Baroness Catherine Ashton

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

Vice-President of the European Commission

 

Dear High Representative,

In advance of the upcoming EU-GCC Ministerial Meeting we write to request that human rights form a significant part of your dialogue with your GCC counterparts. We specifically call on you to make unmistakably clear that progress in strengthening EU-GCC economic and security ties will not be possible without measurable progress in GCC countries, and in particular in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman with regard to the continuing harassment and persecution of human rights defenders in those countries and systematic violations of freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

United Arab Emirates

UAE authorities continue to crack down on peaceful dissent by arresting activists, disbanding the elected boards of civil society organizations, and preventing peaceful demonstrations. Human rights defenders and government critics face harassment, imprisonment, and criminal prosecution. The UAE’s penal code criminalizes speech based on broad content-based restrictions, allowing the government to prosecute people for speech critical of the government, in contravention of international standards.UAE authorities are now also using deportations and the revocation of citizenship as a way to silence dissent in the country.

In November 2011, the UAE Federal Supreme Court, following a grossly unfair trial, sentenced five Emirati activists (“the UAE 5”) to two and three years each in prison for “publicly insulting” top UAE officials in an internet forum. The five defendants spent nearly eight months in prison after being detained in April 2011, and were only freed after the UAE ruler commuted their sentences on November 28.

On May 22, 2012, one of UAE 5, Ahmad Abd al-Khaliq, was rearrested and at this time of writing is being held in an unknown location. Abd al-Khaliq, who is himself stateless (“bidun”), is an advocate for the rights of stateless persons. He has told family members that UAE authorities are threatening to deport him to another country, although he has lived in the UAE all his life, with his family. His apparent offence involved blogging about problems faced by stateless persons in UAE.

Since late March 2012, the UAE authorities have expanded their crackdown on peaceful political activists with arrests of 13 members of a political association advocating peacefully for greater adherence to Islamic precepts – the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah).

UAE authorities also clamped down on freedom of expression and association by disbanding the elected boards of the Jurists Association and the Teachers’ Association after they and two other nongovernmental organizations co-signed a public appeal in April 2011 calling for greater democracy in the country. The decrees replaced elected board members with state appointees, saying that the associations had violated the 2008 Law on Associations, which prohibits organizations and their members from interfering “in politics or in matters that impair state security and its ruling regime.”

We request that you urge the UAE to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and cease threatening to revoke citizenship because of political activity;
  • Void the convictions of the UAE 5, expunge their criminal records, and unconditionally lift all travel and work restrictions;
  • Immediately stop any current deportation proceedings against Ahmad Abd al-Khaliq, and free him from immigration related detention;
  • Issue an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to review the laws currently in place which govern NGOs and bring these in line with international human rights law and standards, in order to ensure that NGOs can function free from state interference.

Saudi Arabia

Authorities have tightened the space for public criticism of officials or government policies in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements. New laws – a January 2011 regulation on online media registration and an amended press and publications law with revised and tougher content restrictions, now applicable to online writing as well – along with a counterterrorism law still in draft form, criminalize the exercise of basic human rights such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Since 2011, Saudi security forces have arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters and dissidents, primarily among Shia Muslim Saudis demonstrating in the Eastern Province.

Saudi Arabia has used its Specialized Criminal Court, set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases, to instead convict peaceful dissidents and rights activists in proceedings that violate fair trial rights. On April 10, 2012, the court sentenced Muhammad al-Bajadi to four years in prison and banned him from foreign travel for another five years for “unlawfully” establishing a human rights organization; “distorting the state’s reputation” in media; impugning judicial independence; instigating relatives of political detainees to demonstrate and protest; and possessing censored books. Domestic intelligence agents arrested al-Bajadi when families of detainees had gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to press officials for the release of their relatives, some of whom had been detained for seven or more years without trial. Al-Bajadi is a founding member of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), which the government has not licensed.

On April 11, 2012, the court sentenced Yusuf al-Ahmad, an academic and cleric, to five months in prison for “incitement against the ruler, stoking divisions, harming the national fabric, and producing, storing, and publishing on the internet things that can disturb public order.” On July 7, 2011, al-Ahmad had published a video on his Twitter account in which he called on King Abdullah to release arbitrarily detained persons. Security forces arrested him the next day.

In late March 2012, prosecutors banned foreign travel by two prominent rights activists, Muhammad Fahd al-Qahtani and Walid Abu al-Khair. Al-Qahtani, a university professor, is president and co-founder of the Saudi Association of Civil and Political Rights (ACPRA), to which Saudi authorities have denied an operating license. Abu al-Khair, who founded the internet page Human Rights Monitor in Saudi Arabia, was due to leave for the United States to participate in the Leaders for Democracy Fellowship, the US State Department’s flagship international engagement project. In September 2011, Jeddah’s summary court had charged Abu al-Khair with “offending the judiciary;” “communicating with foreign agencies;” “asking for a constitutional monarchy;” “participating in media [programs] to distort the reputation of the country;” and “incitement of public opinion against the public order of the country.” Abu al-Khair had earlier signed calling for an elected parliament with full legislative powers, a separation of the offices of king and prime minister, and the release of political prisoners.

Nadhir al-Majid, a school laboratory technician from Qatif, has been held since April 17, 2011 for corresponding with a foreign journalist, taking part in demonstrations, and vague charges related to his writings critical of Shia religious doctrine. Fadhil al-Sulaiman, an education official, was arrested on March 17, 2012 after he led Shia protesters in peacefully demanding the release of prisoners, an end to religious discrimination, and the right to practice their faith freely.

The Saudi guardianship system continues to treat women as minors. Under this discriminatory system, girls and women of all ages are forbidden from traveling, studying, or working without permission from their male guardians. Female activists who push for their rights risk arrest.

We request that you urge Saudi Arabia to:

  • Immediately end the arbitrary detention and travel bans inflicted on those who peacefully exercise their freedom of speech or assembly;
  • Abolish the Specialized Criminal Court, set up in 2008 to try terrorism cases, but increasingly is used to try peaceful dissidents and rights activists on politicized charges and in proceedings that violate the right to a fair trial;
  • Dismantle the legal guardianship system for adult women, guaranteeing that women are considered to have reached full legal capacity at 18 years of age.

Bahrain

Bahrain has experienced more than a year of violent suppression of what began in February 2011 as mass peaceful protests. In mid-March 2011, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a “State of National Safety” and established special military courts. These courts convicted and sentenced to prison hundreds of protesters whose only offense was to exercise their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), consisting of five renowned international jurists, in its report released in November 2011, documented widespread and systematic violations of international human rights law by Bahraini forces. The commission recommended voiding all convictions based on peaceful statements or protests, investigating allegations of torture against ranking officials, and revising laws that criminalize speech and peaceful assembly. Since then Bahrain has released few prisoners, and none of the accused protest leaders, whose convictions were based solely on their political statements and associations, have been freed.

A special military court convicted the 14 protest leaders, along with seven others tried in absentia, of offenses related to peaceful political activities – speeches they made, meetings they attended, documents found on their computers, as well as calling for and participating in street protests between February 14 and March 15, 2011. The trial also violated numerous international fair trial standards and relied on apparently coerced confessions. Political activist and human rights defender Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and seven others were sentenced to life in prison; the others were sentenced to between two and fifteen years. A military appeals court confirmed the convictions and sentences on September 29, 2011. On April 30, 2012, the Court of Cassation, Bahrain’s highest court, referred the case to the civilian criminal appeals court for review, which is ongoing at this writing, but the defendants remain in detention despite the fact that they have not been accused of any actual criminal offenses.

Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested on May 5,2012, and charged with “offending an official institution” – namely, the Interior Ministry, which Rajab claimed had failed to investigate attacks against Shia protesters and Shia-owned businesses – and for leading unlicensed peaceful protests. Rajab was released on bail on May 28, but banned from foreign travel. He was rearrested on June 6, and remains in detention at this writing, for remarks on social media calling on Bahrain’s prime minister to step down.

Bahrain’s Associations Law empowers authorities to replace board members and directors of associations, to prohibit associations from engaging in “political activities,” and to reject an application for establishing any association “if [Bahraini] society doesn’t need its service.” In November 2011, the government cancelled the election results of the Bahrain Law Society’s governing board and reinstated the previous board and president to manage the affairs of the society. In justifying the decision, the Ministry of Social Development said vaguely that the society “did not comply with the legal procedures.” In September 2010, Bahraini authorities took over the Bahrain Human Rights Society after the group criticized widespread arrests and alleged torture of detainees. The government continues to deny legal status to other independent human rights organizations like the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which it shut down in 2004.

We request that you urge Bahrain to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners;
  • Void the convictions in trials before Bahrain’s military and civilian courts that fell far short of international fair trial standards;
  • Extend a standing invitation to the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, and respond positively to the visit request of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Oman

In recent weeks Omani authorities have sharply curtailed rights of free expression and assembly by arresting and intimidating human rights and political activists with arrest and prosecution.

On May 31, 2012, authorities detained human rights activists Isma’il al-Meqbali, Habiba al-Hana’i, and Ya`coub al-Khorousi as they were traveling to the Fohoud Oil Field to interview striking oil workers. All three are founding members of the Omani Group for Human Rights, an unregistered group that maintains an active Facebook page and website documenting human rights developments in the sultanate. The public prosecutor formally charged all three with “inciting to protest.”

Following a June 4 statement by Muscat’s public prosecutor threatening to take “all appropriate legal measures” against activists who have made “inciting calls … under the pretext of freedom of expression,” authorities arrested eight online activists and writers who have been actively blogging about the human rights situation in Oman and the government’s failure to carry out reforms promised by Sultan Qabus following popular protests in 2011. On June 11, police arrested at least 22 persons at a peaceful sit-in in front of the Special Section of the Omani Police in Muscat, protesting the arrests of the online activists.

Authorities released ten of the protesters after they signed a statement promising not to repeat their alleged offense, but continue to hold several others, among them Sa`eed al-Hashemi, Basma al-Kayoumi, and Bassima al-Rajhi. On June 14 the public prosecutor indicated that he would soon pursue charges against the activists and protesters still in detention.

We request that you urge Oman to:

  • Drop charges against and release from detention human rights and political activists arrested solely for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly;
  • Halt harassment of human rights and political activists.

We urge you to raise the above human rights concerns regarding the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman with your GCC counterparts both in private and in public. The EU’s desire for strengthened relations with the GCC should not lead to double standards in the promotion of human rights.

We thank you for your consideration and we wish you a productive meeting.

 

Sincerely,

Lotte Leicht

EU Director

Human Rights Watch