourse that sought to minimize the devastation wrought by that country's internal conflict. He announced in June that the number of Algerians killed was actually 100,000 and abandoned the insistence that the state had no role in the phenomenon of "disappearances."

P King Mohamed VI of Morocoo began implementing pledges of reform, permitting the return from exile of the country's most prominent former political prisoner, Abraham Serfaty. Arrested in 1974, tortured, and then imprisoned for life for his leftist political activities, Serfaty refused to petition King Hassan II for clemency or to yield to his demand that he recognize the disputed Western Sahara territory as part of Morocco. Serfaty was freed in 1991 but immediately expelled to France on patently spurious grounds that he was not a Moroccan citizen. His eight-year-long campaign to return to the country of his birth bore no fruit under King Hassan II.

There were disappointing restrictions on freedom of expression, including academic freedom and freedom of the press. The patterns of harassment and arrest of independent journalists were somber anachronisms in the face of increasing global circulation of news, information, and opinions of all kinds on the Internet and the regional popularity of uncensored political programming on Qatar's al-Jazeera satellite television station.

Academic freedom came under new assault in Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait. Government censors banned a variety of books at the prestigious American University of Cairo (AUC), including Children of Gabalawi by Naguib Mahfouz, Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el-Saadawi, and Muslim Extremism in Egypt by Giles Kepel. The head of the government's press and publications department charged that AUC was "deliberately ordering books that can't be allowed in the country because they violate our religion, culture and traditions." The president of the University of Jordan, reportedly capitulating to pressure from the prime minister and the head of the General Intelligence Directorate, on July 14 demanded the resignation of Mustafa Hamarneh as director of the university's Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS). Under Hamarneh, it had gained regional and international recognition as an independent research center, and published an opinion survey on June 20 showing a decline in the government's popularity.

An appeals court in Kuwait on October 4 sentenced Ahmad al-Baghdadi, chair of Kuwait University's political science department, to one month in prison for a 1996 article in a student newspaper that discussed the Prophet Muhamed. Although al-Baghdadi said that he had not written about the prophet as a person but about his style of proseletization, the court found him guilty of "spreading views that ridicule, scorn, or belittle religion" under the press and publications law. Professors at Kuwait University went on strike to protest the ruling, which was also condemned by the journalists' association and members of parliament. Al-Baghdadi was released on October 18 after being pardoned by the amir, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah.

In October, an investigating magistrate in Lebanon revived a case against the internationally prominent Lebanese singer and composer Marcel Khalifa, recommending criminal prosecution for "insulting religious values by using a verse from the chapter of Joseph from the Holy Koran in a song." Kahlifa's 1995 album included "I am Yousef, O Father," based on a work of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, which included this line from a Koranic verse: "I saw eleven stars, and the sun and the moon bowing down before me." The spiritual leader of Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, Sheikh Muhamed Kabbani, said that musical arrangements of Koranic verses were prohibited. Khalifa faces imprisonment of six months to three years if charged and convicted. Lebanese Muslim and Christian intellectuals, politicians, and religious figures quickly denounced the action, rallied to Khalifa's defense, and gave him a standing ovation when he performed the song in Beirut on October 5.

Lebanon's 1962 publications law permitted the minister of information to ban by decree "any foreign publication that disturbs security, harms national feeling, breeds discord among the people, and provokes confessional frictions." In May, the ministry banned From Israel to Jerusalem , a book published in 1999 in the U.S. It was written by Robert Hatem, a former aide to Lebanese Forces militia leader Elie Houbeika, and included allegations of crimes committed by Houbeika and his associates during Lebanon's civil war. The information ministry also banned publication of any excerpts from the book, and confiscated several issues of the United Arab Emirates daily al-Ittihad because the paper published parts of the book. The book was accessible to readers in Lebanon in its entirety on the Internet.

Authorities throughout the region targeted independent newspapers and journalists. Syria banned the entry of the pan-Arab daily newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi (London), and Tunisian authorities blocked distribution of selected issues of the French dailies Le Monde and Liberation . In Iran, four independent newspapers were shut down between November 1998 and September 1999. A Kuwaiti court in May ordered al-Hadath magazine closed for one month and fined two of its journalists for publishing an article which included what the information ministry termed "indecent phrases and words." The case followed a January ruling by an appeal court to repeal the closure order and six month jail sentence on blasphemy charges against al-Qabas newspaper's editor in chief Mohammad Saqr. Kuwait's constitutional court had refused in that case to review the legality of Kuwait's 1961 press law.

Independent journalists faced harassment, detention, and imprisonment. In Egypt, where libel remained a criminal offense under the penal code, three journalists from the opposition biweekly al-Sha'b were sentenced to two years in prison in August for articles that were harshly critical of the minister of agriculture. The editor in chief of Jordan's independent daily al-Arab al-Youm , Azzam Younis, was arrested in September for publishing articles critical of the government's crackdown on senior Hamas members in the kingdom. Taoufik Ben Brik, oneof the few Tunisian journalists willing to write about the country's repressive atmosphere, was briefly detained and suffered harassment throughout the year.

Restrictions on movement due to Israel's closure of access to and between the West Bank and Gaza made it difficult for Palestinian journalists to carry out their work. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) sometimes imposed "closed military zones," blocking access of journalists to areas where demonstrations, house demolitions, or settlement expansion was taking place. Palestinian Authority security forces used arrests, interrogations, and closures to intimidate critical journalists. In Yemen, independent journalists were harassed and faced prosecution in criminal courts and newspapers were closed. Journalists in Iran were also detained and prosecuted. For example, a revolutionary court in June ordered the closure of the student bi-weekly newspaper Hoveyat-e Khish and its editor and director were detained on accusations of "spreading anti-Islamic propaganda." In July, the press court ordered the detention of an editor of Sobh-e Emrouz , a reformist daily, following publication of an article that the Tehran public prosecutor said distorted and insulted Islam.

Parliaments in Jordan and Iran reexamined press laws. Jordanian journalists and others raised concerns about the 1998 law, calling for more progressive legislation. In September, parliament annulled the law's controversial article 37, which banned writing on fourteen topics, including anything that disparaged the king and the royal family, or criticized leaders of "Arab, Islamic or friendly countries." Parliament also voted to reduce capital requirements for nondaily newspapers, lower fines for journalists, and allow newspapers to publish while on trial for press law violations. Despite the elimination of article 37, Jordanian journalists remained fearful of criminal prosecution for writing on subjects made taboo in the penal code. In October, King Abdullah reinforced this fear with a warning to journalists that press freedom should not be used to "harm Jordan's image," "relations with its sister states," and "national unity." In Iran, amendments to the 1985 press law which would weaken limited press freedom safeguards passed a first reading in July.

Despite these setbacks, free expression continued to make inroads through satellite television and the Internet. The blunt political programming on Qatar's news and information satelllite television channel, al-Jazeera, which began broadcasting to the Arab world in 1996, continued to attract large audiences and offend governments throughout the region. Financed for its initial five years with $137 million from the Qatari government, the station hosted political dissidents and featured uncensored debates on topics ranging from polygamy to human rights. In November 1998, Jordanian authorities shut down Jazeera's office in Amman by revoking the press credentials of the station's employees. The action followed a broadcast of the popular talk show al-Itijah al-Mu'akis (The Opposite Direction) during which host Faisal al-Qasim, a guest, and call-in viewers made comments that the government considered "slander" against Jordan. The office was permitted to reopen in March 1999. Kuwait's ministry of information closed the office of Jazeera there on June 19 and revoked the work permits of its staff after a caller criticized the amir in a live broadcast; the ban was lifted on July 31 after negotiation with the station. On June 29, Bahrain expelled the host of the program, Hamad al-Ansari, professor of Islamic law at Qatar University, who was there to give a lecture. Security forces reportedly told al-Ansari that he was being expelled for insulting the Kuwaiti amir.

Internet users grew to an estimated one million in the Arab world, and another 600,000 in Israel. Saudi citizens were able for the first time to obtain Internet access locally. Iraq and Libya were the only countries without Internet connections, while Syria was linked but allowed access to only selected segments of society. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates were among the countries that blocked access to one or more political or human rights websites that displeased the authorities. In Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and elsewhere authorities were not known to restrict political content online, thereby allowing local users access to information that was taboo in the local print and broadcast media. However, users in some countries, including Tunisia and Bahrain, voiced wariness about possible government surveillance of e-mail and monitoring of political "chat rooms."

As citizens around the region organized themselves and publicly advocated reform, there was evidence that at least two governments sought to undermine the independence and vitality of civil society organizations. In May, Egypt's president Mubarak signed Law No. 153 of 1999, which provided for sweeping state regulation of virtually every aspect of NGO activity, from raising funds to affiliating with other NGOs locally and internationally. The legislation generated controversy from the moment it began circulating in draft form in 1998 because of the wide powers of monitoring and interference it granted to the social affairs ministry, including actions to dissolve NGOs and deny them legal status. The law also set forth ten "crimes" under which activists were subjected to fines and imprisonment of up to one year for a carrying out vaguely worded banned activities.

Support by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) for an expanded role for local NGOs made it a target in the Palestinian Authority's crackdown on human rights organizations. After failing in December 1998 to obtain approval of a clause requiring NGOs to register with the ministry of interior in the draft NGO law, President Arafat refused to sign the law and insisted on an additional irregular vote in May. When legislators and NGOs stood firm, the executive mounted a public campaign against NGOs, accusing them of corruption and treason, and passed its amendments by engineering a legislative vote on August 12.

The prevailing environment remained one of discrimination and tolerance for violence against women, despite some positive developments such as Egypt's banning and revocation of the law that allowed rapists to marry their victims and escape prosecution, and the participation of women in Qatar's first municipal elections. Women across the region continued to face legal, political, and socio-economic discrimination that violated their rights to equality and full citizenship. For example, Syrian women were considered minors under the personal status code and thus in need of a male guardian to contract marriage. Egyptian women married to foreigners or stateless men could not pass their nationality to their children, and women in Jordan could not be issued a passport without the approval of a male guardian. Women's subordinated status in the family and society, and their marginalization and underrepresentation in public life, made them all the more vulnerable to political and domestic violence. Compounding the problem of high rates of domestic violence, incidents of violence against women were underreported, and victims faced inadequate and biased investigations, lack of legal redress, and insufficient budgets for shelters and for provisions of counseling services. As for political violence, women in Algeria continued to be targeted by militant Islamist groups. They were abducted, enslaved, raped and often later murdered.

Women activists launched public campaigns to publicize abuses, eliminate violence and discrimination, and claim their rights. For example, Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza continued to press for improvements through a "model parliament" on women's status and family law. Israeli women mobilized in support of a bill in parliament enabling women to choose between religious and civil courts inmatters of divorce and child custody. Although eleven countries in the region ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the majority had reservations to the convention that undermined and contradicted its letter and spirit.

The killing and injury of civilians that accompanied internal political violence in Algeria, Egypt, Israel, and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip was at the decade's all-time low, although military operations in Iraq, Lebanon, and northern Israel killed and injured civilians. The comprehensive U.N. Security Council economic sanctions remained in place against Iraq and continued to impose life-threatening conditions to civilians that were only partially offset by the "enhanced oil-for-food" program.

Lebanon remained the primary stage for the ongoing military confrontation between Israel and Lebanese guerrillas fighting to end the occupation in the part of south Lebanon that Israel termed its "security zone," and it was again in Lebanon where the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties in this conflict occurred. For example, on December 22, 1998, a Lebanese woman and her six children were killed when missiles fired from Israeli F-16 aircraft hit their house in the Beka' valley. IDF chief of general staff Gen. Shaul Mufaz termed the casualties a "mishap" caused by "human error." The reported target was a nearby Hizballah radio station. Guerrillas responded by launching indiscriminately some sixty Katyusha rockets into northern Israel which injured twelve Israelis. In a statement claiming responsibility, Hizballah said: "Violence must be answered by violence. Their blood must be spilled for ours." Guerrillas again fired rockets into northern Israel on May 18, 1999, after an Israeli aircraft attack killed two Lebanese civilians in Zawtar al-Sharkiyeh village on May 17.

On June 24, outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Israeli air force to bomb civilian infrastructure throughout Lebanon, killing ten civilians. The attacks were reprisals for Hizballah rockets launched into northern Israel, which in turn were characterized as reprisals for earlier attacks by the IDF and its auxiliary Lebanese militia which it financed and armed, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), that killed and injured Lebanese civilians. Destruction of transformers at the Jamhour electrical power plant in Beirut's suburbs, followed by attacks on the Bsalim station several hours later, left the capital in darkness and with electricity supplied only erratically for weeks thereafter. Two facilities providing electricty to Ba'albeck and Bint Jbail, and the power relay station north of Sidon, were also attacked. IDF Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz said at a press conference on June 25 that the infrastructure targets "had been selected a long time ago," and that "the government decided to carry out an attack on Lebanese infrastructure and not only on Hizballah order to stress that all power brokers in Lebanon who support Hizballah's murderous activity are liable to attack." Hizballah responded by firing additional Katyushas into northern Israel, leaving two Israelis dead.

Lebanese civilians continued to be forcibly expelled from occupied south Lebanon by the SLA. The victims, who included children and the elderly, received no advance notice and were not permitted to bring personal possessions with them. The expulsions, which have been carried out since 1985, have dispossessed hundreds of Lebanese who were punished because relatives deserted the SLA, refused to join the militia, or were suspected members of guerrilla groups. Others were expelled for refusal to serve as informers for the SLA's intelligence apparatus. The expulsions from Israeli-occupied territory violated international humanitarian law and constituted grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

In September, Israel's ministry of defense admitted for the first time that the General Security Service (GSS) trained SLA interrogators at Khiyam prison in occupied south Lebanon where torture appeared to be systematic. Responding to a High Court of Justice petition brought by Israeli human rights organizations, IDF Brig. Gen. Dan Halutz wrote in an affidavit that "GSS personnel cooperate with members of the SLA, and even assist them by means of professional guidance and training." Halutz added that the GSS did not "participate in the frontal interrogation" of detainees in Khiam, although he conceded that "certain detainees under interrogation are examined by means of polygraph by the Israeli side in the framework of the cooperation" between the SLA and the IDF.

In Iraq the expanded "oil-for-food" program authorized under Security Council Resolution 1153 (1998) had some positive impact on the humanitarian crisis stemming from the comprehensive Security Council embargo and the Iraqi government's policies. The overall humanitarian situation, however, remained critical. One indication was the UNICEF child and maternal mortality survey released in August showing that infants and children under five in the area controlled by the government of Iraq were dying at more than twice the rate of a decade ago, before the embargo was imposed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned in May of the "steady deterioration of living conditions" and stressed that "humanitarian action alone can not be a substitute for the country's needs." Referring to its own water, sanitation and health sector programs, the statement said: "While, for the ICRC, action comes first, it is also its duty, as the guardian of humanitarian law, to draw the attention of the world community to the prevailing humanitarian situation in Iraq."

On December 16, 1998, U.S. and U.K. forces commenced four nights of missile and aircraft attacks on Iraq following the report of the chairman of UNSCOM, the U.N.'s special disarmament commission, that Iraq had again failed to cooperate with it fully. Between December 28 and October 3, 1999 according to U.S. military sources, U.S. and U.K. warplanes launched 27,000 sorties and dropped 1,650 bombs against 385 targets, mainly antiaircraft installations which they claimed challenged enforcement of the "no-fly" zones in the north and south of the country. The U.S. military reportedly dismissed as "exaggerated" Iraqi claims that nearly 200 civilians had been killed and nearly 500 injured in these attacks.

Defending Human Rights

There were sharp contrasts in the treatment of human rights defenders in the region, reflecting official attitudes that ranged from tolerant to hostile. In the repressive environments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Libya, and Syria it was impossible to monitor and report openly on human rights developments. Five activists remained behind bars in Syria, serving prison terms of eight to ten years that the supreme state security court imposed in 1992. One of them, writer and journalist Nizar Nayouf, continued to suffer from poor health in solitary confinement at Mezze military prison, and Syrian authorities were unresponsive to repeated appeals from Arab and international NGOs for his release on humanitarian grounds. In Algeria, human rights lawyer Rachid Mesli left prison in July after serving three years for "advocating terrorism," a charge introduced into his trial at the last minute.

In the absence of independent human rights organizations in Iran, journalists and intellectuals filled the gap, reporting violations in the press and raising questions about state policies. In a promising development in August, the establishment of the Association to Protect Press Freedom brought together writers, editors, journalists, and publishers in defense of freedom of expression. In another positive development,Tunisian activist Khamais Ksila, a vice president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, was conditionally released after serving the second year of a three-year prison term imposed because a communique he wrote in his own name sharply criticizing the lack of civil liberties under President Ben Ali.

Palestinian Authority (PA) officials and the semi-official Palestinian press accused human rights activists and organizations of treason and corruption for publicizing violations and accepting foreign funding, and threatened prosecution. The PA security apparatus continued to target and harass human rights defenders. Prominent activist Dr. Eyad Sarraj, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, was summoned on August 5 to Gaza Police Headquarters and informed that President Arafat had ordered his arrest and interrogation because of his article about the P.A.'s crackdown on human rights organizations in the August issue of the monthly magazine People's Rights (Jerusalem). After questioning, Sarraj was informed that he could not leave the country until further notice because his case was under investigation.

Bahraini, Tunisian, and Palestinian human rights lawyers also came under pressure during the year. Lawyers in Bahrain were warned not to defend certain clients in security cases, and Abdullah Hashim, who had earlier been acquitted on an adultery charge intended to disbar him, was prevented from traveling in January after filing a writ of habeus corpus for a client. Outspoken lawyers in Tunisia were subjected to highly visible surveillance which intimidated their clients, and over twenty lawyers were denied passports for part or all of the year. P.A. security forces arbitrarily denied Palestinian lawyers access to clients. In May police barred lawyers with three human rights organizations from seeing clients in prisons under police custody in Gaza.

In Egypt, local human rights organizations took the lead in opposing the government's proposed new NGO law, repeatedly warning that its restrictive provisions would cripple independent civil society. As of this writing, criminal charges remained pending against the secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), lawyer Hafez Abu Sa'ada, and EOHR lawyer and researcher Mustafa Zeidan, who were targeted for publishing a report that documented police torture in a predominantly Christian village in Upper Egypt in 1998. The inhospitable climate for rights groups in Egypt was exemplified in June when social affairs minister Mervat Tellawi said at a press conference that the organizations were "illegal" because they were not registered with her ministry and their publications included "groundless claims."

Human rights defenders launched several initiatives to promote joint work on regional and international rights issues. The First International Conference of the Arab Human Rights Movement was held in Casablanca on April 23-25, attended by one hundred participants and observers from forty human rights organizations based in fifteen countries. It was organized by the independent Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and hosted by the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights. The conference adopted the Casablanca Declaration, a detailed document that described the international context of the Arab human rights movement; affirmed the right to self determination and peace based on justice; condemned violence in internal armed conflicts and "intellectual terrorism" of all kinds; and articulated ten responsibilities of the Arab human rights movement, including recognition of women's and children's rights, promotion of human rights in Arab and Islamic cultures, and achievement of economic and social rights.

Egyptian NGOs established in May the Egyptian Coalition for an International Criminal Court. In June, the Cairo-based Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession organized in Beirut the First Arab Conference on Justice, which saw the creation of the Arab NGOs Coalition for an International Criminal Court. Its thirty-two founding members included independent Arab organizations based in Algeria, Egypt, France, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia, and Yemen. The coalition's goals included public education concerning the importance of the ICC and advocacy directed at Arab states' ratification of the statute of the International Criminal Court statute.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

In an unprecedented move, the High Contracting Parties (HCP) of the Fourth Geneva Convention (relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War) met on July 15 to discuss "measures to enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, and to ensure respect thereof in accordance with common article 1." Common article 1 required HCPs "to respect and ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances." The meeting adjourned only minutes after opening, with HCPs reaffirming "the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem," but refraining from taking any action or setting a date for future meetings, pointing instead to an "improved atmosphere in the Middle East as a whole" following the election of a new Israeli government. The meeting had been called for in a series of U.N. General Assembly Emergency Special Session resolutions, dating back to 1997, but strong U.S. pressure to prevent a meeting and Swiss reluctance to take responsibility for organizing it had caused repeated delays.

European Union

Human rights did not appear prominently on the agendas of the E.U. or of member states in 1999. Iran and Algeria, two countries previously high on the E.U. agenda had embarked on political reforms that indicated intent to improve civil and political rights in those countries. European leaders generally endorsed the policies of President Mohamed Khatami of Iran, and expressed approval of the efforts of Algeria's new president, Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika, to end the civil strife there. At the same time, setbacks to human rights in other countries, from Tunisia to Bahrain, generally did not attract public comment or affect political and commercial relations.

According to the most recent available data, compiled by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, six Middle East countries-Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria, Israel and Kuwait-were among the top seven recipients of arms transfers in 1998. European countries, led by France and the U.K., continued to be major suppliers of military weapons and services in the region, accounting for 36 percent of total arms transfer agreements in the 1995-98 period.

There was little movement in 1999 in the "Barcelona process" of establishing a Euro-Mediterranean free trade and cooperative security zone. Efforts in this area were immobilized for much of the year by the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and by resistance in some Middle East countries to the dislocations likely to accompany the requisite economic restructuring and privatization. However, the association agreement with Morocco was ratified by Belgium in December 1998 and by Italy in October 1999, paving the way for its going into operation. In July negotiations on an association agreement with Egypt were concluded, after four years.

Tunisia remained the only country with an operational Association Agreement, but as the parties prepared for a November 1999 ministerial meeting the E.U. gave no indication of how it planned to reconcile Tunisia's deplorable human rights record, especially its harsh treatment of human rights defenders, with article 2's stipulation that the agreement was premised on "respect for human rights and democratic principles." There was no public discussion of the means with which compliance with these treaty obligations could be effectively monitored and its implicit human rights conditionality made operational.

With regard to human rights, the "chairman's formal conclusions" of the Third Euro-Mediterranean Conference of Foreign Ministers, held in Stuttgart in mid-April, could only report that they had "welcomed the continuing initiatives relating to the exchange of information on the signature of international instruments in the fields of disarmament and arms control, terrorism, human rights, and international humanitarian law." The ministers also agreed that Libya, which attended the Euro-Mediterranean ministerial meetings for the first time as a guest, would become a "full member" of the process once all U.N. Security Council sanctions were lifted.

United States

The U.S. continued to devote considerable high-level diplomatic attention to the Middle East. Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, in the administration's foreign assistance budget presentation to Congress for fiscal year 2000, identified "advancing the Middle East peace process, countering the Iraqi threat, ensuring stability in the oil-rich Gulf, and promoting democratic values and religious tolerance" as top priorities. $3.3 billion of the department's $5.5 billion request for regional programs covered grants for sales of military equipment and services. Proposed funding for democracy programs was approximately $25 million, more than half of which was allocated to the West Bank and Gaza for "[s]trengthening the capacities of the legislature, executive authority, and judiciary, as well as civil society organizations." The presentation cited opportunities for supporting human rights and democracy efforts in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen while avoiding reference to Tunisia and Bahrain or other Persian Gulf states.

Congressional and public diplomatic attention to human rights in the region was generally confined to issues of religious freedom. Ninety-three senators and representatives wrote Egypt's President Mubarak in February concerning reports of police torture of mainly Christian inhabitants of al-Kosheh and the subsequent arrest of the secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights following the release of that organization's report on the incident, and President Clinton privately raised the question of treatment of Egypt's Christian community during President Mubarak's official visit to Washington in June. Robert Seiple, who was sworn in as ambassador at large for international religious freedom, visited Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and met with officials of those countries and the Palestinian Authority. The first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom , mandated by the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and released in early September, included extensive coverage of the Middle East. The majority of specific U.S. interventions concerned treatment of native or resident Christian communities or individuals. An exception was the attention of the U.S. embassy in Morocco to that government's continued house arrest of Shaikh Yassine, the country's leading Islamist figure.

According to the 1999 Congressional Research Service annual report on conventional arms sales, Middle East countries represented two-thirds of all U.S. arms sales agreements to developing countries in the 1995-1998 period. U.S. companies and institutions accounted for more than 35 percent of all arms transfer agreements with the region in this period, with nearly 65 percent of the largest country market, Saudi Arabia. According to U.S. Department of Defense data for fiscal year 1998, Middle East countries accounted for $7 billion in deliveries of "defense articles and services" and construction, more than half of the global total of $13.9 billion for that year.

The Work of Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch documented and protested wide-ranging violations across the region, with a primary focus on freedom of expression, assembly, and association. We advocated reform of repressive laws and protection of the expression of diverse viewpoints. We welcomed government initiatives to address long-standing human rights abuses but demanded an end to impunity and challenged state sovereignty particularly in the face of crimes against humanity. We pressed the U.S., and also looked beyond it to European and regional governments as well as intergovernmental bodies not to sacrifice human rights for political or other considerations in their dealings with states in the region.

We extended our outreach to broader segments of the region's population through greater use of translations into Arabic, Farsi, and French; wider dissemination of our published materials in print and broadcast media; and the launch of an Arabic web-site. The web-site enabled Human Rights Watch to inform Arabic speakers about the worldwide activities and campaigns of the organization, establish linkages with human rights related web-sites and associations in the region and elsewhere, and experiment with web-based campaigning techniques.

One of our highest priorities remained consultation and coordination with local and regional human rights groups aimed at effective action to end abuses and to ensure that our priorities reflected the concerns in the region. We attended and presented papers at the First International Conference of the Arab Human Rights Movement and the First Arab Conference on Justice. Both events provided opportunities to exchange information and discuss strategies with local and regional NGOs. In April we participated in an NGO conference on Human Rights and Citizenship in the Mediterranean Region, which addressed a number of human rights concerns to the parallel meeting of Euro-Mediterranean foreign ministers. Human Rights Watch representatives also visited Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, the occupied territories and Palestinian Authority controlled areas, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco and met with local human rights activists, journalists, government officials, judges, and diplomats, among others.

We gave greater emphasis to strategies for protecting and enlarging the public space for diverse points of view, and throughout the year we called attention to restrictions on freedom of expression and association. We contacted government officials in Jordan and Lebanon about the press and publication laws; in Egypt about penal code provisions that enabled criminal courts to imprison journalists; and in the Palestinian Authority about illegal arrests of journalists and closures of media outlets. In October we published our findings on state regulation of the press in Iran and called for legal and administrative safeguards to protect the media from being muzzled. We also documented state regulation of the Internet, and published our findings and recommendations in June.

We protested restrictions on freedom of association and assembly in Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran. We communicated our concerns about Egypt's new NGO law in letters to government officials and members of parliament. In Tunisia we pressed interior minister Ali Chaouch togrant legal status to a newly formed human rights organization, the Conseil National des Libertes en Tunisie (CNLT), and in May and June we protested the arrests of Omar Mestiri and Moncef Marzouki, respectively, for activities related to the CNLT. In July, we condemned the apparent victimisation of Abderraouf Chammari in reprisal for the human rights activities of his brother, Khemais Chammari, who lived in France.

We condemned the July 9 assault on students in residence halls at Tehran University and urged Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to prosecute those responsible and ensure the release of detained students. Following the subsequent violent clashes between students, security forces, and armed militias we called for a public inquiry and appealed for fair trials for detainees accused of instigating the violence.

We campaigned throughout the year on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted human rights defenders in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt. In Tunisia they included Khemais Kesila, who was released in September, and lawyer Radhia Nasraoui who in July received a six-month suspended sentence after a grossly unfair trial which was attended by observers representing several international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. We continued to call for the release on humanitarian grounds of Syrian writer and human rights activist Nizar Nayouf, who was serving a ten-year sentence at Mezze military prison in Damascus and was reportedly in poor health and suffering from Hodgkin's disease, despite denials from authorities. We responded quickly when two Egyptian human rights lawyers were threatened by prosecutors in December 1998 and one was detained for six days.

As part of our efforts to bring an end to impunity, we continued to press governments to account for past abuses-including torture, deaths in custody, and "disappearances"-and bring to justice those responsible and compensate victims and their families. We wrote to Egyptian officials in March about the still-unpublished findings of the official investigation into the 1994 death in custody of lawyer Abdel Harith Madani. In September, as a measure to combat torture, we urged Egypt's new prosecutor general to conduct prompt and transparent investigations of all deaths in police custody and to hold accountable those found responsible for actions contributing to such deaths. Also in September, following the Israeli High Court of Justice's ruling that many of the General Security Service's interrogation techniques were illegal, we urged the minister of justice to begin torture prosecutions and to introduce legislation to outlaw torture definitively. As in past years, the Syrian government did not reply to our letters of inquiry about individual cases of "disappearances."

In light of the Algerian government's failure to conduct or allow any credible investigation into killings which have taken the lives of over 100,000 people, and routine practices such as torture and "disappearances" attributed to government security forces, we urged the U.N. Human Rights Commission to establish a special rapporteur on Algeria. We also recommended that the commission's member states press Algeria to allow representatives of the various U.N. human rights mechanisms to visit the country. As of this writing, requests of Human Rights Watch to visit Algeria went unanswered.

As the international community witnessed the gradual crumbling of the defense of "national sovereignty" by those opposed to being held accountable for of crimes against humanity, we encouraged governments in the region to join Jordan and over eighty other states worldwide to sign the treaty to establish the International Criminal Court. Human Rights Watch joined forces with other NGOs in seeking opportunities to expose perpetrators of crimes against humanity and where possible to bring them to justice. In August we urged the governments of Austria and Jordan to take into custody and bring to justice Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, vice-chair of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, who had visited Vienna for medical treatment and returned to Iraq via Amman.

In July, we published documented cases of summary expulsion and forced transfer of civilians, including women, children, and the elderly from their homes and villages in Israeli-occupied Lebanon. The expulsions had been carried out since 1985 with little international publicity. We released a report of the findings at simultaneous press conferences in Beirut and Jerusalem. Israeli defense ministry officials refused meetings with Human Rights Watch representatives in July to discuss the issue.

Human Rights Watch also used visits of high-level officials to and from countries in the region as a focus for advocacy work. For example, during the March visit of President Khatami to Italy-the first state visit by a president of the Islamic Republic to an E.U. country-we urged Italian premier Massimo D'Alema to raise the issue of extrajudicial executions attributed to the government and the scores of assasinations abroad of government opponents. In the same month we urged U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton, who was visiting Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia to raise issues of discrimination and violence against women, and we pressed President Clinton to raise with visiting Palestinian President Arafat concerns about grossly unfair trials, sometimes leading to executions, before the P.A.'s military and state security courts.

We were critical of the U.S. when it appeared that its rights-related actions or statements weakened or undermined the universality and enforceability of international standards. For example, in July we expressed to President Clinton our dismay at statements by Vice-President Al Gore and Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk aimed at derailing a precedent-setting meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to discuss measures to enforce the convention in the Israeli-occupied territories. We urged the administration to affirm publicly that respect for international humanitarian law generally and the Geneva Conventions in particular remained a bedrock of U.S. policy, and that the protections afforded by the conventions were not a matter for negotiation between parties to a conflict. In October we raised with attorney general Janet Reno her decision to order the deportation of Hani El-Sayegh to Saudi Arabia. The U.S.said it had obtained assurances from Saudi Arabia that El-Sayegh would not be tortured, and thus satisfied a narrow reading of its Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment obligations, but ignored other likely serious violations, including grossly unfair trial and execution.

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