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Human Rights Developments

The Arab-Israeli peace process dominated the news of the Middle East, but ongoing domestic political conflicts between governments and opposition groups_mainly Islamist_had a far greater impact on human rights conditions in 1994.

The year demonstrated the danger of viewing improvements in the promotion and protection of human rights as merely the end results of a peace process. Human rights issues were crucial concerns at all stages. As states, like Syria, entered the peace process, they were reminded that improving their international image was no substitute for improving their human rights record. Courageous peace treaties and international agreements demanded complementary measures to introduce similarly sweeping changes in national legal systems to protect individual rights.

The rapid and dramatic international developments_including the implementation of the Israel-PLO accords, the signing of the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, and other openings in the Arab-Israeli relations_diverted attention from the internal problems of the countries involved, exposing deep rooted abusive government practices. As old and seemingly unsolvable international disputes moved toward resolution, internal political conflicts_some unrelated to the international issues_heated up; as shown by the chaos in Algeria, the civil war in Yemen, clashes in Israel and the occupied territories, and Islamist-government conflicts throughout the region.

Fueled by a combination of domestic and internal grievances and united by a religious ideology, Islamist opposition groups challenged established governments in practically every country in the Middle East, including conservative Saudi Arabia. Their goal was essentially the same, a radical transformation of society based on a return to the fundamentals of Islam and the establishment of Islamic states. But their methods varied, depending in large part on the policies and practices of the governments which they opposed. In Jordan, where the government displayed relative tolerance, the Islamic party took a moderate approach. In other countries, most notably Egypt and Algeria, some Islamist groups resorted to violent action, that was often indiscriminate.

In Algeria, the government and Islamist opposition groups remained locked in an escalating ideological and military struggle in which virtually no member of the population was safe_amidst death threats, mass arrests, reprisal killings, gun battles in the streets, summary executions, and a campaign of random violence and sabotage against public property. Over 4,000 persons had been killed in Algeria since 1992, many of them unarmed civilians.

In Egypt, conditions continued to deteriorate, with acts of political violence carried out by Islamist groups that violate international humanitarian standards, including deliberate attacks on foreign and Egyptian civilians. The security apparatus resorted to arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture, the use of excessive force, and possible extrajudicial execution. Harassment and intimidation by security forces affected not only families of suspected Islamist militants, but lawyers, journalists, and human rights advocates, contributing to a climate of fear and repression.

In Israel and the occupied territories, Palestinians and Jewish militants opposed to the peace process staged several attacks on civilians. In February, a Jewish settler opened fire in a crowded mosque in Hebron, killing twenty-nine worshippers. And in October, a Palestinian suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Tel Aviv killed twenty-two people. Israeli forces in the occupied territories, in the name of protecting security, carried out arbitrary arrests, tortured prisoners, used excessive force against demonstrators, and sometimes shot deliberately to kill when there was no immediate threat to their own or others' lives. They committed these violations with virtual impunity.

Even the nonviolent Islamist opposition in Saudi Arabia was subjected to a heavy handed crackdown of arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment in prison.

In battles against armed insurgents, or as a means to stifle the emergence of any political opposition, governments maintained emergency measures that restricted rights. Emergency laws have been in force in Egypt since 1981, and were extended 1994 for three more years. Hafez Asad continues to rule Syria under a state of emergency, first imposed in 1963.

Emergency measures in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip included extensive arrest and detention powers and the use of courts of exception that fell well short of meeting international fair trial standards. These tribunals failed to provide adequate due process, including legal representation; they routinely dismissed claims of torture, even when there is clear evidence of it. In some cases there was no appeals process; the decision of the court is final. In Algeria the identity of the special court judges was kept secret. The "justice" of these courts was so compromised that they were little more than a legal facade for the rapid and high-volume processing of security and political prisoners. In Algeria, 3,000 Islamists were tried in special courts in 1994.

The sentences handed down by the state security courts were often harsh: lengthy prison terms and the death penalty. In Egypt and Kuwait, death sentences were handed down and executions carried out. Five Iraqis and one Kuwaiti were sentenced to death for plotting to assassinate former President Bush during his visit to Kuwait.

Lebanon limited a defendant's rights and abbreviated the legal process as it made more liberal use of special military courts to try civilians accused of nonviolent crimes. The state security court in Syria disregarded due process guarantees and continued to sentence members of opposition political parties to lengthy prison terms. Defendants in Iran's Revolutionary Court were routinely held in incommunicado pre-trial detention and denied access to legal counsel.

Harsh sentences were not limited to these special courts. Regular courts in Saudi Arabia sentenced to death more than thirty people convicted of drug trafficking. They were beheaded in 1994. Their trials did not come close to meeting international fair trial standards. The government of Yemen, in an apparent effort to demonstrate its control after emerging victorious from a civil war, ordered the execution of eleven common criminals who had been convicted several years earlier under dubious trial procedures.

In many cases, detainees' rights were violated long before they were brought before courts. In Kuwait, Palestinians and Bedoons (nomadic people indigenous to Kuwait but denied citizenship) were arrested arbitrarily in large numbers. The largest mass arrest in Saudi Arabia's recent history sent hundreds of Islamist opponents to prison in 1994. In Lebanon, scores of people were arrested on the basis of political affiliation, or after expressing criticism of the Lebanese or Syrian government. The newly established Palestinian Authority, under pressure to respond to a wave of attacks on Israelis, arrested hundreds of Gazans on the basis of their suspected political affiliation. Egypt's security forces practiced a particularly ruthless form of arbitrary arrest_taking hostage family members of fugitive security suspects to pressure suspects to turn themselves in.

When political conflicts intensified, human rights abuses often mounted. Detainees_often the same people caught up in random sweeps_were often abused. Torture was practiced in nearly every country monitored this past year. Eradication requires work at two levels: enforcement of existing domestic laws that prohibit torture, and revision of legislation and directives that explicitly prescribes abuse: such as laws stipulating flogging in Saudi Arabia, amputation and branding in Iraq, and guidelines, approved by Israel's cabinet, for using "moderate physical pressure" in the interrogation of security suspects.

Keenly aware of what the political leadership required or tolerated, most security forces in the Middle East_including intelligence services, police, and army_violated fundamental human rights with impunity. In Egypt, torture by security forces continued unabated, with no signs that the government had the political will to identify and prosecute vigorously the abusers. The death in custody of a thirty-year-old Islamist lawyer in Cairo was one of the region's high-profile cases in 1994. Israeli forces systematically and severely abused Palestinians held for interrogation. Although dismissed by the government as isolated cases, Human Rights Watch concluded in a 1994 report that the abuses constituted a pattern that could only persist with government acquiescence.

The escalating political conflicts in several countries_most notably, Egypt and Algeria_engulfed and polarized societies, leaving little room for those who refused to take sides. Human rights monitors, lawyers, journalists, writers and artists found themselves targeted by either the government or its opponents, and in some cases by both.

In Egypt the government detained outspoken lawyers, harassed editors and journalists from opposition newspapers, and blocked the distribution of a report by a local human rights organization. In Algeria, sixteen journalists were murdered in the first ten months of the year by gunmen who in most cases went unidentified, but who appeared to be supporters of one of several clandestine Islamist groups. The president of one of the two main human rights leagues was killed by unknown assailants in June. In October, the eighty-three-year-old Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed, in Cairo, in an attack widely believed to have been carried out by Islamist extremists. Iran maintained its call for the death of author Salman Rushdie and held incommunicado the prominent writer Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani. Defying intimidation, 134 Iranian writers courageously signed an open letter criticizing the government's "anti-democratic practices."

The human rights picture included some bright spots. The implementation of, and movement toward, peace agreements raised hopes for an environment more favorable to protecting human rights. Arab states began to open diplomatic or trade relations with Israel, in some cases tacitly acknowledging an end to the state of war they had so often used in the past to justify violating the rights of their own citizens.

The implementation of the Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles led to the withdrawal of Israeli troops in May from population centers in Gaza and Jericho. The Palestinian Authority took over the administration of internal security and government services. Although it is too early to identify systematic patterns in the human rights record of the new authority several incidents, including a death under torture and the mid-November clash between police and demonstrators that left fifteen dead and more than eleven wounded, raise serious concerns. Before the November incident, the levels of violence, arrests and restrictions on movement within the Gaza Strip had dropped sharply since May.

For the vast majority of the West Bank, still under Israeli military occupation with no significant presence of the Palestinian Self-Rule Authority, the human rights picture remained largely unchanged: Israeli troops continued to arrest hundreds of Palestinians every month, use excessive force against demonstrators and others, torture and ill-treat suspects under interrogation, and impose comprehensive curfews and other measures that amounted to collective punishments.

The massacre by an Israeli settler of worshippers in a Hebron mosque in February immediately drew attention to militant Israeli groups, and highlighted the need to address human rights issues related to the status of Jewish settlements and government tolerance of settler violence in the occupied territories.

Still waiting for the fruits of a peace process, a large portion of south Lebanon remained under Israeli occupation. Israel continued to violate international humanitarian law in this zone by indiscriminately shelling and bombing civilian areas, ostensibly targeting guerrilla bases. Hizballa, the sizable militia that Lebanon and Syria permit to operate in Lebanon, also violated humanitarian norms by indiscriminately firing rockets into northern Israel and Israeli-occupied south Lebanon, causing civilian casualties.

Gulf War after-shocks continued to bring human rights abuses. Hundreds of Kuwaiti citizens who disappeared during the Iraqi occupation remained unaccounted for. The Kuwaiti government maintained pressure on Bedoons, Palestinians, and individuals and groups suspected of harboring pro-Iraqi sympathies. Kuwait maintained its ban on political parties and took steps to close down over fifty human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations.

The Iraqi government's treatment of its Shi'a population, part of which rose up in rebellion at the close of the Gulf War, stands out as the region's gravest example of violence and repression against an ethnic or religious group. Human Rights Watch received, but was unable to confirm, reports of mass executions of Shi'a in southern Iraq. The government continued to drain the southern marshlands, threatening the environment, livelihood, and security of hundreds of thousands of Shi'a Marsh Arabs who live there.

There was a deterioration of human rights conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan, which, under allied forces protection, remained outside Baghdad's control. In addition to the hardship caused by the Baghdad regime's continuing internal blockade of the north, clashes between the two main Kurdish political groups left hundreds of fighters and civilians dead or wounded.

Ethnic and religious conflict, one of the major human rights problems in the world today, simmered in a number of Middle East countries. In Iran, where religious minorities continued to suffer from state-sanctioned discrimination, three Christian clerics were killed under suspicious circumstances. In Saudi Arabia, non-Sunni Muslims faced discrimination and non-Muslims were strictly forbidden to practice their religion in public. Copts, which the Egyptian government has adamantly refused to recognize as a minority, were subjected to state-sanctioned discrimination and political violence from suspected Islamist militants.

Along with minorities, foreign workers faced discrimination by the state and ill-treatment by their employers. In Saudi Arabia alone there were five million foreign workers. There, as in most Middle East countries, local labor laws did not adequately protect them. Furthermore, authorities failed to apply relevant criminal laws to protect foreigners.

In September, women from the Middle East joined forces with women from around the world at the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development, hosted by the Egyptian government. In Cairo, women activists called for increased respect for women's human rights as a key to their reproductive health and to population planning. Governments at the conference responded by adopting a program of action that emphasized the importance of respecting women's rights in population programs.

In general, however, governments in the region took few steps to end violations of women's human rights. In Saudi Arabia the government enforced discrimination in employment and restrictions on women's freedom of movement. In Kuwait women were still denied the right to vote, or run for office. Also in Kuwait, foreign female domestic workers_mainly Filipina and Sri Lankan_ were doubly vulnerable as women and foreign workers. About two thousand women fled from their employers in 1994, charging them with abuses ranging from withholding wages to physical assault and rape. Kuwait's criminal and labor laws offered little or not protection.

Women in Algeria were increasingly the victims of violence by Islamist groups, often in the name of religion, that targeted them as women. In Iran, despite some advances in access to education and in some professions, women were forced to live under increasingly arbitrary restrictions in their day to day activities. Two women were reportedly stoned to death for adultery.

After the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, the country had enjoyed a relative opening to freedom of expression and association. A free and fair parliamentary election_with universal suffrage_was held in April 1993. But in May, a civil war erupted that brought rights abuses during seventy days of fighting. The government prevailed, but its actions during and after the war were a significant setback for human rights.

Human Rights Watch sent a mission to both northern and southern regions of the country in July and identified rights abuses by both parties to the conflict. Northern government forces killed and injured hundreds of civilians by indiscriminately shelling the city of Aden. They also deliberately damaged a water pumping station, cutting off Aden's water supply and leaving the city and suburbs practically without water for weeks. Separatist forces fired Scud rockets at northern cities and injured and killed civilians. Their attack on government military positions in the immediate vicinity of a Somali refugee camp injured and killed scores of refugees. Both sides arbitrarily detained people without charges and mistreated hundreds of civilians during the conflict.

When the fighting was over, first separatists and then government forces engaged in and tolerated extensive looting and vandalism in Aden. The victorious government of General Ali Abdullah Saleh continued to detain several hundred people despite the lifting of the state of emergency on July 27 and the declaration of a general amnesty. The death penalty, which had not been carried out for years, was abruptly used against five common criminals and upheld for nine others. Participants in a conference were arrested and beaten before being released. Printing companies, already disabled by vandalism, were warned not to publish opposition newspapers.

The Right to Monitor

Obstacles to human rights monitoring in the Middle East ranged from intimidation and fear in Lebanon, direct government interference in Egypt, banning by law in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, long-term imprisonment in Syria, and assassination in Algeria. In June, the President of the Algerian League of Human Rights, Yucef Fathallah, was assassinated by unknown assailants. As the need for local monitoring increased, human rights activism in the Middle East became increasingly difficult and dangerous.

The governments of several countries (Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon) tolerated human rights organizations, although at times they restricted and interfered with them.

Moncef Marzouqi, former president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, was imprisoned for four months. Egyptian security forces blocked the distribution of the annual report of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and interfered with its investigators as they conducted field work.

Human rights organizations in the Israeli-occupied territories were generally allowed to operate and carry on their activities, although some Palestinian human rights workers were restricted or detained. In the Palestinian self-rule areas of Gaza and Jericho, human rights activists were allowed to work freely.

In Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, independent human rights organizations were prohibited from operating openly. The only recourse for activists was to move underground or work in exile.

Even exile did not guarantee safety. Former Libyan diplomat Mansour Kikhia, who disappeared from his Cairo hotel in December 1993, remains missing. Kikhia, a lawyer and prominent member of the Libyan political opposition, was a founding member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights and served on its board of directors.

While continuing its ban on local human rights groups, Syria improved its cooperation with international human rights organizations. Although scores of political prisoners were released in 1994, eleven human rights activists remained in prison, ten of them sentenced to terms of five to ten years.

Kuwait allowed visits by international human rights organizations in 1994, but refused to grant licenses to several local human rights groups and then proceeded to close them down because they were unlicensed. The organizations' attempts to carry on human rights work openly, in spite of the ban, were blocked.

U.S. Policy

U.S. policy in the Middle East in 1994 was framed around several long-standing strategic imperatives: maintaining a commitment to Israel's security and well-being; facilitating the Arab-Israeli peace process; promoting U.S. commercial interests; maintaining pressure on Iraq and the isolation of Iran; and the defense of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Human Rights considerations were secondary, at best. In each of these areas, however, there were opportunities_and obligations_to press for improvement in the protection and promotion of human rights.

The Clinton administration had, at its inception, signalled that there would be greater emphasis on human rights in the conduct of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Robert H. Pelletreau, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said that one of the U.S. government's priorities for the region was "promoting more open political and economic systems, and respect for human rights and the rule of law." While such pronouncements were fairly common, public policy actions were rare. And although the State Department generally reported faithfully and carefully on human rights conditions and abuses, these reports were not consistently factored into foreign policy decisions.

A key factor in determining the potential for U.S. action on human rights issues was tangible influence. The U.S. found itself without much influence in countries such as Iran, Algeria, and Yemen. In others _Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Israel-Occupied Territories, and Syria_the U.S. had significant opportunities to have an impact on human rights conditions.

The U.S. claimed to have only limited influence over the region's worst human rights disaster, Algeria. But, ironically, along with this diplomatic distance came a degree of helpful objectivity. Unlike France_intimately involved and influential_which felt it had to uncritically support the government, the U.S. was able to take a more neutral and principled position. To its credit, the U.S. criticized both the government and opposition groups for human rights abuses and called on both sides to negotiate.

At the other end of the influence spectrum was Israel, recipient of $3 billion in U.S. foreign assistance in 1994 and beneficiary of consistent U.S. commitments to its security and military superiority in the region. The U.S. maintained its silence on Israel's human rights abuses in the occupied territories and, even more disturbing, refused to articulate at critical junctures what had been long-standing U.S. policy positions on settlements and the status of Jerusalem, two thorny issues slated for future negotiations between Israel and the PLO.

The U.S. was generally reluctant to criticize publicly Egypt's human rights record, given its close relationship, an annual aid package of $2 billion, and the fact that it was fighting against an Islamist opposition. The exception came when Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck mentioned in a Cairo press conference his concerns about human rights violations. And, in a display of support for a local human rights group, Shattuck visited the offices of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights and publicly praised its work.

In the case of Syria, President Clinton had opportunities in both Geneva and Damascus in 1994 to raise human rights issues. He might have done so in private. The only issue related to human rights that the U.S. publicly raised was the question of Syrian support for terrorism.

In the Gulf region, U.S. policy included the staunch maintenance of sanctions and no-fly zones in Iraq, the isolation of Iran, and defense of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia_put to a test in October when Iraq moved troops near the Kuwaiti border.

After military and strategic issues, economic agreements appeared to be of paramount concern in the Gulf. In Kuwait, the U.S. placed far more importance on increasing American business than improving human rights. Bilateral military agreements with Saudi Arabia accomplished both strategic and commercial objectives. As the largest foreign investor in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. had significant leverage and an obligation to raise human rights issues, but generally chose not to do so, at least publicly.

The U.S. did not consistently appreciate the importance of human rights to the Arab-Israeli peace process. For example, soon after the signing of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles, the U.S., as well as other governments, sought ways to show Palestinians in the occupied territories "immediate tangible benefits" of the agreement. Rather than pressing for human rights improvements, the U.S. focused its efforts on economic development.

Jobs and infrastructure development were important, but when Secretary of State Warren Christopher stated in October, "Palestinians greatest need is economic development," and again when U.S. officials attributed the November violence in Gaza to poverty, the U.S. appeared to overlook the human rights dimension of this critical transition period in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

If the promise of peace_to create an environment in which human rights are better protected_is realized, then the U.S. will have made an enormous contribution as a facilitator. But, persistent attention to human rights is needed to achieve this goal. Human Rights Watch realizes that there is more to peace negotiations than public statements and deals between competing authorities. There may be sound tactical reasons for dealing privately with some issues_including human rights concerns_in the course of negotiations. But it is the role of objective third parties to ensure that fundamental human rights issues are not squashed under the weight of a stronger negotiating party, or shoved aside by the momentum of a peace process.

The Work of

Human Rights Watch/Middle East

Human Rights Watch approached its overall goals of promoting and protecting human rights in the Middle East by monitoring human rights conditions and practices; supporting local human rights efforts; and bringing pressure for improvements through reporting and sharing concerns with governments, media, policymakers and colleagues. Nine countries, reviewed in detail below, were strategically selected for concentrated research in 1994. This does not suggest that abuses did not exist in other countries.

A report on violations of freedom of religious belief and expression of Egypt's Christian minority was slated for publication at the end of the year. Field research in Egypt also documented the security forces' practice of taking hostage the family members of suspects. The report will be released in December.

Consistent with our commitment to promote accountability, Human Rights Watch continued to coordinate an effort to bring before the International Court of Justice a case of genocide against Iraq for its massacre of Kurds in 1988. And in December, it will publish a report on the Iranian government's assassination campaign against political dissidents abroad.

Based on research on eighteen metric tons of Iraqi government documents seized by Kurdish rebel parties after the Gulf War, Human Rights Watch published Bureaucracy of Repression: The Iraqi government in its Own words.

A mission to Yemen in the aftermath of the civil war to study human rights and humanitarian law issues related to the conduct of the war and during the period immediately following the war, resulted in a report, Human Rights in Yemen During and After the War, was published in October.

Stressing the central role of human rights in the peace process, Human Rights Watch published a 316-page report in June based on field research in the West Bank and Gaza Strip entitled Torture and Ill-Treatment: Israel's Interrogation of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. As Israel and the PLO proceeded to implement the accords, Human Rights Watch/Middle East focused its research and monitoring on the newly established self-rule areas of Gaza and Jericho, while maintaining coverage of the West Bank, as well. A report on the self-rule areas will be released in December.

A study of Israeli settler violence and state-sponsored discrimination in the occupied territories will be published along with a chapter on the Lebanese civil war in a study of communal violence worldwide.

In the course of its research and investigations, Human Rights Watch representatives traveled to Egypt, Kuwait, Israel and the occupied territories, Syria, and Lebanon in 1994.

As a rapid response to problems ranging from the detention of human rights activists to a death in custody, to the disappearance of a writer, Human Rights Watch/Middle East sent approximately fifty open letters to fifteen Middle Eastern governments expressing its concerns and lodging protests.

In the course of the year Human Rights Watch/Middle East provided extensive information to journalists working on human rights issues in nearly all countries in the Middle East.

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