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Defending Human Rights

The region's vibrant and growing community of human rights activists persevered, despite widely differing local environments. At this writing, three Syrians remained in prison, serving long sentences that the state security court imposed in 1992 following an unfair trial. In Bahrain, government-controlled Iraq, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates severe internal restrictions meant that it was impossible for human rights activists to speak and meet openly. Elsewhere, defenders variously faced surveillance, official harassment, arrest and detention, threats of criminal prosecution, and the inability to register human rights groups under the law. In an increasingly worrying trend, the issue of foreign funding was used in Egypt and Jordan, and by the Palestinian Authority, to disparage the intentions of committed individuals and independent, locally based organizations. For example, in September the Jordanian Press Association suspended Nidal Mansour, chief editor of al-Hadath weekly, for receiving foreign funding for a local branch of a press freedom organization, the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists.

In Tunisia, government efforts to monopolize human rights discourse and smother independent activists were challenged repeatedly by human rights defenders on the ground, who faced job dismissals, judicial proceedings, intensive surveillance, and sometimes physical assault at the hands of police. The Kuwaiti cabinet's 1993 order dissolving all unlicensed human rights and humanitarian organizations remained in force and local advocates were forced to meet informally or under the auspices of organizations that enjoyed legal status. In Yemen, local groups were allowed to function although some were threatened with closure.

Activists were particularly at risk when they undertook efforts to expose corruption and gross human rights abuses. In Iran, the independent press that had been playing an increasing role in exposing human rights violations and promoting human rights principles was dealt a crippling blow with the enforced closure by hardline religious and political conservatives of thirty newspapers and the imprisonment and prosecution of leading journalists and writers. Palestinian Authority security forces in December 1999 detained eight signatories of a November 27, 1999, petition criticizing P.A. "tyranny and corruption" for periods between three weeks and seven months.

In Algeria, security forces in May detained Mohamed Smain, head of the Relizane office of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), after he attempted to document evidence at a grave site connected with the case of two former mayors implicated in mass killings in the area. Egypt's large and sophisticated human rights community was under attack throughout the year. The controversial 1999Law on Civil Associations and Institutions overturned on procedural grounds by the Supreme Constitutional Court had been strongly criticized by local human rights activists since it allowed the government undue interference in the internal affairs of NGOs and criminalized any activity that authorities deemed political. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) was informed in late July that its application for official registration under the previous law had been granted. However, several days later the EOHR was notified that a final decision had been deferred upon the request of security officials. Due to criticism by the government and in some of the media of NGO reliance on foreign funding, several rights groups were facing the possibility of cutting back on their activities since they were largely dependent on this form of financial support.

Women's rights defenders in the region continued to address legal discrimination and violence against women. In Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait, they were castigated by parliamentarians, conservative parties, and the media, who alleged that their actions were destroying the family, the unity of the nation, imposing "immoral" values on society, and that they were agents of the West. The Permanent Arab Court to Resist Violence Against Women, established in December 1999 in thirteen Arab countries, launched the Feminine Rights Campaign, which called for equality between men and women especially with respect to divorce. The one-year campaign's main objective was to achieve equality in the right of divorce and its consequences; unify laws and juridical procedures; ensure equal rights as to the custody of children, marital property and all other marital rights; and establish government funding to guarantee the payment of alimony.

Human rights defenders also continued initiatives to promote joint work in the region. In October 2000 a follow-up conference to the April 1999 First International Conference of the Arab Human Rights Movement was organized by the Arab Working Group for Human Rights in coordination with five human rights organizations. The meeting, held in Rabat, Morocco, and attended by over 60 participants and observers from 43 local and international human rights organizations focused its discussions on some of the recommendations from the earlier conference. The conference called for improved coordination among Arab human rights groups and activists and more effective use of international human rights protection mechanisms. It recommended the setting up of a coordinating and representational office in Geneva, Switzerland to assist in this purpose. It called for an end to restrictions on funding sources for human rights work and recommended establishing a fund for human rights defenders. Discussions also covered ways of improving the tools available for regional human rights protection and the role of the movement in facilitating democratic and constitutional reforms.

Also in October the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies organized the Second International Conference of the Arab Human Rights Movement around the theme of human rights education and dissemination. Over one hundred Arab and international experts and activists from human rights groups and governments-including artists, writers, media experts-examined the political and cultural obstacles to the dissemination of human rights in the region and sought to identify ways and to develop strategies for overcoming them. The conference adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights Education and Dissemination setting out principles and standards for human rights education in the region and establishing an agenda for the 21st century. It called on Arab governments to draw up national plans for human rights education and to urgently revise existing educational curricula to ensure their consistency with human rights values.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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