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(Washington) – President Obama should urge the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to show greater respect for human rights when he meets them on May 13 and 14, 2015, to discuss partnership and security.

Human Rights Watch wrote to President Obama on May 5 detailing the vital need to raise these concerns during the two-day summit meeting. Of primary concern among a litany of rights violations across the Gulf region is the widespread practice of penalizing legitimate dissent in the name of national security. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all passed draconian legislation since the so-called Arab uprisings of 2011 and five of the six countries (Kuwait aside) have ratified a joint security agreement, which could be used to criminalize criticism of Gulf Cooperation Council countries or rulers.

“GCC rulers have cast a blanket of repression over the region in response to their citizens’ calls for political reform,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director. “President Obama should make clear the US doesn’t support the GCC’s stifling of dissent, which is more likely to undermine stability than guarantee it.”

In an interview with the New York Times on April 5, President Obama referred 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. There are many examples of GCC countries using national security and counterterrorism laws to suppress dissent since 2011.

Hundreds of dissidents, including political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and bloggers, have been imprisoned across the region, many after unfair trials and allegations of torture in pretrial detention.

The prominent Bahraini rights activist Nabeel Rajab is in detention, facing charges that relate to his peaceful criticism of the authorities. The US has called for his release. Abdullah Fairouz Abdullah al-Kareem, a Kuwaiti human rights activist, is serving a five-year sentence for comments on twitter that the authorities deemed insulting to the judiciary and the country’s emir. Said Jaddad, an Omani rights activist, received a three year prison sentence for his online activities in March 2015, including a public letter he wrote to President Obama asking him to push for human rights improvements in Oman. He is out on bail pending an appeal.

A Qatari poet, Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, is serving a 15-year sentence, convicted in 2012 of incitement to overthrow the government on the basis of poems he recited that were critical of Qatar’s then-emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. In July 2014, the Specialized Criminal Court in Saudi Arabia convicted prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair 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).

In the United Arab Emirates, a human rights lawyer, Mohamed al-Roken, is among 69 dissidents with ties to an Emirati Islamist group serving long-term sentences on charges they were attempting to overthrow the government. From the UAE Supreme Court’s reasoning it appears that those convicted were doing nothing more than exercising their legitimate rights to free expression and association.

Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman have assumed greater powers to strip dissidents of their citizenship in ways that put their rights at risk.

Five of the six Gulf Cooperation Council member countries have also ratified the November 2012 Security Agreement. It includes a vaguely worded article that would suppress “interference in the domestic affairs” of other member countries, which could be used to criminalize criticism of member countries or rulers. Another provision provides for sharing citizens’ and residents’ personal data between states at the discretion of Interior Ministry officials of the member countries.

Kuwait has not ratified the agreement but it has prosecuted citizens for criticizing other member countries 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.”

“The GCC’s collective security agreement, in conjunction with the draconian laws each member country has implemented, are silencing important voices and filling the region’s jails,” Margon said. “President Obama can and should use his influence to unequivocally support the men and women speaking out against repression and abuse.”

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