President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington DC, 20500
Re: Human Rights Concerns in Gulf Cooperation Council States
Dear President Obama,
I write in anticipation of your meeting with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on May 13 and 14, 2015 to urge that you press them to show greater respect for their citizens’ rights to free expression, association, peaceful assembly, and nationality.
It is particularly important to raise these issues because each GCC country has experienced some level of anti-government protest during the period of the so-called Arab uprisings of 2011 and the response of the authorities has, to varying extents, attempted to conflate legitimate and largely peacefully expression of grievances with national security threats.
As you know, GCC governments have responded to growing citizen use of social media as a tool to speak their minds by resorting to repressive laws and in some cases by enacting new, more draconian, ones. As a result, the jails of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, now contain many men and women whose only offense was to peacefully demand political reform or criticize their government. Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman have also assumed greater powers to strip dissidents of their citizenship. GCC governments have taken these steps in the name of national security, despite overwhelming evidence that these laws affect ordinary citizens rather than terrorism suspects.
In Bahrain, the rights situation continues to deteriorate. The US has been one of the only countries to call for the immediate, unconditional release of prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab, but he remains in detention. There can be little hope of a political resolution to the unrest in Bahrain while he and 13 other high-profile activists remain in prison for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association.
In Saudi Arabia, the Interior Ministry issued a counterterrorism regulation in 2014 that designates certain groups as terrorist organizations and contains other provisions that proscribe acts such as “calling for atheist thought,” throw[ing] away loyalty to the country’s rulers,” “contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the kingdom,” and participating in or calling for protests or demonstrations.
In the United Arab Emirates, which claims to be a world leader in combating extremist ideologies, a 2014 counter-terrorism law has empowered the country’s courts to impose death sentences for existing offenses used to prosecute peaceful critics of the government and people they consider opposed to Islamic principles. If the law had been in force in 2013, it could have been used to execute human rights lawyers Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori; in the event, they and 67 other defendants received prison sentences after a court convicted them of attempting to overthrow the state in a mass trial undermined by due process violations and credible allegations that some defendants were tortured.
These are only some of the many examples of GCC countries using national security and counterterrorism laws to stifle dissent. Worryingly, five of the six GCC member countries have also ratified the November 2012 GCC Security Agreement, which includes a vaguely worded article that would suppress “interference in the domestic affairs” of other GCC countries, which could be used to criminalize criticism of GCC countries or rulers. Another provision provides for sharing citizens’ and residents’ personal data between states at the discretion of GCC Interior Ministry officials.
Since 2011, GCC governments have also investigated and prosecuted their citizens for criticizing other GCC states or their rulers. A Kuwaiti appeals court, for example, on October 28, 2013 upheld a 10-year prison sentence against a local blogger for comments on Twitter that the court determined insulted, among others, the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court on June 24, 2013 convicted seven government critics and sentenced them to prison for allegedly inciting protests and harming public order after they posted commentary on Facebook; four also faced the charge of “supporting those who are called ‘revolutionaries of Bahrain’ and calling for solidarity with them and challenging the [GCC] Peninsula Shield forces stationed there.”
Following the agreement’s adoption during the GCC Summit in Manama in December 2012, GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif Al-Zayani, openly acknowledged that the agreement is intended to curb domestic dissent. He said: “The security pact will empower each GCC country to take legal action, based on its own legislation, against citizens or residents or organized groups that are linked to crime, terrorism, or dissension…”
Mr President, we note and applaud the reference, in your New York Times interview of April 5 to the need for GCC governments to be “more responsive to their people” and to the importance of “disentangling” genuine activity that threatens national security from dissatisfaction. This message is one that we hope you will emphasize directly with GCC leaders when you meet them later this month. In our view, the GCC states’ treatment of legitimate dissent as though it was a threat to national security is a primary cause of the widespread and serious violations of civil and political rights seen across the Gulf region that, if left unaddressed, will not only continue the suffering of their populations, but will undermine their long-term stability.
Human Rights Watch
Civil and political rights violations in the GCC states: summary of Human Rights concerns
The Bahraini government has failed to implement the key recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was strongly critical of the manner in which the authorities dealt with largely peaceful anti-government protests that began in February 2011.
Bahrain has not released 13 high-profile activists, who have been in prison since 2011 and are serving long-term or life sentences on account of their peaceful calls for political reform. Human rights activists and members of the political opposition continue to face arrest and prosecution. These include prominent rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who, among other things, raised concerns about the alleged serious abuse of detainees in Jaw Prison, and Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of the main political opposition group Wefaq.
Bahrain’s courts remain an integral part of the repressive order, convicting and imprisoning peaceful dissenters and failing to hold officials accountable for torture and other serious rights violations.
In 2013 an appeals court concluded that a lower court had been right to convict Abdul Wahab Hussain, an opposition leader, on terrorism charges and sentence him to life imprisonment because he had founded a group dedicated to establishing a republic in Bahrain. The same appeals court also upheld the terrorism convictions and life sentences for Hassan Mushaima and Abdul Jalil al-Singace, members of the unlicensed opposition group Al Haq, because they had participated in meetings of the group that Hussain founded and possessed “publications advocating for the group.” The court declared that while unlawful means, such as the use of force, are required for an act to qualify as terrorism under the law, such force “need not necessarily be military” because “moral pressure” could result in terrorism.
In 2014, Bahraini courts sentenced more than 200 defendants to long prison sentences, including at least 70 for life, on terrorism or national security charges.
In April 2014, King Hamad ratified Law 1/2014, which amends article 214 of the penal code to increase the maximum jail term from two to seven years for offending the king, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem.
Amendments made to the 1963 Citizenship Law in the Official Gazette in July 2014 now permit the Interior Ministry, with cabinet approval, to revoke the citizenship of any Bahraini who “aids or is involved in the service of a hostile state” or who “causes harm to the interests of the Kingdom or acts in a way that contravenes his duty of loyalty to it.”
Historically known for its tolerance towards opposition voices and critical political commentary, Kuwait has, since 2011, cracked down severely on individuals who have expressed peaceful criticism of the government.
Since 2014, Kuwaiti courts have used several laws, including the National Unity Law of 2013, to prosecute at 24 people for peaceful criticism of the government. Much of this criticism was expressed via the internet and social media. Charges included insulting the emir or other public figures or the judiciary; insulting religion; planning or participating in illegal gatherings; harming state security, inciting the overthrow of the government, and harming Kuwait’s relations with other states. In 2014, courts convicted at least five of those charged, imposing prison sentences of up to five years Currently, at least five individuals are serving prison sentences for exercising their right to free expression. They include Abdullah Fairouz Abdullah al-Kareem, a human rights activist, who is serving a five year sentence for insulting the judiciary and the emir on twitter, and Ayyad al-Harbi, a journalist and blogger, who is serving a two year sentence for insulting the emir, spreading false information, and “misuse” of his telephone.
Authorities revoked the citizenship of 33 individuals in 2014. Three of those revocations, which cannot be appealed or reviewed, were for political reasons. The owner of an independent television station and newspaper, Ahmed Jabr al-Shammari, had his citizenship revoked on July 21, for “undermining the social or economic system.” Similarly, authorities stripped Nabil al-Awadhi, a conservative cleric widely known for his TV talk shows, of his citizenship on August 14 for “undermining the country’s social or economic system” and “undermining the country’s higher interest or foreign security.” On September 29, they stripped Saad al-Ajmi, the spokesman for Musalam al-Barrak, a leading opposition politician, of his citizenship because he had been “naturalized by another country.” He told Human Rights Watch that he has not been naturalized elsewhere.
In 2011, thousands of Omanis took to the streets in cities throughout the country in protests that continued into 2012. Authorities used excessive force against protestors, interfering with freedom of expression and assembly, and arrested and prosecuted people for participating in the protests. Officials told Human Rights Watch in December 2014 that since the 2011 protests they have arrested a total of 216 people “on charges of assembly, assaulting public and private facilities either by vandalism or arson, cutting roads, assaulting and insulting public servants, forcibly obstructing the operation of public authorities, impeding freedom, and disturbing the public peace.”
Human Rights Watch has also documented a pattern of arrests, short-term detentions, and other forms of official harassment of real or suspected government critics. On August 6, 2014, an appeals court in Muscat sentenced Dr. Talib al-Maamari, 43, a former member of Oman’s Shura Council, to four years in prison for “illegal gathering” for participating in an August 22, 2013 meeting of activists in the coastal town of Liwa to protest pollution from the port’s industrial zone. The court also sentenced a former municipal councilor from Liwa, Saqer al-Balushi, 37, to one year in prison for “illegal gathering” in connection with the same incident. Authorities sharply increased the penalties for “illegal gathering” per new legislation after the 2011 pro-reform demonstrations.
On March 8, 2015, a trial court in Muscat convicted Said Jaddad, 46, a human rights activist, of “undermining the prestige of the state,” incitement to “illegal gathering” and “using information networks to disseminate news that would prejudice public order,” and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment and monetary fines, based on his online activities, including a public letter he wrote in May 2013 to President Obama asking for human rights improvements in Oman. Human Rights Watch has documented several cases going back to 2011 in which individuals held in incommunicado detention for days or weeks, without access to a lawyer or family members, alleged that they were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.
A new Omani Citizenship Law, enacted on August 12, 2014 under Royal Decree No. 2014/38, takes citizenship decisions out of the courts and into the hands of the Interior Ministry. Article 20 of the law allows the ministry to withdraw citizenship if it is proven that a person is a member of a party or organization that “embraces principles or ideologies that harm Oman’s interest” or “works in favor of a hostile country that acts against the interests of Oman.” Although Human Rights Watch is not aware of any cases that implicate the new law, it is concerned that the language in Article 20 is vague and overbroad, could give the Intelligence Ministry discretion to target rights activists merely for exercising their fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Unlike other Gulf states, Qatar has not experienced serious domestic unrest.
In February 2013, an appeal court reduced to 15 years the life imprisonment sentence imposed on poet Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, a Qatari national, in November 2012, by a court in Doha. The court convicted him of incitement to overthrow the regime after he recited poems critical of Qatar’s then-emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. In June 2013, the emir abdicated, handing power to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
In September 2014, Qatar issued a law “on the suppression of electronic crimes,” which poses a clear threat to freedom of expression. Vaguely worded provisions provide for the prosecution of individuals who publish “false news with the intent of endangering the public order” and information that “infringes social principles or values.”
In 2014, the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, sentenced prominent Eastern Province activist Fadhil al-Manasif to 15 years in prison, a 15-year ban on travel abroad, and a large fine on April 17 after it convicted him on charges that included “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “contact with foreign news organizations to exaggerate the news,” and “circulating his phone number to [foreign] news agencies to allow them to call him.” The charges arose from al-Manasif’s assistance to international media covering the 2011 protests in Eastern Province.
In April 2014, a Specialized Criminal Court judge ordered the detention of prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair on April 15. In July, the court convicted him on vague charges arising solely from his peaceful activism, sentencing him to 15 years in prison, a 15-year travel ban, and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Riyals (US$53,000).
He is serving his sentence in al-Ha`ir prison south of Riyadh, almost 1,000 kilometers away from his family home.
Saudi authorities promulgated a new anti-terrorism law in January 2014 that contains vague and overly broad provisions that allow authorities to criminalize free expression and gives the authorities excessive police powers that are not subject to judicial oversight. In March 2014, the Interior Ministry issued further regulations designating a list of groups the government considers terrorist organizations, as well as other provisions that proscribe acts such as “calling for atheist thought,” throw[ing] away loyalty to the country’s rulers,” “contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the kingdom,” and participating in or calling for protests or demonstrations.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE has experienced relatively low levels of dissent, but its response has been disproportionate.
In July 2013, the Federal Supreme Court sentenced 69 Emirati dissidents to prison terms of up to 10 years on charges of aiming to overthrow the government after a mass trial of a total of 94 defendants marred by violations of fair trial standards, including credible allegations that the defendants endured torture in pre-trial detention.
From the court’s reasoning it appears that those convicted, who include human rights lawyers Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori, had simply exercised their legitimate rights to free expression and association. The bulk of the evidence in the 243-page judgment focuses on the peaceful political activities of the accused and their ties to an Emirati Islamist group, al-Islah, which the judgment asserts is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The only evidence that suggests any intention to overthrow the government is a confession by one defendant, Ahmed al-Suweidi, whom authorities forcibly disappeared for 5 months after his arrest on March 26, 2012. In court al-Suweidi denied all the charges.
At the first trial hearing, some of the defendants told the judge they had been seriously ill-treated during their months in detention. In June, rights groups received 22 statements written by some of the 94 people on trial that corroborated these claims. All but six of those who wrote statements said that officials subjected them to temperature extremes and interrogated them while they were blindfolded. Two said their interrogators threatened them with electrocution.
Human Rights Watch has now documented at least eight instances in which individuals were forcibly disappeared after being in custody of state authorities and identified 12 further cases of incommunicado detention. These include groups of Libyans and Egyptians who have been long term residents in the UAE.
The country’s most prominent rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor, has been the subjected to threats and physical assaults, is unable to secure government documentation necessary to secure employment and cannot leave the country on account of a travel ban.
In August 2014, the UAE issued a counter-terrorism law that will give UAE authorities the power to prosecute peaceful criticism, political opposition and human rights activism as national security violations. The law classifies a broad range of peaceful and legitimate conduct as terrorism offenses and provides for the death penalty for, among other things, undermining national unity and possessing material deemed to oppose fundamental principles of Islam.