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Human Rights Developments

A preoccupation with political violence and the spread of militant Islamist movements tended to obscure the underlying reasons for the sorry state of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. A combination of forcesCa thriving civil society, a vociferous press, an independent judiciary, relatively free elections, regional human rights bodies, and effective third-party engagementCwere potential remedies around the world to abuses such as mass arrests, torture, and the suppression of associations and media. But throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa, these accountability-enhancing factors were either nonexistent or weak, largely due to government pressure. Authorities therefore encountered relatively few constraints on their abusive conduct.

It was therefore unsurprising that human rights activists from the region, when discussing the priorities of their work, stressed the need to preserve the shrinking space that is permitted to institutions and forces that expose and protest abuses.

Of course, in some countries, authorities allowed no such space at all. Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Libya allowed no independent media or human rights organizations. In these countries, open criticism of the government put a person at immediate risk of imprisonment or worse.

In those countries that allowed a measure of freedom of association and expression, governments chipped away at the exercise of these rights. In Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian self-rule areas, former members of parliament, professors, writers, cartoonists and human rights activists were detained or imprisoned for peaceful political criticism.

In Egypt, a new press law limited conditions under which new newspapers could be established and criminalized expression deemed insulting to the president, although journalists and others successfully fended off more draconian legislation. A controversial move by the Lebanese government in September required the country=s scores of privately owned but unlicensed radio and television stations, unrivaled in the region, to stop political programming immediately and cease all operations by November 30. Of the four television stations licensed in September, one was owned by the prime minister, another by the interior minister=s brother, and the thirdCnot yet in existenceCby the speaker of the parliament.

Laws on defamation were misused to impose harsh penalties for criticism of government officials or institutions, chilling the press in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Palestinian journalists and human rights activists wound up in Palestinian jails for Ainsulting@ President Arafat or appearing to question his policies. In Jordan, Leith Shubeilat, a prominent independent Islamist, received a three-year sentence because his criticism of government economic policies and the peace process with Israel was held to have violated the dignity of King Hussein. But on November 8, he was released by royal decree.

Iranian journalists convicted of Apublishing lies@ or Adefamatory@ reporting on government policies were punished with lashes and prison sentences. Some of their outspoken compatriots risked even cruder punishments at the hands of well-organized zealots loyal to government factions, who shouted down, beat, or vandalized the property of dissidents. In Yemen, physical assaults on government critics by plainclothes thugs appeared to be one of the activities of the Political Security Organization, an agency that reported directly to the president.

Laws on associations and political parties were another means of hobbling independent institutions in countries that officially permitted them. In Lebanon, the Ministry of Interior refused to acknowledge receipt of the written notice required from newly formed organizations, turning what should be a pro forma procedure into a means of imposing an aura of illegality on the groups and scaring off their potential members. In Egypt, the newly formed Wasat Party was denied permission to function, as were most political parties that sought legal authorization under the Political Parties Law of 1977. In Tunisia, a law remained on the books that denied organizations considered to be Aof a general character@ the right to choose their own members; fortunately, an administrative court in 1996 exempted the Tunisian Human Rights League from this law.

Independent judges were an endangered species, where they existed at all. The Yemeni authorities threatened to reassign one of the country=s foremost independent judges to a small village, and pressed for the Judges= Association to be opened to membership by prosecutors as well, a move judges held would impair its independence. Elsewhere, the executive authority sought to bypass independent judges and the fair trial guarantees of ordinary courts by prosecuting dissidents and critics in alternative court systems. President Mubarak ordered the transfer of the case of thirteen prominent Muslim Brothers from a civilian court to a military court, which handed out prison terms to seven of the defendants, a one-year suspended sentence to another, and allowed no appeals of the verdicts. In the Palestinian autonomous areas and in Bahrain, state security courts dispensed hasty and unfair justice. Nor were Syria=s state security court disbanded during the thirty-fourth year of that country=s state of emergency. And Israel tried West Bank Palestinians in military courts that failed to provide due process guarantees.

Torture was ingrained in many countries of the region in part because judges extracted no price for its practiceCa pattern that persisted because it was either encouraged or tolerated by governments. Torturers were rarely punished, and judges routinely accepted into evidence confessions without probing defendant allegations that the confessions had been extracted through torture. In Algeria and Tunisia, for example, defendants= rights to request a medical examination during their interrogationCtheir best chance for proving tortureCwas routinely violated, with no adverse consequences for the prosecution. In both countries, as in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, uncorroborated confessions by defendants or by other suspects under interrogation were frequently the sole basis for convictions.

Despite the pervasiveness of violations, Human Rights Watch knew of only isolated cases over the last several years CC in Israel, the Palestinian self-rule areas, and Morocco CC where members of the security forces were punished in a transparent fashion for violently abusing the rights of civilians. Not surprisingly, all three were places where pressure was exerted on the authorities by some combination of local rights organizations, a relatively open environment for the press, and international pressure. Several other governments claimed to have punished abusers, but their vague assertions, which lacked verifiable details, failed to dispel suspicion that these claims were mere public relations gestures.

Human rights protection in the Middle East was weakened also by the absence of regional bodies other than nongovernmental organizations committed to promoting human rights. The main regional political institution, the Arab League, decried Israeli behavior toward Palestinians while pronouncing not at all on the human rights performances of its member states. The region had no counterpart to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or the European Court of Human Rights (although all North African nations except Morocco, as signatories of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, participated in the relatively weak African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights).

The Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization peace process, despite the prospect for further Israeli military redeployment and greater Palestinian self-rule, yielded few human rights improvements during 1996. Invoking security concerns heightened by a series of suicide bombings, Israeli authorities at the highest level authorized harsh interrogation methods that, in practice, often amounted to torture, and imposed closures on the West Bank and Gaza Strip that restricted the movement of Palestinians more tightly than at any time since the Gulf War, devastating the Palestinian economy and creating a humanitarian crisis. Under pressure from Israel to Afight terrorism,@ the Palestinian Authority carried out mass arbitrary arrests, holding suspects without charge for lengthy periods or referring them to the State Security Court, where the chance for a fair trial was nil.

The several elections that took place in the region illustrated the weakness of institutional restraints on coercive state behavior. Egyptian authorities, not content merely to ensure a landslide for the ruling National Democratic Party in the late 1995 parliamentary elections, also cracked down on those who supported opposition candidates or protested voting fraud. Security forces arrested over 1,300 supporters of Islamist candidates between the two rounds, and barred meetings between some opposition candidates and the public.

Algerians, hungry for an opportunity to participate in normal political life after four years of strife, voted in large numbers in the November 1995 multiparty presidential elections. But the terms of the elections were dictated by the unelected government, which censored and harassed those favoring a boycott of the vote.

The elections in the Palestinian self-rule areas in January were relatively successful, thanks in part to the mobilization of Palestinian civil society and the engagement of the international community. The resulting legislative council emerged as the premier forum for airing human rights complaints against an increasingly repressive Palestinian executive.

The Iranian authorities manipulated the parliamentary vote in March and April primarily through the power of the Council of Guardians, composed of senior clerical figures and religious jurists, to disqualify candidates on the basis of politically motivated criteria and to nullify voting returns.

In Kuwait=s parliamentary election in October, only 107,000 Afirst-class@ Kuwaiti male citizens out of a total Kuwaiti population of about 700,000 were eligible to vote.

Syria continued to invoke the state of war with Israel to justify its emergency law. The governments of Tunisia and Algeria, meanwhile, focused on the challenge from Islamist militants as the grounds for curtailing rights and limiting dissent.

In countries that actually suffered repeated acts of political violence during the year, these acts became the pretext for circumscribing a broad array of rights and for attempting to discredit human rights concerns. The Egyptian government informed a U.N. committee that its investigation of torture in Egypt could be seen as Aencouraging terrorism.@ The Algerian authorities blocked issues of an opposition weekly devoted to human rights on the grounds that they constituted an apologia for terrorism. In response to deadly bombings, the Israeli and Saudi authorities carried out mass and arbitrary arrests, often severely mistreating those brought in for interrogation.

To be sure, militant movements posed vexing security dilemmas and were major perpetrators of abuses. Some Islamist movements embraced indiscriminate violence and a discourse of extreme intolerance. Their deadly campaigns targeted civilians as well as security forces. Statements they issued threatened various groups and individuals on the basis of their beliefs or their ethnic or social identities. Islamist groups in Algeria continued to assassinate journalists, intellectuals and ordinary citizens in what was the region=s bloodiest ongoing conflict during 1996.

Such targeting by militants of unarmed civilians, as also occurred in Israel and Egypt, violated basic norms of international humanitarian law. In Human Rights Watch=s view, the prohibition of the intentional killing of civilians applies to all political violence, whether it is classified as internal strife or rises to the level of an armed internal conflict.

Although the region was spared full-fledged wars between states during 1996, Israel in April launched a major operation in Lebanon north of the zone it occupies in the south of the country, claiming as its justification Hizballah attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets. The intense seventeen-day conflict, which Israeli authorities named AOperation Grapes of Wrath,@ brought war to much of Lebanon, including Beirut, and to northern Israel. Israel, with its superior firepower and control of the skies, responded in a disproportionate fashion to Hizballah=s mortar shells and Katyusha rockets, causing by far the most civilian casualties and damage to homes and civilian infrastructure. While it inflicted no Israeli civilian deaths during this conflict, Hizballah=s indiscriminate fire toward towns in northern Israel violated humanitarian law, as did, on some occasions, its launching of artillery from or near civilian settlements.

In the deadliest single incident of this or any other conflict in the region during the year, Israeli artillery shells hit a UNIFIL compound on April 18 in the town of Qana that was sheltering hundreds of civilians, of whom 102 died. Israeli authorities claimed that they were unaware Lebanese civilians had sought refuge at the base, and that they were aiming not at the base but at a nearby Hizballah mortar site. Investigations by the U.N. and Amnesty International into the pattern of Israeli artillery strikes cast doubt on whether the hits on the base were the result of an accident. Israeli officials rejected their conclusion.

Like the conflict in south Lebanon, the dispute in the Western Sahara dates to the 1970s. Although the cease-fire between Morocco and the Western Saharan liberation movement known as the Polisario Front remained in effect, there was no progress toward holding the U.N.-conducted referendum that both parties have accepted. In that referendum, Sahrawis would choose between independence or integration into Morocco. The free and fair nature of the referendum had already been compromised by evidence of U.N. partiality and a lack of control over the voter registration process, as well as by Morocco=s intimidation and unfair conduct designed to influence the voter registration process. In May, the U.N. Security Council extended the U.N. operation=s mandate but formally suspended the voter registration process, which had been stalled since September 1995 and was already five years behind schedule. This impasse put on hold the fate of some 100,000 to 165,000 Sahrawi refugees living in harsh camp conditions in southwestern Algeria, as well political prisoners and at least 1,900 prisoners of war being held by both sides.

The bleakness of the human rights picture in Iraq deserves special mention. The Iraqi people had to contend not only with a government that liquidated its critics, but also with post-Gulf War trade sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council. Because the Security Council and President Saddam Hussein could not agree on the terms of Iraqi oil sales that would pay for importing humanitarian goods, thousands of Iraqi civilians died from preventable illnesses and malnutrition-related causes. Meanwhile, in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, whose de facto autonomy had been protected by a Western military alliance, fighting between rival political groups hobbled the local government set up in the aftermath of the Gulf War, attracted Iraqi and Iranian military incursions, and led to scores of arbitrary killings and other grave abuses. As always, Kurdish civilians were the big losers.

One positive note in 1996 was the increasing visibility of the women=s movement in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Kuwait and elsewhere. Fighting abuses that ranged from the practice of female genital mutilation in Egypt to the denial of suffrage in Kuwait, women=s rights activists struggled against prevalent interpretations of Islam that blatantly discriminated against women in many realms of life and contributed to a judicial laxness toward violence targeting women. While its successes were modest, the movement=s perseverance in the face of government pressures and social hostility insured that it would be one element of civil society that was certain to make itself heard in the coming year.

Working closely with women=s organizations in the region, the Women=s Rights Project of Human Rights Watch conducted fieldwork in Morocco and Egypt during 1996. In Morocco, we looked at discriminatory aspects, in the text and in practice, of the code of personal status, which relegates women to the status of minors throughout their lives. In Egypt, we began an investigation into problems of discrimination under the law and into violence within the family, including spousal abuse and female genital mutilation.

The Right to Monitor

About half the governments in the Middle East and North Africa tolerate some domestic monitoring of human rights. Groups in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco all published reports that contained strong criticism of their respective authorities; independent groups also functioned in Tunisia, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Yemen.

However, during 1996, human rights activists in Syria, Tunisia, and the Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip were either detained or were serving prison terms handed down in past years. Activists in the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF) were serving the longest termsCup to ten years.

International human rights monitors could do field work in several areas with relative freedom, including Morocco, Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait and Yemen. Algeria allowed a mission by Amnesty International, despite its past criticism of the government=s record. Iran allowed its first-ever mission by Human Rights Watch. Syria declined Human Rights Watch=s requests for a visit, at least through the month of October, in contrast to its assent to a seven-week-long mission in 1995. Tunisia refused some groups while allowing others, only to subvert their work through heavy-handed and intimidating police surveillance. Human rights missions to Iraq were out of the question due to the risks they would pose for Iraqis who shared critical information, unless the scope of the mission was limited to assessing the effects of the U.N.-imposed sanctions. Saudi Arabia did not deviate from its policy of allowing no access for international organizations. Bahrain ignored a request for a formal mission by Human Rights Watch, which sent a researcher informally to the country.

The International Community

Western governments largely wrote off the promotion of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, as if the political sensitivity and volatility of the region made human rights concerns an unaffordable luxury. The objectives of preserving the Israeli-PLO peace process, protecting friendly governments of oil-rich nations from internal and external threats, and checking the spread of militant Islamism led Western governments to downplay the promotion of human rights in the region.

The U.N. was engaged in human rights work in a number of countries. Special rapporteurs were assigned to cover human rights in Iran, Iraq and the Israeli-occupied territories. There was also some bold specialized work, such as the Committee against Torture=s report on Egypt. But none of the major U.N. operations in the field featured as a chief part of their mandate the monitoring of rights conditions. (U.N. efforts to deploy human rights monitors inside Iraq were rejected by Baghdad.) UNIFIL in southern Lebanon carried out humanitarian work during Operation Grapes of Wrath, sheltering some 5,000 Lebanese civilians on its bases. It also organized convoys to evacuate residents who wished to flee the military conflict, and brought food, medicine, and other relief supplies to civilians unable or unwilling to leave their homes. UNIFIL vehicles and humanitarian aid convoys came under dangerously close Israeli fire during the conflict but its forces suffered no casualties.

On the other hand, the U.N. contributed to a humanitarian crisis and the continuing loss of life in Iraq through its six-year-old sanctions regime, as the Security Council and President Saddam Hussein again failed to settle on terms for Iraqi oil sales to generate the revenue that would enable the Iraqi government to purchase basic foodstuffs and medical goods desperately needed by the Iraqi people.

The European Union devoted its most significant effort in the region to projects in the Palestinian self-rule areas. It assisted in the well-run monitoring of the January elections, and pledged material assistance and training to the legislative council, which emerged as the leading forum for raising human rights concerns in the self-rule areas.

The E.U. institutions occasionally raised human rights concerns elsewhere in the region during 1996, but did not do so in a systematic way. While a welcome resolution was passed by the European Parliament on the deterioration of rights in Tunisia, Syria earned E.U. praise for its economic policies and silence about its rights record.

Although the association agreements that the E.U. initialed with Tunisia, Morocco, and Israel contained a human rights clause, it remained to be seen whether this would have a practical effect on the trade and aid relationships that the E.U. was entering into with these countries.

United States

In an October 1995 speech, Assistant Secretary of State Robert H. Pelletreau declared, AThe development of democracy and human rightsCfor the two go togetherChas been and remains central to U.S. foreign policy.@ And the assessments contained in the State Department=s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 were comprehensive and appropriately critical. But the gap remained huge between the frank Country Reports and actual U.S. practice in attempting to develop democracy and human rights.

The U.S. had considerable potential leverage in the region. Aid to Egypt and Israel accounted for nearly half of the $12 billion that the U.S. spent on foreign assistance worldwide. The U.S. was the world=s leading exporter of conventional arms to the Middle East and North Africa, which was the largest purchasing region in the developing world. For the most part, the U.S. declined to condition these aid and arms-trading relationships on improvements in human rights practices.

In 1996, President Clinton and his cabinet secretaries largely avoided the subject of human rights in the Middle East, except in their frequent denunciations of terrorism. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck had not been to the region since early 1994, although a trip was under discussion for late 1996. Chief responsibility for articulating policy concerning human rights developments was left to Assistant Secretary Pelletreau.

In his October 1995 speech, Secretary Pelletreau cautioned that U.S. support for democratic principles, and by implication human rights, Aneeds to be viewed in the context of other priorities,@ which he listed as securing peace between Israel and Arab states, maintaining Israeli security and well-being, assuring stability in and commercial access to Persian Gulf countries, supporting U.S. business interests, and combating terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Overall, it was not a good year for the U.S. administration in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli peace negotiations stalled and at times appeared close to collapse; the Israeli-Lebanese border again erupted in war; militant opposition groups in Saudi Arabia launched deadly attacks against U.S. military targets; and both the Iraqi and Iranian military launched incursions into the foundering, Western-backed Kurdish autonomous enclave in the north of Iraq.

Under these circumstances, the U.S. spent much of its time putting out policy fires and little time promoting human rights. Apart from the Country Reports there was no public expression of concern for the human rights behavior of Syria or Egypt, both key players in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Senior U.S. officials voiced understanding for Israel=s harsh response to Palestinian suicide bombings in February and March, although that response quickly amounted to harsh collective punishment for all Palestinians. In April, when heavy fighting erupted between Israeli and Hizballah forces in south Lebanon, U.S. officials repeatedly condemned Hizballah targeting of Israeli civilians but spoke not a word of public criticism of Israeli indiscriminate bombardment and disproportionate attacks that killed or injured hundreds of Lebanese civilians.

Keeping Israeli-Arab negotiations afloat also meant that Clinton administration attention to serious human rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority was confined to high-profile cases such as that of Dr. Eyad al-Sarraj, and was offset by high-level U.S. emphasis on the need for the PA make Acombating terrorism@ its highest priority, whatever the cost in human rights.

With regard to its allies in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. came close to covering up for human rights abuses during the year. Here, the Country Reports were revealing. The chapter on Saudi Arabia indulgently presented the government=s brand of religiously cloaked repression as Arigorously conservative@ while discrediting the opposition groups as Arigidly fundamentalist.@ In testimony to the House Committee on International Relations in September, Assistant Secretary Pelletreau acknowledged that Ainternal tensions exist in many GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] statesCnotably Bahrain@ but went on to say, AAll the GCC states are able to work with internal opposition effectively,@ implicitly condoning by omission the repressive practices of many of the GCC governments, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in particular.

In North Africa, a region of less strategic interest to the U.S. than to France, U.S. policy was more engaged. Human rights formed a regular component of statements by U.S. officials concerning Algeria, albeit with an emphasis on Ademocratic rights@ such as press freedom and political participation, at the expense of torture and summary executions--abuses whose victims were primarily Islamists and their sympathizers. The U.S., through an active embassy staff, also showed concern for Tunisia=s relentless persecution of opposition and human rights activists. But Secretary Pelletreau=s unseemly praise, while visiting Tunisia, for President Ben Ali=s attachment to human rights signaled to governments that the U.S. was ready to tone down human rights criticism in exchange for the pursuit of U.S.-backed policies in other realms, such as support of the Israeli-Arab peace talks.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East

The division devoted much of its resources to addressing humanitarian crises and working to preserve the fragile space in which civil society can function. We also increased the number of collaborative efforts with other nongovernmental organizations, our advocacy at the U.N., the number of our publications that were translated into Arabic, and our Farsi-language broadcast work.

In the realm of armed conflict situations, we sent delegations to Lebanon and northern Israel beginning in May to document violations of the laws of war during Israeli-Hizballah fighting. Together with the Arms Project of Human Rights Watch, we issued our first report on the subject, Civilian Pawns.

Humanitarian issues of another kind were covered in a study of Israel=s closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That report argued that as an occupying power, Israel was ultimately responsible for ensuring the welfare of the Palestinian population under its occupation and, by its indiscriminate and debilitating closure of the territories, was in breach of that solemn duty.

Human Rights Watch staff met with Israeli officials to discuss the recommendations of both reports, and urged donor countries to give priority to addressing the closure of the territories in their démarches with Israel. Staff also met with Hizballah officials to stress that the targeting of civilians, whatever the supposed justification, was a violation of humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch wrote to Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Syrian President Hafez al-Asad, urging them to press both Israel and Hizballah to cease their violations of the laws of war. Articles on the conflict by Human Rights Watch staff appeared in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Arabic daily Al-Hayat (London) and other media. We also raised our concern, in letters to Secretary Christopher and in a meeting with the State Department=s Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross, that the U.S. was ignoring human rights in its support for the peace process.

A mission in July examined abuses and intimidation tactics for which the Palestinian Authority was responsible in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Human Rights Watch testified before a U.S. House of Representatives committee on that subject on July 23. We also urged donor countries to address the subject at an international donor meeting in Washington in September. In October, a mission probed allegations of the use of excessive force toward civilians during the fierce clashes that broke out between Israeli forces and Palestinians in late September.

Highlights of the year included our first-ever authorized mission to look at human rights in Iran. A report, issued before the first round of parliamentary elections, documented how authorities disqualified independent candidates or undermined their ability to compete. Throughout the year, in written interventions and press interviews, particularly Farsi-language radio broadcasts heard in Iran and elsewhere, we criticized repressive laws and the persecution of independent journalists and thinkers. In Human Rights Watch=s annual awards ceremony for human rights monitors in November, we honored a courageous Iranian lawyer and rights activist, Shirin Ebadi.

Although Syrian authorities did not approve our request for a mission during the first ten months of 1996, we issued two reports based on our seven-week visit in 1995 and on follow-up research, and wrote four times to President Asad. A report on Syria=s Tadmor prison, published in April, called on authorities to discontinue the practice of transferring civilians to this infamous military facility. We recommended that authorities provide detailed information to families about relatives who died or were executed at Tadmor over the last sixteen years. Syria: The Silenced Kurds, issued in October, detailed violations of the rights of the Kurdish minority, including denial of citizenship and arbitrary state actions against suspected Kurdish political activists. The report included a detailed response from the Syrian authorities.

The report on the Kurds publicized the existence of the maktoumeen, a subcategory of some 75,000 stateless Syrian-born Kurds. In October, a Human Rights Watch representative briefed the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child about stateless Syrian Kurdish children.

Work on the government of Lebanon=s record included a mission in July and August and three letters to the Lebanese government. We condemned the curfew that was imposed on Beirut and all other large cities on February 29 that prevented citizens from participating in peaceful demonstrations. In August, we protested tactics of the Interior Ministry that in recent years had prevented nongovernmental organizations from obtaining legal status pursuant to Lebanese law; the letter was reprinted in the Beirut daily An-Nahar. We wrote again in October about continuing Adisappearances@ of Lebanese civilians and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who were detained by Syrian security forces and transferred to Syria. All of these letters went unanswered. On October 17, Human Rights Watch staff questioned Prime Minister Hariri at a public appearance in Washington about Lebanese complicity in the disappearances.

Our work on Egypt focused on the expanding role of the military justice system in civilian political life, restrictions on freedom of association, and the erosion of free expression and tolerance. We visited Egypt in November 1995, and wrote an open letter to President Mubarak about the repressive climate in which the upcoming parliamentary elections would be held. We also investigated the military court trial of eighty-one Muslim Brothers and attended the session at which the verdicts were announced. On November 25, 1995, we issued a press release in Cairo jointly with the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR) that announced the availability of reports issued separately by both organizations concerning the trial. We returned to Egypt in July and issued a detailed press release in advance of the August military court ruling in the trial of another thirteen Muslim Brothers.

A mission to Tunisia in March studied the elaborate campaign of the authorities to monopolize all discussion about human rights conditions in the country, including the persecution of human rights monitors and interference with the work of domestic and international human rights organizations. Our subsequent interventions, which included open letters to President Ben Ali and interviews with the press, focused on the repressive measures taken against Tunisians who raised their voice about human rights.

In keeping with our policy of according top priority to defending human rights activists who face persecution, we intervened not only on behalf of Tunisians, but also on behalf of Algerian human rights lawyer Rachid Mesli when he was abducted by security forces, Palestinian human rights workers who were arrested by the Palestinian or by the Israeli authorities, and Syria=s Nizar Nayouf, an imprisoned human rights activist held in solitary confinement in a military prison. We also defended political figures when they faced persecution because of the nonviolent expression of their views. A letter to Jordanian authorities in February criticized the prosecution of Leith Shubeilat (see above).

Human Rights Watch protested to British authorities their effort to deport outspoken Saudi dissident and asylum applicant Muhammad Mas=ari in response to pressure from Saudi authorities. We also wrote to the chairmen of three British defense firms that had lobbied their government to satisfy Saudi demands with regard to Mas=ari, drawing their attention to Saudi Arabia=s dismal rights record and the unseemliness of their urging Britain=s democratic government to take measures against a critic of the Saudi record.

Human Rights Watch conducted a research mission to Bahrain and interviewed Bahraini exiles elsewhere in the region. A long article about Bahrain by Human Rights Watch staff appeared in the July issue of Le Monde Diplomatique. An abridged English-language version appeared in Middle East Report and prompted a reply from Bahrain=s ambassador to the U.S. We also briefed U.S., French, and British officials about the situation in Bahrain, and presented our concerns to the embassy of Bahrain in Washington.

Our collaborative efforts with other organizations in 1996 went beyond our frequent joint communiques with other U.S.-based human rights organizations. These included:

an August 1 letter co-signed by the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights and the Paris-based Reporters without Borders urging Syrian President Asad to release eight imprisoned journalists;

a September 23 letter to President Ben Ali on the deteriorating human rights conditions in Tunisia, co-signed by Amnesty International and three other organizations;

an October 1 letter co-signed by nine other groups urging the U.S. administration to address the human rights dimensions of the crisis in northern Iraq; and

a joint declaration condemning the Egyptian court decision that declared Professor Nasr Abu Zeid an apostate for his writings on Islam and ordering his wife=s divorce from him.

We enlisted twenty-one human rights, women=s rights, Arab-American and Muslim organizations to sign the declaration, which was translated into Arabic and widely circulated.

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