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(Dubai) - Governments in the Middle East were responsible for serious human rights violations over the past year, including harassment and attacks against human rights defenders and organizations that document abuse, Human Rights Watch said today. At a news conference in Dubai, the organization released the chapters in its new World Report 2010 surveying human rights conditions in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Iran, and Iraq. 

World Report 2010, the organization's 20th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights issues in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. The chapters on the UAE, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq - among 15 Middle Eastern countries covered - detail torture and repression of human rights defenders, missed opportunities on minority rights, and ineffective measures to protect migrant workers.  Human Rights Watch made recommendations to these countries to achieve progress in 2010.

"The combination of political tensions and economic downturn has brought a heightened hostility toward human rights in a number of Middle Eastern countries in 2009, in some cases reaching crisis proportions," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. "Instead of cracking down on people seeking their rights, these countries need to crack down on abuse and discrimination."

Iran's government has jailed rights activists and sometimes their family members, as a way of intimidating those who speak out, Human Rights Watch said. Both the UAE and Bahrain have refused to give legal status to human rights organizations that are associated with opposition activists. In Iraq armed insurgents and party militias have targeted women's rights advocates.

The report said that in the United States, the Obama administration faces the challenge of restoring US credibility on human rights and that the marked improvement in presidential rhetoric has not been matched in policy and practice.


"Iran's Post-Election Unrest is Now a Full-Blown Human Rights Crisis"

Iran's post-election crackdown following the disputed presidential elections on June 12 has turned into a human rights disaster, Human Rights Watch said. Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Basij militia, and police arbitrarily arrested thousands of peaceful protesters and dissidents, including students, women's rights activists, lawyers, and prominent human rights defenders in a clear effort to intimidate critics and stifle dissent. Government officials confirmed that as of November at least 30 protesters had died as a result of attacks by Basij and anti-riot police or in detention. At least seven more died in clashes on December 27, the holy day of Ashura. The actual number of deaths caused by government-sponsored violence is believed to be much higher.

"The systematic and brutal targeting of demonstrators and government critics by security forces shows that the regime's crackdown is nothing but an attempt to silence voices of dissent," Stork said. "Iran's post-election unrest is now a full-blown human rights crisis."

Many of those arrested reported being beaten or tortured, and in some cases sexually assaulted in prisons and secret detention facilities. A parliamentary inquiry determined in early 2010 that Deputy Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi was directly responsible for the deaths of at least three detainees from torture and neglect in Kahrizak prison, which the judiciary had ordered shut down three years ago.

Beginning in August, the Judiciary staged show trials of hundreds of prominent reformers and activists allegedly connected with "rioters" attempting to promote a "velvet revolution." During these trials, many of these dissidents gave televised confessions that appeared coerced. These confessions implicated the detainees in vaguely worded security crimes described in lengthy indictments filed by Revolutionary Court prosecutors. Some of those put on trial received lengthy prison terms and several were sentenced to death.

"The Iranian Judiciary's show trials of hundreds of demonstrators and dissidents ranks among the most absurd displays of prosecutorial abuse I have witnessed in recent memory," Stork said.

In addition to the human rights crisis following the election, security forces systematically harassed members of religious minorities, such as Baha'is and Sunnis, and carried out a campaign of arbitrary arrest against Kurdish, Azeri, Baluch, and Arab civil society and political activists.

Iran also had one of the world's highest execution rates in 2009. It was the leading violator of the prohibition on capital punishment against juvenile offenders, with three such executions:  Molla Gol Hassan, Delara Darabi, and Behnoud Shojai.

Human Rights Watch said the government needs to take urgent steps in 2010 to restore rights in Iran:

  • Immediately free everyone detained for peacefully exercising their rights to free expression, association, and assembly;
  • Investigate and prosecute government officials and members of security forces responsible for the killing, abuse, and torture of demonstrators and detainees;
  • Issue a moratorium on capital punishment and prohibit juvenile executions;
  • Amend Iranian law that allows the government to deny due process rights such as the right to counsel in the investigative phase of pretrial detention.


Elections a Litmus Test for Human Rights in Iraq

In 2009, human rights conditions in Iraq were extremely poor, especially for displaced persons, religious and ethnic minorities, and vulnerable groups such as women and girls and men suspected of homosexual conduct. Violence by armed groups took an enormous toll on civilian lives and property.  Human Rights Watch received numerous reports of torture and other abuse of detainees in detention facilities run by Iraq's Defense and Interior Ministries and police.

"The world's attention has shifted from Iraq but many of the serious human rights problems plaguing the country remain unresolved," Stork said. "Women and minorities, along with detainees, face significant rights violations."

Serious tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi central and provincial governments over control of territories lying between the mainly Kurdish and Arab-inhabited areas was manifest in attacks by Arab extremist groups against Kurds and other minority groups in these contested areas, and arbitrary arrests and other abuses by KRG security forces of minority group members opposed to Kurdish hegemony there.

The Iraqi government's priority for 2010 should be to ensure that the national elections are free and fair, with full participation of all parties, regardless of their political or sectarian affiliation, Human Rights Watch said. One essential step is to prevent the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice from arbitrarily excluding hundreds of candidates from seeking office.

The government should also create an independent National Human Rights Commission with the resources and authority to investigate promptly all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and institute disciplinary measures or criminal prosecution against officials found responsible for abusing prisoners. Authorities should investigate reports of violence by security forces or militias against vulnerable groups, including women, minorities and men suspected of homosexual conduct, and punish those found responsible.

"The upcoming parliamentary election provides Iraq's government with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that the country is serious about protecting human rights," Stork said. "If the recent ban on more than 500 candidates remains in place, though, it's clear Iraqi voters won't have a free say in choosing their representatives."


Human Rights in the UAE Slump With its Economy

The UAE's human rights situation worsened, particularly for migrant workers, against the backdrop of a worsening economy. Some UAE citizens and foreigners jailed because of debt or accusations of corruption languished in jail for months without charge or after completing their sentences. Many female domestic workers were deprived of wages and food, and endured forced confinement and physical or sexual abuse. Authorities harassed human rights defenders and peaceful critics, sometimes with trumped-up criminal charges. 

Tens of thousands of migrant workers returned to their home countries from the UAE, with some companies sending them back on unpaid "vacations" as a way to avoid compensation required in their contracts. Construction companies across the country exploited or abused migrant workers in numerous ways, ranging from maintaining unsafe working environments that contributed to avoidable illness or deaths to withholding workers' travel documents to restrict their movement.

The government prosecuted Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, a member of the ruling family, months after a videotape surfaced showing the Sheikh apparently brutally torturing an Afghan grain dealer with the assistance of police. The court acquitted him, providing no written reasons, even though it found all of his accomplices guilty.

"If the UAE government really wants to stop torture and to restore its sullied reputation, it has much to do, especially in light of Sheikh Issa's acquittal," Stork said. "The government needs to set in motion significant institutional reforms and to make certain that human rights violations are punished."

Human Rights Watch said that the government should take the following steps to improve human rights conditions:

  • Allow human rights and other peaceful activists to establish associations;
  • Establish an independent body with authority to investigate abuse and torture by security personnel, others in positions of authority, and private citizens;
  • Ratify the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
  • Establish an independent commission to investigate and publicly report on the situation of migrant workers; prohibit companies from doing business with recruitment agencies that charge workers fees for travel, visas, employment contracts or anything else; and prosecute or penalize employers and recruiting agencies that violate the law.



Bahrain's Human Rights Record at Odds With Official Rhetoric

In 2009 the government placed arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association.  Journalists told Human Rights Watch that authorities intervened to prevent publication of stories critical of the government, including reports about official corruption. A draft press law announced in May 2008 - though still not enacted -  appears to retain criminal penalties for writing or comments that allegedly "harm national unity." 

The interior minister threatened to prosecute human rights activists for expressing views critical of the government in meetings abroad and for working with unrecognized associations.  The government refused to grant legal status to civil society organizations, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and the National Committee for the Unemployed. 

Authorities also failed to investigate or hold accountable security officials alleged to be responsible for torture and ill-treatment of security detainees.

"Bahraini leaders have spent the last decade professing their commitment to political reform and human rights, but with the exception of migrant workers, the record in 2009 only got worse," Stork said. "For starters, authorities should investigate torture complaints and change its laws to allow people to express themselves and join organizations freely."

Bahrain did take steps in 2009 to improve conditions for migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said, amending its kafala (sponsorship) system to allow migrant workers to change employers more easily. However, migrant workers complained that some employers still withheld passports and failed to pay wages.  The amended law also excludes coverage of migrant domestic workers, who are at especially high risk of abuse by employers.

Local rights groups reported numerous allegations of torture and due process violations, including 11 televised confessions that appeared to have been coerced.

"Torture and televised confessions taint the entire criminal justice systems," Stork said. "If Bahrain is serious about its human rights record it should seriously investigate these allegations and hold the perpetrators accountable."

Investigating and prosecuting torture during interrogation of security suspects should be a top priority for 2010, Human Rights Watch said, along with eliminating criminal penalties for journalists reporting on controversial matters and removing barriers to legal recognition for non-governmental organizations.

Bahrain also should amend labor legislation allowing migrant workers to change employers to cover domestic workers. 

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